This article is a preview of The LARB Quarterly, no. 33: “What Is L.A.?” Available soon by annual subscription.
I WAS AT a party in Hollywood when someone came out of the bathroom to say Eve Babitz had died. “I saw it on Twitter,” he said. “In the bathroom.” “She died in the bathroom?” someone said. “I thought she was already dead,” said someone else. Someone else said, “Who’s Eve Babitz?” (She was in town from the East Coast and so can be forgiven.)
It’s a commonplace in stories about Eve Babitz to point out the commonplaces in stories about Eve Babitz. Everyone knows about the nude chess game with Duchamp, immortalized in a famous photograph and years later brought down to earth in Babitz’s essay “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art”; the long list of lovers; the axiomatic one-liners by her and about her, especially the one most repeated in the days following her death: “Death, to me, has always been the last word in people having fun without you.” But there was nothing commonplace about Eve, whose style, as many remembrances have already intimated, is inimitable. She wasn’t like other girls, girls who fit neatly into her own Hollywood taxonomies (“I am quick to categorize,” she wrote, “and find it saves mountains of time”): sorority girls, all “similarly unique” with their matching cars, their particularities dissolving in “timeless flames of love”; boring girls entranced by “ordinary sunsets,” lulled into the dullness of heteronormativity and marriage. Driving to a boring girl’s boring wedding at the beginning of a story called “Sirocco,” Eve’s sights are set on another horizon: “I was sure that somewhere a grandiose carnival was going on in the sky and I was missing it.”
Babitz was an objective chronicler of ingenues, which had to mean she was not an ingenue herself. She was a genius. “She acted like a groupie,” the artist Ed Ruscha admitted, but she wasn’t a groupie: “she was so much of a personality.” In her essay “Ingenues, Thunderbird Girls, and the Neighborhood Belle: A Confusing Tragedy,” she’s the belle: the only singular entity among a sea of fungible copies and commodities, the individual beauty as unrivaled as Eden’s first woman. But she knew all about the Eves who came before her. She knew that the girl who says I’m not like other girls is herself a cliché: “the neighborhood belle is all I’ll ever be,” she realizes after identifying the type in a minor character in a movie; but she also insists she’s the only one who remembered that minor character, overshadowed for ordinary viewers by the starlet. She knew that worrying about missing a grandiose carnival in the sky was just as generic as being satisfied by ordinary sunsets, which may be why she announces, at the end of “Sirocco,” “I don’t even care if there’s some grandiose carnival in the sky I might be missing.” She was the stacked 18-year-old blonde who wrote to Joseph Heller, “I am a stacked 18-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer,” and she was also a writer. She had Emma Bovary’s flair for ridiculously dramatic flights of (white, bourgeois) femininity but instead of getting married she started writing for Rolling Stone. Like Emma Bovary, she wanted to know what the words bliss, passion, and ecstasy, which had seemed so beautiful in books, meant in real life, but unlike Emma Bovary, she’s the one who wrote the books. Another commonplace line in essays about Eve Babitz: “In every young man’s life, there is an Eve Babitz,” said the record company executive Earl McGrath. “It’s usually Eve Babitz.” She was an example of a type so perfect she was synonymous with the type itself, both the dancer and the dance. “Eve Babitz,” she might have said, “c’est moi.”
Did Babitz live in a simulacrum, a city that is as much of a fantasy as Madame Bovary’s romance novels? Was Eve’s Hollywood Eve’s Hollywood? Did she write autofiction? (“Everything I wrote was memoir or essay or whatever you want to call it,” she told her biographer.) Her writing was about Los Angeles, but also about everything. Her essays meander like conversation, like drifting across lanes on the freeway, then changing back again on second thought, sentences falling into place like vague driving directions. (She herself abhorred the freeway, “the convenient freeway” that left you “emptyhearted”: “It’s for if you don’t want to know about anything, you just want to get there,” the fast lane to death.) She marveled at the constant feeling of compression in New York: “there are no spaces between the words,” “like a tunnel where there’s no sky.” Not like Los Angeles, which, she wrote in an entirely unrelated piece, is “laid out like lace.” Her Los Angeles essays are full of spaces. Short paragraphs hang aimlessly. Phrases repeat on a lazy loop, like they’re looking for parking. The word “horrible” can appear twice in the same sentence, as if there’s no point in seeking out a better word when everything is so horrible. In an essay that begins with her father telling her as a 12-year-old girl on vacation in Mexico that she could not have a leopard skin with a bullet hole in its head, because “you can’t have everything,” it takes a couple paragraphs to retroactively refute the paternal proclamation with the example of Hollywood — “Hollywood where everyone knew you could have everything.” “Women are not prepared to have ‘everything,’” she wrote, reflecting on the death by overdose of Janis Joplin, “not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (where even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent).” Everyone wants a precedent, even when they won’t admit it, even when it’s an ordinary sunset. Elsewhere, she wrote, “What I wanted, although at the time I didn’t understand what the thing was because no one ever tells you anything until you already know it, was everything.” She also wrote, “I just wanted to be a girl.”
Babitz’s impatience with the feminine fantasies of her peers, those interchangeable ingenues, wasn’t born of the fact that she was different, but of the fact that she knew that, save for this self-knowledge, she was the same. She trains our gaze on her teenage body on the beach in a leopard-skin one-piece so that we know that she knows she could have been like any other hot girl if she wanted to. “To see me in this suit, in fact, with my long blond hair almost to my waist and breasts so spectacular that to this day I’ve never gotten a traffic ticket” was to know that the only reason she was shunned by the popular girls of Hollywood High “must have been something really demented in my attitude.” To want everything and to just want to be a girl, to want like Emma Bovary to die and to live in Paris, to despair when your married lover says he’s going to Brazil and will be back in a couple months (“‘Months!’ I moaned. We could all be dead by then”) — these are extreme examples of the genre of female complaint. Babitz’s writing is many things, but it’s also one thing: the record of what Lauren Berlant called, in The Female Complaint, “the constantly emplotted desire of a complex person to rework the details of her history to become a vague or simpler version of herself, usually in the vicinity of a love plot.” “Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates,” Babitz wrote, at once naturalizing gender and exposing it as a script, one that might be rewritten. She wasn’t like other girls; she was diagnosing them. But just because she knew what she was doing doesn’t mean she didn’t want to lose herself in what Berlant called “the drive to become unhistorical, to become general through repetition into convention,” to be the perfect epitome of the stacked 18-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard (but also the perfect epitome of a writer), to be the Eve Babitz in every young man’s life and also be Eve Babitz. Plenty of L.A. women have inspired songs, but only one was so singularly generic as to inspire the Doors’ “L.A. Woman.” (Her novel L.A. Woman is about a Jim Morrison groupie, Sophie, who is just another Eve.)
Berlant, who also died last year, once said their mother “died of femininity”: of waistline-friendly cigarettes, of stilettos, of backbreaking armfuls of designer clothing she hauled as a shopgirl for other women to try on. Driving home through Pasadena in 1997 Babitz lit a cigar (“a Demi Moore type of thing”), dropped the match into her lap, and set her gauzy skirt on fire; a tight-fitting wraparound, it proved impossible to remove and fused to her skin, which mostly fell off. She survived, but she stopped partying and publishing. It reminds me of how Medea, the sorceress of ancient myth spurned by her husband, sends his beautiful new bride a beautiful golden dress that’s poisoned; the other woman puts it on and dies, collapsed in a puddle of her melted skin. It also reminds me of a poem called “Love” by Lola Haskins, born the same year as Babitz: “She tries it on, like a dress. / She decides it doesn’t fit, / and starts to take it off. / Her skin comes, too.” There’s more than one way to die of femininity, but often we’re invited to watch a version of this same scene: the eternally ephemeral feminine, at it again. “Here’s what you would have witnessed,” begins Babitz’s 2019 essay, her first publication after the accident, recounting the experience and her months-long recovery. “A ’68 VW Bug comes to a stop, a woman flies out, skirt aflame.” A few sentences later: “That woman was me.” It’s as if she’s watching with us, indulging for a moment the idea that this woman could be any woman. It’s not; it’s Eve and no one else. Yet this Eve was herself an iteration. This wasn’t the first time she embarrassed herself naked in Pasadena, she reminds us: she had posed nude across the chessboard from Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum for that famous photo, that icon, that cliché.
Katie Kadue was born and raised in Los Angeles.