My Favorite Year: In Los Angeles with Eve Babitz in 1971




MEN DIDN’T CONQUER Eve Babitz, she conquered them — and wrote about it, in seven published books and assorted articles and stories. Not only did Eve repel unwanted advances, sometimes even an unwelcome opinion could evoke her wrath, which could just as well be a kick in the shins as a withering retort. One friend of mine refused to go to any party he feared might include Eve, having been withered by her once too often. The list of her conquests is long, and it includes me, in my year at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.

My plush year was thanks to the royalties of my first novel, Going All the Way, which hit the Time magazine best-seller list in 1970 and was a double main selection of the Literary Guild, alongside Michael Crichton’s Five Patients. As Lili Anolik, author of the loving and perceptive new book on Babitz, Hollywood’s Eve, reports, I was “riding high” when I met Eve.

My first week in Hollywood was blessed by two former neighbors who lived behind me on Ocean Front Walk in Venice when I started writing that novel two years earlier. John and Sandy Gibson were working in publicity for Atlantic Records when I landed at the Marmont, and they fixed me up with Eve. I met her in a bar two blocks from the Chateau and I knew when she smiled that this would be a dream year. She was flagrantly beautiful and proud of it. Her outfit was simple and direct, a very short skirt and a very tight sweater. I called my old friends from our New York days, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, to tell them my good news, which was Eve. Did they know her? The question was naïve. Everyone knew her.

“She’s known,” said John, “as ‘The Dowager Groupie.’”

She famously dallied with Jim Morrison of The Doors, and perhaps the whole of The Eagles, but never restricted herself to rock ’n’ roll. She first gained notoriety by posing nude with a fully clothed Marcel Duchamp as they both played chess for an Esquire photo when she was 20. She was a painter, did brilliant collages for the covers of the L.A. Times Sunday magazine, and created a gorgeous and insightful collage of Henry James for my birthday (he is looking at a woman whose body is made of sky), which I put on the cover of an issue of Ploughshares I edited. She bought a Brownie box camera and took wonderful pictures of parties and rock groups, adding a sepia tone to make them look old; one became a classic album cover for Buffalo Springfield. She created small “boxes” I thought were fabulous — like peeking into other worlds, other lives — but when she saw the boxes of artist Joseph Cornell, she stopped making her own, deciding his were in a league she couldn’t reach.

Eve lived just a mile or so from the Marmont — a pleasant walk down Sunset Boulevard to Formosa Avenue. That walk became my nightly routine that dream year, which I affirmed to Lili Anolik when she called to interview me for her piece on Eve in Vanity Fair. I told her it was “my favorite year, but I couldn’t have lived through another one.”

¤

Eve’s knowledge, it goes without saying, wasn’t limited to the ways of men and whatever she learned at Hollywood High and a casual year and half at Los Angeles City College. She was a fount of unexpected information, always teaching the men she captured, making no snobbish distinction between high and low art. I would go to her apartment on Formosa Avenue after my days messing with a screenplay of a novella I’d optioned (Dump Gull, by Fanny Howe), and I was likely to be greeted by an unexpected lesson in literature, practical psychology, pop culture, or history (mainly California, mostly the Southern part, primarily Los Angeles).

One evening Eve greeted me with a stack of books, accompanied by instructions: “Read these like they’re Proust, with recipes.” The books had intriguing titles like How to Cook a Wolf, With Bold Knife and Fork, Consider the Oyster. They were all by M. F. K. Fisher, the greatest writer of all who chose food as a subject for illuminating life.

Eve, like her mother Mae, was a great cook and had wonderful dinner parties with guests sitting on the floor, since there were only two lawn chairs in her apartment. At one of Eve’s dinners, her friend Diane brought her boyfriend, Chuck Berry, who spent the whole time photographing everyone with his new video camera. He never said a word, which was evidently not unusual. Diane told Eve that Chuck once drove her from Los Angeles to Mexico City and the only words he said during the trip were: “When were you born?” Diane told him, and he said, “That was the year ‘Maybelline’ came out.” The rest was silence.

One night, I arrived with breathless eagerness after Eve had shut me out for three days. I forget the infraction, but I must have neglected her in some way, probably by flirting with another woman. Having grown accustomed to spending every night with Eve, the exile was awful. Told I could return, I went back in a mad rush, clutching her to me for dear life when she opened the door. I confessed I had suffered and she nodded her approval, explaining that if a lover offended you — the worst offense being paying more attention to another man or woman — you had to treat him or her in a way that would really hurt.

“But when I like someone, I don’t want to intentionally hurt them!” I said, with my best Indiana Eagle Scout reasoning.

Eve took her signature stance of emphasis, making her hands into fists and sticking them into her waist, arms akimbo, as she uttered her tried and true behavioral psychology advice:

“Well,” she said, “you’ve got to make the effort!”

Eve introduced me to her favorite soap opera, All My Children — not just making me watch it but giving me a tutorial on Pine Valley, the fictional setting, and its cast of citizens.

“See that man?” she said, pointing to a dark-haired, middle-aged fellow on the screen. “That’s Nick Davis. Don’t trust him. He’s a real cad.”

Eve didn’t so much “introduce” me to the show, she indoctrinated me into it, to such an extent that, a few years later, I landed an assignment to write a piece about it for Esquire, and after meeting the cast and the creator, Agnes Nixon — ABC’s afternoon entertainment queen — I wrote a book about it, All Her Children.

Eve’s commentary on whatever TV she was watching was as slyly entertaining as her soap opera tutorials, a tongue-in-cheek appraisal of the media and its poses. One of the most all-pervasive car dealership commercials was from Los Angeles’s Cal Worthington, whose ads ended with the hammering refrain “Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal!” As one of these was airing, Eve stopped whatever she was doing, stuck her hands on her hips, and said, as if struck by a sudden insight, “I don’t trust that Cal Worthington…”

One early morning I woke to hear rumbling sounds, dishes smashing, a TV falling to the floor. From a deep sleep I tried to make sense of what was going on, first trying to orient myself to what city I was in after an extensive book tour — not Boston, not New York, not Cleveland or Chicago. Eve was beside me so it must be L.A. Oh my God, the rumbling beneath me and the flying objects gave more than enough clues to the fact that this was an earthquake! I jumped up and started grabbing my clothes and wrestling them on when Eve rose up and said, “What are you going to do — run to Boston?” I realized that was the wrong strategy, and got back on the mattress. Eve didn’t bother with a bed — a mattress on the floor was quite enough.

That year, John Dunne was working on his book Vegas and asked me to go with him to keep him company (if you aren’t into gambling or prostitutes, it’s the most boring place in the world). On some minor airline’s L.A.–Vegas hop, our small plane encountered big turbulence — the kind that makes you wonder if you’ll ever see home again. John was cursing his luck to “end it all on a commuter flight to Vegas.” I could only smile and say, “I can die happy — I spent last night with Eve.”

¤

Eve always woke before me and was often on the phone, sometimes talking to girlfriends with uncensored intimacy, never bothering to whisper. She evidently assumed that if my eyes were closed I was fast asleep. Not always. I was hearing the kind of “girl talk” I had never been privy to before. It was fascinating and sometimes shocking, once in a way that sat me bolt upright with an angry combination of revelation and resentment. She’d been talking to her pal Diane, who hated my guts, since I’d ridiculed some sappy young hippie guy Diane brought over the night before whom she wanted me to introduce to Kurt Vonnegut, explaining this kid was “a writer too.”

As I lay beside Eve, I heard her “defending me” to Diane.

“Well, he’s something different,” Eve said.

I was not a rock star — that was okay. But then she went on to compare my private parts to those of one of her rock stars, Jim Morrison, describing mine as a “nice” change for the smaller.

I was not asleep anymore.

My most private part (“private” no more!) was now the subject of discussion, and I was coming off second best — it sounded like a distant second best.

I bolted upright, pulling the sheet around me protectively, and shouted at Eve.

“For God’s sake!” I said.

“I have to go now,” she said to Diane, and mercifully hung up the phone.

I grabbed at my scattered clothes and started tugging them on.

Unlike her practical advice during the earthquake, it was no use now to ridicule the idea of my “running to Boston.” In my state of shock and embarrassment, it seemed like the only thing to do. I went back to the Marmont to sulk, abetted by a splash of morning bourbon followed by a splash in the Marmont pool. I banged out a couple of lines of my screenplay, hoping the effort would make me feel “professional.” There were messages from Eve, apologizing and asking forgiveness for her indiscretion, saying she had talked it all over with her mother and now she understood why I was upset.

Talked it all over with her mother! Now the whole family was in on it.

“My mother told me, ‘Men are very sensitive about that,’” Eve explained that night by way of apology. “You shouldn’t worry,” she went on, “yours is ‘Upper Middle Class.’”

Not in the same class as Morrison’s, it was clear.

Completely by accident, I met Jim Morrison a month or so later. Eve and I were at the Liquor Locker, next door to the Marmont, buying a bottle of something to take back to her place, when I saw her go up to a young guy who was scanning the labels of an array of wines. She jabbed a finger into his side and said, “Hi Jim!” as he jumped a foot off the ground.

“Eve,” he said, looking like he wanted to flee.

“This is Dan Wakefield,” she said, stopping him momentarily in his tracks, and saying to me, “Jim Morrison.”

I grabbed his hand (it was not especially large), shook it, and he fled.

I was just as glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a song — people said Eve was in “L.A. Woman,” and I’m glad The Doors never did a song called “Upper Middle Class.”

Dark clouds were blown away. Eve made her mother’s magical Chinese chicken recipe and took us to a picnic in a park after acid. I lay on the grass and looked up at the trees with leaves that glowed. It doesn’t get better than this, I thought.

She guided us to the best (not the most expensive, the best) restaurants — of course we went to the Hollywood classic Musso and Frank for sand dabs, to Ports, the neighborhood restaurant Eve discovered and championed where there was always a table for us (not until reading Anolik’s book did I know it became a haven of the biggest stars in the Hollywood firmament); we went to Laguna Beach in order to have dinner at the Victor Hugo, after I had read of its wonders described by M. F. K. Fisher, and of course it was worth the trip; next was San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, with its wooden circling porch, which we appreciated more because Henry James had extolled its beauty in The American Scene.

¤

I had made it a law to never be involved with a woman writer, for the very good reason that she might someday make me a thinly veiled character in one of those fictions of the kind that I liked to write about other people. One evening that seemed otherwise promising, she handed me some pages of writing and asked if I would send it to my agent.

“I thought you were an artist,” I said, meaning: You’re supposed to stay in your own territory, not come hopping over into mine.

If I refused to send her story — or essay, or whatever it was — to my agent, I knew I would be a cad, like Nick Davis on All My Children.

I didn’t read what she gave me, fearing it might be bad — or worse, good. I just did my gentlemanly duty and sent it to my agent, Knox Burger, who had discovered and first published Kurt Vonnegut when he was fiction editor of Collier’s. Being a gentleman and friend, Knox read Eve’s story and wrote her a two-page letter with instructions on how she might make it publishable. He sent me a carbon of his letter, which I thought seemed generous and kind. That night when I arrived on Formosa Avenue, I asked Eve what she thought of my agent’s letter. She took her stance of defiance and said, “I hope that Knox Burger burns in hell!”

Then she gave the story to our friend Joan Didion, who sent it to Grover Lewis, an editor at Rolling Stone. He published it without changing or eliminating a comma, much less a word. I was truly happy for Eve having that piece published, since it was about Hollywood High and had nothing to do with me. I didn’t really read it back then, but I have since. “The Sheik” was indeed brilliant, with sentences that Joan Didion — our greatest stylist — herself might not have been unhappy to have written:

When the weather gets like this and sometimes when I smell rain, the past appears in all its confusion and doubt and pleasure, and my high school days surface. They come dancing in like a well-rehearsed chorus line and, unlike most people my age who claim to recall Elvis when they think of high school or think of high school when they hear Elvis, I only see faces, clothes, and hear the laughter of the girls who went to my school, and the feelings — the aches and pirouettes and joys come not from music, books, fear of finals, hatred or love of teachers — but from the people who sat next to me or who I saw in the halls during the years I spent in Hollywood High.

¤

My “favorite year” was foredoomed or blessed to end at the start of the following year. I’d accepted, before leaving Boston, an invitation to teach the spring semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, beginning in January of ’72. As if in anticipation, my romance with Eve began to fray as our year drew to a close, but our friendship was sturdy enough for me to look forward to seeing her for dinner or lunch whenever I found myself again in her city. It was 1993 when we were having lunch at the Figtree’s, one of her recommended restaurants on the boardwalk in Venice, when she dropped the bomb.

“I have a book of stories coming out,” she said, “and the title story is about us.

The fresh OJ curdled in my throat.

“Oh my God,” I said, in fearful prayer.

“Don’t worry,” Eve said brightly, “I changed your name to ‘Walter!’”

In a gesture of true literary generosity she gave me a manuscript copy of the story to read. I rushed back to my room at the Venice Beach House. I was more than halfway through when an unexpected reaction hit me — “This is what she thinks happened!” I realized what any fool would know: that any partner in a relationship would see their time together in a whole other universe than their intimate mate.

I did complain about one aspect. “You said I broke all your wine glasses!” I told her. “It was only one!”

“Well,” she said, “it seemed like all of them.”

Back in Boston, I got a call from Eve a few months later to alert me that “our” story would appear before the publication of her book, Black Swans, in an L.A. magazine called Buzz. There was no need to tell me when that issue hit the stands. I got calls that day from three different friends in L.A. who were laughing gleefully as they called me “Walter” and said they had just read “[my] story.”

Our friendship, unsurprisingly, survived that, but I was shocked to hear in 1997 that Eve had narrowly survived a real tragedy. She had lit a cigar and dropped the match on a filmy skirt she was wearing. Third-degree burns covered more than half her body, and the pain was long and tortuous. An all-star cast of friends came to a fundraising party at the Marmont to help defray the monstrous costs of Eve’s medical treatment (she had no health insurance). Among the notables, Steve Martin (whom Eve had told to wear white suits) and Harrison Ford each pitched in $50,000. And yet, as Anolik tells us, “Whether from shame or pain or plain lack of interest, she stopped going out, turned increasingly inward, increasingly reclusive.”

Nevertheless Eve did come to a birthday party for me in Santa Monica in 2002, in her valiant VW bug, wearing a leopard-skin-patterned cat suit that covered her body from neck to hands to ankles. Her face was untouched and as lovely as ever, and her spirit was as buoyant as before, though her talk was not of books or music, but of her newly found passion for the state of Israel. Nothing else that afternoon seemed to hold any interest for her.

¤

All but two of her books are back in print — Eve’s Hollywood, Black Swans, Sex and Rage, L.A. Woman, and Slow Days, Fast Company. This unique and entertaining body of work is now crowned by Lili Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve. The only disagreement I have with Anolik’s book is her opinion that Slow Days, Fast Company is Eve’s best. For my own taste, nothing beats some of the essays in her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, with “The Sheik” and “Daughters of the Wasteland,” which lays waste the comfy East Coast putdowns of Eve’s beloved city. Her father, Sol, was a studio musician and leader of a local Bach violin group, so Eve and her sister Mirandi (née Miriam) grew up with great musicians and other artists:

Culturally, L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a “wasteland” and other helpful descriptions. […]

After all, there had to be some adversity in the middle of all that sunshine and money. And people like Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Thomas Mann and those kind of people weren’t completely talking to themselves in the bathroom for lack of friends.

Take that, you East Coast chauvinists!

Eve also lays waste the notion that intelligent, talented women who are also born beautiful need to hide their beauty to be taken seriously as artists and writers and musicians.

“In most high schools, you learn social things along with the rest of it,” Eve tells us in Eve’s Hollywood. “In mine, I learned irrevocably that beauty is power and the usual bastions of power are powerless when confronted by beauty.”

But you have to be confident to confront, otherwise beauty is just a mirage. You have to know what (or who) you want and be savvy enough and fearless enough to go after it. You have to believe. Like Eve.

¤

Dan Wakefield wrote the script for the movie based on his novel Going All the Way, starring Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz, and Rose McGowan. He created the NBC prime time series James at 15. The documentary film New York in the Fifties (available on Netflix) is based on Wakefield’s memoir of the same name.


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