JUNE 19, 2017
EACH SPRING, across Los Angeles, the jacaranda tree is luminous with papery purple flowers. Los Angeles transplants are surprised, enchanted by these bright blossoms. Suddenly, they see what every native Angeleno sees: the city as West Coast dream, Hollywood storybook. With its mishmash architecture, its overgrown succulents, and its flowering vines, Los Angeles is otherworldly, even a little mysterious.
A jacaranda tree features in Eve Babitz’s apartment courtyard. Babitz writes about it in Slow Days, Fast Company (1974): “All those lavender flowers, like cotton-candy clouds.” She worries, “are all my occasional romances to fall to the ground after a month or so, like the jacaranda flowers?” Bright against the gray Los Angeles sky, the untenable, bewitching jacaranda makes for an appropriate stand-in for Babitz herself. When the publisher sent Annie Leibovitz to photograph Babitz for her best-selling debut Eve’s Hollywood, Babitz was dressed only in a bra, underwear, and a feather boa. She knew what kind of subject she wanted to be.
Born and raised in Hollywood, Babitz grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals. She had numerous famous paramours: Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, Jim Morrison — yes, she is that L.A. Woman. She seduced both Ruscha brothers (Babitz is one of the girlfriends in Ed Ruscha’s book Five 1965 Girlfriends). For a moment, she worked at Atlantic Records designing rock album covers; her most famous was a collage for the 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again. Her first big writing break was helped along by none other than Joan Didion. Yet perhaps she is most well known for posing in the infamous photo “Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude”: 20-year-old Babitz opposite a pensive, aging Duchamp. She is softly voluptuous, dimpled, hair in her face, feet crossed at the ankle.
If her first two books, both in first person, cemented her image as the Edie Sedgwick of the 1960s L.A. party scene, then her third book, Sex and Rage, written in third person, was an attempt to examine her own celebrity. Jacaranda Leven, a fictionalized Babitz, is a surfer-party girl turned writer. Over the course of the novel, she snags a big-time agent and a snazzy book deal, and she both gains and loses several lovers. When it was published in 1979, Sex and Rage was marketed as Babitz’s first novel, and the reviews were not kind. For many critics, the subject of Los Angeles, of Babitz herself, had become predictable, even tiresome. Furthermore, contrary to its title, Sex and Rage is not even a provocative book, per se. Kirkus called it a “trendy, self-involved frolic.” Sex and Rage has everything 1979 readers had come to expect from Babitz — art parties in the canyons or near the beach; rocks stars mingling with peasants; cocaine and Quaaludes, brandy and acid trips — richly described if redundant of her earlier work. Some moments in the novel are so self-aggrandizing that they make the reader squirm, such as when Jacaranda is invited to party at the elegant and unobtainable Max Winterbourne’s penthouse: “There was art all over the walls. Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, a David Hockney swimming pool, and a huge pornographic watercolor by John Altoon.” Yet, the photograph “Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude” is the one that everyone admires. Babitz writes,
The contrast between Duchamp’s dried out ancient little person and the large young girl’s Rubenesque flesh was not (unlike chess) at all subtle: This photograph was the only thing on Max’s walls that people actually looked at; even Altoon’s pornography was a little too tasteful to arouse real interest.
Yes, Evie, we know — everyone is looking at you.
Nonetheless, Sex and Rage reveals a more self-conscious Eve Babitz. As Jacaranda spirals on an alcohol bender, Babitz writes, “The more someone liked her writing, the fewer clothes she felt she had on.” From the beginning — waiting for Leibovitz in that bra and underwear, feather boa draped around her shoulders — Babitz perpetuated the image of a provocative, sexed glamour girl with an abundance of confidence — someone who was unashamed to be a sexual creature, seemingly willing to bare all. This feeling of insecurity drives Jacaranda to drink, and soon she is a full-blown alcoholic. She becomes convinced of her doom, of not being good enough. “New York was so public.” Babitz writes. “Everyone would look at her and know.”
Sometimes, an author transcends the line between writer and work, emblematizing an era, such as how one can walk into the Library Bar downtown and order a Hemingway Daiquiri, why there is an Amazon series about Zelda and F. Scott, or the phenomenon of lugging one’s books in a tote emblazoned with an image of Joan Didion holding a cigarette and looking delightfully contemptuous. Babitz too has become larger than her oeuvre, a sort of colophon of her own work.
Babitz’s iconic status is why Jacaranda is such a fascinating character. She signals Babitz’s fear of time passing, of being an almost former it-girl. “So many of the ones like her, the ones who were brought aboard to amuse the barge, disappeared,” Babitz writes: “They O.D.’d on Quaaludes and Tuinals or got hepatitis and had to retire forever.” At 28, around the same age Babitz was when Eve’s Hollywood was first published, Jacaranda knows the party will eventually end. Toward the close of the novel, she muses,
It was all gone. She knew she’d never be able to see Dobson & Dolloway for the first time, she’d never get scared of Wally Moss and hide in the ladies’ room putting on lip gloss, she’d never be able to not go someplace because Max was there […] And she’d never ever see New York in this euphoric condition. And she and Wini would probably never have dinner on Fifty-second Street in that Japanese restaurant for as long as they lived. The first time was all gone.
From someone who lived like quicksilver, this sorrowful recognition of innocence lost punches hard. How disappointing it must have been for Babitz to acknowledge in her work the delicate nature of her fame only to have it be poorly received. To be called out for being passé is a bitter affirmation of her fear.
What makes this parallel between author and character all the more haunting is that we know how it ends. The 1960s for Babitz had been something of a muse. The Sunset Strip was a near-constant party, and Hollywood was overflowing with drugs and actors and artists and the jet set. Babitz had lived among them anonymously and produced two well-received books, but as her fame grew, she could no longer be the spy of the beautiful. She writes in Sex and Rage,
All her life she’d skated along making most people think that she was not really there and would never be able to remember what she saw, or put it together afterward even if she did. But now people who had read her pieces were careful not to leak any secrets that weren’t souped up.
The 1980s brought even more change: the music industry, the publishing industry, Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip all moved on from Eve Babitz’s party. And then, following a freak accident in the 1990s (cigar ash sent her skirt up in flames, leaving half her body terribly burned), Babitz stopped writing.
Babitz does not give interviews. She will not likely be doing a book tour. Babitz’s agent told the Guardian last year, “There was a musical, whispery ease about Eve’s writing, but also the possibility that it could all melt away.” Similar to its author, Babitz’s writing is also like the jacaranda tree in glorious bloom — bewitching an entire city, but all too brief. Such a tree stands in my own front yard. Bees and hummingbirds visit its purple fluted flowers. I know the buds will drop soon, that they will make a mess of the sidewalk, and that I will not be able to look away.
Liska Jacobs holds an MFA through the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Hairpin, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Her debut novel, Catalina, will be out Fall 2017 from MCD X FSG Originals.