MAY 2, 2018
EVE BABITZ WAS born in 1943, the eldest daughter of bohemian intellectuals before that label was considered positive social currency. Growing up with the Hollywoodland sign looming over her backyard and figures like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo waltzing in and out of the house, she quickly acquired a taste for fast living. Although for years Babitz’s writing flew below the radar, its cultural resurgence is now in full effect — her books have been reissued by NYRB Classics and Counterpoint Press, and a television series based on her work is in development with Hulu. Originally published in 1993, Babitz’s story collection Black Swans is arguably her best work for its matured narrative voice. Babitz delivers the anticipated accounts of faltering love affairs and a who’s who rundown of Hollywood’s social register, but her trademark style steeped in voyeurism is tempered by middle age. Older and somewhat wiser than when she first met readers between the pages of Eve’s Hollywood in 1974, Babitz here probes the causes and consequences of why the ’60s and ’70s were so thoroughly debauched.
Babitz has been devoted almost exclusively to portraying Los Angeles. Black Swans, a collection of nine autobiographical, linked short stories, offers another vivid snapshot of the city, picking up in the late 1970s, continuing through the excess of the 1980s, and lightly touching the early 1990s: Sunday brunches anchored to swimming pools; the rapidly changing architectural landscape; the impossible art of convincing friends to brave the freeways for hole-in-the wall Tango classes in the Valley; the fragrant, sticky piles of fallen jacaranda blossoms covering the sidewalks and gathering in the gutters — even the leopard-print seat covers of her car.
Babitz satirizes Los Angeles as the land of eternal youth, sunny and carefree, known for its unapologetic celebration of “beauty without a whisper of fading, sagging, or wrinkling.” Why age when there’s Botox and collagen, face lifts and hair dye? “[A]ge is disaster,” Babitz declares. Black Swans chronicles changing dynamics as increasing numbers of her friends turn to 12-step programs to battle addiction, while others double-down with bourbon at lunch. “Whatever my personality might be, I had no idea, and as far as I was concerned, if I wasn’t on Ritalin at least, my reply to the world was ‘no one is home.’ Ritalin was my personality,” Babitz reflects. But what happens when we remove the bourbon, Quaaludes, mescaline, and Ritalin from heavy rotation? Is Eve Babitz still Eve Babitz?
In “Coco,” Babitz profiles a friend from her short-lived days at LACC, introduced to her with the aside that “[she’ll] love this girl, she’s so bad.” Babitz takes readers along for the ride: nights on the Sunset Strip with Coco showing up all the other girls by rocking a suede mini dress, her dedication to heavy duty contouring with Max Factor contrary to Babitz’s warning that men didn’t like “pancake makeup,” her cycles through hair colors, jobs, husbands. However, the crux of the story hangs on sobriety — Coco’s lack thereof. At the outset, Babitz is already enthusiastically sober, noting the joys of waking up without mind-numbing hangovers and with a clear memory of the night before. But Coco “was trying desperately to fix herself in a setting where she wasn’t the worst one,” and Babitz notes that, for Angelenos, “it’s very difficult to find a milieu where people in their forties can feel like everyone else is worse than they are.”
This story is a shift from Eve’s Hollywood, L.A. Woman, and Sex and Rage, all works characterized by effervescent, baccalian narratives and characters living at breakneck speeds, threatening to spin violently out of control. Rather than dissolve her charms, Babitz pumps the brakes on the drugs and alcohol and thus reveals a newfound depth. One of the strengths of this collection lies in her willingness to catalog her own flaws, even when exposing unflattering facets of her personality. In “Free Tibet,” arguably the most moving story in the collection, Babitz plumbs the depths of her own self-absorption. When her good friend Brian comes to pick her up “with his Aretha Franklin tapes instead of Verdi,” she is preoccupied with her unhappy on-again, off-again affair with an “extremely cute monster,” and Brian’s admission that he’s HIV positive takes a back seat. She compares her petty self-absorption to Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, who brushes aside Swann’s revelation that he’s dying of tuberculosis with “something like, ‘If only I could find the right shoes, I’d be able to go to this party I’m already late for.’” The comparison is apt: while she was busy dithering over dumping the man du jour, an entire year passed, and Brian died.
“Expensive Regrets” merges Babitz’s recollection of 1970s New Hollywood with 1990s disappointments. Young creatives now had keys to the kingdom, typified by Babitz’s portrayal of Zack Gregson, a surfer-cum-producer in Hollywood’s fast lane, dedicated to “guarding the scripts from having fake happy endings, keeping locations grounded in reality, and using actresses willing to risk looking like actual people who chewed gum.” It was a sea change; though silver boots, feather boas, and four-day trysts at the Chateau Marmont take precedence, Babitz threads this story with references to ’90s racial tensions and weak generational critique. Driving up to Gregson’s former hilltop mansion, Babitz and her beau listen as the Rodney King trial plays out on the radio. Babitz describes the air of victimization in the voices of the cops giving radio sound bites. As the jury’s vote becomes clear, Babitz writes that she “felt like a person who’d mistaken a mirage for an oasis.” After the euphoria and idealism of the 1960s and ’70s, Los Angeles in 1992 had fallen short of the mark.
Babitz’s critiques are light, succinct, but unmistakable. Taken aback by the court’s loose definitions of what constituted “undue force,” Babitz muses on the ways in which her generation dropped the ball. Comforted by the apparent success of the women’s movement, Nixon’s resignation, and the end of Vietnam War, they “got sidetracked […] ‘White backlash’ happened.” Police brutality, tense race relations, and disenchantment with the false veneer of progress are contemporary concerns, though Babitz’s light, palliating tone is not. Surfacing from a sex romp with her lover at the Chateau Marmont, she discovers the wreckage of the L.A. riots on television. Zeroing in on the looted facade of Frederick’s of Hollywood on Hollywood Boulevard, it “struck [her] that [she’d] been having too swell a time to get away scot-free, but this seemed too much of a price to pay.” With smoke in the air and the National Guard on the scene, “I love Frederick’s!” Babitz wrote. “Maybe if I’d stayed home, none of this would have happened!”
While her light take is undeniably frustrating, this self-centered framing is human, and uncomfortably relatable. A Paris resident during both the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the November 2015 attacks, I found myself employing my own self-focused framing of the event when asked about the situation: where I was during the shootings, how did it impact me and the people I personally know? While I would have hoped for more awareness from Babitz, she does offer insight into her tried and true demographic. Talking to her neighbor Nancy over the phone, she asks if she was afraid. For Nancy, however, the “worst part was on TV, seeing the man running down the street with this ugly lamp.” Despite her own levity, even Babitz can’t help but quip that “the thing she fears most is bad taste, in other words.” She may be self-absorbed and occasionally insensitive, but to a certain extent, she is aware of her failings and brave enough to expose them to her reader wholesale along with her effervescent party commentary.
Reading Eve Babitz is like eating cake for breakfast, like having a gossip over brunch with your best friend. Her short stories consider the pros and cons of black lacquered swimming pools, and let us peer into the dining room of the Bel Air Hotel where Babitz — tripping on LSD — and her boyfriend are so drunk they can barely stay in their seats. Her writing seems effortless, airy, and conversational — descriptions that serve both as praise by her fans and backhanded compliments by her critics. She captures not only the way a certain cross section of Angelenos lived — that elusive subset who were “moving into the fast lane of Hollywood society, the Hollywood of those days when we’d so assumed we’d won, it was all anyone could do not to feel bored, we felt so arrogant” — for whom what they wore was as important as how they thought and how they would describe it. In that vein, Babitz is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald: both writers described the fashionable excesses and wild antics of their youthful generation. Babitz undeniably proves her mettle, artfully weaving references to Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, and Henry James without breaking her chatty tone, cementing herself as a Los Angeles intellectual without sacrificing the boho joie de vivre that infuses her work.
Coverage of Babitz tends to characterize the author as a footnote to the men in her life — the god-daughter of Igor Stravinsky, the nude girl playing chess with Marcel Duchamp in Julian Wasser’s famous photo. Her conquests included Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Dan Wakefield, Ed Ruscha, Harrison Ford, and Walter Hopps. Yet in the titular “Black Swans,” Babitz tackles the messy attraction-repulsion tug-of-war women face with insecure men. Morrison’s lyric “never saw a woman so alone” now feels prophetic, for Babitz — despite her abundant love affairs — seems, ostensibly, alone. When asked, Babitz says her last serious relationship, the last time she thought she might get married, was in 1971, before she published her first story. The lack of a partner does not assume solitude, but Babitz links much of her ennui to the delicate tightrope walk of pleasing the moody, demanding men on whom she sets her sights. For Babitz, male attention ranks just as highly as the literary genius of authors James and Proust. The fact that they’re members of the male-dominated literary canon is a case in point, no? Name-checking Joan Didion, Colette, Virginia Woolf, and M. F. K. Fisher in “Black Swans,” Babitz laments society’s cookie-cutter expectations of the Woman Writer. In her opinion, there were only two options for women writers: terrify men or become a “wallflower,” and neither choice was palatable. She even goes so far as to reveal that she “didn’t want to be a writer; it would scare men,” confessing that she “wanted to look up to and admire men, not be like Joan Didion, whose writing scared the hell out of most of the men [she] knew.”
Comparisons between Babitz and Didion are inevitable, as both were women writers commenting on the Los Angeles of the ’60s and ’70s. They ran in similar circles. Babitz herself previously invoked Didion’s name in the epic eight-page dedication to Eve’s Hollywood that acted as a roll call of the influential creatives on both coasts. Writing “[a]nd to the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I am not,” Babitz set herself in direct contrast with Didion — not that this was an inconceivable thing to do. Didion’s Los Angeles is filled with pestilence — freeways that inspire nervous breakdowns, raging fires, the moan of the Santa Anas setting everyone on murderous edge — whereas Babitz presents a lush, playful landscape full of movie stars and intellectual European émigrés, a city where the party never seems to end.
Babitz’s contradictory views on male-female dynamics — namely her enthusiastic support for sexual liberation, opposed by this frustrating concept of a female intellectual binary that only serves to appease insecure men — is somewhat understandable in the context of the inherited gender roles that were still looming large when she was growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s. In “Tangoland,” Babitz muses that upon discovering that “you couldn’t dance with a man unless you let him lead, [she] figured [she] had now discovered the meaning of life, and tango would be easy.” Did romantic happiness depend on letting the man have the last word? For Babitz in “Black Swans,” this assessment rings true. Breaking up over the phone after a hot-shot editor chooses her piece over her established boyfriend’s, his parting shot is painfully juvenile: “Why couldn’t you have gotten into Mademoiselle? Or even Vogue?” Fragile masculinity aside, it is reductive to divide women writers into Joans and Eves — those who intimidate men and those who do not. For the contemporary reader, the idea that exploring sexuality is mutually exclusive from succeeding professionally feels stale and restrictive.
As Black Swans comes to a close, even Babitz, touted for her devotion to Los Angeles, implies that the city is hard to love, confessing that she now prefers Miami. Moreover, she insinuates that, in some ways, her success was a curse. Still, it is hard not to fall for Los Angeles through Babitz’s eyes: even the hot and heavy fling of a lifetime has its ups and downs.
Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a master’s in literature at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. She has contributed articles for publications such as Broadly, LensCulture, Paste Magazine, and Teen Vogue. She lives in Paris.