Newsletter: The return of Eve Babitz
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Oct. 8, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.
In the dedication to her first book, “Eve’s Hollywood,” Eve Babitz dryly thanked Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne for “having to be who I’m not.”
The “Didion-Dunnes,” as she referred to them, were friends of Babitz’s and in her social orbit when the book was published in 1974, but the line is also clearly a burn. (And a bit of self-own — but that was Babitz’s light brilliance, to playfully cast herself as both charming foil and punchline.)
For Eve Babitz — whose resurgence reached its zenith Tuesday with the publication of her first “new” work in decades — was, quite accurately, everything the Didion-Dunnes were not.
If Eve Babitz were to have worn an old bikini grocery shopping to the Ralphs on Sunset and Fuller in the late 1960s, it would have been for fun, spectacle and seduction purposes — not because the center couldn’t hold.
Babitz was dishy where Didion was coolly detached, as well as lusty, seemingly unserious and somewhat of a pleasure-seeking missile.
The daughter of a Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra violinist, she was raised at the base of the Hollywood hills amid haute bohemians and film royalty. The young Babitz was beautiful, brazen and at home in high culture: “I looked like Brigitte Bardot and I was Stravinsky’s goddaughter,” as she put it in her first book. She gained notoriety just a year or two out of Hollywood High for posing nude at a chess table opposite Marcel Duchamp in 1963. The picture was meant to exact revenge on her married boyfriend, but it would become a defining image of the burgeoning West Coast art scene.
She remained an art and literary world “It” girl in the 1960s and ’70s, gallivanting about town with a Zelig-like ability to both befriend and bed cultural figures. Her big writing break came in 1971, when she published an essay in Rolling Stone after Didion passed it along it to the editor. “Eve’s Hollywood” was published in 1974, and several other books followed.
But in 1997, Babitz retreated from public life after a freak accident left her with severe burns across most of her body and deeply in debt from the medical ensuing treatment.
The current Babitz renaissance began in earnest in 2014, when the septuagenarian recluse was the reluctant subject of a Vanity Fair love letter-cum-magazine profile written by Lili Anolik. At the time, Babitz — who had not been taken particularly seriously by the literary establishment to begin with — was largely forgotten, with her books dusty and out of print.
[Read the story: “All About Eve—and Then Some” by Lili Anolik in Vanity Fair, February 2014]
A wave of renewed interest in her work followed, with the New York Review of Books Classics reissuing two of her books, starting in 2015 with “Eve’s Hollywood,” followed by “Slow Days, Fast Company.” Counterpoint Press reissued several others.
Anolik’s obsessive pursuit of Babitz and her legacy culminated with the publication of “Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.” in January 2019, which pronounced Babitz as “the louche, wayward, headlong, hidden genius of Los Angeles.” Anolik’s book is more adulatory valentine than straight biography, but the breezy infatuation is perhaps befitting of its subject and the lush exuberance of her work.
In her heyday, Babitz had often been written off as an insubstantial party girl — as famous for her decolletage (legendary) and her conquests (also legendary) as her work. The New York Times declared “Slow Days, Fast Company” to be “a mixture of the beguiling and idiotic, tossed in a light dressing” when it was first published in 1977; “Sex and Rage,” this paper exclaimed in 1979, was “an extended example of women’s magazine fiction at its most mediocre.”
But after decades of obscurity — and even as Babitz herself remained in relative seclusion — her name and books were suddenly everywhere toward the end of the current decade. Or at least “everywhere” within an extremely specific subset of the world, as the New York Times breathlessly revisited her work, Hulu developed a series based on her books, and millennial cool girls the internet over posed with her reissued book covers on Instagram.
Yes, Babitz occasionally nazel-gazed and name-dropped, but she was also an exquisite observer of the city and cultural milieu. Was her Los Angeles a delirious, languid playscape made possible — as critics have accused — by her looks, privilege and access? Why, of course. That’s why it’s fun to read.
She may have been young and beautiful in the era of “Eve’s Hollywood,” but she also keenly understood and observed the quicksilver currency of each thing, and knew how to channel them to her own ends. A woman can be both frothy and shrewd. And Babitz didn’t just tell the story, as a recent piece in The Nation notes. “She wanted to be the story.”
Babitz’s work was always autobiographical and, ironically, it’s likely the writer’s later biographical arc that helped freight her oeuvre with the imprimatur of importance. Or at least give it the counterbalance of darkness.
After all, disfiguring accidents, J.D. Salinger-like disavowals of public life and the simmering cult interest of writers and scholars are typically the province of Serious Literary Figures, not flibbertigibbets and fun L.A. “It” girls.
“I Used to Be Charming,” which contains nearly 50 previously uncollected pieces written by Babitz from 1975 to 1997, was released by NYRB Classics on Tuesday.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
Landlords say state rent caps may force them to raise rents more frequently. Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged to sign a statewide rent control bill for buildings older than 15 years. Studies from Los Angeles and San Francisco give insight into how landlords could respond. Los Angeles Times
The Dodgers will be forced into a winner-take-all Game 5 after the Nationals beat them soundly on Monday night. Los Angeles Times
A guide to the best street tacos in the San Fernando Valley, according to the taco experts. L.A. Taco
Local public banking advocates want to make Los Angeles the first city in the country to establish its own bank after the passage of a new state bill. LAist
Interactive entertainment reporter Todd Martens goes deep on Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, analyzing what works, what’s missing and what to fix. Los Angeles Times
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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
A preview of the California 2020 ballot measure outlook: Compared with prior presidential cycles, the list of statewide initiatives with a real shot of being on the 2020 ballot is “surprisingly small,” according to our Sacramento bureau chief. Here’s his take on the half-dozen propositions most likely to make it on the Nov. 3, 2020 California ballot. Los Angeles Times
HIV prevention drugs will be available without a prescription in California under a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday. Los Angeles Times
Why San Francisco’s District Five supervisor race matters for Mayor London Breed. It’s the sole open seat on the Board of Supervisors in an off election year. San Francisco Chronicle
A prominent south Sacramento pastor is running for City Council. The primary election will be held on March 3, and the Sacramento NAACP president and a school board member are also running for the seat. Sacramento Bee
CRIME AND COURTS
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected San Diego Gas & Electric’s appeal to pass $379 million in wildfire costs to ratepayers. The High Court declined to hear the case, which involves costs related to the 2007 wildfires that blazed through San Diego county. San Diego Union-Tribune
HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Moderate Santa Ana winds are expected to start late Wednesday evening in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, bringing hot, dry conditions to the region and increasing the risk for fast-moving wildfires. Los Angeles Times
The famously private In-N-Out heiress and CEO opens up about religion and the family business in a rare interview. Christian Post
Is it a bus or a trolley? The new SF Muni fleet can go off-wire. San Francisco Chronicle
When a 97-year-old woman in Roseville went missing, these four “junior detectives” (ages 10 and 11) sprang into action on their bikes to find her. CNN
The rest of the varsity high school football season has been canceled in Gilroy after four members of the team were issued sexual battery citations after allegedly assaulting a fellow student after school while on school property. Salinas Californian
Fort Ross was struggling when a Russian oligarch stepped in to help financially. The California state historic park commemorates a 19th-century Russian settlement in Sonoma County. The oligarch’s foundation continued as a patron until last year, when sanctions were imposed on him and his company, and the Justice Department told the park’s caretakers to stop taking his money. New York Times
The acclaimed Coachella Valley Desert X art exhibition heads to Saudi Arabia — and into contentious territory. Los Angeles Times
With the Chinese home-buying trend slowing, the San Gabriel Valley is left with some vacant houses. San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Conventional poultry farms look nothing like the Burroughs family’s 2,600-acre spread. In the foothills east of Denair, the farm produces almonds, beef, milk, chickens, eggs and olive oil with a focus on climate-centric sustainability — and no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Modesto Bee
Los Angeles: sunny, 81. San Diego: sunny, 75. San Francisco: partly sunny, 69. San Jose: partly cloudy, 82. Sacramento: partly cloudy, 86. More weather is here.
Today’s California memory comes from Rafael O. Quezada:
“In 1968, my brother and I trained all summer to ride [from] Rosemead to Santa Clara on 10-speeds along the PCH, departing Aug. 26, arriving on Sept. 1. We discovered Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Lake Cachuma; hot springs at Buellton, Cambria, Morro Bay, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, the glorious redwood forests. I listened to the violence taking place at Chicago’s Democratic Convention on a transistor radio. I felt depressed, but the discovery of so much beauty was a cure, converting me into an environmentalist. California, like nothing else, inspired in me an endless love of nature and life.”
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
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