June 2024

The Uptown Local

By Cory Leadbeater
In The Uptown Local, Joan Didion’s assistant recounts his relationship with the iconic author, as well as his complex family history and obsession with death.
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Shortly after Cory Leadbeater enrolled in Columbia University’s M.F.A. program in 2012, he landed any young writer’s dream job: personal assistant to famed author Joan Didion. The Uptown Local: Joy, Death, and Joan Didion is Leadbeater’s loving tribute to the iconic author, but it’s also a complex family drama and an often painfully revealing story of his early artistic and personal struggles.

Leadbeater didn’t merely work for Didion for nearly a decade: He also lived in the back bedroom of her spacious and elegant apartment on the Upper East Side for the first two years of his employment. In addition to attending to the author’s needs, he spent countless hours in her company, listening to Chopin and The Andrews Sisters, reading aloud W.H. Auden and other favorite poets, and accompanying her on walks through the neighborhood and outings to art museums.

But even as Leadbeater’s affection for Didion blossoms in these quiet moments, he harbors an ugly secret: For several years, his father has been the subject of a federal mortgage fraud investigation that culminates in a guilty plea and five-year prison sentence. As Leadbeater joins his mother and brothers on monthly trips to a Pennsylvania penitentiary, he must deal with the shame of his father’s notoriety and come to terms with the realization that his costly private college education had been financed by criminality.

Leadbeater also frankly relives the mounting frustrations of his early literary efforts, haunted by a murderous character named Billy Silvers, the protagonist of one of the four unpublished novels he writes while working for Didion. Alongside these artistic challenges, he confronts his lifelong obsession with death, including persistent and frighteningly real thoughts of his own suicide, heightened by the sudden passing of his best friend from college shortly after his employment with Didion begins.

Leadbeater describes how only a few months before Didion’s death in December 2021, she experienced the pleasure of holding his newborn daughter. It’s a lovely moment of grace in a memoir that’s full of dark ones. Though Didion didn’t live to see this work, one senses she would have been equally delighted with her protégé’s literary talent and, not least, his unblinking honesty.

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The Uptown Local

The Uptown Local

By Cory Leadbeater
ISBN 9780063371576

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