To those of us growing up in the Northeast in the 1960s, California was a foreign country and Los Angeles its capital. Actual foreign capitals like London and Paris seemed more familiar. At the root of our deep mistrust was the Yankee conviction that weather is a defining force in shaping human character—that harsh winters instill Calvinist rigor in those obliged to withstand them, that perpetual summer would inevitably corrode morals and the will to work. All those hillsides ablaze, those earthquakes rattling the china, struck us as fire-and-brimstone reminders that people were never meant to live in LA in the first place—reminders unheeded by the local residents, a bunch of confirmed hedonists who lived in the moment, turning their backs on Europe and the past, facing the sunset and the sea.
In short, there was nothing about LA that would have led us to expect that a serious writer could emerge from it. Until one did, and rose to fame as an exalted practitioner of the inventive, highly personal journalism that dominated the 1970s. That was Joan Didion, whose name, alongside her husband’s, appears in the roll call of dedications with which Eve Babitz opens Eve’s Hollywood: “To the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.” Didion, along with John Gregory Dunne, had decamped to New York, and from that distant vantage she wrote about Los Angeles in terms that flattered us Northeasterners into believing we’d been right all along.
It was Babitz who finally—unapologetically—gave voice to LA’s unique appeal and laid to rest the by then weary notion of the city as a cultural wasteland. For this, she was supremely qualified. With a father who was a baroque musicologist and violinist under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, a mother who was an artist, and a godfather who was Igor Stravinsky, Babitz grew up surrounded by a circle of illustrious family friends that included Edward James, Joseph Szigeti, Eugene Berman, Marilyn Horne, Kenneth Rexroth, and Kenneth Patchett, with poetry readings in the living room and premieres of works by Arnold Schoenberg under the palms.
As it happened, this daughter of bohemians was also a child of Hollywood in its flickering grandeur, before a strip mall replaced the Garden of Allah hotel, where Eve and her friend Sally, two virgins with fake ID’s, used to go to drink and practice their charms on men twice their age. Illusion—a papier-mâché coconut grove in a supper club, a restaurateur who claimed kinship to the late Russian tsar—became reality when a quorum bought into it. You had to admire the daring, the imagination, the sheen of the veneer. At Hollywood High, Babitz’s alma mater, the mascot was not, in the tradition of sports teams everywhere, an animal known for its ferocity but the title character of a Rudolf Valentino movie, The Sheik—an Arab chieftain played by an epicene Italian actor. Seduction and glamour were woven into Babitz’s everyday life, and they shaped her.
She idolized Marilyn Monroe, joined the crowd that turned out to see her plant her hands in wet cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, fumed over proclamations of Arthur Miller’s genius while Monroe’s intelligence got short shrift. Like Monroe, Babitz must have had her fair share of men talking to her chest. Little did they know that just north of her magnificent breasts was the brain of a future novelist who would earn the admiration of her fellow writers. “I was pretty and smart and scornful and impatient,” she says of her teenage self. As qualifications for writing go, these turn out to be good ones—even her looks, which allowed her to pass as “a spy in the land of the privileged,” a member of an elite to which, she insists, she has never really belonged.
Monroe may have been her role model, but it was Brigitte Bardot that Babitz resembled. You can see it in her high-school yearbook photo—the blond tousle, the heart-shaped face, the black-rimmed eyes. While most teenagers face the world head-on, gazing eagerly into the future, Babitz’s gaze is sidelong, caught in a quiet smile of complicity with someone outside the frame. This seems in keeping with the confidential tone that makes Eve’s Hollywood feel like a series of soliloquies delivered by a friend over fruity drinks in a dark corner of the Luau, an ersatz Polynesian restaurant that was Stravinsky’s favorite.
Nobody writes about high school and the dimly lit passage from innocence to adulthood better than Babitz. Scrupulous and unsentimental but sympathetic to her former self, she documents that brief space of a few years when fledgling minds attempt to make sense of authority, social hierarchy, injustice, and sex. Against the backdrop of her own bourgeois claustrophobia, it is the outlaws (James Dean being the prototype and her hero) who command Babitz’s fascination and respect. Drawn into the force field surrounding Aces Butler, a transfer student with a stratospheric IQ, an alias, and an attitude problem, she inventories his charisma: “Who could resist the way he threw back his head and slapped his thigh in unheard-of abandon, in our starved colony? He dressed in black, black motorcycle jacket, black shirts, black Levis and black boots with his black eyelashes framing his acetylene eyes that flickered out in pure hate at the concepts of anything being ‘for your own good’ or anyone ‘who knew best.’ ”
Babitz is interested in power, and from Aces she learns that self-possession is one source of it. Beauty is another. The girls at Hollywood High were beautiful, “extraordinarily beautiful. And there were about 20 of them who separately would cause you to let go of reason. Together—and they stayed pretty much together—they were the downfall of any serious attempt at school in the accepted sense, and everyone knew it. They were too beautiful for a high school . . .” For those of us who have wondered why it is that Southern California seems stocked with a disproportionately high percentage of ravishing women, Babitz offers a supremely logical explanation: “These were the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams. In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West.” So Los Angeles became an experiment in genetic self-selection—a breeding ground for physical perfection, where the beautiful mated with the handsome, begetting successive generations, each exponentially better-looking than the one before.
Here is Babitz, marveling at the maddening disingenuousness that seems endemic to this super race: “The possessors of beauty are reticent about their privileges or act as though it was luck that the cop didn’t give them a ticket, that it was just a ‘nice man’ who let them through customs without having to wait in line. Beauty, unlike money, seems unable to focus on the source of the power. Even talent knows they are special and why they were invited.”
Her reflections on beauty and its prerogatives may have led some readers and critics to mistake Babitz for a lightweight, an author who writes about so-called women’s preoccupations, like dieting, looks, clothes, makeup, friendships, love. There have been occasional allegations that she hasn’t taken writing seriously, as if she had modeled Jacaranda, in her 1979 novel, Sex and Rage, on herself, creating a main character who writes in order to have something to do during the day.
Like Didion, who went on to write about politics and other matters that constitute “serious” journalism, Babitz moved to New York, where she ran into Yvette Mimieux—she recognized her from lunchtime at the cafeteria in junior high. Even then, Babitz recalls, “It was plain to see she was a movie star.” For a girl that beautiful, “there was nothing else to be.” Now here they were, years later, “Yvette having been discovered and me having discovered other lives to try out.”
Some of those lives are hinted at here, though Babitz is vague when it comes to the particulars. For more information, we turn elsewhere. Every article about her sooner or later gets around to the subject of her lovers, who were reportedly legion. (Earl McGrath, former president of Rolling Stone Records: “In every young man’s life there is an Eve Babitz. It’s usually Eve Babitz.”) Some were noteworthy: Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Ed Ruscha, Stephen Stills, Harrison Ford, Ahmet Ertegun, Dan Wakefield. Another staple of the stories about her: the 1963 photo in which she posed nude, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp (the idea came from Julian Wasser, the photographer). It’s an image that has by now become an art-world meme—a fact she seems to acknowledge and own when she gives it a cameo appearance in Sex and Rage, hanging it on the wall of a Hollywood pent-house that Jacaranda visits. There were careers as an album-cover designer (for Linda Ronstadt, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds) and photographer, as a journalist writing on assignment (including an article entitled “My Life in a 36-DD Bra” for Ms. Magazine). There was the exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s work that inspired her to take up making collages. And there were parties, lots of them, at a time when she maintained a close personal relationship with LSD, marijuana, and cocaine.
Eventually, Babitz moved back to Los Angeles. In New York, she writes, “there are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind.” By then she had come to understand that the hometown of our childhood imprints itself on our minds, making sense to us in ways that require no explanation. We carry it with us, and sooner or later many of us long to return to the place against which, knowingly or not, we’ve measured all others. For Babitz that was Hollywood.
Devoted fans (of whom I am one) on the lookout for years now for a new book have been told that we can stop waiting. After a freak accident in 1997 (ash from the cigar she was smoking set fire to her skirt, leaving her with third-degree burns over half her body), she lost the will to write, she claims, and stopped. That is, of course, her prerogative, and it’s our loss.
Babitz calls this book, her first, “a confessional novel,” though it could easily be taken for a memoir. Somewhere, presumably, in all these anecdotes with the ring of truth the author has embedded one or more grains of fiction: maybe a name she changed or a bit of dialogue she improved upon or a sequence of events that she accelerated—although, if that is indeed the case, none of these improvements call attention to themselves. Her writing reads as if it had flowed straight from her mind to the page, without impediments or hesitation, with a casual tone most writers only achieve by means of countless false starts, half-finished sentences, and perfectionist late-night revisions. Which is what I repeatedly reminded myself while reading Eve’s Hollywood, until I came to this: “I got up the next morning with a hangover and a good idea for a story. The story was written quickly and fell together like a just right deck of cards being shuffled and had the kind of crazy deftness that my other stories had always managed to run away with.”
Among the friends who pass through Eve’s Hollywood is one called Karen, whom Babitz describes as so “fragilely beautiful that it was all I could do to squash my natural envy and just like her.” I know how she feels. I didn’t begrudge Babitz her celebrity lovers, her bra size, her creamy complexion, or her success—not because I’m such a magnanimous person but because she’s such good company. But writing that comes easy? With a hangover, no less. I hope this is the part she made up.
Holly Brubach is the author of Choura: The Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova; Girlfriend: Men, Women & Drag; and A Dedicated Follower of Fashion, a collection of essays. Formerly Style Editor of The New York Times Magazine, she has been a staff writer for The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as a frequent contributor to numerous magazines. She lives in Pittsburgh.
Excerpted from Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz. Reprinted with permission from NYRB Classics.