A love letter to Eve Babitz

Martin McClellan

November 24, 2015

Dear Eve —

The hardest part of being a writer is seeming natural. It's the same with actors: I was once in a commercial — an extra off to the side of one scene. The lead actress was doing improv, and when she turned to me and showed a crinkled nose of disgust and spit out some off-the-cuff line, I almost broke character because I thought she just blew the take and was mad at herself. But she hadn't, she was just so natural my brain invented her breaking character; she was so authentically herself that I felt no pretense from her. It's the mark of a truly talented actress.

Reading you feels like that. Like, we're in a room and you're telling us stories without airs. Each story has its own aim, and together they describe a portrait of a life told in wetly-jabbed pointillism.

This feeling of familiarity with you, and the mistaken sense that you have revealed everything, is the trap that so many of your reviewers fall into. They look at your boisterous and celebrated outsider celebrity and imagine that you somehow pluckily fell into writing as well as you do without any effort or care. They get lost in your perfume and forget the woman who carefully chose it, as if writing was no work. They get star-blinded by your verve, and then insult you with weird back-handed compliments. You deserve better. You're a damn good writer, and deserve to be acknowledged as such, full stop.

Of course, we have to talk about your celebrity. You know your past better than anybody, but for the sake of those eavesdropping (evesdropping?) who don't, let's start with your bio that appears in the congressional record of the United States. It reads:

"Miss Babitz was born May 13, 1943, in Los Angeles. She graduated from high school in 1961 and went to Los Angeles City College for a year and a half, but dropped out. She went to Europe for 11 months and returned to Los Angeles where she began at a scientific research institute during which time she wrote a novel. She worked on a newspaper in Los Angeles before she came to New York where she is now working on another newspaper."

It was 1966. You agreed to appear before Congress. "My first reaction to appearing before a Senate committee was I didn't want to," you said in your opening comments, but you did. You testified on behalf of LSD, which at that point wasn't scheduled as an illegal substance. You agreed to appear because doing so wouldn't hurt her career, as it would friends who were users but feared public exposure. You talked about how using LSD freed you from a fear of medical issues that plagued you.

When questioned by Robert Kennedy about how difficult stopping production and distribution would be — LSD being odorless and colorless — you told him "…that suit that you are wearing right now, you could have enough LSD to turn on New York City."

Which is how it goes when reading you. One moment I'm reading a sober Senate discussion of drug scheduling, and suddenly I'm imagining every freak on the streets of New York licking Bobby Kennedy to turn on.

Once when I testified before a Senate Committee about LSD, Bobby Kennedy asked me how many people I knew smoked marijuana. Brazenly I announced, "Everyone I know smokes marijuana except my grandmother."

"Why don't you turn your grandmother on?" the lady from the NY Times asked me afterwards.

"She's high already," I sailed past.

I can't help but wonder what Bobby thought of you. I mean, I'm sure he was senatorial, but he was such a notorious philanderer, and you were this young, lovely, prepossessing woman. I'm probably reading much too much into this, but I imagine you and he exchanging silent understanding in quick glances. Because you strike me as the sort of woman who could communicate a lot through a glance with a man.

Men are something your biographers never tire of listing, because you knew a lot of famous ones, and some of them were your lovers. The most noted is Jim Morrison (and your sister, of course, sewed those infamous leather pants that I, as a young musician in high school coveted. I bought very cheap mall leather pants and they, like me in them, were a pale imitation). You said: "The Doors were embarrassing, like their name. I dragged Jim into bed and tried to dissuade him; it was so corny naming yourself after something Aldous Huxley wrote."1 Among your other beaus was Harrison Ford (“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.”2), Ed Ruscha, Steve Martin, Ralph Metzner.

Then, of course, there's that Duchamp photo. You played chess, naked, across from the great artist in front of the Big Glass when it was shown in Pasadena, the California bride stripped bare (and losing, twice, in quick succession). I'm a Duchamp fanatic, so this is how I found your work, when one day I was considering that odd photo which seemed so un-Duchampian — it strikes me as something he tolerated, but likely would shrug off and not consider anything but a lark, even though it has become so associated with his name. So, I wanted to know more. I read about the photo. There I saw your name for the first time, and found out that, like me, you were a designer and (unlike me) made famous album covers for the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield (you'd be a genius with Photoshop, since you were a genius with cut-up and collage), and then I found out you were, like me, a writer and that (unlike me) you'd published many books to acclaim, but modest sales.

I found most of your books in used stores and online. The only outliers to the collection were Fiorucci, the book, because it sells anywhere from $500-$3,000 since it's part of the Andy Warhol universe that you orbited during your New York time, and Eve's Hollywood, your debut, because it sold for about $150.

But I read: LA Woman, Black Swans, Slow Days, Fast Company, Sex and Rage, and I, too, got lost in your perfume. Like most people who read you, I fell in love with you. I chattered about you to people. I quoted you.

Then a few years ago this wonderful thing happened: people started talking about you again. You were interviewed in Vanity Fair. You got a Facebook page and a Twitter account. And when I had a discussion with a New York agent about your work, and that agent is known for her cool-hunting background, I knew you were on the verge of a larger cultural resurgence. And now the NYRB has reissued Eve's Hollywood, so I was able to go back to the start and see where it all started.

It was through the Vanity Fair article that I learned about your accident in 1997. Driving when a cigar ash lit your skirt on fire and massively burned your body. Six months in the hospital, and you nearly died. What a tragic, horrible, and undeserved thing that happened to you.

I'm so annoyed with the way some people talk about you. Here's what Julia Whedon said about Slow Days, Fast Company in her 1977 New York Times review: "Her enthusiastic prose style in a mixed blessing of Tom Wolfe and Holly Golightly. It has the bright, nutty, incisive quality of good gossip…It is the mixture of the beguiling and the idiotic tossed in a light dressing, that makes the book a native dish."

I mean, Wolfe's patois was caricature, and always was, right? He was a British actor playing Brick in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an almost believable drawl, and a wink at the audience. And Holly Golightly!? We're comparing your prose to a fictional character (written by a man, I might add) who is only an idol to women in that she was inhabited with such verve and force by Audrey Hepburn? How does that help us understand you?

No, this is exactly the kind of back-handed compliment that most reviewers bring to your work.

Sometimes, they're not even back-handed. Here's what Publisher's Weekly said about Black Swans: "It's a deep reach to get much more than droll entertainment from these stories. Since values, for Babitz, are seemingly no more than attitudes, she has no basis (and evidently no stomach) for even the gentlest satire, contenting herself instead mostly with flakiness and fun."

Was that written by Billy Graham? What's with all the moralizing? You probably can be accused of being glib at times, and possibly even light in topic occasionally (in tone, almost always), but I don't think you were ever trivial. You even addressed it in Eve's Hollywood:

So, I am not serious. But like a Roman out of Rome, I try not to let on just how serious I am and I try to become interested in serious facts. Just lately I became so serious I almost suffocated in forgetfulness and had come to the conclusion that there was no reason to live. The decade-later girl who'd pushed her shutters onto the Borghese willows and wept with gladness was now sitting dry-eyed in a chair trying to figure out one single reason to live. The seriousness of the situation was led all around until I finally hit it — the seriousness of the situation was the whole thing. A Roman is not serious sand can't believe in it and there I was at the mercy of seriousness and mercy has never been one of its virtues. In fact, mercy is beside the point once you get deeply into seriousness, look at Hitler. Suicide is as serious as you can get.

It seems you're missing a redemptive trope in your narrative that leads reviewers to assume they're not at the end of the story yet. Like, you are not even at the low point of your Behind The Music episode, and until you can have your teary-eyed confession, all serious, and apologize for the titillating first-act, and sit with your husband of the last ten years who is your rock — finally — and express how clean you are now, then they can't let themselves too close to the hot glow of your younger years. The lack of guilt is too much for them. The choice of a woman to actually live the life she chose is too much for them.

You wrote about things that were interesting to you. You lived large, and when you swore off drugs and drink you didn't make a big thing of it. You don't complain in public. You don't linger on those dark tunnels of life that we all crawl through. So it's as if your critics imagine you never face them. That Eve is all sunlight and no shadow, just like shallow Los Angeles, they seem to imply. If only she was more serious.

It's like they're writing about Stevie Nicks during the debauchery of recording Rumors when they talk about you.

And it's not just older reviews, like Whedon's. In a 2001 LARB piece — with that painting of the Duchamp photo reversed into red for an effect of what kind, exactly? — Steffie Nelson, after pointing out that Ruscha married one of the other of his 1965 Five Girlfriends portraits (leaving you in the majority, with the other four girls), points out that you never married. I've never once heard a woman say that another woman never married, and say it without tongue-clucking pity, eye-drooping sympathy, or as a straight-up insult. It's moral stricture she's laying down. Maybe that's what you wanted, to be married — I have no idea really — but it's not what you wrote about. It's like you're a painter that leaves all the faces blank and your reviewers paint in their own — sometimes sad, sometimes happy.

Nelson goes on: "Drohojowska-Philp, who was in a book group with Babitz after the accident, reveals that she wrote a memoir about her time in the hospital, but, she says, "I think she became afraid of publishing it; she walked away from it."

Who can blame you, if this is true? Your books were, sadly, not well-received in their day, and your reviewers seemed to give you kudos, but lukewarm ones, and your books never sold all that well. That you published so many shows how dedicated you are to the craft. It shows that writing was the thing you valued above all else. It shows how hard you worked at it.

But that you are still writing! That just says it right there. I see you. You're a writer, goddammit, and you'll write even if you decide that you're doing it for you, and the rest of us can go sit on a lump.

The thing is, Eve, I love your writing. You have such a unique voice and spirit. You were girlish, but never coquettish. You are in conspiracy with the reader, never attempting to seduce them, but to lay the buffet in front of them and let them decide what to take away. You found that naturalness of voice that some writers struggle to find their whole life (or, failing, turn to mastering the poet's trick, which is a sleight-of-hand where their unnatural voice is expertly made to feel authentic). I think that when you reach for subjects where you are trying to say something deep your voice sometimes becomes tangled in your intent, but I don't see that as an insult.

My favorite Babitz is when you talk about LA. Because, goddamnit, nobody gets LA right. Didion, like you said, had such a New York sensibility, and I think New Yorkers love her because the can look at Los Angeles and feel that they get it (they don't, except the very fine editors at the NYRB, of course), or they can read West ("I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he'd gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It's a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter here where you didn't have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.") like you and get so annoyed at what he is not showing. Because they cherry-picked the worst parts of Los Angeles, and everybody just took them at their word. When, as you pointed out, if somebody wrote a "nice, precise, short little novel in which New York was only described as ugly, horrendous and finally damned and that was the book everyone from elsewhere decided was 'the best book about New York there ever was'", they are being provincial and seeing only what they want to see. It is not the LA you know so well, and it doesn't represent the one I grew up in either.

And all of those famous writers, drinking themselves under the bar at Musso back in the day, all came from somewhere else. So, they saw LA in their studio writing bungalows, and then in the bar, and they missed the joi de vivre of the sun and air, and the food, and the growing up there. You see it in Bukowski too — like the world only trusts the voice of alcoholics when we talk about Los Angeles. Like soberness is somehow anti-LA.

And the other people who talk about LA now are screenwriters, so self-referential and hung-up on polishing the idea of the place, forsaking the actual place. Or the punks from the 70s whose white-trash LA was a city of despair and oppression and broken-dream suburbs. Or the hesh feather-haired spandex clad 80s hair bands, whose LA was a party-time fiction powered by venereal diseases and track marks. Or, hip-hop musicians whose Los Angeles is grittier and more underworld than any Chandler story, the gang-bangers and the West Coast outsider culture exploring privilege and powerlessness, and aspirations to luxury — luxury, of course, being the most seductive myth and story of LA. Seductive because it implies that luxury bequeaths status, but that is never the case.

But, at least in the realm of white folks, talking about Los Angeles is either a sun-tanned hangover on one extreme, or a Randy Newman song on the other, and there's this huge gulf in between filled with the actual truth of the place. The art, the energy, the people who want to create, and the people who demand their own lives on their own terms. The spaces off of the freeway and boulevards in the neighborhoods full of dark craftsmen bungalows, and open modernist experiments up windy hilly eucalyptus lined streets. The people who are kind, interested, and craving vibrancy and life, who are concerned with allure, and poise, who forge styles that spread like waves across the nation, not in yearly runway releases, but in constant lapping rings of sensual cool comfort. Which, frankly kind of describes you pretty well.

And the other Los Angeles, which is comfortable to the millennials and their sense of beauty, is the LA of the melting pot. Where generations removed once or thrice trace histories to escaping Jim Crow segregation, or escaping brutal Southeast Asian communism, or escaping South American dictators and drug lords. The families who came to Southern California seeking a little of the sun and opportunity that the city loves to advertise. This is the Los Angeles of young people whose racial identity is complex, mixed, and, in the media they create, better reflected than ever before.

This topic is worth exploring here because you laid down an unintentional metaphor when you talked about hiding in the Chateau Marmount during both the Watts and Rodney King riots (described, retrospectively, in Eve's Hollywood and Black Swans). It reminds me that the LA I think of from my childhood, and the one you speak of, is mostly white upper-middle-class. In 1974 some people of color may have thought about this reading your book. In 2015, I think we all do. It's uncomfortable to hear you describe Watts, when you were taken to see Watts Towers (your parents, bless them, were instrumental in saving it). It's uncomfortable knowing what comes later for this part of the world, and that we all could have been smarter. In this way Eve's Hollywood is dated in tone, whereas much of it is surprisingly not. I wonder what you would write about race today. If, indeed, you would.

Since this is the Seattle Review of Books we have to talk about "The Green Death", which is what you call our once-beloved Rainier Ale. Once, because now it's a brand owned by somewhere else and is not native to our shores anymore. But when you encountered it, it sure was. You have no idea how exciting it is for a Seattleite who originally hails from Los Angeles to hear you crow about Rainier, and then write one of my favorite chapters of the book revolving around it as a conceit.

You don't even know how strongly you hooked into the common mythos of Pacific Northwest life when you said "I got deflowered on two cans of Rainier Ale when I was 17." Darling, you have found our flavor. This is a local story.

You know what it is, Eve? Your voice reminds me of a newspaper columnist, who is allowed to work as blue as she wants. Someone who covers a beat in the most permissive newspaper ever, and your beat is LA. Sometimes your column is focused and light and colloquial. Sometimes it's looking at a bigger issue. Sometimes it's a movie review, and sometimes it just wants to dish.

You are a writer who is so natural in her voice and editing, like many accomplished journalists, that her readers mostly underestimate her. Because reading you is fun, and there's a lot to learn about your LA. People would do well to listen a bit closer. You're the real deal.

So I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I love you, Eve Babitz. I love you not for your name-brand inamoratos, or your celebrity, or that you were naked in that photo with Duchamp, or that I think that I can inherit some of your coolness by standing close to it. I love you because, through your writing, I see you, and I find that woman compelling. Your outlook is refreshing, your tastes on point, and your absolutely iconoclastic right-to-live-her-own-life is all backbone and no-fucks-given. I love you, and I think at least one reviewer needs to say it without cleverly walking it backwards afterwards. It's just that simple.

Salute from Seattle,

Martin

  1. Roll Over Elvis: The Second Coming of Jim Morrison, by Eve Babitz, Esquire Magazine, March 1991. Read this. Oh god, read this. It's pure dish.

  2. All About Eve — and Then Some, Vanity Fair

Books in this review:
  • Eve's Hollywood
    by Eve Babitz
    NYRB Classics
    October 05, 2015
    328 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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