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One Jewish Woman’s Quest to Become Joan Didion

I can’t wait to read “The Last Love Song,” Tracy Daugherty’s upcoming Joan Didion biography, or to see the film Hollywood producers are planning to make of Didion’s iconic “Goodbye to All That.” I was in college when I first devoured that essay about the Episcopalian author’s early years in New York. I can envision the film’s first frame, set in the 1950s, with Didion arriving at the age of 20 on a DC-7, wearing her “dress that seemed very smart in Sacramento.”

I wanted to be just like her — the Jewish version of Joan.

A quarter century after she landed, I also met Manhattan at 20 in the summertime, wearing the wrong clothes — blue flared Levi’s and a flowery pastel blouse — though I’d come by car. My Michigan parents were terrified by the idea of their only daughter moving back to the city they’d escaped, to get a master’s in literature at NYU. So my U of M classmate Gary, a cute mensch my folks liked, offered to drive. His escorting me 10 hours to the modern Gomorrah in his silver Cutlass made my escape kosher. I was petrified when he dropped me and my duffel bags at the curb of the Greenwich Village dorm that early 1980s Monday in July, saying, “Call if you get weird.”

I prayed my new roommate Lisa would be my guide/sister/savior. But instead of Lisa, a shirtless, hairy guy opened the door. “I’m Zero,” mumbled Lisa’s painter boyfriend, explaining she was at her nearby copy shop job. My eyes sank when I saw one mattress on the floor of the cramped 200-square-foot hovel.

When Lisa showed up, I was awed by the slim, chic actress in black leather pants. In her second year of grad school, she seemed like a New Yorker already. Unpacking, I confessed I was an aspiring author. Dismayed by Zero’s clothes in the drawers, I added, “I paid for a double, with just one roommate.” After exploring downtown, I returned that night. There was another single mattress on the floor, for me. But Zero remained. In bed with her. Four feet away.

Thus, in my debut hours in the city that never slept, neither could I. At 5 a.m. there was rustling. I thought: They wouldn’t. They were. I was mortified. If I flung my arm, we’d be a ménage à trois. I wanted to run to a hotel. But I had little cash and no bank account yet. Turning to the wall, pillow over my head, I cried, afraid this horrible omen would wreck my fantasy transformation into an edgy urbanite.

With a clerical job interview scheduled for 9 o’clock, I grabbed Mom’s mauve Donna Karan hand-me-down suit, showered in the communal bathroom, arriving overdressed to the dorm cafeteria at 6 a.m. I scrawled Lisa and Zero’s tackiness down in my trusty spiral notebook where, like Didion, I recorded everything. Meanwhile I landed the $22,000 a year secretary gig.

Like Didion, I was sure magic might strike any second. Refusing to hear Lisa and Zero moan nightly, I found a cheap one-bedroom share, crashing on a futon in the then wildly dangerous East Village. (“It’s the Lower East Side,” Dad screamed. “The realtors are lying!”) My temporary fix lasted seven years. It took a lot longer to get a real mattress, a partner to share it with, and to make Manhattan mine.

My eighth year east, I sunk into despair at 28, recalling Didion’s depression at that age. Dumped by the Dylan biographer I’d moved in with, I sublet part of a Flower District loft. Awakened by noise at 3 a.m., I turned on the light to discover a rat eating the Saran Wrap off popcorn on the counter. Horrified, I called Gary, now an L.A. filmmaker. He stayed on the phone until dawn, joking he’d extend his “weirdness offer.” I hoped Gary would sweep me off to sanity and sunshine, the way Didion chronicled her rescue by John Gregory Dunne.

That didn’t happen. So I took notes on my romantic rejections (which would eventually form my first book) while juggling babysitting, proofreading, transcription. “You’re freelance everything,” my mother complained.

At 35, I wedded my own brilliant older screenwriter (who — weirdly — shared Gary’s last name). We flirted with bicoastal living in Didion’s L.A. playground, but borrowed the down payment for a two bedroom, two bath in Greenwich Village.

Around my 20-year New York anniversary, at a dinner party, a playwright pal introduced her Great Neck guest. “Three kids in the burbs,” the playwright whispered. “Lisa’s husband made a mint selling his copy place.” She mentioned its unusual name.

“My first NYU roommate worked there,” I recalled. “Redheaded actress.”

The hostess’s Lisa was my first roommate in Gotham. I planned to confront Lisa on her rudeness years before, about to spill my sordid memory to this 40-ish pastel-clad mommy I wouldn’t have recognized.

“Gosh, you’re the Sue I keep hearing about? I love your work,” Lisa said. She eyeballed my tight black Levis, black cashmere sweater, black cowboy boots. “You look great. You’re still downtown? Man, I miss the Village. I gave up acting. But you really made it.”

Had I? For the first time I thought: Wow. Maybe this was making it.

Staring at Lisa now, I told her, “Small world. So nice to see you again,” deciding to be classy (and saving the tacky story of Zero to spill later).

I recalled Lisa and Zero shaking my resolve on the eve of my new life. Yet I never gave up hoping the city would return my affection. Neither did Didion, who — in a magical moment at a recent award ceremony — touched my hand when I complimented her latest memoir. She’d actually returned to Manhattan in her 50s, betraying her famous claim that New York was just for the youthful. I found it to be the opposite: a crazy luminous kingdom, conquered only with perseverance. Dismayed my students don’t know her work, I assign her essay, constantly quoting her warning that “a writer’s always selling someone out.”

Susan Shapiro’s new novel “What’s Never Said” is set in the ‘80s in New York and Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter @ @susanshapironet

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