It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High in the early ‘60s, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it. Babitz would ultimately achieve cult status herself as the author of seven books, beginning with Eve’s Hollywood, published in 1974.
“The pulchritude level was just off the charts,” Lili Anolik tells CR in reference to Babitz and her classmates. Anolik spent roughly six years chronicling the writer, from a childhood spent soaking in the company of actors, artists, and musicians, to her rise to fame and subsequent retreat from it. The result is Hollywood’s Eve, a love letter-cum-biography with a generous share of fascinating recollections from an inimitable subject. Anolik may have had her fact-checking work cut out for her, but it turns out Babitz was right as far as those preternatural high schoolers were concerned. “A regular girl in this class would be [someone] like Carrie White, who we got to verify it,” Anolik says. “She was a Playboy centerfold in 1963.” (To wit, other contemporaneous names include actresses Linda Evans, Mimsy Farmer, and Tuesday Weld.)
Granted, a Hollywood High diploma certainly didn’t guarantee fame or even infamy. “At the end, people either became movie stars, junkies, hookers, or suicides,” Anolik explains. Babitz never went the acting route—not her thing—and got sober in the ‘80s following years of on-and-off drug use. She would sleep with wealthy men—some married—but only for pleasure or perhaps torture, as Anolik relates. And while prone at times to self-destruction, Babitz was not suicidal, even if she did set herself on fire (accidentally).
The road to It-girldom began thusly: At age 20, Babitz would pose nude while playing chess seated across from Marcel Duchamp, hastening her entrée into the equally vibrant and ruinous bohemian enclaves she inhabited for the next 30-plus years. Babitz would party on the Sunset Strip, scouting job prospects and bedmates from an expansive group of artists, musicians, photographers, and multi-hyphenate men about town.
Babitz designed album covers for the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield before segueing into literature, aided by a nudge from friend Joan Didion. She wrote enthusiastically, ironically and autobiographically, garnering critical praise if not superstardom. By the late ‘70s, Babitz had published three books, one of which, Slow Days, Fast Company, is widely regarded as superb. It’s also a foil of sorts to Didion’s seminal Play It as It Lays.
Following the aforementioned fire in 1997, Babitz sustained a number of burns and, dealing with chronic pain, retreated into a life of semi-reclusion. The five fiction and two non-fiction books that made her name were long out of print when Anolik, admittedly obsessed, began trying to track Babitz down, eventually contacting one of her exes, her cousin and her sister. Anolik’s 2014 article unofficially resurrected dormant interest in Babitz, who suddenly found herself in the literary limelight once again. Critical essays were written, as were Instagram posts. Befitting the times, Babitz’s work is also getting the small-screen treatment: four of her books are currently in development at Hulu.
Unlike some of her peers however, Babitz never really sought the spotlight. Her relationship to it is complicated, Anolik explains. “It’s kind of gratifying to her and it’s kind of jarring,” she says of Babitz’s current awareness. “I think she’s always been really ambivalent about fame.” Anolik recalls a line from Slow Days, how Babitz wrote that fame “had the stench of rotting gardenias.” Angelenos will doubtless get her reference to the city’s ubiquitous, overly fragrant signature bloom.
For now, Babitz remains at a remove from all of the to-do, as she has in the past; it’s where she’s most psychically and physically comfortable. Anolik says she doesn’t think Babitz has read her book, which serves as part memoir, part down-the-rabbit-hole detective story and part cultural critique. Ultimately, it’s a juicy, insightful, engaging ode to Babitz in all her complexity. Her life is insanely rich but easily digestible through Anolik’s lens—so much so that readers can’t help but crave another piece of her.
As a writer, it’s of course in Babitz’s power to sate that desire with another short story or essay, or even a gossipy anecdote or racy quote. For now though, her artistic legacy may have to suffice. If Millenial-aged women in particular have recently flocked to Babitz’s writing, it may be because they see some of themselves in her. Babitz did everything entirely on her own terms. She was self-made, but not self-conscious. For better and worse, she was somewhat of a narcissist—and there was freedom in that.
But she’s also a woman of iron will, who, according to Anolik, remains more or less immutable in her positions. It’s a stubbornness that’s lingered for decades as well as a confidence in her ability to exist and identify exactly as she is. “Women artists born in a certain era—you know, a teacher or a father or a husband will say, ‘Yeah, you can do it’ and then they’ll sort of give that permission to go do it,” Anolik says. “Evie, she thought of herself as an artist as a little girl. She kind of never wavered from that.”
Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. is out now from Simon & Schuster.END
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