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Eve Babitz Bares It All

I wrote the book on Eve. Hollywood’s Eve is its title, a play on the title of one of her books, Eve’s Hollywood. People often call it a biography, though I never do. Not if I can help it, at least. A work should reflect its subject. And a biography, by its very nature, is organized, linear, official; and Eve, by her very nature, was magnificently disorganized, and even more magnificently discursive, and always, always off the record and on the sly, i.e., unofficial. She was the secret genius of L.A., the city she was born in back in 1943 when it wasn’t a city or really much of anything at all—a couple of studios that manufactured make-believe, plus sea and sky and sand and space, sunlight colliding with water, creating a hazy luster that turned the world into dazzle and blur, a place where reality was so beautiful it looked unreal. (As Eve herself once observed, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”) Or rather Eve was the secret genius of L.A. until I went and shot off my big fat mouth. Because before I wrote the book on Eve, I wrote a feature on Eve, for Vanity Fair in 2014, and the secret was out.

Now, the secret would’ve come out whether I shot off my mouth or not. Eve’s genius is too clear, too shining, too true to stay under wraps forever. And nowhere is that genius more in evidence than in her books, at least six of which were reissued after my piece appeared. (New York Review Books Classics in particular did right by Eve, bringing back her two masterpieces, Eve’s Hollywood in 2015, and Slow Days, Fast Company in 2016; and bringing forth, in 2019, I Used to Be Charming, a collection of the best of her uncollected work, short-listed for a PEN Award, and conjured practically out of thin air by the brilliant editor Sara Kramer.) So my piece didn’t change things so much as goose them. Had it not been written, Eve’s late-blooming chic would’ve bloomed a few years after her death instead of a few years before is all.

But oh what a difference a few years can make. In 1977, Eve tells of “a shaky week-long period…when I was confronted with the possibility that a book I’d written might become a best-seller…. I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.” The book she’s referring to, her first, Eve’s Hollywood, was originally published in 1974, when she was in her 30s. The question is: Was the smell any sweeter when she was in her 70s and not just near fame but at it, in it, of it?

To answer that question, I’m going to take you back to the spring of 2012, when Eve wasn’t quite 70, was a week shy of 69, and I first met her. It’s a tale I’ve told before, both in Vanity Fair and Hollywood’s Eve. I’m loath to repeat myself, so I’ll keep it snappy. Will speed through the chronology of facts and events that brought me to that particular city (L.A.) in that particular restaurant (Short Order) on that particular day (Friday, May 4).

The speedy version: I fell in love.

The speedy version, slightly slowed down: Two years prior, in 2010, I read one of Eve’s out-of-print books (in 2010, all Eve’s books were out-of-print books). She was so good I couldn’t believe it. The writing—its innocence, its sophistication, its candor, its wit, its profligacy and pluck, its willingness to fly in the face of received wisdom, its sheer headlong, impish glee—made me positively dizzy with pleasure. I had to talk to her, tell her. But how? Other than an interview she did with the Archives of American Art back in 2000 (an interview she wasn’t even the focus of; a photograph taken by somebody else was), she was barely on the internet. Certainly wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.

She was, however, in the phone book. I scrawled ecstatic words on a postcard, mailed it. That didn’t work, so I hand-delivered a note. (Her condo was in West Hollywood; I lived in New York.) That didn’t work either. When, a year later, I got a nibble—not even a nibble, a “Maybe, could be interesting”—from an editor who’d never heard of her at Vanity Fair, a magazine I’d never written for, I sent an actual letter, claiming with wild, nay reckless, optimism that she was about to be the subject of a full-length feature. Nothing. I changed tack. Reached out to her sister, Mirandi, and cousin, Laurie, both of whom were wary initially but warmed eventually, as well as several key ex-boyfriends. The day before, one of those key ex-boyfriends, Paul Ruscha, an artist, the brother of another key ex-boyfriend, Ed Ruscha, also an artist, called. Eve had told him to tell me I could take her to lunch. I flew out of JFK the next morning.

Eve in 1958.From the collection of Mirandi Babitz.

As Eve’s once and future frenemy Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Here’s the story I’d been telling myself: Eve and I were in a romance—not a physical one, obviously, but of the minds—a far-fetched flirtation, a screwball comedy for bookworms. She hadn’t been rejecting my advances all this time. No, she’d been testing my resolve, making me prove how much I cared. That’s why she was letting me catch her now—I’d passed, I’d proved. I didn’t know then of the other, more illustrious, suitors (art-critic-as-artist Dave Hickey, novelist-publisher Emily Gould, the redoubtable Sara Kramer) who’d already tried with Eve and failed. Had I known, though, I wouldn’t have been cowed. Not ardent enough, I’d have thought.

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