And because we were in Southern California—in Hollywood even—there was no history for us. There were no books or traditions telling us how we could turn out or what anything meant.
My god, isn’t it fun to read Eve Babitz? Just holding one of her books in your hand is like being in on a good secret. Babitz knows all the good secrets—about Los Angeles, charismatic men, and supposedly glamorous industries like film, music, and magazines. Cool beyond belief but friendly and unintimidating, Babitz hung out with all the best rock stars, directors, and artists of several decades. And she wrote just as lovingly about the rest of LA—the broad world that exists outside the bubble of “the Industry.” Thanks to New York Review Books putting together a collection of this work, we are lucky enough to have more of Babitz’s writing to read.
Alongside the Thelemic occultist Marjorie Cameron (whose husband, Jack Parsons, cofounded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the Bay Area Beat painter Jay DeFeo (Babitz’s romantic rival), Babitz was one of a handful of female artists associated with LA’s landmark Ferus Gallery, which showed local contemporary artists and launched the careers of people like Ed Ruscha and Ed Kienholz. Babitz knew (and dated) many of the Ferus personalities; she was a mainstay at their hangout, Barney’s Beanery. As she details in “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art,” the famous photo of a nude Eve playing chess with Marcel Duchamp was the result of her trying to make her married boyfriend, the Ferus Gallery founder, Walter Hopps, jealous.
A bridge between the Beat movement and burgeoning sixties psychedelic culture, the Ferus group rejected all prescribed rules of art to follow a strict internal code of its own, dictated only by individual interests. What her boyfriend Paul Ruscha’s brother Ed did with paintings, Babitz did with essays. Reading her is like looking at Ed Ruscha’s gas station paintings. She makes you reconsider things you might have dismissed as ugly, strange, or even boring, and look at them as if for the first time to find that they are in fact the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen in your life. Everything Babitz writes is both pop and intellectual, shiny but deep, like an artificial-snow-flocked Christmas tree, every bit as real and sentimental for a Tinseltowner as a Douglas fir. She makes sure you are stimulated, and when she occasionally does say something portentous, you’re never far from a punch line. She always writes with an eye toward entertaining the reader because, well, Hollywood. Women are automatically dealt low culture; Babitz doubles down, writing about Archie comics, ballroom dancing, what it’s like to have big tits. She doesn’t care about being high art because high art is humorless.
“The ideas you have about cities that you’ve always known don’t work in L.A., and once you toss those aside you’ll be much better off,” she writes in “My God, Eve, How Can You Live Here?,” explaining the whole city in one elegant swoop. (People still ask how we can stand to live in LA, although they tend to do it months before they themselves move here and decide they invented it.) Los Angeles does not have one center because it has many centers. It does not have a monoculture because it has so many cultures that coexist, and none of them require validation from East Coast Yankees. This baffles the Yankees, who are used to thinking worlds have centers and they are somehow in them. It’s freeing to give up on the delusion that you matter and can control anything at all.
To navigate LA the Eve Babitz way is to give yourself over to the unpredictability and slow tempo of your environment. Sure, you could complain about the heat and the freeways, or you could eat this perfect sandwich and listen to the birds sing. She tells you where to go to see what’s off the beaten path, and where to go if you want exactly the cliché Beverly Hills luxe surrealist experience you imagined LA would be. The garish architecture and people are there if you want them, just don’t go mistaking one part for the whole. The real tourist attraction in LA is not the shitty, pay-for-play Walk of Fame, or any museum or arena, it’s the chance to immerse yourself in the human carnival. Around the time you make peace with being in a city that makes you feel anonymous, you come to realize that Los Angeles is a small town, just spread out, and if you stay here long enough you will eventually keep running into the same twelve people over and over again (and that’s when you move to the desert).
The loping Western pace that those transplanted from faster-paced, European-style cities so often bemoan is likewise celebrated by locals like Babitz. It allows for constant detours and longer looks. LA doesn’t dictate an agenda, and like all of the American West it celebrates restless individualism. Babitz is at home anywhere, and everywhere she goes she finds the most interesting person, the weirdest place, the funniest throwaway detail. She makes writing seem effortless and fun, which any writer can tell you is the hardest trick of all.
The flightiness of Babitz’s narrator persona, in pieces like “All This and The Godfather Too,” may have been slightly exaggerated to catch people off guard while she took a good long look, making careful mental notes throughout. In slow-paced Los Angeles it’s easy to get distracted by a good sunset or a flock of butterflies and forget to produce any work at all, but this collection shows Babitz to have been insanely prolific while also attending every good party in the LA hills and many long nights at the Chateau Marmont. The parties are part of her process, just like those long drives to the beach she recommends.
Babitz is the ultimate Hollywood local, and like any true Angeleno she is laid-back and open-minded about seemingly everything—from high-priced stationery to female gym rats. Like Babitz, I am from LA and am fond of it in all its weird extremities. I was born in Hollywood but grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and have had plenty of “How can you live there?” questions directed my way—which compelled me to go searching for all the reasons I could. Anyone who thinks Los Angeles is only gorgeous would-be starlets dangling over the maw of destruction has never had jury duty here. It’s just a regular city that is also bizarre in ways that even a local will admit are beyond full human comprehension. The smog makes for gorgeous sunsets.
California is known for its erasure of visual history—whether through quake, fire, or purposeful human intervention. Like the pictures she takes with the Brownie camera she brings to the set of The Godfather, Part II, Babitz renders perfect snapshots of San Francisco and Los Angeles. She describes the constant California moment of bland apartments and bland people ruining the weird, spooky charm of LA’s beach cities, like Marina del Rey, or high-rises in San Francisco turning from funky artists’ spaces into offices for investor-funded media companies. The cost of living in LA has gone up absurdly ever since then, even as wages have stagnated, leading to a housing crisis that has pushed thousands of people into tent villages all over the city.
Although LA has changed since Babitz wrote about it in the seventies and eighties, many parts of Eve’s Hollywood remain. You can still take the Raymond Chandler driving tour she suggests through LA’s “amazing streets” that run across the whole city, although today there are potholes galore due to civic decay. You can still get the taquitos she raves about in Eve’s Hollywood at Cielito Lindo, and any reader of the great food critic Jonathan Gold will know that LA is even now full of incredible cheap meals.
Despite the timelessness of her subject and style, there are certain things that do mark Babitz as a working writer from another era. The piece about The Godfather, Part II, for instance, would be impossible to pull off today. It’s remarkable for its freedom of access and a forthrightness about difficulties on set that are unimaginable in today’s PR-directed magazine climate. Babitz isn’t afraid to dramatize the ways the powerful are built up by people around them. And gossip is part of her reporting style, because so much of gossip is news that powerful men don’t want made public; it reveals them as silly, or petty, or cruel. Babitz can’t help but make important men look as silly as they really are. But she isn’t gratuitously cruel. Just as she doesn’t shy away from recording men at their most ridiculous, she doesn’t shy away from objectifying beautiful men (and she does it so much better than anyone else). She’s nobody’s sycophant, and that commands a certain kind of respect from her subjects, who’ve grown used to being sucked up to.
I was nervous to read the title essay to this collection, Babitz’s first sustained writing about the 1997 accident that largely put an end to her writing career, because I worried about what it would do to the intertwined mythoi of Babitz and LA. Time and again in her work Babitz had crushed the notion that women were objects rather than subjects; she simply, effortlessly embodied both roles. Despite being a writer myself and knowing full well that writing is an act of prolonged seduction that involves portraying oneself as maybe a little funnier, sexier, more self-aware than the reality, I was afraid to discover that there was a sadder, more vulnerable soul inside the confident public Babitz. Could she, just like me, have been projecting a fearlessness in her writing that isn’t fully representative of who she really is? The answer of course is yes, of course she is vulnerable and human and cognizant of her own brashness (and so am I), and it’s not only fine, it’s wonderful.
“My friends would kill me if I died” is what Babitz says about her accident, joking—but telling the truth. To be a female artist is to put your own stubborn obsessions above all else in a world that still expects you to take care of other people while setting your own obsessive interests aside. Throughout her life Babitz moved among stubborn, creative men who did only exactly as they pleased, and she did the same in her own way to more radical effect. To be impulsive is to be accident-prone, to follow your passions is to risk letting them consume you, and women with great appetites for life are often demonized for their desires, just as men are lionized for theirs.
Eve Babitz was of the first generation of women who really had it in their power to decide to not get married and have children. She didn’t form a nuclear family of her own but she has an artist’s family—composed of her sister and friends and ex-lovers and creative admirers. And after the accident they all took care of her together, in an inspiring way. (In Lili Anolik’s biography, Hollywood’s Eve, when asked why famous and now-wealthy exes like Harrison Ford and Steve Martin donated money to help her, she sits up in bed and croaks, “Blow jobs.”)
Having gotten sober after a youth spent trying every hyped-up high, Babitz comes to see just living as the ultimate high. She is not a death-driven fatalist like her old friend Jim Morrison or some of the sad, beautiful female friends she writes about whose worth is so wrapped up in their looks that they failed to develop any other skills. She’s a writer, who happens to be so charming and good at her job that decades later Han Solo still thinks of her fondly.
After the accident and throughout her recovery process, Babitz is humorously deflective about the seriousness of it all. She stubbornly refuses to get bogged down in the tragedy and gore of lighting herself on fire, even as she exposes that gore and tragedy for all to see. Babitz is a proud exhibitionist, in her writing as in the Duchamp photo that first brought her notoriety. Confronted with the transformation of her body by the fire, she does not let us look away. She describes the scene in the operating room, as she is put through hours of surgeries, as an “abattoir” then immediately quips, “All my life I had wanted to have a reason to use the word.”
“I used to be charming,” Babitz jokes with one of the medical aides. The real joke being, she still is! Even with third-degree burns on half of her body and in unimaginable pain, she is recording the details for the story she knows she will inevitably write. The accident is one misadventure among the many misadventures she has turned into art. Yet it feels like a different type of Eve Babitz essay from the reminiscences she’s written before. Here she self-consciously addresses the lapses in her own memory and takes stock of her mortality in a way that seems simultaneously inevitable and contrary to her core beliefs. Babitz’s willingness to go her own way throughout life is inspiring, even as she admits it’s not on purpose exactly. The haphazardness of her own choices comes back to her throughout the essay about the fire, but Babitz does not ascribe any kind of grand apocalyptic or spiritual meaning to it. That’s what outsiders do. To her it is just a fire, and fires happen all the time in Los Angeles. They’re a thing that might happen to you if you live here, a known risk worth taking.
Babitz writes about the “perseverance of vision” in the work of auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s her perseverance of vision that comes through in her own work. Like any artist or auteur, she came to earth with a strong point of view she had no choice but to share with the world. Reading her now, it seems she achieved the ultimate goal of any Hollywood girl—leaving behind a beautiful, everlasting afterimage where you are always a little sexier, a little funnier, a little more charismatic than maybe you really were, or anyone could ever be. But Eve Babitz, like her beloved fellow LA native and icon Marilyn Monroe, really is that sexy, that funny, that charismatic. And as Marilyn’s films freeze her image, Eve’s writing preserves her voice.
In writing all these beautiful, interesting things, initially meant for ephemeral mediums like alternative weeklies printed on rapidly yellowing newsprint and produced in a “transitory spirit”—not unlike the wildflowers that pop up on the sides of LA freeways in spring—Babitz paradoxically created a long-lasting canon of work. Impermanence should be freeing, not frightening, and Babitz writes like someone who lives life to its limits. There are no experiences in moderation for her, because what use is life if you’re not going to try everything on the table? Los Angeles has always been the bleeding edge of the country, a place onto which people project everything bad about culture—much like women, as it happens. Babitz notes that LA is the only harbor city in history to start inland and grow west to the sea. To read Eve Babitz is to feel like her passenger, cruising down long Hollywood streets through a painted-backdrop sunset toward eternal waves.
Molly Lambert is a writer from Los Angeles who was born in Hollywood. She has written for publications including The New York Times Magazine and cohosts the podcast Night Call.
From Molly Lambert’s introduction to I Used to Be Charming, by Eve Babitz, published by New York Review Books. Copyright © 2019 by Molly Lambert.