There were many West Coast It Girls of the 60s and 70s, but Eve Babitz may have been the West Coast It Girl, at least among people in the know. Born in 1943 to a Jewish studio violinist and a gentile Texan rose, she counted Igor Stravinsky as her godfather and Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Bertrand Russell among her family friends. In the 1960s, she became a “groupie-adventuress” who designed album covers for Linda Ronstadt and Buffalo Springfield, and counted everyone from Frank Zappa to Salvador Dali among her friends, and Steve Martin, Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, and both Ruscha brothers (photographer Paul and painter Ed) among her lovers. She also was the nude girl in the famous photograph of Marcel DuChamp playing chess.
But none of these biographical details are as compelling as Eve’s prose. In essay collections and autobiographical novels, she rhapsodized about booze, beauty, jacarandas, and, above all else, her native stomping grounds of Southern California. Whether describing a stunning angle of sunlight, the many sorts of SoCal winds, or a perfect crate of Chavez-approved grapes, she wrote with such extravagant style that you found yourself falling in love with Los Angeles even if you’d always considered it a cultural wasteland.
When I first discovered Babitz, I had no idea of her It Girl status. Prowling a yard sale at age ten, I found a copy of her second book, Slow Days Fast Company, and devoured it without grasping a quarter of the references. (Poppers? A ménage à trois? It all made me so very hungry.) Her well-read, half-bred, doggedly unwed perceptions resonate with me to this day. They do so with anyone who objects to “niceness” on the grounds that it precludes too much pleasure and too many points.
Babitz was living proof that rock-and-roll decadence also could be elegant and that muses could be the sharpest tacks in the room. Her writing was so lush and so arch – so sexy and so smart – that she made you believe lush and arch were not mutually exclusive. (Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis already had shown us sexy and smart were not mutually exclusive.) Only Eve could inspire you to buy seven caftans and all the ingredients of a tequila sunrise after reading only ten pages of her books. The cocaine and caviar were optional.
I’m using past tense because in 1997 she sustained third-degree burns over half her body in a freak accident. (Driving home from a party, she dropped a cigar on her skirt, which burst into flames.) Babitz survived but her “It Girl” persona did not. She stopped writing, stopped going out, and most of her books went out of print. That might have been the end of the story for many authors, but the glamour of Babitz’s work has proven more resilient than that.
Indeed, Babitz has remained the favorite L.A. writer of so many. She is known to complain that “Everybody steals my lines” and you can see why. On the topic of crowds, she has written: “I love hordes…. You’re free at last: Stuck.” About growing up in Los Angeles: “[We] knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden.” Also: “If you live in L.A., to reckon time is a trick since there are no winters. There are just earthquakes, parties and certain people. And songs.” About the elusiveness of maturity: “By the time I’d grown up, I naturally supposed that I’d grown up.” About meeting Jim Morrison: “That night I was twenty-three and a daughter of Hollywood, alive with groupie fervor, wanting to fuck my way through rock ‘n’ roll and drink tequila and take uppers and downers, keeping joints rolled and lit, a regular customer at the clap clinic … prowling the nights of summer.” And about female friendship, she is especially wonderful:
I had a collection of lovers to keep me warm and my friendships with women, who always fascinated me by their wit, bravery, and resourcefulness, and who never told you the same story twice. I mean, you can go places with a woman and come back just fine. As my agent, Erica, plowed right in and said: “You know when you have dinner with a girlfriend, you’re going to come back a whole human being.
That paragraph alone is an anthem for lady libbers with a sense of humor.
Recently, Babitz’s work has seen a renaissance. In the last few years, four of her books have been reissued – most recently, Sex and Rage, her novel about a surfer girl who finds sobriety – and it is rumored that a television series is being adapted from her books. Given that the seventy-four-year-old recluse still has no interest in the press (or, seemingly, her career), this uptick of interest only can be attributed to the enduring magic of her quintessentially Californian work. All Sunset Boulevard swoons and glamrock lovers, Eve’s mid-century L.A. evoke a paradise lost that has become irresistibly meta since she stopped publishing.
This was originally published at Signature.