Shortly after deciding that I was to be a Serious Artiste, it became self-evident that my season would be winter — maybe not my favorite season, but mine nonetheless. Summer was the provenance of the body, but winter was the season of the mind, as confirmed by my righteous internal monologue. What did Serious Artistes need of earthly pleasures and al fresco happy hours? All the important stuff, any true Artiste understood implicitly, happened hunched over laptops in sad, drafty bedrooms, fueled by a far more potent cocktail than tequila and sunshine. (Self-loathing and death drive, naturally. Also, bourbon.) And wasn’t loving summer just so childish, I asked myself and agreed — I mean, what’s next, watching baseball?
Same deal for Los Angeles, a city far too idyllic to be taken any more seriously than a mirage, or so any self-respecting Midwest-bred cynic has convinced themselves by the time they’re able to experience it firsthand. Arriving for my first grown-up L.A. visit, I found myself immediately overcome with defensive Puritanism: “This place is perverted!” What was I, a Serious Artiste, supposed to do with palm trees, ocean vistas, and 70-degree nights, every night? Where was the tension living unconsciously inside your muscles, that anxious New York shark-mood in which if you even think about meandering — like, as a concept — you’ll surely end up dead in the water? How was one to perform suffering without seasonal contrast? Hadn’t these people heard of chiaroscuro? I ate my street tacos on a paper plate curbside and tried hard to remain unmoved.
There is only one literary antidote for this specific kind of bummer mindset, and that is Eve Babitz, Los Angeles’s truest bard. I want to talk about her best book — the 1977 novel/memoir Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. — but it’s very important, first, to mention the dedication to her second-best book, Eve’s Hollywood. (Both were reissued last year by New York Review Books Classics, decades after falling out of print.) Of the handful of critics who’ve jumped on Babitz’s bandwagon in the last few years, many try to explain her appeal with a rundown of the myriad rock stars and art world celebs with whom she partied, romanced, and served as L.A.’s coolest, wittiest muse — cough, cough — throughout the ’60s and ’70s. That muse thing works both ways, though. For every Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude (more on that later; for now just remember that art is very stupid sometimes), there's an instance of Babitz investing the inspiration from her lovers right back into her own writing, capturing the mood of the time with more deftness than, I’d argue, any of her peers.
But those dedication pages! There are eight in Eve’s Hollywood, and they include inscriptions to: Rainier Ale, tempura, the Chateau Marmont and the Beverly Hills Hotel, STRAWBERRIES and ASPARAGUS (capitalizations, Babitz’s own), and purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plains. “And to the way the whipped cream comes in a silver gravy dish in the Polo Lounge when you order Irish coffee … And to Desbutal, Ritalin, Obetrol, and any other speed … And to the one whose wife would get furious if I so much as put his initials in.” Oh: “And to the New York Times book review section and every critic in it.” (I wonder if Babitz, earlier this year, was amused or annoyed that it took four decades for them to get the message.) These dedications say more about Babitz than any list of bedfellows could, and maybe none more than this one: “And to the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.”
Joan Didion, in fact, was the first to actively encourage Babitz’s writing career back when Babitz’s main gig was collaged album art for the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Buffalo Springfield, hooking her up with her first freelance piece for Rolling Stone. “Joan and I connected,” Babitz told Vanity Fair in a 2014 profile (the only extensive interview she’s done this century). “The drugs she was on, I was on.” Quoted in another Vanity Fair piece, this one an essay on Didion from last year, Babitz elaborated, simply but perfectly: “Joan made it OK to be serious about L.A.” I am wary of placing the two in direct contrast — because that’s a boring thing to do to female artists, but also because they’re probably the two best L.A. writers to exist yet, and, as such, deserve better. The “having to be who I’m not” part, I think, mostly comes down to stillness, sprawl, that smoggy L.A. sense of vague disconnect from passing time. For Didion, stillness was just the anticipatory tension of a coil poised at any moment to spring: anxiety, migraines, bleached-goth desert noir. Stillness was suspect.
For Babitz, though, Los Angeles’s uncanny, un-linear sense of time and space — in which, she writes in Slow Days’ first chapter, “it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one” — was an inspiration, maybe even a religion. Maybe the weather, the actors, the un–New Yorkness suggested, to the Serious Artistes of the time, a flimsiness, a lack of consequence, but Babitz saw what they didn’t: “Perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full.”
Embodying the city’s energy, Babitz defined not only Los Angeles but her own inimitable voice, one that seems on the surface whimsically casual — almost conversational — but whose sentence structures are too delicately artful, too impossibly precise to ever be considered effortless. Stillness was its own performance, too; as much as Babitz distrusted actors, this was still Hollywood. I often get the sense from Babitz’s writing that she tried hard to come off as though she hadn’t tried at all, a learned habit of charming women. “My book had come out,” she writes in Slow Days’ Emerald Bay chapter, “and this had put me out of the reach of a lot of old dumb questions and into the land of new dumb questions. But I wasn’t as used to the new dumb questions, so when men I had once thought of as wise daddies now asked me ‘How do you write?’ I did not try and spill red wine in their suede pants, I would just smile and say, ‘On a typewriter in the mornings when there’s nothing else to do.’”
I imagine this air of nonchalance about her work had something to with self-defense, a knowing guard against being taken as un-seriously as her hometown. Sure enough, much of what results from googling Babitz’s name relates to the aforementioned Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude — “a nude” being Babitz herself, age 20, photographed by Julian Wasser as the voluptuous opposite to a diminutive (and clothed) Marcel Duchamp. She did it because it was something to do, and to exact wordless revenge on a gallery owner boyfriend who didn’t invite her to an opening. The image is now embedded in postmodern art historical lore, but as Babitz wrote of the experience in a 1991 piece for Esquire under the highly revealing title “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art”: “If you’re the nude, being ‘art’ seems beside the point.” She describes being contacted years later to approve the photo’s use as the cover of a forthcoming book on Duchamp, responding with apprehension until being informed the image would be cropped to show Duchamp alone. “Mixed emotions hound me after nearly thirty years of mixed emotions. I want to be on the cover, immortal, but I don’t want anyone knowing it’s me. Except my friends and people who like it.” Who else could muse on the role of “muse” so exactly?
To read Slow Days, Fast Company uncritically is a sensory banquet of champagne, deviled eggs, caviar, quaaludes, and devastatingly glamorous Hollywood affairs, but what Babitz teaches you most about Los Angeles — fittingly, for such an advocate of negative space — is to read between the lines. The spaces between the chapters in Slow Days — between sentences, even, which sketch with dazzling precision scenes from her life’s most ravishing, redeeming moments — tell their own story. They speak to the things left unsaid when your closest friends keep overdosing and you’re on the brink of self-destruction yourself. “Squalid overboogie,” she later put it, yet again making a morbid scene sound like total delight. Writing about life after Jim Morrison for Esquire in another 1991 piece, she made clear that things were never as glamorous as they may have appeared: “Everyone was afraid of Manson (Jim looked like him in his obit picture in the Los Angeles Times), acid had suffered a defeat, and cocaine was up for a long, ugly ride ... I was in France in 1962 when Marilyn Monroe died, and now Jim was in France, dead, and I was nearly twenty-eight, unmarried, no future, no going forth in glory, only waking up at 3:00 a.m. with free-floating anxiety (which someone said was ‘the only thing floating around free anymore’).” By the ’80s, according to the people around Babitz, “overboogie” didn’t begin to cover it. Paul Ruscha, a former boyfriend (and brother of Ed Ruscha, another former boyfriend), recalls Babitz begging him to come over after blowing her book advance on cocaine: “I couldn’t believe what I saw. There wasn’t an inch of floor not covered in bloody Kleenex. The cats were running around high.”
And then in 1997, Babitz’s skirt caught fire from a cigar she was smoking while driving, engulfing her body in flames and covering the lower half of her body in brutal third-degree burns. “I got burned up by vanity and folly,” she told the Los Angeles Times, and while I imagine that was an attempt to make light of the situation as usual, part of me thinks she believes it. She hasn’t written since, and I want to imagine I understand why. Describing the end of an affair in the last chapter of Eve’s Hollywood, she plans the breakup like so: “What she wanted to do was to end it, but she wanted the finish to be so gorgeous that the whole episode would stand away from ordinary life as an enameled example of something handled as though someone cared, for once, for the shape of the thing, the form.” If you’re going to — for once, finally — get the chance to tell your own story, I dare anyone to stop you from making it goddamn beautiful.