Diana Marcum: Pulitzer Prize-winner, Tower District-lover, proud journalist, dear friend. I will miss her greatly.


I lost a dear friend last night. Diana Marcum slipped away from us far too soon.

Known to the Valley for years as a vivid and passionate storyteller for the Fresno Bee, she moved up the career ladder to do the same kind of writing for Los Angeles Times. But even when she switched newspapers, she didn’t leave town. She continued living in the same little Tower District bungalow with the yellow dining room and the big blue painting on the wall. She won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and traveled to New York City to accept the award at Columbia University, and I know that deep down she got a kick out of offering a small but pointed shushing to those who say you need a fancy-college degree to make it in this world. She published two well-received books, both sorta memoirs, one about her beloved island of Terceira in the Azores, where she tracked and mingled with the great Azorean Portuguese diaspora that fascinated her so, the other book set in the most unlikely of places: an out-of-the-way butterfly farm in Belize.

Diana’s L.A. Times headshot.

Diana’s life sometimes felt like that abrupt shift in subject matter between her two books. Even though she stayed in the same house for many years, I always thought of her as someone who couldn’t be tied down. Many was the editor who tried to corral her, wild-horse-style, and make her conform to the business-hours-and-spreadsheet uniformity of professional journalism. A few of those editors tried to break her. But in the end, her ferocious talent with words was able to procure for her an all-access pass to do the writing she loved: telling stories about regular people.

I will leave it to others to provide the chronology and accomplishments of her life. As her former next-door-neighbor and hearty friend, I’m too close (and sad) to do the summing-up thing that is part of my usual repertoire. For me, our years together blur into a composite of walking doted-upon dogs, trading newsroom gossip, cataloging our days. As a journalist you’re always meeting new acquaintances, and Diana took a great delight in sizing up the day’s crop. Bland, pretty people bored her; she loved describing awkward faces and harumphing voices and unfortunate choices in leisure wear. But it wasn’t meanness that led to her honesty while narrating her daily life. She saw every new person she met as a potential gem of a character in the big, swirling nebulae of an always forming novel – her life – going through her head.

My favorite photo I ever took of Diana Marcum, this one her romping with her beloved dog Mac.


I mention the word narrate. That was an important word for her. She was an evangelist for the Church of Narrative Writing. Summary leads in which the essence of the story is boiled down to the first few paragraphs – a crutch for busy readers – weren’t for her. Even the vaunted “nut graph,” a writing style often favored in the tony literary environs of Column One, where the best narrative writing in the L.A. Times is featured, could feel restrictive. (That style allows a writer to spin a descriptive anecdote at the top of the story, but requires a definitive chunk of text later on that sums up what the story is and where it’s going.) A few years ago, Diana announced to me – sniffed, really, and if you knew her, you understand what I’m describing – that she’d be moving beyond nut graphs, thank you very much.

Such a view was apostasy in the narrative church, of course, but Diana didn’t mind. Formulas irked her. She preferred to make her stories off-the-trail treks plunging into unknown terrain. True to her anti-formula ways, her stories didn’t come easy, especially her leads. She’d sweat out every word. She would dither, debate, deliberate. She’d laugh about her procrastination. Walk the dog, have a diet soda, call a friend. Many was the “deadline evening” when I’d bid Diana a good night and then catch up with her the next afternoon, learning that she’d stayed up to 3 or 4 a.m. before she filed.

She had a knack for burrowing into people’s lives, not as an intrusive media figure but as a genuinely interested fellow human being. When reporting, she could somehow divide herself into two parts: one the dispassionate fact-gatherer, the other an empathetic participant. She danced with her sources, ate with them, hiked with them, commiserated with them. She took me once to a festa in Dinuba – this was early on in what would become her love affair with the Azores – and seemed to be everywhere at the party: eyes sparkling, laugh spilling, voice murmuring approval and awe. She would have been elected prom queen if such gatherings gave such honors. She combined that access with an eye for carefully crafted anecdotes and small but exquisite details.

And, yes, she loved details. Consider when she hosted a dinner party. It wasn’t just about hanging out with close friends, who were family. It was also the details: The Fiesta ware dishes. The fresh-cut flowers. The signature drink. The colors of the food. (I kid you not.)

It is a well-worn cliche for those in grief to exclaim that one should live each day as if today is your last, that too many people rush through without noticing the wonders of the world around them. Diana never had that problem. If anything, she’d sometimes drive me close to bonkers by offering a meta commentary on whatever we were experiencing at the moment. She’d stop, mid-stride, and point out the superlatives of whatever lay before us: the pinkish grandeur of the setting sun; the buoyant children sing-songing in the distance; the perfect symmetry of the trees. Occasionally I’d grow frustrated, maintaining that I wanted to experience the moment organically rather than give it an appraised view like a Hollywood art director setting a scene.

But that was Diana. And I loved her for it. I came to realize that some people just see the world a little differently. She was the narrator, and with that comes the responsibility to catalog, describe and preserve. She never let you forget that moments are transitory. Too many wonderful ones float by unappreciated. What better way for a narrative writer to take it all in than to narrate?

I’ll miss her.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (29)

  • Ken Robison

    Donald that was one of the most beautiful obituaries I’ve ever read. So sad to lose our friend. Next time I see you I’ll share a Marcus story. Sob!

  • Linnea

    What a wonderful narrative. I didn’t know Diana but I feel her presence in this tribute to her. Thank you.

  • Sydney rott

    I didn’t know her, but your article made me wish I had. I’m so very sorry for your loss

  • Jackie Ryle

    I’m so very sorry to hear. I didn’t know her well, although I knew her tenacity, professional expertise, and delightful idiosyncrasies. Thank you for this beautiful tribute, Donald. Condolences for your personal loss, and for the loss to all who loved and appreciated her, and were both informed and entertained by her incredible writing. Rest in Peace, dear Diana

  • Bonnie Hearn Hill

    You captured her,
    This is beautiful. I loved her, and I will miss her.

  • Steph

    This is the most exquisite and wistful opening of the heart to your consort of adjectives that I’ve ever read.

    Diana would present you with her prized Pulitzer on the basis of this artistic output alone.

    I consistently comment the more you’re touched by a piece of art the more your review reflects such, and this lush devoted prose tells us she moved you very much.

    Beautifully written Donald. May you have peace as you grieve.

  • Joyce Aiken

    What a beautiful tribute to your friend. Thanks for sharing a bit of her with us.

  • Roger Christensen

    A marvelous tribute, a terrible loss for you. Thank you for your very special words.

  • Although I did not know her personally, I knew her through her work and the stories that swirled around her. You opened a window for me to peek in to see her at work. I knew she was a dedicated researcher because her stories were so rich and full with details of LIFE. Thank you for opening the window, sharing your stories and your grief. She will be missed.

  • Lilia Chavez

    So sorry for your loss. This was a beautiful tribute.

  • Armen Bacon

    :::one of the few reporters whose calls I welcomed ~ knowing some of our conversations would remain forever off the record and vaulted, others eloquently translated and shared via her unique and lyrical style. Truly a woman worth celebrating. Thank you, Donald, for this heartfelt tribute ~ your words made me sob. 💜

  • Julie Dana

    This is a beautiful tribute to a human who lived her life to the fullest. I remember her walking her dog through our neighborhood, stopping to chat with folks along the way. What a beautiful light she has been to the world. Sending you wonderful memories to help through this sad time.

  • Chuck Erven

    This was lovely, Donald.

  • Kathy Mahan

    This is a beautiful tribute to a one-of-a-kind woman. I think you really captured her spirit. I am sorry for your loss. I know what a great bond you shared. Your love of writing, narratives, people and chronically stories and the warmth shown to people. I will always remember knowing Diana. As an editor — one who knew it was impossible to set rules, but who was forced by deadlines and procedures to try, I knew at the end of the day she would deliver an unexpected bright narrative of some part of life I was unaware of. What a gift.

  • I love this. And I love what you wrote about the “nut graph.” As
    Someone who has written a lot of those, I loved the way she disdained them. (So it was instructive, but not shocking, she told you as much.) thanks.

  • Wayne Steffen

    I didn’t know Diana personally apart from a few emails back and forth–one an outright fan letter. She was a gifted voice and the Valley was luck you have her as one of our storytellers.

  • The world is a lesser place without the shining light of Diana’s personality, kindness and talent. I was honored to have her as a friend.

  • Cher Arambel

    This is a beautiful tribute, Donald. It’s a fantastic reminder to “live in the moment,” as it sounds like Diana was that person narrating the moments of life. I only knew her through work, and I’m so very sorry for your loss.

  • Joel Abels

    Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart with us. That was truly beautiful. I am so very sorry for your loss and am sending love and healing thoughts. ❤️

  • Paula Lloyd

    This was lovely Donald. Thank you. Way too soon.

  • Jerry Thurston

    Wonderful writer and great to have met her. She made it clear that I was not her cup of tea, but that doesn’t diminish one bit my respect for her writing and the love and kindness she showed you and many others. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Cheryl Gardner

    Lovely tribute, Donald.

  • Tom Gorman

    Beautifully told. I was something of an entry gate for Diana into the LA Times after her working at the local paper in Palm Springs. I covered the region for the LA Times, and happening upon Diana as both a reporter (i.e., terrific casual genuine intimate interviewer) and a writer with a beautifully skilled in storytelling, caused me to give her room to explore, discover and write with her gorgeous style. Sure I might have helped her get her first byline at the LAT and from that point on, yowzers, to their credit, editors let her romp and do her thing as nobody else quite could. What a spirit! Thank you again for your words.

  • Jeff Gledhill

    What a beautiful tribute, all the right colors. May your fond memories help lighten the grief in this difficult time.

  • Celeste DeMonte

    A beautifully written tribute, Donald, and one that must have been heartbreaking for you as a personal friend to compose. Diana was one-of-a-kind in so many aspects. Her passing is not only devastating to many on a personal level, it’s a tremendous loss to consider what else she had it in her to write.

  • John Alden

    I met Diana many years back, it was a Blue Moon party in the Tower bungalows.
    I wish I had more opportunity to know her more. Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute to her. She will be greatly missed.

  • Robert Boro

    Thank you Donald…. this was so comforting to read. I greated Diana a hundred times on her dog walks as she brought light into my world. Once she told me she was going to write a story about the gray squirrel infestation in the Tower. I told her to interview former Asssemblyman George Zennovich who brought them to Fresno in 1963! He released them in Courthouse Park and the rest is history. She was charmed by the source and wrote a full page article for the Bee that was fantastic! I am devastated by her loss and so grateful that Mark was at her side for the journey. May her soul be bound up in peace and love,

  • Dorina

    Oh Donald, I have read and reread this tribute to our friend. You capture her so well – right down to the dinner party details. I read about her passing on Facebook and my head is still reeling. Her legacy lives. Always running ablaze, like wildfire. Do let me know if there are funeral plans please.

  • Gregg

    This is a beautiful tribute, Donald. I only met Diana once or twice – chatting over the fence, over Mac’s protestations – and this brought those memories of her wit and smirk racing back. Honestly, in a few brief moments she made me feel like an old friend, she was so warm and engaging. I need to track down her books and hear her voice again. I’m so very sorry for your loss.


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