Joan Didion Knows Where to Cut: Plucking Flowers With “Pretty Nancy”

The excitement surrounding Joan Didion’s release of a “new” book called Let Me Tell You What I Mean needn’t be mitigated by the fact that it is a collection of older essays (previously unreleased, therefore everything old is new again), gathered from 1968 to 2000. For Didion is perhaps at her most signaturely eviscerating during this period, and one wonders if a release of truly new material might find her having gone “soft.” Then again, she was “soft” enough at that time to hold out on publishing her most scathing essay of the collection, “Pretty Nancy.” 

While sure, there are some other worthwhile pieces in the book (including a commentary on the violation of releasing a deceased author’s unpublished work–hint, hint–through the lens of what happened to Hemingway), it is this one that stands out the most in its showcase of Didion’s unique ability to undercuttingly go for someone’s (or something’s) jugular.

Even the most cursory of “fans” are aware that Didion is from Sacramento–it’s a key part of her writing identity, and the very thing that launched her literary career with Run River. What the less versed in Sacramento history seem to forget is that bizarre blip when Ronald Reagan was California governor (which is how he ascended to the even more bizarre role of U.S. president) and lived at 1341 45th Street in East Sacramento–better known as “the Fab 40s,” as Lady Bird was sure to teach those formerly unfamiliar. It was also Lady Bird that dredged up the Didion aphorism from a 1979 profile by Michiko Kakutani for the film’s opening title card: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

This conjures the appropriate image of Nancy Reagan at her 45th Street residence during Ronald’s tenure as governor. But “Pretty Nancy” was written long before Didion came up with that ‘79 quote–eleven years before, to be precise. As for Reagan, he was sworn in on January 2, 1967, giving Didion enough time to form an opinion on the new governor and his wife, Pretty Nancy. The dripping-with-condescension nickname that serves to paint her as the ninny she is serves as merely the tip of the iceberg. Didion is just getting started with her “subtle” vivisection, and the story is only seven pages. Still allowing ample word space to tear apart Nancy’s corpse anew. 

Describing a television crew doing their best to instruct Mrs. Reagan on how to “act natural” (impossible when your smile is already plastered on to begin with) for a profile they’re filming, Didion embodies her usual fly on the wall persona while observing it. She also uses her standard shtick via repetitive and sparse sentence structure to drive home a sinister underlying point (e.g. “She was listening attentively. Nancy Reagan is a very attentive listener”). 

When the newsman suggests that Nancy ought to pick some flowers in the garden, she “spiritedly” agrees. Didion chalks this up to: “Nancy Reagan says almost everything with spirit, perhaps because she was an actress for a couple of years and has the beginning actress’ habit of investing even the most casual lines with a good deal more dramatic emphasis than is ordinarily called for on a Tuesday morning on Forty-fifth Street in Sacramento.”

The filming of a simple scene of Nancy picking flowers evolves somehow into something far more elaborate than it should be–and something entirely symbolic of Nancy’s own existence. She herself is nothing more than a “pretty flower,” there to be briefly “seen,” but not provide much else in the way of purpose. She is an adornment for Mr. Reagan to look at (or not) whenever he sees fit. No wonder, with this floral personification of herself so firmly wedged in her brain, Nancy brags while taking a basket out into the yard to choose some rhododendrons, “Did you know there’s a Nancy Reagan rose now?” The newsman did not. It is unlikely that anyone knew except for the staunchest of Republican housewives. 

The newsman advises her to “just be nipping a bud” while he asks her a question on camera. This, too, feels like some metaphorical allusion to how Ronald nipped Nancy in the bud of her own youth before she could really flower into much else (even if she was “old” at thirty when she married in ‘52). Not that it seemed as though she ever wanted to, but still. What might she have been had she remained “Ms. Davis”? Would she have kept trying to act? Or would that have grown stale considering that even in Hollywood, she was consistently typecast as the “loyal housewife” or “steady woman”? Obviously, these parts weren’t much of a stretch for her, as Didion watches the scene of Nancy pretending to pluck flowers continue.

Didion, indeed, sees the entire production as just that–an extension of Nancy’s brief MGM days (Ronald’s acting career was slightly more “successful”). Thus, she describes, “[She has] the smile of a woman who seems to be playing out some middle-class American woman’s daydream, circa 1948. The set for this daydream is perfectly dressed, every detail correct. …there on the coffee table in the living room lie precisely the right magazines for the life being portrayed: Town & Country, Vogue, Time, Life, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, ARTnews. There are two dogs, named Lady and Fuzzy, and there are two children, named Pattie and Ronnie.” 

It is then mentioned that fifteen-year-old Pattie goes to a boarding school in Arizona (spared from the charade at the Sacramento abode), while ten-year-old Ronnie goes to a private school in town and is called “the Skipper” (a family tradition of unsettling nicknames as further corroborated by “the Gipper”). 

Even after the camera crew has left, Pretty Nancy is still performing for Didion as she shows her “where the governor and the Skipper and some of the state legislators like to play with electric trains… She has shown me a photograph of the governor jumping a horse (‘His horse Nancy D,’ she mused, ‘who died the day we came to Sacramento’). She has told me that the governor never wore makeup even in motion pictures, and that politics is rougher than the picture business because you do not have the studio to protect you.” Didion continues to list all the things Nancy will show her when they go downtown to the State Capitol, where Nancy has padded the walls “with beige burlap and carpeted the floors in a pleasing shade of green. ‘Having a pretty place to work is important to a man,’ she has advised me.”

And so they go back to the rented house on Forty-fifth street, where they await the Skipper’s return from school at 3:20. He seems loath to make an appearance, barely uttering a “Lo” but still allowing enough sentences to be exchanged to reveal that Nancy has absolutely no idea what’s happening in his life (he gets chauffeured back and forth by a State Highway Patrol officer, after all, and “commute talk” is so important between a parent and child during those years). Then comes Didion’s quintessential coup de grâce in the final line, using Nancy’s very words to prove just how incongruous they are (in addition to her false self-perception): “I don’t believe in being an absentee mother… I just don’t.” 

Someone call the police because Didion just ransacked Nancy’s dead body. And the reader is here for it. After this apex, the stories that follow never quite shock you the same way. What’s more, it’s interesting that Didion instead shows nothing but respect for a woman who transformed homemaking into an empire by wielding her own acumen and shrewdness: Martha Stewart. This comes in the form of her final essay of the book, “Everywoman.com.” A moniker that, ironically, also belongs to Pretty Nancy.

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