When Eve Babitz died on December 17, the light dimmed a bit in Los Angeles, the city she loved and came to completely embody. As it turns out, her friend and mentor Joan Didion outlived her by only one week. Like Didion, Eve Babitz was such a public figure in her day that it’s easy to forget what a great and entertaining writer she was—in novels like L.A. Woman or memoirs like Eve’s Hollywood and I Used To Be Charming. PKM’s Ingrid Marie Jensen reflects on what Eve meant to her personally and what she should mean to the rest of us.
Whenever I have had a broken heart (which has been just twice in my twenty years, and only once was it related to a person, the other time being when my neighbors moved away and took their German Shorthair pointer with them—the loss of the dog being what cracked my heart into two giant shards), reading Eve Babitz has helped the scar tissue begin to heal in earnest. She seemed to always have a broken heart, but to move on despite it as though it was a part of life as natural as catching a cold. And, truth be told, it is.
Eve, who died on December 17 of complications of Huntingdon’s disease, was the author of two novels (Sex and Rage and L.A. Woman) and five memoirs (Black Swans; Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh and L.A.; Eve’s Hollywood; Two by Two: Tango, Two-Step and the L.A. Night, and I Used to Be Charming) as well as a historical account of the kitschy cult favorite boutique Fiorucci.
Her stories are peppered with magnificent one-liners (“Fucking people’s husbands is for people from Ivy League colleges who read too much John O’Hara,”) and she had a knack for wildly accurate characterization. Take, for instance, this paragraph from her 1993 memoir Black Swans: “She looked mean and stylish, as if she were supposed to be beautiful and you should take her word for it. From afar, she looked a lot better than close-up. Sort of like America.”
Eve was born in Los Angeles in 1943, the eldest daughter of Sol and Mae Babitz. Sol was a classical violinist and musicologist on contract with 20th Century Fox, and Mae was an artist with Cajun ancestry, hailing from Sour Lake, Texas. Sol regularly jammed with Stuff Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and Mae hosted salons for poets and musicians in the couple’s suburban home. Eve’s godfather was Igor Stravinsky (he snuck her glasses of scotch under the table at her mother’s dinner parties and slipped rose petals down her white dress on her 16th birthday) and her aunt lived across the street from Marilyn Monroe. In short, she was a daughter of golden age Hollywood with the connections to prove it, the quintessential L.A. Woman.
She grew up roaming Sunset Strip, shoplifting Photoplay magazines (“for pictures of Tony Curtis”) and bodysurfing at Roadside Beach (a 66-cent bus ride from her home on the edge of the Hollywood Hills.) Once Eve snuck out to a forbidden party and hitched a ride home with an unusually handsome guy. When she let it slip that she was only 14 years old, he promptly stopped the car, let her out, instructed her to never let strange men pick her up, and kissed her before roaring off into the night. Eve didn’t realize that she’d been driven home by the mobster Johnny Stompanato until two years later, during the tabloid frenzy when he was stabbed to death by Lana Turner’s teenaged daughter, Cheryl Crane, after Stompanato had repeatedly threatened to kill Turner and her family. (The case was ruled as a justifiable homicide.)
After graduating from Hollywood High (where the school mascot was Rudolph Valentino, painted on the side of the gym, in full Sheik regalia), Eve followed in her mother Mae’s footsteps and pursued a career as an artist. She contributed photography and collages for album covers by the likes of Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and Linda Ronstadt. By the time she decided to pour her efforts into a literary career, she’d been writing for well over a decade (she began her writing career at the tender age of 14 with a memoir acerbically titled, I Wouldn’t Raise My Kid in Hollywood.)
She partied at night and wrote during the day, gaining a reputation as a literary savant, a beauty, and a bit of a troublemaker. The combination was pure magic, and Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press agent, once introduced Eve to one of his moptop bosses as ‘the best girl in America.’ Even Joseph Heller was a fan.
She wrote about everything that happened to her, and a lot happened. In 1963, Eve got revenge on her married lover after an argument by posing for a photo with her lover’s favorite artist—Marcel Duchamp. The photograph, shot by Julian Wasser, in which Babitz posed nude, playing chess with Duchamp, has been described by the Smithsonian Institute as a key image in the documentation of American modern art. Eve’s lover was Walter ‘Chico’ Hopps (founder of L.A.’s Fergus Gallery) and he walked in unexpectedly during the photoshoot. Hopps’ reaction? He nearly fainted dead away. Eve turned the adventure into the now-classic essay, “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art” which was published in Esquire in 1991.
Drugs and drinking were ubiquitous with L.A. parties in the ‘60s, and Eve was no exception to the indulgences. She dove into it with typical energy, regularly swallowing dozens of whatever was around and blacking out with such frequency that she removed her contact lenses and inserted her diaphragm on automatic pilot. In 1966, when Eve testified before a Senate committee on the phenomenon of LSD usage in America, Bobby Kennedy asked her how many of her friends smoked weed. Eve replied that everyone she knew smoked it except her grandmother, who was, she said, “…high already.”
A self-styled, “daughter of the wasteland” (the wasteland being L.A.), Eve spent six months living in Rome, and a stint in New York’s East Village, where she introduced Salvador Dali to Frank Zappa (“One of my favorite things I ever did,” she wrote gleefully), but she always returned to her beloved City of Angels. “People nowadays get upset at the idea of being in love with a city,” Eve wrote. “Especially Los Angeles. People think you should be in love with other people or your work or justice. I’ve been in love with people and ideas in several cities and learned that the lovers I’ve loved and the ideas I’ve embraced depended on where I was, how cold it was, and what I had to do to be able to stand it.”
She enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with her L.A. contemporary Joan Didion (a line in the dedication in her 1974 memoir Eve’s Hollywood reads, “…to the Didion-Dunnes, for having to be who I’m not.”) The diamond-cut cleanliness of Didion’s serious sentences is the antithesis of Eve’s hectic, evocative barrage. But Didion appreciated Eve’s deft flair for tuning into the zeitgeist and was a key figure in getting Eve published, going so far as to recommend her writing to Rolling Stone. But while Didion was an international celebrity and a commercial success, Eve was neither. She belonged to the underground, the technicolor underbelly of a city still teeming with MGM’s manmade magic.
Eve’s sex life was a subject of much fascination. “It has always seemed to me,” she wrote in an essay titled “Bodies and Souls”, “ever since I was little, that sex (i.e., inspiring lust) was what L.A. was about. And that the thing to do was to inspire lust so mighty that it would overcome those who might inspire lust in you.” Earl McGrath once said, “In every young man’s life, there is an Eve Babitz. It is usually Eve Babitz.” Before finding work in the movies, Harrison Ford was her weed dealer, and, briefly, her lover: “The thing about Harrison was Harrison could fuck. Nine people a day. It’s a talent, loving nine different people in one day. Warren [Beatty] could only do six.”
Eve gravitated naturally to talent. She was drawn to Steve Martin, Annie Leibowitz, Jim Morrison and Harrison Ford, all well before they found fame. Her paramours served as excellent inspiration for her fiction, and material for her memoirs. People on the verge of anything—growing up, falling in love, death, fame—always are. There are two huge, neon-lit variables that make such people magnets for infatuation: a.) they’re going to scale the precipice and attain fame and earthly glory, or b.) they’re going to fail spectacularly, tumbling off the stairway to heaven and landing in a red-jelly splat. The lure of watching the trajectory unfold is undeniable.
In Eve’s 1982 novel L.A. Woman, which consists of loosely disguised personal experiences, she describes Jim Morrison: “Maybe some people come into the world thinking things are too small, and they can’t do anything unless it’s enormous, and like Jim the trouble was trying to find something enormous enough to leave a mark with—perhaps an eight-foot-high pencil—but that still didn’t make the person pushing the pencil the right size.” In a nonfiction essay written after Morrison’s death and published in Esquire in 1991, she directs the reader to the image of Jim that is most familiar: the tangle-haired, smoldering rebel glaring down from so many dorm walls. “…once he and Pamela became entangled in their fantastic killing struggle—once he finally found someone who, when he said, ‘Let’s drive over this cliff,’ actually would—he became more of a death object than a sex object. Which was even sexier,” and then executes a smooth 180, describing him as, “Bing Crosby from hell,” a beautiful, doomed fool. She writes with palpable scorn of his love for blueberry pancakes with blueberry syrup.
In every young man’s life, there is an Eve Babitz. It is usually Eve Babitz.
Food takes center stage in much of her work. Eve took voluptuous delight in eating at a time when it was unfashionable to indulge. In the mid-1960s, fashion designer Andre Courreges—the guy responsible for the go-go boot—said that he hoped people would soon be able to take nutrition pills instead of eating. Pills— French Blues, Black Beauties, Purple Hearts, and Yellow Submarines, were much more fashionable than taquitos with extra sauce, and Eve’s unabashed, brazen, delight in food was an act of rebellion in itself. Her extraordinary eight-page dedication in Eve’s Hollywood includes lines of homage to fried squash blossoms, chocolate rabbits, See’s Bordeaux, “anything vinaigrette,” and sour cream.
The dedication also mentions, “…and to Desbutol, Ritalin, Obertrol and any other speed. It wasn’t that I didn’t love you, it was that it was too hard.” Eve eventually got clean, but not before the 1980s were defined by a raging coke addiction that left the floor of her apartment covered in a layer of bloodied Kleenex (one visitor claimed that even her beloved cats were high.)
In 1997, she was smoking a cigar while driving, and the ash dropped onto her skirt, which immediately went up in flames, melting her pantyhose and leaving her with third-degree burns spread across half of her body. When the paramedics arrived, she reportedly managed to say, “My friends would kill me if I died.” Eve survived, but she never fully recovered.
“Death, to me, was always the last word in people having fun without you”
After the accident, she became reclusive, and hard to communicate with. Vanity Fair journalist Lili Anolik was almost single-handedly responsible for the recent revival of interest in Eve’s work. A longtime fan, Anolik pursued Eve for years, telephoning and sending her presents like chocolate-covered strawberries and invitations to lunch, with the intentions of interviewing Eve for a biography (she was successful; Hollywood’s Eve was published in 2019). Eve was suddenly receiving more notoriety than she ever had before. She professed herself glad to have finally “found an audience to dance with,” and didn’t care whether her affairs were discussed more than her writing chops, as long as it helped guide readers to her work.
In Eve’s Hollywood, she wrote: “Death, to me, was always the last word in people having fun without you,” and while her passing is an event to be mourned, she can’t accuse us of having much fun without her, in a plague-ridden planet on fire. But in her books a version of the world exists that does no longer—a relative paradise, an island of hedonistic respite. It’s the time travel that we were always told would exist by now. And it does— just in paperback format.