You won’t find Jan Sharp’s name in official histories of contemporary Hollywood, the publishing industry, fashion, photography or modern art. And yet innumerable screenplays, novels, runway shows and gallery exhibitions were surely hatched during the past few decades around the dining table of Jan’s extraordinary home in the Hollywood Hills, and the swimming pool, or better yet over drinks and laughter in her beloved garden.
Once those ideas were sparked, chances are that Jan encouraged them, nurturing them with her incredible life force. She had a way of making you feel like you must be one of the best and brightest, or why the hell else would she bother with you? She was the Gertrude Stein of the Southern California canyons, a den mother to an extraordinary conglomeration of princes and poets, painters and performance artists, Hollywood A-listers and fringe figures of the avant-garde, all rendered equal from the moment they crossed the threshold, egos mandatorily checked at the door. Knowing her was one of the great privileges of my life.
Jan loved Tom Luddy, the co-founder of this festival and one of her closest friends, and she loved Telluride, which she attended often and also advised, especially with regard to films from her native Australia. As it happened, I was dating an Australian girl when I first met Jan, which doubtless spoke well for my character. In her youth, she was Film Australia’s first female director. At the Australian Broadcasting Company, her team was responsible for the landmark documentary series Chequerboard. And for a stretch, she modeled as the Australian Marlboro woman, for Jan’s inner beauty was rivaled only by her ravishing outer beauty: freckled skin, gleaming blue eyes and a devilish come-hither smile, topped by radiant, reddish-brown hair. She went on to write and produce dramatic films, including Shadows of the Peacock (directed by her husband of many years, Phillip Noyce) and the controversial Wide Sargasso Sea. Her documentaries included those on the photographer Peter Beard and her lengthy battle with various forms of cancer.
When Jan died this past July, it occurred to me I never knew her in good health, her body constantly betraying her with myriad tumors of the breast, the bone and the brain. Jan’s sickness became an inescapable part of who she was: she had researched the subject exhaustively, submitted herself as a test subject for all the latest cutting-edge therapies, and she took great pleasure in regaling you with stories of her various doctors and their awestruck wonderment at her ability to keep bouncing back from the brink of death.
But it was also easy to forget that Jan was sick at all, so overwhelming was her lust for life, so insatiable her appetite for new experiences. Against the wishes of her doctors—and more than one concerned friend—she was forever jetting off to some far-flung destination: Africa, on the trail of Peter Beard; the jungles of East Timor to make a film about her old friend, the Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta; and New York for a special Fashion Week screening of her documentary on the designer Rick Owens. And even when she was at home in L.A., Jan was rarely at rest, working furiously on movie and book projects, rushing off to dinners and parties, and always playing the consummate host. Few healthy people I’ve known manage to make so much of every waking moment. May that be a lesson to us all.
She was also an obsessive-compulsive e-mailer, her way of staying connected with her large extended family and holding forth on the issues of the day. These were not casually tossed-off missives, but thoughtful and reliably thought-provoking correspondences of considerable literary value. If collected and published, they might rival Proust and Casanova for acutely capturing the spirit of the times. Everything fascinated Jan, from the ephemera of bad celebrity behavior to the weightier matters of the economy and the State of Israel. She never lacked for an informed opinion or hesitated to express it.
“Book still has to be written,” she wrote to me in an email a couple of months before her death, referring to a memoir she’d been actively working on. “Nice to have it waiting for me when I get up in the morning... Lots of stories that should seem hilarious in retrospect and maybe the underground dots will connect and tell us something.” Jan was a master at connecting dots, at sensing the hidden relationships between things, at divining the serpentine paths by which money and power moved through the world. I have known few people of keener perception, more assured in their sense of themselves, so fearless as to what others might think. In My Dinner with Andre, the theater director Andre Gregory tells his dining companion, the actor Wallace Shawn, about a famous Scottish mathematician who prided himself on a hyperaware consciousness that prevented him from ever falling into the passive routines of everyday life. Though right-handed, he would sometimes spend a day doing everything left-handed “in order to break the habits of being.” That’s exactly how Jan lived, too, questioning everything, taking nothing for granted, truly greeting each day as though it might be her last.
“I’ll have an old fashioned house party after Telluride,” she wrote in that last email I received from her, “and we can all have a good old fashioned deconstruction, a fire, good food and wine.” Instead, Jan’s family and friends gathered on a beautiful August afternoon in a rooftop suite of her beloved Chateau Marmont and remembered her just as she would have wanted—with more laughter than tears, plentiful wine and glorious gossip. Looking around the room at this merry band of pranksters assembled once more, I wondered if we would all go on seeing each other without Jan to periodically corral us. I very much hope so, even as I know Jan’s loss leaves a void that nothing can ever fill.