Painting © Maria Przyszychowska from a Photograph by Julian Wasser
IN EVE BABITZ'S THIRD BOOK, Sex and Rage, the main character Jacaranda Leven comes upon a black-and-white photograph hanging in a grand Hollywood penthouse apartment, next to "a David Hockney swimming pool, and a huge pornographic watercolor by John Altoon." Shot by Julian Wasser in 1963, the image shows Marcel Duchamp playing chess in an art gallery with a voluptuous naked woman whose face is obscured by a curtain of dark hair. "The contrast between Duchamp's dried-out ancient little person and the large young girl's Rubenesque flesh," Babitz writes, "was not (unlike chess) at all subtle." Leven, an aspiring writer who, like all of Babitz's protagonists, is an obvious stand-in for the author, can't believe her host owns a print of this legendary photograph, while her host can't believe this surfer girl in thrift-store Dior has even seen it before. "She'd have to be an idiot," Jacaranda comments to the reader, "to spend all her time around artists and not know this photograph."
Jacaranda's creator, for her part, knew it well, for the naked girl is none other than Babitz herself, age 20. She'd agreed to this stunt proposed by Wasser to spite her married boyfriend, Walter Hopps, who had curated a Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and failed to invite her to the opening reception. Almost 50 years later, despite the fact that she went on to write a total of seven books, this staged chess match with Duchamp remains the single act Babitz is best remembered for, if she is remembered at all. Sex and Rage, like all of her books, is long out of print. Shockingly, most of them are not even in circulation in the Los Angeles Public Library system. A handful of titles can be found online, but these too reflect the degree to which Babitz's cultural cachet has overshadowed her reputation as an author: Her 1980 picture book on the New Wave Italian retailer Fiorucci, coveted by fashionistas, typically fetches $600 and up, but her last collection of stories, 1995's Black Swans, can be had for around $5.
This month, the iconic photograph with Duchamp — which has inspired both homages and feminist rants — is being exhibited in a Julian Wasser retrospective at the Craig Krull gallery in Santa Monica as part of Pacific Standard Time. This ongoing, citywide celebration of postwar art in Los Angeles can be credited with illuminating many forgotten movements and characters, and Babitz is one of them. She is also a central presence in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's juicy 1960s L.A. art-world history Rebels in Paradise, published in July. Drohojowska-Philp calls Babitz "my muse," and notes that her other admirers include Dave Hickey, Joie Davidow, and Joan Didion.
Indeed, as a woman writing about sixties and seventies Los Angeles, Babitz has inevitably drawn comparisons to Didion, though the contrast between their writerly personae could not be more stark. Busty and giggly, a daughter of Bohemian Hollywood Jews to Didion's Sacramento pioneer stock, Babitz was the type to lament the regrettable things those 14 White Ladies that she drank made her do, while Didion dispassionately added "Bourbon" to her list of things to pack for her business trip. And where Didion was one half of a celebrated literary couple, Babitz was the perpetually single party girl who floated from the early sixties art scene to the late sixties rock 'n' roll scene to the glitz and decadence of the seventies, picking up high-profile lovers like Ed Ruscha and Jim Morrison along the way. (Babitz's 1973 so-called "confessional L.A. novel," Eve's Hollywood, includes a dedication to "the Didion-Dunnes, for having to be who I'm not.")
Yet it was Didion who helped Babitz gain entrée to the then lucrative world of journalism by recommending her to an editor at Rolling Stone after reading "The Sheik," an essay about Hollywood High that is included in Eve's Hollywood. The titular Sheik, of course, is Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood High's mascot, and in this vivid, breathless piece, Babitz muses on the currency of physical beauty at her alma mater, where her classmates were "the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams." Among these high school belles there was Carolyn, whose beauty rendered "ordinary heiresses with American fortunes" passé:
Carolyn had inherited orange and pink sunsets on turquoise oceans and a couch carved of sandalwood, a husband of mythical wealth and peculiar and subtle tastes. She was a captive in the Sheik's harem ... Was she staring into another country? Was it warmer?
But Carolyn, like so many pretty faces before and since, possessed no other gifts to speak of, and the story ends with Babitz sitting on a barstool at the Troubadour, learning that this girl who once "owned the colors" has OD'd, and is twice divorced and unhappy. "Now, no one will sit, staring into Persia," she concludes sadly.
What truly sets Babitz apart from L.A. writers like Didion or Nathanael West — another Hollywood chronicler she's sometimes lazily lumped in with — is that no matter what cruel realities she might face, a part of her still buys the Hollywood fantasy, feels its magnetic pull as much as that Midwestern hopeful who heads to the coast in pursuit of "movie dreams." Hollywood is home for Babitz, who was raised by an artist mother, Mae, and a classical violinist father, Sol, who was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. But one senses that she believes this was a lucky turn of fate, not an ironic inheritance, and that she would prefer to remain dazzled by her surroundings and optimistic about the possibility of real magic — or romance — occurring.
Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential fallen Angeleno, is a recurring figure in the Babitz oeuvre. In 1982's L.A. Woman, Sophie Lubin, who had been fond of "dawdling" along Hollywood Boulevard as a girl, recalls the hot summer day when she came upon Marilyn in the flesh, kneeling in a polka dot dress and pressing her hands into the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater. "Bombs bursting in air couldn't have been more like American poetry," Sophie marvels. Years later, in Rome, when the Italian papers inform her that "Marilyn e Morta," she reflects, "I'd been waiting for her to show up somehow again all that time and suddenly, she just stopped in her frame and her images went on without her."
It's a simple observation that captures the surreal quality of our relationships with celebrities: Even in death, they remain alive to us. Nearly as uncanny is the fact that the observation was made by "Sophie," who is only distinguished from Babitz by the fact that she is in Rome when the news arrives about the star's death, while Eve had actually been with her family in the "bourgeois" town of Nimes, France, when the headlines blackly proclaimed: "Marilyn Est Morte!" — a fact recounted in Eve's Hollywood. For Babitz, who believed she was Roman "by constitution," maybe it was just a matter of the ritualistic glamour and guilt of the Papal city better suiting her mood.
In her fiction, Babitz never strayed far from her own experience; she circles her history, revisiting it but never quite rewriting the narrative. Always, her Trotskyite parents are present, hosting parties with the Stravinskys (Igor was her godfather); so is a younger, thinner sister (real name: Mirandi, whose claim to fame was sewing Jim Morrison's leather pants), a mean cat, a wealthy best friend whose parents didn't approve of her, and a cast of mystical surfer boys with luminous eyes and skin. Then there's the year spent in New York, the experiments with acid and then, getting sober. Hopps appears in L.A. Woman as a curator named Harry, who was "as close as I ever came to a genuine Jewish doctor like my grandmother from Kiev hoped I'd marry."
As it turned out, Babitz never married at all. (She was among Ed Ruscha's Five 1965 Girlfriends, but it was Danna Knego, also part of that roster, who became the artist's wife.) Babitz's stories are populated with film producers and mysterious international millionaires, cowboys, poets and addicts, who fly her around the world (or at least take her to Bakersfield or Palm Springs) and woo her with adoration, free drugs and empty promises. In Slow Days, Fast Company (1977), we meet Shawn, a perfect male specimen of ambiguous sexuality who "lumped all love together and was drawn to whatever burned hottest, which was usually me."
In the nineties she wrote a few long-form tell-all pieces for Esquire, reminiscing about sleeping with Morrison, whom she compared to "Michelangelo's David, only with blue eyes." In another article called "I Was a Naked Pawn For Art," Babitz bared all about the legendary chess match, the Ferus Gallery scene, and her dubious position as Hopps' mistress.
One doesn't get the sense that Babitz took writing — or was it herself? — especially seriously. If she were starting out today she might be a blogger, analyzing culture and her personal life for a pop-feminist site like Jezebel. (Not that she wasn't bookish: she revered Colette, M.F.K. Fisher, and Henry James, and named her alter ego Jacaranda because "those lavender flowers, like cotton candy clouds," were Vladimir Nabokov's favorite thing about Los Angeles.) But she never seems to have fully owned her identity as a writer. "She only wrote to do something during the day," Jacaranda claims in L.A. Woman, noting how the people in her life discouraged her from pursuing this craft. "The women, one by one, took her into the bedrooms of parties and said, 'Don't write, darling. It's not nice.'"
Sadly, for the last fifteen years or so Babitz seems to have taken that advice to heart. Sitting onstage with Drohojowska-Philp at the Hammer Museum this past summer, the smile playing upon her lips and her girlish voice the last vestiges of the sex symbol she once was, Babitz explained the fact that she stopped writing with a shrug, saying, "After my accident I don't feel like doing it." The "accident" was in fact a freak fire that occurred while she was driving, when a lit cigarette dropped in her lap and caused her skirt to go up in flames, severely burning her entire body except her face and hands. This was in the mid-nineties, and Babitz spent six months in the burn ward recovering. She later successfully sued the manufacturer of the skirt with the support of friends like Didion, but she has published nothing since. Drohojowska-Philp, who was in a book group with Babitz after the accident, reveals that she wrote a memoir about her time in the hospital, but, she says, "I think she became afraid of publishing it; she walked away from it."
In the absence of a statement from the author herself, it's impossible to know if Babitz feels bitter about the turn her life and career have taken, or if she has regrets about her past. No doubt it's hard enough to be a former "It" girl without having the option to age gracefully taken away from you. The fact of her silence leaves only questions. There's a piece in Eve's Hollywood called "A Confusing Tragedy," which tells the story of a girlhood friend named Sally, another promising ingénue "whose whole future ... just trickled away like the gold dust in 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre.'" Yet Babitz, in her inimitably sunny way, refuses to see her friend's fate as any kind of portent for her own future. "Sally's gone with Death, and the Neighborhood Belle will probably have to get old and die instead of just die no matter how many towns she skips. But maybe winter won't ever come," she continues, foolishly or hopefully, depending on your perspective. "And now what, my darling, will you have to drink?"