Books

All About Eve

Eve Babitz first gained notoriety by playing chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp at the artist’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum.
©1963 JULIAN WASSER
Eve Babitz first gained notoriety by playing chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp at the artist’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum.
With the re-release of "Black Swans: Stories" Los Angeles author and artist Eve Babitz is reestablished as a major West Coast literary icon.

As California authors go, Eve Babitz is the anti-Joan Didion. A firm proponent of the pleasure principle, she substitutes hedonistic celebrations — drenched in sex, sun and drugs — for gloomy references to the Donner Pass or Raymond Chandler lines about murderous Santa Ana winds.

Like a Southern California version of Andy Warhol protege Edie Sedgwick, Babitz cut a swath through the decadent late 1960s and early ’70s L.A. — designing album covers, conducting wild affairs with the great and near great and generally making the scene.

"Black Swans: Stories" by Eve Babitz, 225 pages, Counterpoint Press, $16.95 COUNTERPOINT PRESS

"Black Swans: Stories" by Eve Babitz, 225 pages, Counterpoint Press, $16.95

But unlike Sedgwick, she had talent as well as beauty, and after making her bones with Rolling Stone, Esquire and other slicks, her literary prowess soon eclipsed her sex appeal. What stands out about Babitz’s writing is her voice: smart, unapologetic and knowing, like Dorothy Parker magically time traveling to the modern era.

Babitz burst onto the West Coast literary scene in 1974 with “Eve’s Hollywood,” a series of autobiographical meditations on everything from why Rudolph Valentino’s movie character, the Sheik, was the mascot of her alma mater, Hollywood High, to the emotional impact of a country tune her mother used to sing. “What I wanted … was everything,” she wrote. “Or as much as I could get with what I had to work with. I wanted, mainly, a certain kind of song.” 

Having staked her terrain, she followed up with “Slow Days, Fast Company — The World, The Flesh, and L.A.,” connecting a girlfriend’s shocking overdose with the time she saw a strung-out Janis Joplin at a motel swimming pool the week before the singer died; reflecting on the demolition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s former hangout, the Garden of Allah; and taking backhanded digs at San Francisco’s foggy gestalt.

Then came “Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time,” a dreamy novel depicting the misadventures of her protagonist, Jacaranda, on both coasts — Babitz was always a fish out of water in Manhattan. “She did not expect her hands to start shaking while she was walking down the street,” she wrote, a little girl lost. “A sort of slanted sunbeam wasn’t warm enough in New York when you’re not drinking and it’s July.”

By 1993, with the publication of the story collection “Black Swans” — reissued this month by Counterpoint Press — the fast times were matched by faster company, as she recalled louche encounters with an Italian lover in the Chateau Marmont while the Rodney King riots raged outside. The personal was political.

But in 1997, after a freak accident — she suffered third-degree burns when ash from a cigar she was smoking set fire to her dress — she stopped writing and adopted the life of a recluse, resurfacing in the years since only for rare, cryptic interviews.

Now, thankfully, there’s a Babitz revival. Call it Eve’s revenge.

In addition to Counterpoint’s rerelease of “Black Swans,” as well as “Sex and Rage” last July, “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Slow Days” have been resurrected under the imprimatur of the New York Review Books Classics series.

And Hulu is developing “L.A. Woman” — yes, Jim Morrison is reported to have written the Doors song about her — a coming-of-age dramedy based on her body of work. (Her body itself became famous, or notorious, when the 20-year-old writer was photographed playing chess nude with Marcel Duchamp at the artist’s 1963 Pasadena Art Museum retrospective.)

Rereading Babitz is a delicious, guilty pleasure. Unlike Didion or, say, Susan Sontag, she never insists on her intellectual, let alone academic, cred. Too cool for school, she passes by in a blur of eyeshadow, lipstick and go-go boots.

If the Bay Area symbolizes California’s superego, filled with political rhetoric aimed at saving the environment, the society and people’s souls, the Los Angeles that Babitz champions is one of languor and lotuses, a morality based on taste, not tenets.

It’s not that she’s immune to cultural Establishmentarianism. Her father was a studio musician, her godfather was Igor Stravinsky, and she grew up surrounded by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Horne and Bertrand Russell. But she renounced such highbrow seriousness for tango lessons in the San Fernando Valley, Palm Springs road trips and the heady allure of Marilyn Monroe.

The “black swans” Babitz writes about in the reissued collection are those she witnessed, in a surreal moment, literally ripping the dress off the bride at a Bel-Air Hotel wedding. Eve and her boyfriend had checked in for a lost weekend, on the premise that he’d pretend to be a “voluptuary producer” and she a starlet.

She didn’t tell him she was on acid or mention that Julie Andrews, at the next table, was giggling at his litany of psychiatric miseries. And it did not end well, of course. It never does. “In those days, I thought living happily ever after might be my destiny,” Babitz writes. “But … it was too late.”

Paul Wilner is a writer (and former Angeleno) whose work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Best Fiction About Los Angeles

• “Paint It Black by Janet Fitch (2006): An indelible portrait of the 1980s L.A. punk rock scene, told from the point of view of a young girl devastated by her lover’s suicide.

• “Somebody’s Darling” by Larry McMurtry (1978): Best known for his Texas tales, the “Lonesome Dove” author knows his way around Hollywood, too, as in this sometimes raunchy account of rising director Jill Peel, her screenwriter sidekick, Joe Percy, and some good old boys who hit the road with stolen reels from Jill’s latest movie.

• “Selling Out” by Dan Wakefield (1985): Wakefield, a former boyfriend of Eve Babitz, makes comic hay of his rueful East Coast protagonist’s travails in Tinseltown after being summoned from a Vermont college to write a television series.

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