Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ L.A.-based press agent and a man about the Sunset Strip, introduced Eve Babitz to the Fab Four as “the best girl in America.” Indeed, for a hot minute that spanned the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the Hollywood native was a bright star in the galaxy of art and glamour that was Los Angeles. Bubbly, busty, and brainy, the child of bohemian parents raised on high culture and schooled on rock and roll, Babitz was part of the Ferus Gallery scene that made icons of Wallace Berman and Ed Ruscha (whom she dated).
Later, she was a habitué of the Troubadour and the Chateau Marmont, bedding Jim Morrison and creating album covers for rock bands including Buffalo Springfield. In 1963, at the age of 20, she played chess with Marcel Duchamp — naked — at the Pasadena Art Museum, an occasion that was immortalized by the photographer Julian Wasser (who also, incidentally, took the iconic photo of Joan Didion alongside her Corvette Stingray).
Unlike Didion, who’d dedicated herself early to her craft, Babitz seemingly became a writer just because she had so many great stories to tell. Many of them fill the pages of her first book, the “confessional L.A. novel” Eve’s Hollywood, first published in 1974. Eve’s Hollywood takes us from dances in the gymnasium at Hollywood High, to her parents’ famed salons, to a suite at the Chateau with a pile of pure cocaine and a southern heartbreaker who’s a dead ringer for Gram Parsons. Her writing style is so easy and breezy that it was, combined with her personal life, easy for critics to dismiss as insubstantial. It possesses none of the noir, Manson-tinged melodrama that is the ruling L.A. trope. This might explain why all seven of her books — including the glossy 1980 collectible Fiorucci the Book — have been out of print for decades, collected obsessively on eBay and in thrift stores by other nascent “It” girls.
Babitz retired from public life in 1997, after a horrific accident — her skirt caught on fire while she was driving, severely burning most of her body. After the incident, she has said, she simply didn’t feel like writing anymore. One can’t help but wonder whether the loss of her beauty and youth made Babitz feel powerless, and whether the city she loved might not have, in essence, turned its back on her. It’s a painful truth that we owe it to her to look at.
But we’re equally obligated to crack the cover of Eve’s Hollywood, featuring the author as photographed by Annie Leibovitz in full starlet mode, and settle in with this charming tour guide who takes a wasteland and gives us back a wonderland. Thanks in part to a reassessment of L.A.’s role in the history of modern art, Babitz herself has been rediscovered by a generation raised on both Didion and Sex and the City, one that believes a girl should be able to have her cake, wash it down with Champagne, and write about it, too. Eve’s Hollywood has just been reissued by New York Review Books. Here, an excerpt from the book. —Steffie Nelson
The day I was 18, Sally and I had a reunion because we were still friends though we saw less and less of each other. We went to Pupi’s, a place devoted to cake, overlooking the Strip. I invited her to this surprise birthday party my mother was giving me that night (though she would never do anything so unforgivable as actually surprise me; I hate surprises). Sally told me about her new acting class and how the guy who was teaching it was fantastically adorable but wouldn’t give her a tumble and also about how she’d contracted this case of “chronic gonorrhea,” which I thought was unfair, especially the chronic part.
She licked her fork of lemon icing and scowled, “Shit, I’m so depressed, I haven’t been laid in 3 months.”
“You’re not missing anything,” I said, having recently come to that conclusion. Our 18-year-old vast jadedness came out in little puffs from our ears, like steamboats. “They’re all assholes, they got no class and I actually met one guy who thought going down on a girl was something called ‘muff-diving’ and only perverts did it.”
“Really?” she said. “How bourgeois.”
We watched the fashionable traffic go back and forth on the Strip for a while and felt fantastic. Sally had become a platinum blonde, which made her look like Kim Novak with a brain, and her career, as she referred to her life, looked like it might do something. She actually could act.
Neither of us knew what I was going to do, but it didn’t matter.
“You know, Evie,” she began, “I think it would be fun to be in love.”
“Love?” I scoffed, as cupid hovered above me waiting for just the right moment to take aim.
“Yes …” she said.
“Who would you fall in love with?”
“Oh, Evie, you should see my acting teacher … He’s so adorable … he really is.”
“But he’s different … He’s …”
Since we both were almost twins about Marlon Brando, I shouldn’t have been surprised if her acting teacher was adorable. But all those Thunderbird Girls were in his class and that whole thing was already decided upon when it turned out I got headaches if there were more than one in the same room with me. My idea of the word “love” anyway was something that other people did to get themselves into the right frame of mind to have children. I’d be satisfied if it were only Zapata and I could appreciate it from afar, the way things were going.
“You know,” I said to her, “I’d just like someone who didn’t make me feel old.”
“That’s love,” she said.
I finished my Mocha Almond Crunch and wondered at Sally’s definitions. In those days, I still ate cake.
My surprise birthday party was filled with a relaxed mixture of relatives and friends. Sally and I left out of the back door without saying goodbye because she heard of a party in Laurel Canyon that wasn’t relaxed. I told my mother I was going and she said goodbye, and to have fun.
Sally dressed like the Thunderbird Girls. She wore all that garter-belt, Merry Widow, boned stuff and black cocktail dresses. Girls of 18 were still trying to look “older,” and then I sort of wished I looked older too, but I wasn’t willing to do anything about it if it stuck into my waist. The party was good and not relaxed. It was a fast crowd.
It was a house in Laurel Canyon where this guy who knew everyone was having about 2 years of winning at the race track, so he threw parties all the time and lechery for young girls was de rigueur.
We were used to it.
Sally and I had been going to these things since she met Wendy, and sometimes you could meet someone who wasn’t an actor. For me by then, anyone who was an actor was automatically an empty space and didn’t count. Nothing they said registered in my brain and nothing they did ever was mistaken for a true action.
All I had were students at L.A.C.C. and these actors. I didn’t know any artists yet, and even though I had nothing to choose from (actors and students being nothing), I stuck to my guns and held out. I wasn’t going to change my mind and think an actor or a student was Zapata or that it didn’t matter. Rainier Ale existed. You could buy it in the store in case you forgot what the real stuff tasted like.
Sally’s acting teacher came in with a friend from an overcast night, so how is it that I remember him still as coming in alone from the stars? Cupid let go with a spear dipped in purple prose, not just an arrow, and then he drew another one, so there were two, one conventionally through my heart and the other through my head. They were both about 8 feet long and two inches thick. They were crude.
I half rose up against the impact and he saw me across the room as he came in alone from the stars and then disappeared. He was swamped by girls, deluged in a tangle of beautiful arms and feminine exclamations of flower-petal softness. Three of the prettiest had twisted free of their conversations and it was like Santa Claus in an orphanage.
I, it turned out, wasn’t the only one.
Graham, as he was to be called, was one of those people who distinguish certain handfuls of time — like Brando — in the rare arrangements that circumstance occasionally allows so that life is made to seem worth living. A least for people like me. I have girl friends who have met him and are actually frightened of him like people used to be afraid of witches. Not me. Anyway, I think witches are kid stuff.
Graham wore black and had black hair, long and shiny, that fell over his face and got pushed back from his listening brown eyes as you talked to him. His eyes were the true eyes of a liar. The hands that pushed back his hair were the hands of someone who loves women and who knows what to do. His eyes listen to you, carefully watching to see what you want to hear so that it shortens the time until his hands can undo your clothes and touch your back into heaven, into blue heaven and lies. Lies that weren’t lies because there was a blue heaven, the white horse gallops back to the wilderness where Zapata, who is not this lacy corpse, is waiting and if you doubt, there is Green Death at the liquor store.
All really enormous charm, the kind that Graham exuded, does more than it needs to. It gushes out so much that you can live inside it. That was the reason that Graham didn’t just mow down women, which most men would have been satisfied with. Graham had men friends who would have died for him and even gas-station attendants felt it and did his windshield better. Animals woke up and came and sat on top of him when he came into a room. Plants that were dying in my house would get better if Graham fixed them. My grandmother met him accidentally one day and still asks about him.
I sat back on the couch to watch Graham and the girls.
They did it all wrong, those girls. With hair spray. When I found out that hair spray was horrible just like everyone knew in the first place but went ahead and did anyway, I was careful to never do any of that stuff if I could help it again. Just because it’s simpler to forget what you’re doing is not a good reason to put gook on your hair. But they were doing it wrong with nylons and pancake makeup and those Merry Widows on their already slender waists. They were cluttered up with too many formalities to ever get the thing off the ground. One of the main Brando things is dispensed formalities. If you stand around waiting for the guy to open the door for you, you’ll suddenly discover you’re with Ernest Borgnine and that Marlon Brando has gone to Ensenada with the car hop.
Graham, whose name I gathered from hearing it cried across the room, looked at me.
I looked away and then back; he was still looking. He was going, I thought, to play it all the way through. Sally pulled him from the crowd and brought him to the couch next to me where she’d been sitting. It was a strategical error, though how she could have missed those two spears sticking out of me, I don’t know. She introduced us.
“I’d like to talk to you before you go,” Graham said with this intimate Manhattan chocolate-kisses voice, which reminded me of the “Dead End Kids,” all of whom I love except for Mugsy, whom I was enslaved by. Graham reminded me of Mugsy and I’d loved Mugsy since I could see.
“You would?” I asked.
“Are you old enough?”
“I was 18 today,” I said. Jailbait was still a consideration before the Beatles.
“You’re old enough,” he said. His voice was exactly like chocolate. One of my dreams of childhood was opening a door and finding an entire room with nothing but chocolate in it, no air, all chocolate so that you had to chip off a piece with a knife just to begin. I have never wondered how the chocolate got into the room. His voice was what he used to tell the lies with, but it didn’t matter, I suppose, since blue heaven and chocolate noise make distress over lies pathetic.
It was like a skipped formality when he lied, to see if you were true.
Nobody was looking like Brigitte Bardot yet but me, except for beatniks, and that’s no fun, they threw ashes on the spirit of the thing. So what Graham must have seen when he looked at me was a tall, clean California Bardot with too much brown eyeliner, too messy hair and probably too young. I wore my lavender sheath and sandals, no stockings or bracelets. I was dying to kiss him.
“Let’s go,” I said.
I dragged him into a back room where the coats were and locked the door. I’d absconded with everyone’s heart’s desire.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your real name?”
“Why are you an actor?”
“Who told you I was an actor?”
“I’m a director. I used to act but they make you ride horses all day and I got sick of breaking my ass. Besides, horses are so stupid you could hit them with a stick.”
That was the trouble, I suppose, he always made me laugh. I changed the subject. “Do you give head?”
“I’m the captain of the Olympics. Why? Don’t any of the kids at school go down on each other these days?’
“No. They’re callow,” I said. I was sitting on the bed of coats and now leaned back on my elbows so that my skirt hitched up to a point that would be fashionable only a few years later but was then unheard of.
“Do you give head?” he asked. His hands resisted me, he was always very smart.
“Not very good,” I said.
“Somebody should teach you,” he said.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow night.”
“Near where you live.”
“How come not at my house?” I asked.
“You’re married!” I said. I accused, accurately.
“Yeah,” he shrugged.
“Are you in love with your wife?”
My lavender dress and I rose from the coats and slammed into the bathroom, where we doubled up deflated from “married men.” Like the hairspray, I just used it. I drew the line because that’s where the ones who used hair spray and went to UCLA without question said to draw it. There was this huge “married man” neon sign that read like a Times Square newspaper ribbon about “ruining your life” and “only bring unhappiness” and “they only want to use you.” I looked in the mirror — no tears, fortunately for my too much brown eyeliner. Shit, I said to myself, if I stop now I’m liable to wind up with a fucking picket fence.
He was waiting.
“You asshole!” I said again, under the circumstances.
“Well, darling …” his hot-fudge voice trailed, “I’d rather be one than in love with one.”
“What time tomorrow?”
It lasted a long time and was worth it.
When Kennedy was assassinated, Graham and I’d been having a fight and I hadn’t seen him for 2 months. I went to Santa Monica Blvd. to look for him and even now that he’s got all this money and power, I still think of him in the Arrow Market or Carl’s. He loved walking through markets and making remarks about the products, and I would be stuck to his side, laughing. So I thought, with Kennedy assassinated, he must be in the market because there is, for some people, nothing more of a solace than certain markets.
He was standing out in from of the Arrow Market with an armful of groceries when I finally found him after wandering up and down Santa Monica for two hours. He was talking to friends.
“Hello, darling,” he said. They were always my fights, he never was in them, he used to just wait until I stopped being mad.
“Listen …” I said. “I mean, what do you think? …”
“Oh, about Kennedy?” He laughed. “Well, I’ll tell ya, it is terrible and a tragedy and all that … but it sure does pick up daytime TV.”
Nowadays I drink tequila when I can’t get French Champagne. Graham’s in London in limousines with violent beauties, though I know he’d prefer rumpled 18-year-olds just as I’d rather have Rainier. Sometimes he telephones from some studio in the middle of the night 9,000 miles away and tells me he has always loved me and really loves me still.
“Yeah, well, send me some money,” I say.
“What? I can’t hear you, there’s something the matter with the phone.”
He lies and I’m broke.
But when I hear that liar’s chocolate voice I am, each time, thrown into a confusion of the night he came in alone from the stars.
Copyright © 1972, 1974 by Eve Babitz.