From the archives: Reclusive writer Eve Babitz toasts Los Angeles

This story was originally published in October 2019. Iconic Los Angeles writer Eve Babitz died Friday at age 78.

In the dedication of her first book, “Eve’s Hollywood”, Eve Babitz curtly thanked Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne for “having to be who I am not”.

The “Didion-Dunnes,” as she called them, were friends of Babitz and in her social orbit when the book was published in 1974, but the line is also clearly a burn. (And a bit of himself – but that was Babitz’s light-hearted brilliance, to playfully present himself as both a charming foil and a punchline.)

For Eve Babitz — whose resurgence culminated Tuesday with the release of her first “new” work in decades — was, quite accurately, everything the Didion-Dunnes weren’t.

If Eve Babitz were to wear an old grocery store in a bikini at Ralphs on Sunset and Fuller in the late 1960s, it would have been for fun, show and seduction — not because the center couldn’t hold.

Babitz was flat where Didion was coolly detached, as well as lusty, seemingly unserious and a bit of a pleasure-seeking missile.

The daughter of a Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra violinist, she grew up at the foot of the Hollywood Hills amid high bohemianism and movie royalty. The young Babitz was beautiful, cheeky and at home in high culture: “I looked like Brigitte Bardot and I was Stravinsky’s goddaughter”, as she says in her first book.

She gained notoriety just a year or two at Hollywood High for posing nude at a chess table opposite Marcel Duchamp in 1963. The photo was meant to be revenge on her married boyfriend, but would become a defining image of burgeoning West Coast art. scene.

She remained an “It girl” of the world of art and literature throughout the 1960s and 1970s, galloping around town with a Zelig-like ability to befriend and sleep with cultural figures. Her big writing break came in 1971, when she published an essay in Rolling Stone after Didion passed it on to the publisher. “Eve’s Hollywood” was published in 1974, and several other books followed.

But in 1997, Babitz retired from public life after a freak accident. She was leaving from a Sunday brunch in her old VW car when she struck a match to light a little cherry-flavored cigar. The lit match fell and ignited her vaporous skirt like a nightmare. Babitz was left with third-degree burns over almost half of her body and deeply in debt from the medical treatment that followed. And then she practically disappeared.

Babitz’s current revival began in earnest in 2014, when the septuagenarian recluse was the subject of a love letter and Vanity Fair magazine profile written by Lili Anolik. At the time, Babitz – who had not initially been taken particularly seriously by the literary establishment – ​​was largely forgotten, along with her dusty and out-of-print books.

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 has reprinted several others.

Anolik’s obsessive pursuit of Babitz and his legacy culminated with the publication of “Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of LA” in January 2019, which called Babitz “a sleazy, wayward, stubborn, and hidden genius. of Los Angeles”. Anolik’s book is more of an adulatory valentine than a straightforward biography, but perhaps the breezy infatuation suits its subject matter and the lush exuberance of its work. Babitz never hid his enthusiasm, and neither did Anolik.

In her heyday, Babitz had often been seen as an insubstantial party girl – also famous for her cleavage (legendary) and his conquests (also legendary) like his job.

The New York Times said that “Slow Days, Fast Company” was “a mixture of flirtatious and silly, tossed in a light band-aid” when first published in 1977; “Sex and Rage”, exclaimed that newspaper 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 isolation — her name and her books were suddenly everywhere by the end of the current decade.

Or at least “everywhere” in 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 cool millennial girls on the internet posed with her reissued book covers on Instagram.

Yes, Babitz nazel-gazed and name-dropped, but she was also a fine observer of the city and its very particular cultural milieu. Was his Los Angeles a delirious, languorous gambling landscape made possible – as critics charged – by his looks, privileges and access?

Why, of course. That’s why it’s fun to read.

Eve Babitz.

(From the collection of Mirandi Babitz)

She may have been young and beautiful in “Eve’s Hollywood” days, but she also fully understood and observed the silver currency of everything, and knew how to channel them for her own ends. A woman can be both frothy and shrewd.

But in a sunny and dark city there is a certain proforma equation we expect from literary depictions of easy glamor and dazzling light. They should only be presented as a contrast to the darkness, with every fun party scene adding up to the ultimate damnation. It’s fine to dab some shimmering paint, as long as the canvas in question eventually reveals the gaping void – and the view from the beautiful house in the hills makes it clear that it’s Sodom and Gomorrah. Except that Babitz’s work refused to embrace such a well-honed binary.

While I may quibble strongly with Anolik’s categorization of “Slow Days” as a superior book to Didion’s iconic LA novel “Play It as It Lays”, I cannot disagree with his assertion that “Play It as It Lays” flatters the reader and tells us what we already presume to know – that, as Anolik writes, “Hollywood is rotten and corrupt; that beautiful people have ugly souls; that the game is rigged.

But “Slow Days”, argues Anolik, with “its utter lack of interest in endorsing or disapproving the morals of its characters”, has, in its way, too amused skepticism to emerge with such easily quantifiable calculation of the darkness and light. .

Anolik, who previously drew a parallel between “Play It As It Lays” and “The Day of the Locust,” also compared, by extension, “Slow Days” to Nathanael West’s LA damnation opus, which Babitz notoriously hated. . (She thought it was simplistic, and that West – in his refusal to be seduced – missed the flourishing splendor of the place, so that, as she put it, “the bougainvillea didn’t stand a chance” .)

The essay where Babitz confronts West is taken from his sometimes messy first book “Eve’s Hollywood,” but there’s nothing meandering about this section: “People in the East all love Nathanael West because he shows them that it’s not all blue skies and pink sunsets, so they don’t have to worry: it’s superficial, corrupt and ugly,” Babitz writes, the worry in question probably being that there Down there, it’s winter here, the bougainvillea stays in bloom forever.

In Babitz’s sly and witty view, “The Day of the Locust” – that essential novel in the LA literary canon – is really just a dope attempt to assure his buddies of the l ‘Is “that even if he was gone at Hollywood, he didn’t have faded away Hollywood. It’s, as she puts it, a “little apology” for West taking that dirty Hollywood money and basking in the sun. Or a man who manages to get his cake and eat it.

And perhaps, more precisely, that was what was so off-putting and seemingly unserious about Babitz in his time. She wanted to have her cake and eat it, write the story and also play in it. But without any of the required elements, nothing takes away to apologize for the shiny parts.

There’s a specific brand of brittle, battered delicacy that we’ve come to revere in women writers who describe their own island lives and who are equally striking in their author photos. Babitz was messy and certainly adrift at times, but she was having way too much fun for anything else.

His work, even ostensible fiction, has always been autobiographical, and ironically it was probably the writer’s later biographical arc that ultimately allowed the imprimatur of significance. After all, disfiguring accidents, JD Salinger-style disavowals of public life, and simmering interest in the cult of writers and scholars are usually the domain of serious literary personalities, not flibbertigibbets and fun “It” girls. of the.

“I Used to Be Charming,” which was released by NYRB Classics on Tuesday, contains nearly 50 previously unreleased tracks written between 1975 and 1997. It includes a searing piece about her accident and long recovery that begins with a passage about her putting the side of a burning hill as she, her skirt on fire, tries to roll on the grass to keep the flames away from her. Meanwhile, a kind “Sunday brunch couple” watches in horror.

“Thing is, this wasn’t the first time I was embarrassed in Pasadena,” she wrote, referring to her famous Natural chess match with Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum.

Except now, negligence carries the weight of a reward, and the desire for beauty and fame has a price. And it’s an LA story that we know how to categorize.