I remember Eve Babitz when she published the little-known Eve’s Hollywood—and then L.A. Woman and Sex And Rage—in the 1970s.
I was a young woman from West L.A. living in Manhattan, so my city of origin was why I knew enough to read Babitz’s oh-so-cool dispatches of her effortless immersion in sexy decadent 1970’s LA. I read those books with a mixture of extreme envy—entranced with Babitz’s own obvious self-entrancement—and slight, gratifying disdain for her brazenly paraded superficiality.
Babitz was so provocative, your teeth ached.
Babitz was so provocative, your teeth ached. At 20, she played chess with Marcel Duchamp totally nude (she was extremely large breasted), and the Julian Wasser photograph of that event was iconic—today it would be viral. But there was no “viral” then, other than for communicable diseases.
Babitz wrote to Catch-22 novelist Joseph Heller: “I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blond on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer. Eve Babitz.” He wrote back in a nanosecond and got her publishing connections. She had affairs with everyone, from artist Ed Ruscha to musician Jim Morrison to actor Harrison Ford to writer Dan Wakefield.
Her prose was luscious, romantic, and slightly poor-you-for-not-being-me. But she was also clearly an ambassador, a cheerleader. The attitude, There is no place as cool as this world of mine, was almost a little too charmingly head-forward in those coolly esoteric, self-promotion-is-for-assholes days. Now, of course, we’re in the everyone-is a-Branded-Entrepreneur era, but back then Eve Babitz was a brand … waiting for branding to exist!
Her family life gave lie to the tedious cliché of the city’s *eye-roll* Lack of Seriousness. Babitz’s father was a concert violist; her godfather was Igor Stravinsky. Kenneths Patchen and Rexroth both hung out in her living room, as did Arnold Schoenberg. Babitz grew up in a world of hipness that circled from art to classical music to movies to surfing, with the hedonism that formed the title of her second book: Slow Days, Fast Company.
But Babitz and her books didn’t make a dent—not in New York and not in the literary and cultural worlds. No Fran Lebowitz was she. No Joan Didion (though Joan was a friend of hers). Her books traveled pretty quickly to remainder bins.
Now all that has changed!
Finally, Cult Status
Today Eve Babitz, age 75, is all the rage. Her once-mothballed memoirs and novels are big sellers among younger women. She has attained cult status with the Lena Dunham crowd. How did this happen?
A few years ago, Lili Anolik, a now-40-year-old contributing editor for Vanity Fair, “discovered” Babitz. Having read her books in 2010, Anolik, like a besotted groupie, established contact with the people around the reclusive Babitz. When Babitz finally agreed to meet, Anolik flew from New York to L.A. the next day. Anolik’s 2014 Vanity Fair piece—which featured the shocking fact that Babitz had suffered burns over 90 percent of her body when, in 1997, she tried to light a cigar while driving her car—jump-started an Eve Babitz revival: Babitz’s books were re-reviewed by Dwight Garner in the New York Times and republished by the New York Review of Books Classics, whose managing editor Sara Kramer has decreed, of Babitz: “Her time is now.”
A Biography of Her Own
Now Anolik’s own book, with its wittily flip-flopped title—Hollywood’s Eve—has come out, and it’s intensifying Babitz’s belated icon status. Anolik’s book is getting raves. Jia Tolentino wrote, in the New Yorker: “I practically snorted this book, stayed up all night with it. Anolik decodes, ruptures, and ultimately intensifies Babitz’s singular irresistible glitz.”
I read Anolik’s delicious book in one page-turning sitting, and, after all the cocky sex and fun name-slinging, I was stopped in my tracks by the severity of Babitz’s 1997 accident. She had “spent six weeks in the ICU, several months after that in a rehab hospital” and “survived two twelve-hour operations” that were mind boggling for how many parts of her body they affected. Babitz has earned her rediscovery. “Eve didn’t fail to mature; she refused. … Every time life tried [to mature her], Eve blocked or parried, danced away laughing.” There was zest through the book and sobering sadness at the end.
If anyone seems contrary to the #MeToo moment, it’s Eve.
Reaching Anolik as she was flying out to promote her book and hang a bit with the infirm Babitz, I asked her, “Why Eve now? And why with younger women?” She answered: “If anyone seems contrary to the #MeToo moment, it’s Eve. ‘All I cared about anyway was fun and men and trouble’—that’s what the Eve stand-in says in L.A. Woman. She was more or less ignored during her actual career, in the post-Pill, pre-AIDS, anything-goes ‘70s, when her sensibility and the sensibility of the times were simpatico. The ‘70s were an id time, so Eve, id incarnate, wasn’t necessary. But now that we’re in super ego times, she represents the perfect antidote.” I think Anolik’s theory is spot-on.
I asked Babitz, through Anolik, how it feels to be an all-the-rage writer all these decades later. The former man-magnet answered: “When I was young, it was only men who liked me. Now it’s only girls.”
Indeed, there was something about those crazy, wildly politically incorrect years—and the women who found a way to conquer or ignore the chauvinism and have a great time, anyway—that is perhaps a relief and weirdly hopeful sign to women who otherwise devour Rebecca Traister’s excellent and important Good And Mad and are super alert to every new man accused of past harassment. Many midlife and older women remember at least some version of those non-PC days that were lived—and hyped up—to the extreme in Babitz’s accounts. “I was twenty three and a daughter of Hollywood … wanting to fuck my way through rock ‘n’ roll and drink tequila and take uppers and downers,” she wrote. “I’d always believed that sex masterpieces were the best kind … better than Bach, the Empire State Building, or Marcel Proust.” If today’s serious feminist times need a big fat mothereffer of a vacation, complete with liquored fruit drinks, here in this rediscovered brazen writer is the very thing!
If today’s serious feminist times need a big fat mothereffer of a vacation, here is the very thing!
But the contrast doesn’t have to be stark—id vs. superego, wildness vs. seriousness. The lofting up of older women by younger ones (to the advantage of both) can be a re-acquaintance with the once-hidden heroines of more elevated-than-Eve’s bohemianism and with the once-under-glorified work horses of political and judicial feminism. Regarding the former, there’s a biography in the works of one of my favorite writers, Alice Adams, who died in 1999 and whose soulful, dignified 1977 novel Listening to Billie, about a young woman coming of age with bohemian ideals, was my bible.
Suddenly Hot Again
In terms of the political, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik are two Millennials who started the now-multi-platformed rediscovery of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a hit documentary and a feature film!) when their book, The Notorious RBG, shot to number seven on the New York Times bestseller list soon after its 2015 publication. Now Bader Ginsburg is a huge feminist star almost as shiny as the galaxy-in-herself Gloria Steinem, who has always been super iconic but is now super-super iconic. “[She’s] experiencing a pop cultural renaissance these days,” says Vogue, by way of Off-Broadway’s Gloria: A Life.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Why give so much credit to whippersnappers? If someone lived large but was unheralded, shouldn’t one of her peers get the discovery credit? Two female midlife writers have different theories of why younger sisters discovering big sisters helps make the point and also makes good sisterhood sense. Says author and UCS professor M.G. Lord, who, a few years ago, wrote a book “discovering” the secret seriousness of an older-generation idol: The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.
“I found myself trapped in vacation house with people much younger than myself and a couple boxes of Taylor DVDs for entertainment,” she says. “We watched them, expecting a night of camp. But what we found was a pattern of feminist or proto-feminist characters: National Velvet is about a young woman who challenges gender discrimination in horse racing; A Place in the Sun is an abortion rights movie; even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deals with what happens to a woman when the only way society permits her to express herself is through her (unsuccessful) husband and (nonexistent) children.” The younger women helped her see what Lord found true after she meticulously examined the real-time nervous correspondence about those movies from the censoring agency of those times. The conservative Production Code Administration had tried to eliminate these ahead-of-the-times feminist ideas from Taylor’s movies.
Writer and social media star Amy Ferris (Marrying George Clooney), says this: “I think it’s vitally important that younger women discover older women writers. None of us should quietly disappear, or be dismissed. On whose shoulders do we stand? Whose words inspired us? Whose voices gave us courage even if we didn’t know who they were?”
I think we are going to see a revival of figures like Eve Babitz, whose lives resonate with women struggling to find their place.
Literary agent Lynn Johnston observes: “Joan Didion has never been cooler than she is right now. There are multiple biographies of RBG coming out. Most encouragingly, there’s a concerted effort by young adult publishers to introduce younger readers to stories of women whose accomplishments have been overlooked. I think we are going to see a revival and appreciation of figures like Eve Babitz who are not household names but whose lives resonate with women struggling to find their place and power in the world.”
But the point is: There are so many exotically groundbreaking and larger-than-life women of the recent past hiding in plain sight—writers whose books have died on the vine; adventurers who never wrote, or who tried to write and got no attention. Women who risked and dared and lived boldly in an era when things were either more fun, more challengingly repressed, more intellectually intense, more filled with risk, or all of that, than they are now.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books (three of them New York Times Bestsellers), the best of which is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, which Billboard magazine recently named #19 of the best music books of all time. She has been writer of major features for Vanity Fair, a recent longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, a has written for the New York Times Opinion, Styles and Book Review and for just about every women’s magazine in existence. She has won 10 major magazine awards.