A buddy visited Lawrence recently. He knows I’m a Joan Didion fan and asked did I know about Eve Babitz. Yeah, sure. Well, maybe? Actually, no, I don't think so. He goes, you know, there’s that famous photo of her playing chess with Marcel Duchamp? Naked. Just her. I’m thinking, I guess I don’t know my art history or pop culture very well. She had affairs with Jim Morrison? Harrison Ford? Warren Zevon? Um, nope. How do I not know who is this, or if I did, how could I forget?
Having lived in Los Angeles for a few years in my mid-20s, I suffer from considerable nostalgia about the place. Or at least nostalgia based on imagining living there in the 60s and 70s. I’d get through rough days watching Dodgers games or syndicated episodes of The Rockford Files, reading Joan Didion, listening to Warren Zevon, Judee Sill, and Neil Young. I’d pretend I lived in another, smoggier time, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a Pontiac Firebird. Maybe live in a Neutra house? Definitely would be having a mai tai at Trader Vic’s.
So yes, I now needed to learn about Eve Babitz. What a discovery I was given. (Thank you, Blake!) Reading her first two books and a recent biography, I found that Eve Babitz’s writing and unique way of seeing the world towers above any of her more scandalous escapades--although those escapades do lend to some good gossip, too!
Eve Babitz was born and raised and has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles. Her dad played violin for movie studios. Her godfather was Igor Stravinsky. She lived a life full of both high and low Angeleno culture, an honest-to-god-for-real sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll life of the 60s/70s Sunset Strip. She designed album covers for Atlantic Records. Also slept with its co-founder and president Ahmet Ertegun.
Approaching thirty years old, Eve began to transition from It Girl to writer. Joan Didion scored Eve a book deal and in 1974, she published Eve’s Hollywood, an “autobiographical novel.” She followed it up with 1977’s Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. She continued to publish through the 80s and 90s, never quite breaking through to a larger audience. In 1993, in a freak accident while driving, ash from her cigar caught her dress on fire, burning the majority of her body. She hasn’t written since.
In 2010, writer Lily Anolik stumbled upon Eve Babitz’s work and became obsessed with tracking her down, an obsession that led to a Vanity Fair feature article and eventually, just recently, a biography, Eve’s Hollywood: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. Her biographical account and personal relationship with Eve, interspersed with personal commentary, was for me a great accompaniment to reading Babitz’s own work.
What I love about Eve Babitz is that she could (and did) love L.A. in a way that others who wrote about it couldn’t (or wouldn’t), despite its flaws. Writers like Joan Didion or Nathanael West. As her biographer Lily Anolik argues, “Eve started writing in reaction to Didion… Eve’s entire literary career was a response to, nay, a rebuttal of, Play It as It Lays.” Babitz scorns for Nathanael West for his portrayal of L.A. as vapid in Day of the Locust.
Anyone who has graciously taken the time to read any of the things I have written previously might know (perhap grown tired of?) that when I really, really like a book, I struggle to communicate exactly what it is that captures me. Perhaps that’s what I like so much about certain things I read, their complete irreducibility, or at least my inability to reduce them, or write articulately about them. You just quote it and nothing needs to be added or explained. The quote itself is all you need. Just like an In N Out Double Double. No commentary necessary. So, here are a few that resonated with me…
On fame: "I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it's held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you're talking about."
On The Dodgers: "Somehow, before the thing even started, I had acquired an intense, fierce loyalty to the Dodgers, and I don't know how it happened. I never expected that my external personality, which had hardened into that of a blase Hollywood lady of fashion, could rupture at the first sight of those Americans down there in their white uniforms, but there it was. I was hooked."
On friendship: "Shawn is one of the few men on earth who does not take the opportunity to kick you when you're down. He makes your faults sound like the inevitable by-products of how brilliant you are. And for the very first time in my life, I began to deep-down know that even though I was not as thin as George Harrison, it was going to be alright. In fact, it might even be funny."
On beauty: "In the Depression, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West. After being born of parents who believed in physical beauty as a fact of power, and being born beautiful themselves, these girls were then raised in California, where statistically the children grow taller, have better teeth and are stronger than anywhere else in the country. When they reach the age of 15 and their beauty arrives, it's very exciting--like coming into an inheritance and, as with inheritances, it's fun to be around when they first come into the money and watch how they spend it and on what."
-Brad Allen is the director of the Lawrence Public Library.