Writer Brian Moore once said that despite its criticisms, Los Angeles is never provincial: “People in Southern California never look anywhere else in the world for instructions about what to think or how to behave.” And if there was ever a writer who reflected this regionally unashamed appreciation of her native county’s bountifully iconoclastic splendor it would have to be Eve Babitz, author of many funny stories and essays about living life fast and loose along Sunset Boulevard, including the now-classic “Slow Days, Fast Company” — an efflorescent, electric-blue memoir of her youthful days doing drugs, bedding men and perusing Hollywood high society in the late 1960s and early ’70s. As she recalls, “I was too stupid to know I was in the wrong place. Joan [Didion] knew, but I didn’t. … I never had to find out because I was too drunk and stoned.” The joke may have been on Didion, since while Didion’s characters are often growing enervated pool-side by the blank, dull, amoral meretriciousness of L.A. life, Babitz was out there night after night having an amoral good time of it. It was almost as if she couldn’t live her life any other way.
With the possible exception of Daniel Fuchs, few writers admit to productively enjoying themselves in Hollywood, the traditional — and stereotypical — scene of literary sell-outs, cop-outs, commercialized sex, stolen hearts, cheap thrills and bad company. But according to Lili Anolik’s new biographical-reflection, “Hollywood’s Eve,” Babitz was born and bred for the “degenerate” (in air-quotes) SoCal life that most writers disparage. In fact, her “pedigree” sounds quintessentially Los Angeleno, her progenitors rolling into town during the post-Depression-era with all the other unanchored broken bits of flotsam washing in from aimlessly westward-yearning America. Her mother was the product of a “French Cajun teenager” and a rapist, and began life selling chili and hot dogs out of a tent; she endured a series of bad husbands, hitched a ride west with a gambler and eventually met Babitz’s father, a not-quite-divorced classical violinist under contract to RKO, to whom she devoted the rest of a seemingly happy life and went on to make memorial sketches of L.A. landmarks before they were torn down, such as the Hollywood Hotel and the original Angels Flight Railway.
It was a time when many talented people were landing in Los Angeles where talented people weren’t supposed to go, and the Babitz home, at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, boiled over with magical intelligences. Regular parties and picnics were attended by the likes of Eve’s godfather, Igor Stravinsky (who was regularly “slipping” Eve “glasses of scotch under the table” after she turned 13), or Arnold Schoenberg, Bertrand Russell, Fats Waller, Charlie Chaplin, Kenneth Patchen, Marilyn Horne and even the Huxleys. For Eve, daily life was filled with all the same beauty and cultural splendor she enjoyed at the movies with her matinee idols, such as Marilyn Monroe and Valentino, or with the fiercely lovely girls of Hollywood High, whom she immortalized in one of her best and earliest stories, “The Sheik”:
“In most high schools, you learn social things along with the rest of it. In mine, I learned irrevocably that beauty is power and the usual bastions of power are powerlessness when confronted by beauty. Most of us, even though we were ignored by these girls, were on the girls’ side and wanted them to succeed. To have one of them in a class made life much more interesting, since they never became quite tame, and a teacher trying to explain that success depended on practice, diligence, sincerity, and going to bed early was flagrantly and silently contradicted by the girl sitting in the third row, second seat, who would be staring out the window or at the clock.”
For Babitz, there was nothing superficial about beauty; it was simply a way to live your life in a world where every moment should be, or be made, beautiful. And the last thing you should do in such a world was go to bed early.
When you’re as voluptuous and un-hair-sprayed as I am, you have to cover yourself in unironed muumuus to walk to the corner and mail a letter.
Except for a brief lapse into Manhattan in her early 20s, Babitz rarely strayed far from L.A. And like her parents, she instinctively recognized great talent and beauty everywhere she went. In 1963, she posed nude for a photo with a chess-playing Marcel Duchamp at one of Southern California’s first important art exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum. (“I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer,” she once wrote Joseph Heller, enclosing that same photo. At which point Heller promptly introduced her to his editor.) And wherever she partied or traveled, notable people were happening all around her in a life that now seems overburdened with anecdotes.
She introduced Zappa to Dali, “got busted by G. Gordon Liddy,” and testified to a Senate committee that included one of the Kennedys (it’s hard to keep track of all the notable people worth name-dropping – even for Babitz). She designed iconic LP covers for Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, stopped by Janis Joplin’s hotel for an interview, and introduced Steve Martin to the idea of a totally white suit and Michael Franks to the title of his signature song, “Popsicle Toes.” She appeared briefly in “The Godfather, Part 2” (only the best of the trilogy for Babitz, naturally), consorted with the likes of Jim Morrison and Annie Leibovitz and Harrison Ford (while he was still a carpenter), and impetuously gathered lovers according to a few simple criteria – that they were either beautiful or beautifully talented. “In every young man’s life there is an Eve Babitz,” one of these lovers recalled. “It’s usually Eve Babitz.”
[Eve] impetuously gathered lovers according to a few simple criteria – that they were either beautiful or beautifully talented.
At times, Babitz lived free of everything but the drugs that helped keep her moving – especially speed, marijuana and her eventual downfall, cocaine – much like her role model, Marilyn Monroe. But at the same time, she was continually happening close to where significant other people were happening, more like Forrest Gump (in a miniskirt).
“Look at me,” she tells one of her lovers in “Slow Days,” “any fool can want to sleep with me. I mean, look at me, the only thing one can think about is sex.” Which leads her on one of the many funny, ecstatic, self-ironic passages that punctuate her best books:
“The truth is that when you’re as voluptuous and un-hair-sprayed as I am, you have to cover yourself in unironed muumuus to walk to the corner and mail a letter. Men take one look and start calculating how they can get rid of the obstacles and where the closest bed would be. This all happens in spite of my many serious flaws and imperfections, in spite of my being much too fat and everyone else being just right. The reason for this is because my skin is so healthy it radiates its own kind of moral laws; people simply can’t resist being attracted to what looks like pure health.”
For at the end of the day, Babitz always sees herself in a way familiar to most Angelenos: understanding that the power of looking good is often simply knowing when you look good to others. She was, as Anolik writes, “the real thing: a genuine phony.”
Eventually the fast living caught up with Babitz. She spent too much money. She took too many drugs. And she made it through rehab only to set the bottom half of her body on fire while driving home from brunch with her family. She survived six weeks in ICU and disappeared for the next few decades into her condo, where she allowed herself to grow old (as she had lived young) unashamedly. “I’m a mermaid now,” she writes, with characteristic clarity and dark humor. Testifying that even while she may have stopped writing and publishing books, it isn’t because she can’t still write lovely sentences.
“Hollywood’s Eve” is only partially a biography of a fascinating and unusual subject; it is a reflection on why the author finds Babitz so interesting that she wanted to spend several years writing a book about her – sort of like a self-conscious New Journalistic exploration into the era of self-conscious New Journalism. But at the heart of this book beats the hard, strong pulse of Babitz’s life and prose, one funny, erratic and unabashed sentence after another. It still rewards a good listen. So do it. Go listen.
Bradfield is a writer whose novels include “The History of Luminous Motion” and “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
Scribner, 288 pp., $26