By Eve Babitz; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
Daughter of an artist (Mae Babitz) and a classical violinist on contract with 20th Century Fox (Sol Babitz), her godfather was composer Igor Stravinsky.
In 1964, photographer Julian Wasser photographed the 20-year-old Babitz in the buff playing chess with artist Marcel Duchamp in a gallery of the Pasadena Art Museum. The museum was exhibiting a retrospective of his work and Babitz was having an affair with the show’s curator, Walter Hopps, at the time.
Babitz had a talent for being in the place at the right time with the right connections. But better yet for us, she had a talent for writing about it.
She started out as an artist designing album covers for Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. Her most famous of these works was a collage for the 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again. Then she began writing articles and short stories for the Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
EVE’S HOLLYWOOD, originally published in 1974, is a blend of fiction and memoir about the cultural scene of Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s. Her publisher reissued the book in 2010 and set off a resurgence of interest in her writing.
Her gift for clear-eyed observation and a relatable yearning to be the cool one, the dangerous one, or the “I don’t give a damn” one make this tasty to read nearly 50 years after she wrote it.
She writes about her days at Le Conte Middle School in West Los Angeles admiring the Pachuco girls, expelled from dangerous inner city schools and sent to Le Conte’s mostly white, middle class halls to remove them from bad influences.
On rainy days in gym class, the girls were allowed to dance. The Pachucos danced “The Choke,” which Babitz describes as “enraged anarchy posed in mythical classicism as a dance . . . There was no swing in the Choke, it was staccato. It was Pachuco, police-record, L.A. flamenco dancing.”
In another essay, she describes a summer on the beach with a 14-year-old girl named Carol. The beach was not one most parents would have approved of, but Carol’s sangfroid was more than up to it. One day, a 20-year-old man, recently released from prison, singles out Carol for a string of insults.
“He waited, gathering strength, deadly and crazy. From her warmly tanned face she languidly opened her expensive blues eyes wide before narrowing them, transforming them into the eyes of an aristocratic animal whose defense lay in some rapid, paralyzing venom which hissed from the pupils and stopped him in his tracks. She stirred her snowcone while she took her time assessing him from his bloody face to his sandy feet to his blood-soaked pocket and then she lowered her eyes, shrugged and strolled through the space the crowd had opened for her with me floating in back of her, having no wish to stay on after witnessing that crisis of frozen looks,” Babitz writes.
From Aces Butler, a boy with so much attitude he could rattle the adults trying to educate him, Babitz learned to stop using a can of hairspray a day to preserve her roller-shaped curls and look like the popular girls. Blunt in stating his opinions, “The scorn behind his straw-colored eyes was sabotage plain and simple” to his teachers, Babitz writes. “His existence was scorching the hallways and traditions as he shrugged and glanced at the floor that first day he lowered himself into the last row in algebra.”
Her stories tell of drinking in the Garden of Allah bar with fake I.D.s, watching smoke rise over Watts from the penthouse of the Chateau Marmont in August 1965 or a year spent in New York City were she had gone to be the office manager of an East Village underground newspaper. She got her first acid from Richard Alpert, who became Baba Ram Dass and had worked with Timothy Leary in the early 1960s researching the the therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs. She allowed Bobby Beausoleil, who later became involved with the Manson family, to romp with his dog at her house.
It’s a testament to Babitz’ eye for a story that these essays aren’t dated. She continued writing into the 1980s and late 1990s. In 1997, she accidentally dropped a lit match onto a gauze skirt that caught fire and left her with life-threatening, third-degree burns over more than half her body.
As she had no health insurance, her friends and former lovers donated cash and artworks to a fund-raising auction to pay her medical bills. She became more reclusive after that. Her last books were TWO BY TWO: TANGO, TWO-STEP, AND THE L.A. NIGHT (1999) and I USED TO BE CHARMING: THE REST OF EVE BABITZ (2019).
Babitz died of Huntington’s disease in Los Angeles on Dec. 21, 2021.
Jeannette Hartman is the creator of and reviewer for Book-reviews-by-Jeannette.com and Jewish-books-reviewed.com.
I’ll have to get this one. What a tragic end.