Thursday March 12th, 2009

Freeways, Taquitos, Stravinsky, and Speed

Actress Kim Novak sitting with agents Al and Wilt Melnick, hotly discussing her blossoming movie career. (Photo by Leonard Mccombe//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Actress Kim Novak sitting with agents Al and Wilt Melnick, hotly discussing her blossoming movie career. (Photo by Leonard Mccombe//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Eve’s Hollywood
by Eve Babitz

Delacorte Press, 1974. Currently out of print.

I’m writing this under the influence of Eve Babitz, so I’ll put it this way: You could live your life without ever reading Eve’s Hollywood. But really, why would you want to?

The New York Public Library has one falling-apart copy of Eve’s Hollywood, Babitz’s first book, an out-of-print 1974 commingling of fiction and memoir that chronicles the adventures of a young woman growing up and living in Los Angeles. It’s popular enough that I had to put in a special request for it and then wonder, as weeks passed, if it would be worth the wait. It was. I’m pretty sure I even said, “Oh my God,” as soon as I saw it.

To begin with, there’s the full-page Annie Leibovitz portrait on the book’s cover: Babitz – a self-described “art-groupie” turned writer – healthy-looking in a black bikini and a boa, standing by a wall of greenery with one hand on her hip, dark bangs fringing her eyes. And there she is again, just opposite the title page, wearing the same bikini, only now she’s seated, legs crossed, talking on a rotary phone. This full embrace of authorial vanity is an indication of what’s to come – namely, an eight-page dedication that starts with Sol and Mae Babitz, her parents, and then goes on (and on) to include, among a host of notable names and places, the following dedicatees:

- The Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not
- Eggs Benedict at the Beverly Wilshire
- the purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plain
- Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems”
- Dr. Boyd Cooper, gynecologist extraordinaire
- Saturday
- sour cream
-the one whose wife would get furious if I so much as put his initials in
-the observatory where I used to try to find James Dean after he died
-Desbutal, Ritalin, Obetrol and any other speed. It wasn’t that I didn’t love you, it was that is was too hard.

It’s not easy to think of another writer who could make eight pages of self-indulgence so winning. And all of this before the book really gets going. While the cover bills it as “a confessional L.A. novel,” Eve’s Hollywood is less a straightforward story or tell-all than a sure-footed collection of elliptical yet incisive vignettes and essays about love, longing, beauty, sex, friendship, art, artifice, and above all, Los Angeles.

Babitz, or at least the character of “Eve” (the line between fact and fiction here is a dotted one), doesn’t remember exactly when she first heard Los Angeles described as a “wasteland,” but writes, “it was never like that for us growing up here.” Her father, a musician, was close friends with Igor Stravinsky, who “used to slip glasses of Scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking.” There were afternoons she and her sister spent swimming in Bernard Herrmann’s pool. “Culturally,” she argues, “L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a ‘wasteland’ and other helpful descriptions.”

Eve’s Hollywood primarily spans the mid ’50s to the early ’70s. Eve spends junior high school in hateful pin curls and hair spray, yearning for “real life” to happen. At age 15, watching Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! provides her with what resembles a form of direction. “I was looking for something in Brando, I would have said if a saleslady had asked to help me, something outrageous and grandiose.” At Hollywood High, she’s fascinated by an older, faster crowd of cinch-waisted, fur-coated starlet types who drive Thunderbirds and spend weekends in Palm Springs practicing a “diaphragm libertinism.” Groups of any kind, however, strike her as limiting and this group was “so brittle, so stylized… that they were on the brink of being over with, finished. They’d perfected a way to be that made them obsolete from just two strokes of God’s Japanese paintbrush – Marilyn dying and the Beatles.” Enter LSD and the L.A. music scene and hippies – another group that doesn’t do much for her: “None of them seemed to have an ounce of worldliness, and worldliness was in the back of my mind throughout my life.”

That worldliness is also in her voice, which is self-assured yet sympathetic, cheeky and voluptuous, but registering just the right amount of irony. It lets her write things like this: “ ‘The privileges of beauty,’ Jean Cocteau said, ‘are enormous.’ I have this pasted to my icebox and thought of adding, ‘so don’t you be,’ but that would be sacrilegious, touching up Cocteau with my diet strategies.” Reflecting on the past, she writes, “In those days, I still ate cake.” On being single, she reveals to a friend that her “secret ambition,” if she ever gets out of Hollywood, is to be a spinster and live in a stone house in Ojai with orange trees and a goat. And you believe her, because she makes it sound appealing, rather than an exercise in self-empowerment or disappointment. Of course, then Eve and her friend, feeling better about being alone, head out for drinks with a “flashy” crowd. Gustatory pleasures are no small thing to this woman. There’s a great piece in the book, dedicated to M.F.K. Fisher, in which Babitz suggests that if Janis Joplin had only known about a certain taquito stand on Olvera Street in downtown L.A., she might have had something better to do on a Sunday afternoon than OD on heroin. (The grace note here is a photograph of one-and-a-half taquitos labeled “one-and-a-half taquitos” included among the family photos in the middle of the book.)

Babitz seems to know everyone (a quick Google search informs you she slept with Jim Morrison and posed naked playing chess with Marcel Duchamp), and Eve’s Hollywood reads like an elegant and elevated form of gossip that doesn’t get old – even when you already sort of know the story and many of the famous people here are fictionalized. Gram Parsons, for instance, becomes James Byrns: “His importance in my life is not that of a friend, a lover and hardly even an acquaintance – he was a clock, an alarm clock” rousing her, with his music and his presence, from the “sameness” of a boring stretch of time. His legendary attachment to Keith Richards, here known as Jack Hunter, is described this way: “They looked beautiful but you couldn’t look too long. . . . I wondered what they had for lunch and if they were lovers and what Sin was.”

The breeziness of Babitz’s style belies her perceptiveness and underscores a difference between being smart and being serious: “I am not serious,” she states. “But . . . I try not to let on just how not serious I am and I try to become interested in serious facts. Just lately I became so serious I almost suffocated in forgetfulness and had come to the conclusion that there was no reason to live.” The bout of seriousness is brought on, in part, by an interaction with a very serious writer whose “books were so brutally depressing that the only way you could be happy about them was to appreciate the style.” She overcomes it by taking a group of Italian strangers to the Luau, a “ratty Tahitian place in Beverly Hills with blue lagoons and a gardenia in the drinks.”

It’s worth noting that The Luau and its gardenias – its seedy decadence – coincidentally make an appearance in “The White Album,” Joan Didion’s masterful essay on the excess and incomprehensibility of the late ’60s, particularly in L.A. It’s instructive to read Babitz in relation to Didion because they wrote of the same time and place (recall the dedication, above), yet the contrast between them is stark. Where Didion is clipped and edgy, on the verge of collapse, Babitz is looser, discursive, funny. For Didion, for a time, life became illegible and narratives stopped making sense. Babitz, you suspect, never much relied on narrative sense in the first place. Pulling out great lines from her work is something of a challenge. The lines are there, but their particular genius often lies in their connection to an idea five pages back, so that her stories, as she aptly notes, fall “together like a just right deck of cards being shuffled.” In her second book, Slow Days, Fast Company, she wrote: “I can’t get a thread to go through to the end and make a straightforward novel. I can’t keep everything in my lap or stop rising flurries of sudden blind meaning. But perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge.”

Sure enough, it does. While so many writers have found material in L.A., frequently depicting the city as a land of corrosive sunshine or soul-draining sprawl, few have written with such authority and affection for so mythologized a place. Babitz not only understands but enjoys the nuances of L.A., and she doesn’t get hung up on the fact, as she notes in Slow Days, that, “In Los Angeles, it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.” She seems captivated rather than frustrated by the way the place resists reason. On a well-prostituted corner of Sunset near her home in Hollywood, she observes a tall, slender woman wearing barely-there cut-offs and a halter top, on roller skates, with a dog on a leash; Babitz wonders to what “prurient interest she was trying to appeal” and then figures, “Perhaps she was just out skating her dog.” She appreciates the odd, disconcerting juxtapositions – like watching the 1965 Watts Riots on a TV in a room at the Chateau Marmont with a blue-eyed oil heir playing at being a cowboy.

It’s no wonder she recommends British architectural critic Reyner Banham’s 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies: “It makes the city make sense and I bought it for a rock-and-roll friend, who was complaining one day about L.A. and how he wanted to move into the country, so now he’s transformed, he’s trying to get an apartment in the flats and out of the hills and the more McDonald’s Hamburgery it is, the better he likes it. It is, then, something when someone can make you see beauty where you only saw ugliness before.”

Though she is more impassioned than convincing when she argues that Nathanael West got it all wrong for not being able to see the beauty of the place, for patronizing it and for just generally being “a creep,” I’m tempted to believe her. I almost feel bad for being one of those “people from the East” who consider The Day of the Locust to be among the top books about Hollywood, but I’d have to put Eve’s Hollywood right up there with it. As a New Yorker by way of New England, I’m hardly the most qualified judge of these things. But reading West (and Fante and Chandler and Cain and the like) made me want to go to Los Angeles. Babitz makes me feel like I’m there.

Deborah Shapiro is a writer in New York City.