October 22, 2018

Vintage California: Eve Babitz revisited

Eve Babitz has a provocative and sassy voice, and an intelligent one too.  She can seem self-involved but seduces us with her originality.  One can sense quiet rumblings of disappointment beneath her prose, which is carefully cultivated to make her seem a carefree soul who would never allow herself to sulk.  Men found her irresistible back in the heady days of the early 1970s when she was a shining star on the party circuit of those in the know.   She always seemed to want more out of life than any one life could possibly offer.  Babitz wrote “Eve’s Hollywood,” in 1974 ,when she was almost 30.  She chronicles a world changing from Sinatra cool to the desperate howling of Jim Morrison.  Her book is being reissued now by New York Review Books.

Babitz was a stunning young girl; many thought she resembled Bardot.  She understood the power of her beauty and the doors it opened for her.  Her long list of lovers includes Harrison Ford, Jim Morrison and an array of famous actors and musicians, and artists.  Eventually, she was involved with many of the wealthiest men in Hollywood who made the big decisions.  She was known as a muse and party girl extraordinaire to those who were moving fast.  Babitz was never a hippie chick; she found the hippies too poor and ordinary for her taste; and found their infatuation with Eastern religions tiring.  Her idols were James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando.  She was attracted to drugs, particularly LSD, which allowed her to experiences an intensity of sensation she couldn’t find elsewhere.  She recounts for us her first acid trip remembering the magic of the colors, but includes her dismay that her current boyfriend left her on her own while she was tripping without much regard for her well-being. 

Babitz writes about California and particularly Los Angeles the way Woody Allen writes about New York.  She is crazy about it; all of it.  She loves the California sun, the beach, the waves, the delicious taquitos she would eat in-between sucking on ice cones in the sand when it got a little too hot.  She writes movingly about a more mature friend who taught her to trust her body by learning to let it go.  Babitz explains that her friend Carol was someone she wanted to emulate; someone who was fearless.  She remembers meeting her and recognizing that “there was something luxuriously corrupt about her even that first day  at my friends’ house where we were swimming.  She complained of pools as she reclined voluptuously on the canvass mattress, making no attempt to hide her total immersion in the sensuality of being alive and wet under a hot sun.  She spoke slowly, she drawled in a nasal, rich-girl nonchalance that pools were all right she supposed but the real thing was the ocean, the waves….”  As their friendship developed, Carol taught Babitz how to ride the waves with abandon so that she “became a gliding sea-mammal.”  Babitz’s power of observation is acute, and her descriptions sensual, but her self-involvement often seems to blot out the introspection that might follow if she wasn’t as obsessed with herself and how she is being seen.  There is a self-consciousness about her that is hard to pinpoint but present always.

Babitz attended Hollywood High and was irritated by the one guidance counselor who saw her raw talent and encouraged her to go to college.  This sermon arrived too late for Babitz, who at 17, was convinced that the only learning she needed could be found at the parties she frequented each night.  She recounts for us sitting impatiently in her guidance counselor’s office as secretions from the sex she had earlier ran down her leg.  Unembarrassed, she quickly left, and didn’t look back which one senses the now 70-something Babitz might regret.  The seven novels Babitz published before she grew silent decades ago all are autobiographically tinged fiction and memoirs about her young life.  It’s as if her world ended when her youth did.

The odd thing is that Babitz’s background was not the sort to produce such a raucous party girl.  Her Jewish father was a violinist under contract to Twentieth Century Fox and her Gentile mother was an artist.  Her paternal grandfather was born in Russia and became a well regarded labor organizer in America.  Her godfather was Igor Stravinsky.  Her parents mingled with impressive people like Marilyn Horne and Kenneth Patchett and Edward James. Babitz says almost nothing about her parents and her sister.  They remain hidden figures.  She reveals only one small anecdote about telling her mother she planned to become an “adventuress,” and her mother telling her they would love her whatever she did.

The other thing that makes Babitz seem  strangely ill suited to the life she selected is  the fact that she was always a compulsive reader.  She devoured the New York Times Book Review.  She loved Colette and Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf and Anthony Trollope.  And Proust and Henry James too.  So, one can’t help but wonder why she turned her back on a more traditionally accomplished life.  Was it the changing times?  Her temperament?   Perhaps a feeling of discomfort if she stayed in any one scene for too long?  It’s hard to know.  But the reader senses this bright sexy woman let go of something vital inside herself long ago, and was never able to reclaim it.

There is a startling moment in the book when she briefly drops the curtain.  Talking about one of her married lovers, she recalls him asking her to tell him her most exotic fantasies.  In a rare act of bravado with him, she tried, saying “Take me out to dinner.”  He replied abruptly “Not a chance.”  But Babitz doesn’t stay focused on anger or personal disappointments.  She shields herself from others behind her own armor and finds a way to flee.

Babitz often amuses us with her irresistible observations about the world in which she traveled.  In one chapter she provides a list of things she is thankful for.  She mentions Rainier Ale and Andy Warhol and Stephen Stills and Linda Ronstadt.  And the Eggs Benedict at the Beverly Wilshire.   And the coke given to her one night by some girl at a party.  And the color green.  And asparagus and sour cream and strawberries.  And Pauline Kael.  The list has no real sense of prioritization and this makes sense to us in a way since Babitz seems to have an almost random and chaotic attachment to the things that surrounded her that is somewhat disturbing.  It is hard to imagine her in love, or mothering a child, or tending  long-term to an ailing friend.

Her focus often fixates on physical beauty and its power to affect the behavior of others.  She still remembers the girls in her high school who were prettier than she.  She writes “They were too beautiful for high school-they were too romantic, too fiery, too interested in designs- and the school was in constant chaos with whispers of their affairs, their refusals to go along with anything that interrupted their games, scandals, tears, laughter-peals of it in empty corridors while everyone else sat in class, their condescension so brutal as to be unmistakable to authority.  Beauty so matter-of-fact that school monitors and disciplinary teachers aided the girls in their intrigues instead of trying to impose order.” 

It is hard to categorize Babitz.  She reminds me in some ways of the ladies from “Sex and the City,” but truthfully those girls were more traditional and romantic than Babitz who never really imagined herself as a wife and mother.  Sarah Silverman’s dry ironic wit and powers of observation come to mind, but Silverman is a loner, prone to darkness Babitz resists.  The closest modern reincarnation of Eve Babitz might be Lena Dunham.  Both these half-Jewish women have literary leanings but try to dumb it down.  Both seem close to their families but secrets abound.  Both shun traditional female paths with resilience other women lack.  Both love the gaze of others; seeming to rely on that gaze as an antidote to some inner hollowness.  Both make us laugh and amuse us with their witticisms but also provoke our sympathy.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.