Eve Babitz. Photo strip from the collection of Mirandi Babitz.
I arrived at Short Order straight from the airport. I was the first customer of the day, the hostess unlocking the door as I reached for it. The restaurant was Eve’s choice, a fifteen-minute walk (she hadn’t driven in years) from her condo, in the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax. It looked like the kind of place that would have sold hamburgers and hot dogs to beach bums and bunnies had it been located on the water, only fancy. I sat at a table by the window, sipping a seltzer, my stomach a mess from nerves and travel and being six weeks pregnant, and waited for the woman who once said she believed “anyone who lived past thirty just wasn’t trying hard enough to have fun,” now sixty-nine.
And then the second customer of the day entered. I stood up from my chair, half sat back down, stood up again as I thought, It’s Eve, wait, it can’t be Eve, wait, it has to be Eve. She no longer looked like a bombshell, her hair gray, the cut short and blunt, her clothes a way of covering up her nakedness and nothing more, her glasses, black-rimmed, the lenses thick. She didn’t, however, look like a burn victim either. (Her face had been spared in the 1997 fire, started when she tried to light a cigar, dropped the match in her lap.) She looked, remarkably, unremarkable, an older woman who didn’t give much thought to her appearance out for lunch. She picked up a paper take-out menu from the hostess’s stand, began studying it.
I walked over to her, touched her shoulder. She smiled, toward me rather than at me. And I saw immediately that I’d been wrong about her looking unremarkable. That was the impression she gave from a distance. Up close it was another story. Her glasses were smudged, greasy. She’d applied lipstick to her mouth, only she’d done it haphazardly, a streak of pink on her chin. She had, too, a smell about her. Not body odor—it wasn’t tart or tangy. Something else, something I could almost identify but couldn’t quite, something heavy, sweetish. She said she was starving.
No exaggeration, as it turned out. Our grass-fed burgers and russet potatoes fried in truffle oil arrived and she barely came up for air. I flashed to a conversation I’d had with her longtime squeeze, Paul Ruscha, and his description of her M.O. at fetes during her party-girl heyday: “She’d bypass the host or hostess and first head to the buffet table and dive into it like Esther Williams on Dexamyl. She’d bolt if something made her uneasy, then barge back in and demand that I take her home. I’d ask her why. After all, we’d just gotten there, and she’d say, ‘So we can fuck!’ ” The second she cleaned her plate, she pushed it away. She wanted to go, she said. The whole meal had taken twenty minutes.
I threw cash down on the table, afraid she’d get impatient, walk out if I used a credit card. Trying to buy myself a little extra time, I offered to give her a ride home, even though I didn’t have a car. I called for a cab and we talked a bit as we waited for it, a bit more when we were in it. But the conversation never really got off the ground. We couldn’t get any rhythm going, any flow. I was uptight and overeager. And she, no doubt, was bewildered: Who was I exactly, and what did I want from her? Or maybe she was just checked out. The few remarks she made were addressed to an invisible point above my head or to herself. The cab turned onto Gardner and she was opening the door almost before the driver braked, disappeared into her building without so much as a wave.
I didn’t sleep that night. Was too upset. Because I’d blown it with Eve, of course, and felt hot with shame at my failure. But also because sitting across from Eve at that restaurant table had been such an alienating experience. Technically she’d looked at me, though she’d refused to acknowledge my presence in any of the usual ways. Technically she’d spoken to me, though she’d refused to engage in dialogue other than of the Mad Hatter variety, each sentence unconnected from the sentence that came before. She never once said my name.
Yet as strong as my urge was to back away, my urge to come closer was stronger still. You could even say that my repulsion was a form of attraction. That Eve, famous for her beauty and seductiveness, was now a ruin and a gorgon excited me. It heightened the beauty and seductiveness of her books, reinforced my conviction that she was an artist and an original. That her life had descended into either tragedy or folly or both also excited me. It meant that there was a grandeur about her, a magnificence. Logically this made no sense, but intuitively it rang cherries, one, two, three in a row. Besides, I believed that Eve was trying to repel me. (If you reduced everything she said to me in those twenty minutes to a single word, it wouldn’t be a word, it would be a growl.) She was putting obstacles in my path, which proved that the jewel she was guarding was precious indeed. And then there was this: she was my ticket out of publishing purgatory—anonymous writer-for-hire assignments, dry-as-dust magazines that barely paid—I was sure of it. It was starting to dawn on me how ambitious I was, how far I was willing to go. It was starting to dawn on me that I might be a gorgon, too.
In the morning, I forced myself to call her, thank her for coming to lunch. I was certain she wouldn’t pick up. But she did, even sounded pleased that it was me on the other end of the line. It was a brief exchange, three minutes at most. She brought it to a close, though, by saying, “And next time, I want you to take me for barbecue.” Next time. The sheer relief at hearing those two words made my vision blur for a second. As I said goodbye, which she didn’t catch (already hung up), my heart lifted, lifted, lifted.
I was in.
Though Eve and I were eventually able to achieve a certain level of comfort with each other in person, perfect ease was beyond us. Is beyond us still, frankly. It’s difficult for me to relax with her since I always feel like I’m playing beat-the-clock. I know how quickly she’s going to want to leave wherever it is we are, so I tend to overdirect the conversation, get impatient if she wanders off on one of her tangents: a sugar substitute found only in Japan, the queen of England’s bra maker, an Israeli ambassador who’s the spitting image of Jim Morrison. And I’m sure my wound-up intensity is unnerving for her, that habit I can’t seem to break of looking at her too hard, of lunging at her every remark as soon as it drops from her lips. Nor have I managed to completely shed my awe of her, my neediness around her, and it’s a strain on us both. Another issue: physical pain, which she never mentions but which I guess at. I learned from her cousin Laurie and sister Mirandi that a number of her burns didn’t fully heal, are still open. And her body can no longer efficiently rid itself of heat because the fire destroyed so many of her sweat glands. Sitting in a chair at a table for an extended period, especially in warm weather, must be excruciating.
On the phone, however, where my gaze isn’t merely averted, is eliminated, the story is entirely different. Our rapport is not just reliable but surefire, not just easy but instinctive. She takes my calls now, has ever since that lunch at Short Order. “Oui, oui?” she says, her favorite greeting. I tell her who it is though I know she already knows. Caller ID. And she says, “Lili!” the exclamation point audible in her voice, which—and I think this every time I hear it, the same thought, without fail—is so charming, unusually charming. It’s girlish and lilting, the enunciation softly crisp, laughter always bubbling up in it; yet it’s drowsy, too, as if the phone’s ringing has pulled her out of a heavy slumber. And this is what I start to picture, despite my knowing exactly what Eve looks like now: Eve then, Eve’s Hollywood–era Eve, sitting up in bed, tousle-haired and mascara-smeared like a good bad-girl movie babe, a sheet wrapped around her torso, the receiver cradled between her chin and shoulder as she lights her first cigarette of the day and lets fly some deeply unfair, deeply funny observation, a man beside her, only his back visible, trying to stay asleep.
I should add: that my fantasy is, I suspect, really our fantasy, mine and Eve’s, not just shared with her, but cocreated by her, and necessary to us both. I’d bet money that Eve is picturing the same Eve I’m picturing when we’re on the phone. It’s obvious she’d rather talk on it than face-to-face. And who can blame her? To have changed forms so abruptly, gone from, if no longer, in her early fifties, a sexual paragon, then still vital and enticing, fully capable of attracting, in her words, “fun and men and trouble,” to mundane in the span of a few seconds, must’ve been beyond disorienting, must’ve been dislocating, as if her life had suddenly become a case of mistaken identity. Small wonder that she prefers her communication to be disembodied.
Mostly Eve and I talk about the past. What she says is invariably sharp and amusing, and her recall is exceptional. On the disagreeableness of Edie Sedgwick: “I never met Edie. I didn’t want to. I knew she was obnoxious, so I stayed out of her way. I did see her, though, a few times at Max’s Kansas City, sitting at the bar with Bobby Neuwirth. She used to buy her clothes in the boys’ section.” On the strange case of Walter Hopps: “Chico [Hopps’s nickname] had a room in his house filled with Joseph Cornells. He stole them from everybody. He even stole them from Tony Curtis.” On fame: “There was a period there where it looked like a book I wrote might become a bestseller. It didn’t. But for about a week people thought that it might, and that I might become famous. It was one of the most horrible weeks of my life. Why? Because I thought being famous would cramp my style.” By the way, “cramp my style” is more Eve-speak, a phrase invoked by her here in response to fame, but I’ve also heard her invoke it in response to higher education, to deadlines, to black-widow corsets—to anything, basically, that threatens her ability to do exactly as she pleases.
She’s great on the present as well, if you’re willing to wait out the political rants. (Her views took a sharp right turn post-fire.) She tells me about the book she’s reading, Life, Keith Richards’s autobiography: “The reason Keith doesn’t die is because he doesn’t mix his drugs.” Why she isn’t writing: “I’d rather do nothing for as long as I can stand it.” What her skin looks like: “I’m a mermaid now, half my body.” It’s the last remark that knocks me out the most. I love it not simply because it shows how tough she is, how unbowed, what a sport and a champ and a trouper, but because of its sneaky eroticism. She’s comparing her burned epidermis, a painful and grisly condition—a disfigurement—to the scales on the tail of a mermaid, the seductress of the sea. As an image, it’s grotesque and romantic at once. Not just sexy, perversely sexy. Not just perversely sexy, triumphantly perversely sexy. On the phone, she talks like she writes.
Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, and The Believer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Excerpted from Hollywood’s Eve, by Lili Anolik. Copyright © 2019 by Lili Anolik. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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