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No One Wrote About Hollywood Like Eve Babitz
You’d hate Eve Babitz if she wasn’t so damn charming. Like candy, she’s irresistible. She enjoys being charming—that’s the pleasure she gives off. She can’t help it. Babitz’s Los Angeles in the ’60s plays a prominent role in two long features she wrote for Esquire: “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art” details the burgeoning art scene and how she became the naked young woman playing chess in Julian Wasser’s iconic photograph of Marcel Duchamp on the occasion of a major retrospective; and “Jim Morrison is Dead and Living in Hollywood” looks back on one of Babitz’s famous paramours, to reveal that the Lizard King was not even a little bit cool (click here for a deeper sampling of Babitz’s magazine work).
Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
For a long time, the Lady Eve was one of those best kept secrets but thanks in large part to Lili Anolik’s 2014 Vanity Fair profile, Babitz is having a renaissance; six of the seven books she wrote between 1974 and 1999 are back in print (Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company being the best) and Babitz is enjoying a well-deserved revival without having died to get it.
Anolik’s infatuation with Babitz didn’t stop with the article and is now the subject of a succulent full-length examination, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. (on sale today). There’s no doubt that Anolik is daffy for Babitz but she is also clear-eyed in her critical assessment and paints a portrait that is beyond smitten, always smart, and an awful lot of fun. Anolik is also good company as we found out when we recently touched base with her to talk all about Eve.
ESQ: When did you first become aware of Eve Babitz?
Lili Anolik: It was back in 2010. I saw a quote of hers. I don’t remember what the exact quote was, but it had something to do with Los Angeles and sex—of course, it did, obviously it did, I mean, we’re talking about Eve here. And I was just sort of entranced. I wanted to hear more of this voice. More, more, more. All of her books were out of print at that point, but you could find used copies online. The first I read was Slow Days, Fast Company, and I went bananas for it. I thought the sensibility was strange, beautiful, playful, totally wild and idiosyncratic. And the prose really swung, you know? It was loose and slangy and raffish yet elevated, elegant. And then there was her feeling for place, for L.A., which is this paradoxical city—it’s a beautiful city but it’s a haunted city, and there’s all this optimism and hope in it, but there’s underlying melancholy, too. She captured all that.
How did you track her down?
The phonebook. It sounds like I’m kidding but I’m not. I looked every place you could think of online. There was virtually no trace of Eve back in 2010. She was in that horrible fire in 1997 [Eve was attempting to light a cigar, dropped a match in her lap, went up in flames, survived but suffered third-degree burns over half her body], and then it was as if she vanished off the face of the earth. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I grabbed the White Pages. I had access because my brother was going to grad school at USC, and I’d stay with him in the little dump he was renting on Crescent Heights. And there she was.
Eve Babitz in 1957
Courtesy of Mirandi Babitz
You’ve said that your book on Eve isn’t a biography in a traditional sense, that it is “above all else a love story.” What do you mean by that?
I should say straight off, I don’t believe in objectivity. I believe in honesty, but not objectively. At least not when it comes to a project like this. I mean, I devoted years of my life to Eve because I love her work, passionately love her work. Not all of her work, some of her work. I believe Slow Days, Fast Company is a flat-out masterpiece, one of the great L.A. books. And I love her personality, as well, who she is in the world. She’s this odd, arresting, brilliant, ultra beguiling and yet upsetting figure. But I don’t think the love I feel for her keeps me from seeing who and what she is. I think—I hope—it’s a clear-eyed love, a love without illusions, that lets me see more or deeper.
Look, I suspect it’s bothersome to some people that I’ve inserted myself into the story. But I didn’t know what else to do. Our lives, Eve’s and mine, became intertwined starting in 2012. I don’t want to sound hyperbolic here, but it felt to me like I had to go to the underworld to find her. Really, it was like something out of Greek mythology. She was living in sunshine-y Hollywood, yes. Yet she was also living in this sort of dark, dank, decaying, squalid cave—no people, no light—and she didn’t really want to come out. Getting her to come out took years, just maximum obsessive effort. And there when times when it got scary for me. She’s so extreme. So my profile of her, then my book on her—they weren’t casual or disinterested enterprises. My pursuit of her was not reasonable. It was strange and compulsive and burning-eyed. So how could I ever pretend that my account of her life was coolly disinterested, some academic screed? I couldn’t.
In Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Babitz is a wonderful chronicler of Los Angeles in the ’50s through the ’70s, the ultimate insider. She grew up in Hollywood and yet was immersed in a rich cultural and intellectual collection of artists.
One of the myths about Los Angeles is that it’s full of nothing but cute airheads, that no true artist would ever leave the East Coast—the cold, the gray, the urban ghettos—to come west. Like the palm trees and sunshine are out to get them, rob them of their seriousness and sense of purpose. But of course L.A. has Hollywood, and Hollywood actually pays artists, so artists were always there. And when Eve was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, there were more artists even than usual thanks to Hitler. Jewish artists and intellectuals from the Old World abounded during that period. And a lot of them were in Eve’s living room. Her father Sol was a studio musician, but he was also a Baroque musicologist and Fulbright scholar who wrote the violin fingering for Stravinsky—Eve’s godfather, incidentally. And Mae, her mother, an artist, turned their house into a kind of salon. Arnold Schoenberg was there, and Stuff Smith, and Bernard Herrmann, and, naturally, Stravinsky and his wife Vera. So you have Eve’s background, which is European and High Art, and her location, which is Hollywood, California, the fantasy and glamour capital of the world, this trashy but potent milieu, and these two things fuse in her. That right there is her sensibility—the high and the low, the sacred and the profane, Igor Stravinsky and Marilyn Monroe.
She also seems like a true bohemian, and is there anything rarer than that?
You’re dead on. A true bohemian. At no point in Eve’s life was she a member of the middle class. It was always either suites at the Chateau Marmont, bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or, like, the 99 Cent Store. And she spent all her time with artists, drug dealers, rock ’n’ rollers, crazies, aristocrats, geniuses, celebrities, street trash. Did she even know a doctor or teacher or housewife? And she was an absolute scourge of bourgeois values and institutions. I mean, apart from a semester or two at L.A.C.C., she never went to college. She never got married or had a conventional romantic relationship or steady employment. Her existence has always been improvisatory, since she graduated from Hollywood High at 17 to now, in her mid-70s. As a way of life, it’s unsustainable, yet somehow she’s sustained it.
At no point in Eve’s life was she a member of the middle class. It was always either suites at the Chateau Marmont, bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or the 99 Cent Store.
Eve never seemed to have any “career” in mind. But for someone so resolute—tough, smart and funny—she also seemed to be extremely fragile.
Eve is a crazy mixture. At times she seemed to me tough to the point of unfeeling, just superhumanly tough. She’d bulldoze her way through these situations that would have left most people flattened. I remember Eve’s sister Mirandi telling me about Eve going to a party thrown by Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and Eve’s sometime lover. It was all these rock stars—male rock stars, of course—drinking, doing drugs, and verbally abusing the young women, including Eve, who were there at their pleasure. The other girls were off in a corner weeping, just crushed. But not Eve. Eve was giving it right back to these guys. She had the sharpest tongue. Mirandi was actually worried that Eve was going to get slapped, but she didn’t and she didn’t back down. And, look, Eve never really had success as a visual artist, never got a gallery to represent her. But it didn’t bother her. She told me that she thought she was good, and that her mother who knew what was good thought she was good, and that was that. Her confidence didn’t falter. Which is remarkable for anyone, especially a woman, especially a woman born in 1943. Eve didn’t need permission from a man to think of herself as an artist. She always had that self-belief, that resolve. And, yet, at other times, she was so sensitive it was like she didn’t have skin.
Were you surprised that one small bit of criticism put a halt to her art career?
As I said, Eve considered herself a painter or a collagist from the time she was a kid up until she was 27, 28. In the late ’60s, she became close with a guy named Earl McGrath. Earl is this fascinating, shadowy figure. He had various jobs—he wrote screenplays, was head of production for Twentieth Century-Fox for a brief period, ran Rolling Stones Records, had an art gallery—but really he was a flaneur. One of those guys who moved in high society, in low society, knew everybody, did everything, and gave great parties. He and Eve had this complicated and conflicted relationship. A kind of non-sexual romance is how I’d characterize it. Earl was married, and to a countess no less, but was bisexual or gay, and Eve slept with a number of guys he had crushes on. So there was jealousy there.
One day Earl looked at a painting Eve had done, and said, “Is that the blue you’re using?” And this destroyed her, destroyed her confidence, and she never really painted in a professional way again. On the one hand, it’s an innocuous remark. On the other hand, though, it’s the opposite of innocuous, it’s deadly. I mean, if you’re a sensitive person, you know what he’s saying. And thank God he said because after he said it, she turned her attention to writing. But, yes, Eve is that funny blend of tough and delicate. In other words, she’s an artist.
From the collection of Mirandi Babitz
McGrath also has one of the best lines when he said, “In every young man’s life, there is an Eve Babitz. It is usually Eve Babitz.”
It’s a great line. In fact, it’s so great that you can say it, and then you can die because your place in literary history is assured. That’s how great it is. Eve was crazy for it, too. She used it as a blurb on her first book, Eve’s Hollywood. Earl was calling her a tramp, basically—an old-fashioned word, an old-fashioned concept—but in the classiest possible way. And Eve ate it up. Being a paragon of beauty and sexuality was enormously important to her. Don’t forget, Marilyn Monroe wasn’t just her idol, Marilyn Monroe was her artistic idol. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure was what Eve was all about—as a woman and as an artist. And her writing is, at least for me, pure pleasure. I can’t get enough.
There’s a line where she talks admiringly about Harrison Ford being this prodigious lover himself and that he can make love with nine women a day, which is a true talent.
She actually said, “nine people a day,” she didn’t specify gender. Not that she ever implied Harrison was anything other than straight. Yeah, Eve thought Harrison was wildly sexy. And they had their fling before the entire world thought he was wildly sexy, when he was a carpenter and part-time pot dealer, not yet Hans Solo and a movie star. A thing about Eve that can get lost in the hoopla—she slept with a lot of famous guys but they weren’t famous yet. Jim Morrison was playing some dump on the Strip, and practically nobody was in the audience, when she picked him up. Steve Martin was a young, unknown comic and banjo player. Ed Ruscha was still in his starving-artist phase. Annie Leibovitz wasn’t yet Annie Leibovitz. Eve had a real talent for spotting talent, you know?
Eve is that funny blend of tough and delicate. In other words, she’s an artist.
She was the ideal person for a time and a place.
Eve seemed to be such a woman of her era. I don’t believe she actually was, though. Wait, that’s not quite right. Eve was a woman of her era, but I think that’s more coincidence than anything else. Her prime just happened to occur during the’60s and ’70s, that brief post-pill pre-AIDS stretch of time, where everybody was sleeping around, where hedonism was de rigueur. But my guess is that Eve would have behaved the way she behaved no matter when she was born or came of age.
So why do you think she’s resonating with young women now?
It’s crazy, isn’t it? I don’t quite know how to account for it. Like we said, Eve was absolutely in tune with the ultra-decadent, ultra-debauched 1970s, which happens to be the decade she was doing her very best work in, and yet she was more or less ignored. Joan Didion, on other hand, became a super star with 1967’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which is a tense, dark, anxious book, written at the height of the super-groovy, free-love, flower-child era. So Didion’s success—or at least the timing of Didion’s success—was as counter-intuitive as Eve’s lack of success. My theory is that there’s a dominant mood to the moment, but then there’s a mood underneath that mood, and when you tap into the underneath-mood, you’ve really got something. Didion was embodying the underneath-mood in 1967, and Eve’s embodying it now, in this almost Puritanical period we’re in at present. So if Didion was our secret super ego, Eve is our secret id.
Didion—and her husband, John Gregory Dunne—seemed to like and encourage Eve as a writer, even though their sensibilities were so different. Did they all get along?
Eve loved Didion and Dunne, and Didion and Dunne seemed to love Eve back. They were great to her. Didion is the reason Eve got published in the first place. Didion recommended Eve to Rolling Stone. And when Eve left Knopf over L.A. Woman, it was Dunne who talked Joni Evans, the editor in chief of Linden Press, into publishing the book. It’s more than Eve and Didion feeling personal fondness for one another, though. They seem necessary to one another. Eve is the yin to Didion’s yang, or vice-versa. Like, you can’t talk about Eve without talking about Didion. They wrote about the same time and place, and in some cases, about the same people. Didion dedicated The White Album to Earl McGrath, for God’s sake! The ending for Play It as It Lays comes out of a story Michelle Phillips told at a party at Eve’s apartment that Didion happened to overhear! Eve and Didion were looking at an identical L.A., and yet their visions of L.A. are antithetical. And we need Eve’s L.A. to go along with Didion’s in order to get the full picture.
Look, I know I give Didion a hard time in Hollywood’s Eve, but I have enormous respect for her. She’s a monumental figure, and a supreme prose stylist, and her piece on Howard Hughes is one of my all-time favorite works of non-fiction. Sensibility-wise, I just happen to prefer Eve, that’s all.
Lili Anolik and Eve Babitz
Courtesy of Lili Anolik
Do you get a sense of what Eve thinks about being back in a sort of spotlight again? Does she like the attention?
It’s really her first time in the spotlight since she never quite caught on during her actual career. I think she’s delighted by the attention. I think she’s dismayed by the attention. She was always ambivalent about fame. And that she’s suddenly become this almost canonical figure is strange for her, jarring. One of the few things she’s said to me on the subject is, “You know, publicity is great, but not when you’re in your 70s.” I actually don’t think it has anything to do with her looks or aging or any of that. She’s been so isolated since the late ’90s. And now, out of the clear blue sky, people are thinking about her, talking about her, extolling her, wanting to know all about her. It’s thrown her for a loop. And she’d probably long given up on the possibility of becoming a well-known writer. During her career, she was largely ignored or dismissed. And now, now, 20 years after she stopped publishing, she’s this famous woman of letters. Pretty nuts from her point of view.
You don’t seem to have yet exhausted your interest in Eve.
Crazy, isn’t it? Carol Sklenkicka, who wrote a wonderful biography of Raymond Carver a few years ago, is now writing a biography of the San Francisco writer, Alice Adams. Carol and I have the same editor at Scribner, Colin Harrison. A few weeks ago, Carol forwarded me a letter. It was from Eve to Alice, who’d just given Eve a good review. The letter ends with this incredible, wild last line. Eve wrote—and keep in mind, she’d never actually met Alice—“I’m trying to get Joe Heller to start a rumor that I’ve gone to Switzerland to get my hymen re-sewn. Love, Eve.” Isn’t that great? How could my interest in this woman ever be exhausted?
Last question: what are the books you’re most looking forward to in 2019?
Carol Sklenkicka’s Alice Adams biography I already mentioned. Janet Malcolm is a hero of mine, and she has an essay collection coming out, Nobody’s Looking at You. David Thomson, another hero, has a new book called Sleeping with Strangers—great title—that’s going to be published later this month. Bret Easton Ellis’s White is sure to ruffle feathers. Lisa Taddeo has a non-fiction book coming out this summer called Three Women. Can’t wait for that. I’m also excited for Lauren Mechling’s novel How Could She. Oh oh oh, and Eve’s sister Mirandi is working on a memoir. I’ve only read the first 200 pages or so, but they’re killer. Mirandi was on as many wild scenes as Eve, believe it or not. So lots to look forward to!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.