The Glamour Machine: Eve Babitz’s Los Angeles
By Kim FayJune 19, 2017
Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz
The Lytton Savings building is located on Sunset Boulevard, and the City of West Hollywood had been willing to consider ways to integrate it into a new mixed-use development until a plan by Frank Gehry came along. Gehry is the Goliath in this L.A. story, pitted against a David whose greatest claim to celebrity may be no more than a passing mention in Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. Babitz didn’t even name the Lytton Savings building, but rather casually described it as “a respectable savings and loan institution.”
As for the reason Babitz mentioned this building? What goes around comes around — she was writing an essay about the legendary Garden of Allah hotel, home to Robert Benchley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, and a host of equally storied luminaries. The hotel was torn down in 1959 to make way for Lytton Savings. Granted, it was on the skids. The guest list had lost its gleam, and the cool kids were staying across the street at the Chateau Marmont. It was only natural that the Garden of Allah be given the old heave-ho, the way most things that go out of style in Los Angeles are jilted, ignored until they are either destroyed or the trendsetters decide they have value again.
In the case of the long-neglected Eve Babitz, the trendsetters have comprised a meaty combo of an out-of-town publisher (New York Review Books Classics) and, more germane to Los Angeles’s modus operandi, a powerhouse pair of former Sony executives who want to make a TV series out of her books. Did Babitz deserve to be brought to the attention of the respectable publisher that recently revived Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company, the latter with an introduction by Los Angeles Review of Books contributing editor Matthew Specktor? Absolutely. But not because her work is ripe for adaptation — good luck scripting the stealthy gravitas that gives her electric style its viability.
Eve Babitz is a Los Angeles legend. She notoriously slept with Jim Morrison, and for the photographer Julian Wasser, she posed nude playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, the result being one of the most iconic images in modern art history. She took revenge on a man by peeing in a dish of guacamole. She took Quaaludes and drank buckets of tequila, too. All those antics are the stuff of 15 minutes of fame, no matter how long it drags on, but Eve Babitz is also an original writer and, more importantly, a smart social observer. That her books were out of print for so long is a literary crime.
The Library of Congress lists Slow Days, Fast Company as fiction. The press release for the New York Review of Books reprint describes it as “autobiographical sketches.” In a 1977 article in the Los Angeles Times, when Babitz was asked if her characters in this book are real or not, she said, “I sort of stick people together. They’re not any one person. Then I run ’em through my glamor machine.” Whether fiction, nonfiction, or somewhere messy in between, the key to Babitz’s work is “the glamor machine,” the crucial element for the cliquish following this book in particular has maintained. In Slow Days, Fast Company, Babitz blended a colorful palette of sex, drugs, parties, Hollywood, and buoyant Eve-isms that feel exquisitely quotable until one realizes how much they rely on context. She is invigorating if dizzying to read, but the downside is that her style can also serve as a smokescreen for her intellect.
Her literary persona may have been that of a party girl, but Babitz comes from highbrow stock. Her godfather was the composer Igor Stravinsky, her lovers were among the West Coast’s most acclaimed artists and curators, and her spiritual companion was Virginia Woolf, who often appears in unexpected places in her writing, such as the essay “Bad Day at Palm Springs” about a Valium-and-rum-fueled escape to the desert:
But when we got to Shawn’s, I had Nikki with me, so I couldn’t very well read (although, by god, I’d bought a dandy new yellow book called Granite and Rainbow, and since I’d already re-read The Common Reader over and over, you can imagine how the promise of this new bunch of essays lurked in my brain).
During this same trip, and with equally breezy and diverting flair, Babitz laments that “the Stones were dropping their beer-can music all over the pure, Georgia O’Keeffe landscape.” In an essay on the Santa Anas, she criticizes a young actress interested in writing: “In fact, she’d never even read Pride & Prejudice or Catch-22.” And when asked by the Los Angeles Times about her inspiration, she praises the venerable food writer M. F. K. Fisher and declares, “I wish I could write like her.”
Babitz was in her mid-30s when Slow Days, Fast Company was published. The personal era it captures is not the free-wheeling youth she chronicled in Eve’s Hollywood. “So there I was,” she muses toward the end of the book, “putting my groceries in the back of the car, waving good-bye to Mary. Alone in the twilight outside the Arrow Market, all at once not knowing, at the age of twenty-nine, what any of the main givens were: love, money, or beauty. To say nothing of truth, of course.”
She wrote from a place of introspection, despite how light her prose feels, and the best sample of her depth of field is the essay “Bakersfield.” It starts in typical Babitz fashion: there is a guy. Frank is living in London when he comes across an article by Babitz in an alternative newspaper. Writing to her, he tells her the article “explained California much better than he could” to his English friends. For the next six months, they correspond. The seductive thing for Eve is that Frank gets her, even though he is not from her la la land of yogurt, French cafes, and jacaranda trees. He is from Bakersfield, the home of Merle Haggard and farm workers. When she learns that he plans to return there once he finishes his cosmopolitan London studies, she is baffled and declares this “beyond the realm of possibility.”
Yet Frank does return, and because Eve is an adventuress, she drives up to visit him for a weekend at his father’s ranch. She makes witty observations about the lack of diet cola and platform shoes in this flat farmland two hours north of Los Angeles, but her froth hides substantial commentary about a landscape that “looked as it must have always looked,” women with no extra energy “beyond their children or their particular geography,” and the tension between advocates of Cesar Chavez and the unions:
First I’d abandoned [grapes] for Chavez, and now that the unions had won, grapes were out of my income bracket. I asked if the ones [Frank] had brought me were Union grapes and he told me they’d been picked by the Teamsters.
My immediate hunch was that the Teamsters management stepped in, after Chavez did all the work, and skimmed off the cream. Chavez, after all, was the first man to be able to organize farm labor and it didn’t seem fair. (Maybe the Teamsters seemed more American to the farm workers than Chavez did with his Gandhian fasts and no money. Maybe if he’d got himself a nice house with a pool and air conditioning, they would have stayed with him. And maybe their leader — who seems so glamorous to me — seems like a naïf to them for not using his power to get a limousine. If I were a unionized farm laborer and paying dues, I’d like to know that my leader was every bit as scary as the boss and not some vulnerable saint.)
Babitz’s approach makes it seem as if these are offhanded observations, but there is undeniable knowledge of politics and human nature in these two paragraphs. She was clearly interested in the Chavez-Teamsters issue. She remarks on it throughout the essay, just as she returns to the idea of that which is “exotically American,” a fixation that also anchors another penetrating piece in the book, “Dodger Stadium.”
Slow Days, Fast Company consistently reveals Babitz’s fascination with America, which she considered a place apart from Los Angeles. Out in America, there was chivalry and masculinity, and at one point in “Bakersfield,” she wants to “weep tequila tears for the inevitable extinction of certain American boys on horseback.” But for all her sentimentalizing, as she drives home, climbing “the hills that separated me from the rest of the country,” she clearly prefers Los Angeles to America.
While I don’t consider Los Angeles the be-all, end-all of American cities, I do feel it is the city where I most belong. I had lived here for nearly a decade before I realized this, back in 2008. Once I understood I was going to stay, perhaps for the rest of my life, I went on a binge, needing to read all things Los Angeles. This is how I discovered Babitz. My dear friend, the writer Janet Brown, recommended her work. I hit the library, read her first three books in two days, and wrote an exuberant blog post, as if I was the first person to discover her.
I became addicted (to both the city and the writer). I have paid too much for a Buffalo Springfield album at the Melrose Trading Post because Babitz designed the cover, and upon discovering a mass market of Slow Days, Fast Company for $5 at a bookstore in Ventura, I ran to the front counter, threw my money down, and raced away before the clerk figured out that the rare volume could only be found at online sites for hundreds of dollars. Over the years, I have reread Babitz to understand the nuances of Los Angeles. I have reread her for the buzz. And as I reread Slow Days, Fast Company in November during the election and its fallout, I reflected on her take on the divide between “us” and “them” that imperils our country at this moment in time.
Reading Babitz in this new way reminded me of why I like the Los Angeles Conservancy: it is committed to adaptive reuse. The organization is not trying to block progress. It believes in making the past a part of the future. It wants the Lytton Savings building to be incorporated into a mixed-use development, and if Eve were an architectural landmark, I believe it would not want her to remain trapped in the amber of the 1960s and ’70s. Her work is not a time capsule like that of John Fante, Raymond Chandler, and even Joan Didion. With her shrewd observations on Americanness, judgment, sophistication, baseball fans, and the unpaid masses (not to mention friendship and fame), Eve Babitz preserves yesteryear and at the same time broadens our scope on the world, the flesh, and Los Angeles today.
Kim Fay is the author of the historical novel The Map of Lost Memories, an Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel, and the food memoir Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam. She is also the series editor of the “To Asia With Love” guidebooks. From Seattle, she lived in Vietnam for four years in the mid-1990s, and she has been traveling regularly to Southeast Asia for more than 20 years. She now resides in LA.
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