The epigraph to Eve’s Hollywood, Eve Babitz’s 1972 memoir in essays, is a snippet of conversation that the Los Angeles writer conceivably had with multiple interlocutors over the years: “Where are you from?” “Hollywood.” “Born there too?” “Yeah.” “What was it like?” “Different.”
This assertion could be interpreted in at least a couple of ways. First, there is the usual meaning, which most of us think of when imagining what it’s like to grow up in a Hollywood-like environment—palm trees, sexy blond girls, moneyed celebrities—and we would not be wrong. Another meaning exists, however. Take another girl—sexy, too, though only intermittently blond—growing up among the palm trees and the moneyed celebrities, but have her be the child of bohemian intellectual parents: a Jewish classical-musician father, a Texan artist mother. Have her pose nude playing chess with a considerably older, fully dressed Marcel Duchamp for an iconic photograph on the occasion of the artist’s 1963 Pasadena Art Museum retrospective. Have her date the city’s cultural elite—the artist Ed Ruscha, the gallerist Walter Hopps, the lizard king Jim Morrison, among others. And most important, have her be a writer—one who, in a series of memoiristic novels, short stories, and essays, documented both the inner and outer lives of being a sexy girl living in Hollywood amid the palm trees and the moneyed celebrities.
But despite, or maybe partly because of, her sexiness and writerliness, Babitz has been largely forgotten. Her most recent book was published in 1995 to little recognition; and following an accident later in the decade in which ash from her cigarette set her skirt aflame while she was driving, resulting in the permanent scarring of half her body, she went totally silent.
This happens to be a relatively good moment in which to reissue her work. Literary culture has grown more receptive—though, needless to say, not nearly receptive enough—to a reconsideration of older, so-called difficult women writers. Chris Kraus, whose 1997 novel, I Love Dick, which explored sexuality and self-abasement through its protagonist’s infatuation with a colleague of her husband’s, was rediscovered and became a hit in young feminist circles a couple of years ago; Renata Adler’s terse woman-in-the-city experimental novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), were reissued in 2013 to renewed appreciation and brought the writer out of a long seclusion in Connecticut.
Babitz’s writing was never as overtly willful as Kraus’s or Adler’s, but there was still something essentially fuck-you about her attitude—“Smart and pretty and scornful and impatient” is how she describes her teenage self in one essay. Her self-depiction broke the binary according to which “people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West.” Babitz had a Los Angeles face with a New York mind. She earned high school test scores that, as she zings, “were all incredibly high and not just because I cheated.” She wrote deliberately ditzy things like “I spent the [Watts] riots in a penthouse at the Chateau Marmont,” and she dedicated her first book to, among many other people and things, “the girl with the coke,” “eggs Benedict at the Beverly Wilshire,” and “the one whose wife would get furious if I so much as put his initials in.” Her writing took multiple forms, from romans à clef to essayistic cultural commentaries to reviews to urban-life vignettes to short stories. But in the center was always Babitz and her sensibility—fun and hot and smart, a Henry James-loving party girl.
“I looked like Brigitte Bardot and I was Stravinsky’s goddaughter,” she wrote in an essay about veering away from her family’s high-cultural roots, and despite her marvelous admission that the composer’s music “excites me Russianly,” there was something quintessentially American, and more specifically Californian, in Babitz and the world she describes in her writing. “(The) West … is a serious place that should ALWAYS be capitalized,” goes the brief note to the reader that opens Eve’s Hollywood. The mythical capaciousness granted by the uppercase allows for Babitz’s native abundance of gifts. Beauty and smarts and fame and sex and money were always there for women like her, dreamers of the golden dream. They had to tread carefully, though. As she notes in “A Confusing Tragedy,” passive beauty, untethered to any self-directed will, can lead gorgeous women to disaster:
In grammar there is a noun and there are adjectives. Adjectives modify the noun, they alter it and cramp its style. I didn’t want to be a Brownie girl, I just wanted to be a girl … Marilyn kept putting herself in people’s hands, believed them. They let her think she was just a shitty Hollywood actress and Arthur Miller was a brilliant genius whereas he was just another modifier in her already corseted life.
As she wrote in a piece based on the tortured musician and junkie Gram Parsons (whom she pseudonymously calls “James Byrns”), “It’s the frames which made some things important and some things forgotten. Van Gogh had to be a dead madman in order to be the right frame for his pictures … And Picasso was always rich as was Stravinsky, because they were charming, strong, and sane. People believed them; it is packaging.” She created for herself the perfect, irresistible literary persona, with its own set of corsets: not just “the sexy girl” or “the smart girl,” but “the sexy and smart girl.” She also knew, however, that it was not enough, was sometimes even a hindrance. (As a friend told me recently, it’s possible to be a very good writer if you went to Yale and work as a dominatrix, but that isn’t necessarily the case.) You had to get beyond the packaging, which meant actually trying to be someone; in her case, a very fine writer, which indeed she was: a beautiful stylist whose flourishes were almost always carefully doled out, calibrated, and sure. She used language to become, metaphorically speaking, both uppercase and adjectiveless—to crack open her own product and achieve moments that exist just beyond it.
Babitz sought these occasions of ineffable clarity, and she calls them by various names—“real life”; “real stuff”; “disruption”; she likens them to “an alarm clock” or even, in one memorable example in an essay about deciding not to go to UCLA, to the jarring experience of seeing Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata. (In life, she explains, “you’ll be lucky to get even half” of what your heart desires, so you better “desire something enormous,” like the mythically sexy Brando, who makes everything else, including a college degree, seem dull by comparison.) These instances, moments “of perfume where everything [is] gone except for the dazzle,” usually brought on by a sense-heavy encounter with beauty—sometimes through sex or, even more often, the suggestion of sex—disturb the sameness of life and grant it meaning without ever revealing that meaning completely. It would be a mistake to confuse one of these moments with what Babitz refers to as “The Answer”—the thing people often seek out in drugs or religious dogma to give their lives consequence. “I didn’t want The Answer,” she writes of trying LSD for the first time, in 1966, with an older, more experienced friend. “I wanted the colors.” For her, it is always the case that, rather than four, “Two plus two equals pink.”
How beautiful is that? The joy of Babitz’s writing is in her ability to suggest that an experience is very nearly out of language while still articulating its force within it. The voice of one of her first lovers “was exactly like chocolate, it was like chocolate chocolate chocolate”; the tiny, nubby shoes of C.C., an idolized Mexican girl in her junior high, “made your feet look like eraser stubs”; an enigmatic, beautiful high school classmate’s “hair was thick, silky, waved carelessly and slid with a separate gravity. … forward and … back,” its heft swinging with the pendulum force of those ellipses. Babitz observes, and she remembers. “Everyone knows it’s the details that matter,” she writes, and she is nothing if not a close reader.
The piercing realness with which she identifies these moments does not necessarily equal the chaos of everyday experience. Instead, there is in her writing a toggling between the control that form allows and the more haphazard life crowding it with content. This back-and-forth is not unlike the performed experience of being a woman, especially a so-called brains and face, a noun and its adjectives, a package but not. It’s also the experience of being a crafter of narratives. In the book’s final story, “The Rendezvous,” Babitz describes the end of an affair with a married man:
What she wanted to do was to end it, but she wanted the finish to be so gorgeous that the whole episode would stand away from ordinary life as an enameled example of something handled as though someone cared, for once, for the shape of the thing, the form.
The protagonist—a nameless Babitz double—is a Southern California Hedda Gabler who urges herself to “make it beautiful” and fashion the breakup as “a piece of human art so that she could go on cleanly broken.” The rendezvous, however, ends up going comically wrong (along with the dyadic switch between intellectual and vixen, there is more than a dash of the comedic Jewess in Babitz—the hypermotile, wisecracking neuroticism of a Carrie Fisher or a Babs Streisand). The restaurant at which the couple meets, with its sizzling shrimp and shared tables, is not conducive to an art-for-art’s-sake type of goodbye. The married man, too, is not exactly as Babitz had recalled him—less abstract, detached idea and more actual person (“he looked, she felt surprised again, like someone she loved”). But the fact that the meeting was a “jagged prologue” rather than a “polished finish” doesn’t mean that the former option is more valuable than the latter. Babitz is still a writer who has “a mania for outer shine,” a desire just as strong as her distaste for the type of packaging that fully contains its insides. Being in love with Los Angeles, as Babitz is, means never knowing whether beauty will be attached to truth or to deception. In Babitz’s world, it’s often attached to both.