Eve Babitz is a little like Madame de Sevigne, that inveterate letter-writer of Louis XIV's time, transposed to the Chateau Marmont in the late 20th-Century--lunching, chatting, dressing, loving and crying in Hollywood, that latter-day Versailles.
Babitz's stories could be letters, full of larky impressions about how one generation of a certain class lived in the 1970s and 1980s in this odd but special place. We wish the stream were deeper, but of course it doesn't have to be. These gossamer tales are what they are--intensely personal, Babitz looking back on her terrain, even though Hollywood in its infinite variety--a region mined elegantly or superficially by many--still seems essentially unrealized.
Babitz has produced other collections of stories, plus a novel ("Sex and Rage"). A tireless Angeleno from Hollywood High, she delivers in "Black Swans" her reminiscences of the Scene: rock 'n' rollers, drugs, booze, sex, writers, restaurants . . . and her friends who are, like herself, gossiping, falling in and out of love, attending funerals, barely blinking when some truth flashes by during the year-round summer. Work, as most of us understand it, is observed infrequently.
If all this sounds shallow, oddly enough it isn't, and I can't quite say why. I mean, it is , but it isn't.
Eve Babitz's stories can be touching and fey, echoing a distinctly California charm, as in "Slumming at the Bistro Gardens" or the wacky and determined "Tangoland," where the dance becomes a metaphor for coping with and holding up the "edifice" of love. "Free Tibet," and the title story, "Black Swans," are standouts because they capture an experience whose sum is greater than Babitz's.
In "Free Tibet," it's the early 1980s. Her friend Brian who "radiated Jesuit evasion and elegance" hands out sunny tomatoes, sings Verdi and is HIV positive from a blood transfusion. She knows this as one did about friends in 1982-83; she is dimly aware of Brian's certain fate, but she's having a squalid love affair with Peter. Brian tells her, "Life is too short to be miserable. You have to be with people who . . . care about you." Good advice any time, but this does not sink in. Caught up for almost a year in the wretched Peter affair, she's at a party when she learns Brian died months before. "I stood there . . . marbleized in sweetness of memory and guilt for having allowed my own trivialities of romantic life to so overwhelm my common decency, my true lovers. The ones who loved me. . . . I let Brian go without saying goodby."
The party around her is full of the living, "the heteros so far, the people who'd never used needles . . . who never . . . had fatal blood transfusions," listening to an account of Brian's funeral, which he planned himself. On his coffin was a bumper sticker: FREE TIBET. It was Brian winking at us, telling us to have fun. To be alive. To think."
This story captured for me the early plague years in a Hollywood swirling in a witless, self-involved society. Like pre-revolutionary France, it capitalized on an inner unity, coming from a deeper wellspring in Babitz than some of the others.
People used to love the Bel-Air Hotel's elegant, glistening, blue-black swans. But they were mean, said to have bitten a bride and torn her dress when she drew too near. "Women claiming to be witches were always stealing them. Or trying . . . except the swans were so vicious, the witches wound up in the emergency room."
The black swans may epitomize the fate of relationships perceived to be glamorous or deep, or they might symbolize, more dangerously, the Hollywood of our fantasies. This piece relates the author's love affair with a successful, witty writer who abandons her when she sells a story to a magazine that rejected one of his. It's about envy, the deadly competition between men and women who are lovers, the threat some men feel--all lurking under glossy plumage. Her clue comes when Walter, the lover, "invited a friend of his from New York who had left his wife because she'd gotten a book contract from a better publisher that he had." Walter felt sorry for the friend, not the wife. The story will resonate for many.
Some of Babitz's pieces have been done better by others (David Freeman's "Hollywood Education" comes to mind), but others here are, simply unique. Yet, there is little sense of history in this collection, and very little sense of what any of it means to her, and might mean to us. I learned more about her eye makeup and her penchant for navy blue outfits.
But these delightfully brittle stories are like striations of a Hollywood dig over that Babitz has placed a delicate glass bell. Though limited by the relentless first-person I and seemingly aimless, many have an understated unit, present like a mist . . . perhaps a faint hedonist chuckle from the past. Maybe only from small, daily moments, blithely recounted, can we ever get a peek at what really went on. Maybe that's why I think of Madame de Sevigne's letters, to which scholars always refer when they want to know what life at Louis' court was really like.