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The Portrait Hung in Joan Didion’s Home. But Who Painted It?

The portrait’s power was unquestionable: In shades of rose, beige and taupe, it captured a young Joan Didion, angst furrowing her brow.

As Didion fans made the pilgrimage to Hudson, N.Y., where an auction house displayed her belongings for sale in November, many went straight to the painting, which hung behind Didion’s white slipcovered sofas, among her Celine sunglasses, notebooks and family photos.

“It catches your attention the moment you walk into the exhibition,” said Lisa Thomas, the director of fine arts at Stair Galleries, the auction house that handled the sale. The portrait had gripped her, too, Thomas said, when she saw it.

“My first question,” she said, “was, ‘Who painted that?’”

Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had been friends with many artists. Among the pieces offered for auction were works by Annie Leibovitz, Richard Diebenkorn and Cy Twombly. But this painting’s provenance was a mystery.

Beyond a signature and a date — L. Johnson, 1977 — very little was known about who painted it, why, or how it reached Didion. Further research by the auction house proved futile. The original description in the catalog, Thomas said, drew from an apocryphal story passed down in Didion’s family that offered more questions than answers: “A prison inmate painted this portrait from the photograph on the back of the book jacket of ‘A Book of Common Prayer.’ It was gifted to Didion, but there is no record of the details.”

When the painter died, his friend Bruce Byall wrote to Didion to let her know. She wrote back.Credit…Brad Torchia for The New York Times

The author, who died in December 2021, had clearly valued it. The 45-inch-by-45-inch oil-on-canvas portrait had hung prominently in Didion’s New York dining room. She was photographed in front of it during interviews over the years. But without any provenance beyond Didion’s possession, it was listed as Lot 4 of 224, and valued at between $3,000 and $5,000 — one of many items her estate would sell to raise money for Parkinson’s patient care and research at Columbia University, and for a scholarship for women in literature at Sacramento City College.

Early bidding proved Thomas’s instinct correct: There was something captivating about the painting with the nebulous back story. By Nov. 16, the morning of the auction, it had attracted early online bids up to $10,000. Minutes into the live auction, a bidding war broke out, with offers escalating to $40,000, then $60,000.

“We’re at $110,000, $110,000,” the auctioneer Colin Stair said, as the winning bid came in. “$110,000 once, twice,” he said. “Sold for $110,000.”

The portrait had fetched the highest return at the auction — more than signed works by recognized artists. After years in the privacy of Didion’s home, it was in the public spotlight for the first time, easily viewed online, in the auction house’s catalog, and in the news coverage of the much-publicized sale.

And with that notoriety came the first clues in years of its origins — two emails that promised, respectively, to tell “the whole story” and to correct the record on the painting.

Les Johnson and Judy Liber. The two joined the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.Credit…Brad Torchia for The New York Times

The messages came in the last week of bidding, Thomas said. One was from a California lighting technician named Bruce Byall, who had seen the painting on the auction house’s website. The second email, days later, was from Larry Johnson, a retired United Way staff member in Palm Springs.

The painting, they said, was by Leslie B. Johnson — Byall’s lifelong friend and Larry’s brother.

Born near Los Angeles in 1944, to a United Methodist minister and a teacher, Leslie had hated his red hair and his name, and went by Les instead. In 1958, in freshman English class at Hawthorne High School, Les met Judy Liber, who would become a lifelong confidante. She watched him win “all kinds of state and national awards” for his artwork, she said, and then, in 1962, a scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles. But Les had his heart set on Berkeley, where students had already established their presence in the civil rights movement.

“We were social action, social gospel kind of people,” Larry, the painter’s brother, said of their upbringing. “It wasn’t enough to believe. You had to put your beliefs into action.”

Les joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, in 1964, went with the group to Clarksville, Miss., for a voter registration effort. It was there that he became deeply depressed for the first time, Liber said: “He just wasn’t functioning.”

Les was arrested. His father contacted the Department of Justice to get him home, then encouraged him to seek psychiatric help at an inpatient facility.

The following year, Les invited Liber to march in Selma, Ala. The trips affected him deeply, his brother said. What he saw “was so jarring against what he thought was right,” Larry said, “it had a huge impact on his mental health.”

In time, Les was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then called manic depressive disorder. After low winters, he would start “sounding better and better and better until he was out of this world, manic beyond belief,” Liber recalled. “People remember him walking around dressed like a bird.” It was during one such manic episode that he painted Didion’s portrait, she said.

Les was an avid Didion fan, who identified with her portrayal of the 1960s and devoured her books as they came out. He read “A Book of Common Prayer” in 1977, when he was living with his brother in San Diego. As soon as he finished it, Liber said, he called her to recommend the “beautiful, brilliant book.”

“He kept saying how much he loved it,” she said, “and he loved the picture on the back.”

Les was a big fan of Didion’s work, identifying with her portrayal of the 1960s.Credit…Brad Torchia for The New York Times

The same week, Les set to work on the portrait. “He would go back and make sure every little item, every expression on the face, every single thing was just done, fast,” Liber said. “All of the sudden it was there. He said, ‘Somebody has to deliver this to Joan!’”

Liber set out to help. One of her co-workers had a brother who was a Beverly Hills attorney. The attorney had a friend who worked in Hollywood and knew where to find the Didion-Dunnes. The painting passed from hand to hand, with Liber’s co-worker’s brother’s friend agreeing to deliver it.

But word never traveled back that the painting had reached Didion. “Les couldn’t believe that somebody actually delivered it,” Liber said. “He wanted her to have it, and he wanted to know that she got it.”

Over the next three decades, Les lived a life that was full, if buffeted by his struggles with mental illness. He came out as gay in the 1970s, his brother said. He traveled through Europe, Liber said, sometimes bartering paintings for hotel stays and restaurant meals. But during manic episodes overseas, Byall said, he would do outrageous things, like selling condos in Greece that didn’t exist, “and I would get a call from the State Department saying, ‘Do you know a Les Johnson?’”

Byall, who met Les “in the early hippie days of San Francisco,” would then go pick up his friend at the airport. “He’d come to my house and sleep 20 hours a day for two or three months,” he recalled. “And then he would start perking up again and go off into the world.”

Les came close to commercial success a few times, his brother said, but “due to some combination of his own demons, and never connecting with a partner able to promote his work, he did not live long enough to see his dreams realized.”

Les continued to work as an artist, but never found the success he’d sought, his brother said.Credit…Brad Torchia for The New York Times

The Didion portrait became, over the years, a reference for the painter. Les would often muse over its fate, asking friends and family if they thought the author had gotten it. When he was well, he’d believe she had, and that it was valued; when he wasn’t, he’d assume she’d never seen it, or worse, had discarded it.

“He always wondered whether she got it,” Larry said, “whether she liked it, whether she threw it away.” It was one of Les’s last questions, Larry said, before he died in 2002 of an overdose of OxyContin, which he’d been prescribed at a San Francisco residential facility. He was 58.

During Les’s memorial service, Byall decided to write Didion a letter, letting her know the artist had died. Because he didn’t know her address, he said, he sent it to Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, co-founders and editors of The New York Review of Books, where Didion was a contributor.

In January 2003, Didion wrote back: “Dear Bruce Byall — I am shocked to learn of Les Johnson’s death. Maybe you know someone who could come here and photograph it when in New York — let me know when you want to do it and I will make sure someone is here.”

Larry only learned of the painting’s whereabouts two years later, in November 2005, when Liber called, urging him to go buy a copy of the Oprah magazine, O. It had an interview with Didion — and a photo of her sitting beneath Les’s painting.

“That was the first time that I ever knew for sure that Joan had gotten the painting,” Larry said. “Clearly, she must have loved it. She hung it prominently in her dining room.”

The photographer Albert Watson, who shot the image, said he had posed Didion to mirror the intensity in the portrait, asking her to “tightly clench her fingers” on her knee.

“It’s actually a very good painting of her,” he said, citing the “concern in the face” as capturing her aura.

Liber and Byall looking through artwork by Les, which they’ve kept for years.Credit…Brad Torchia for The New York Times

Ever since Peter Jones read “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” during his freshman year of high school, he had been a dedicated Didionite. “I went to journalism school because of Didion’s writing,” said Jones, who became a documentary filmmaker.

Before the auction, Jones had made a list of the items he wanted: The hurricane lamps. The Le Creuset Dutch oven. Perhaps the cashmere throws. The portrait didn’t make the cut, he said on a video call the day after the auction.

But as bidding started, he found himself moved by the way the painter “brought her to life,” he said, as if “understanding her from the inside out.” When Stair, the auctioneer, mentioned the painting had an interesting back story, Jones was intrigued.

After that, he said, “I got carried away.” The painting was his.

When Larry called while Jones was on a video interview with this reporter, the buyer and the brother were excited to connect. Larry told Jones he was thrilled he had the painting, because he had recognized its power “even though it wasn’t by a famous, named painter.”

When Jones learned how much the painter wanted Didion to have the painting, he was moved to tears. There were also several connections, Jones found, between him and Les: Jones had used footage from Les Johnson’s high school class in a documentary about the Beach Boys. He and Larry spend time in the same small town in Southern California.

In life, Larry said, the stars never quite aligned for his brother. He never found recognition, he never heard from Didion and he never got his exhibit in New York. But his long-held hopes — that she had known and loved the portrait, and that his work had been seen and admired by many — had come true, in time.

“Joan,” Jones said, “is aware of this.”

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