JANUARY 14, 2019
IF ANYONE COULD WRITE about Eve Babitz and do her justice, it’s Lili Anolik. When Anolik first began writing about Babitz back in 2012, very little material was available. Her books, out of print, could be difficult to track down. Interviews were sparse, and Babitz herself was known to be a recluse — if she was known at all. But Anolik’s 2014 Vanity Fair piece, “All About Eve — and Then Some,” changed all that.
Simultaneously biography, cultural history, and detective story, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. is first and foremost a love story. Anolik isn’t shy about it, letting us know on page one that this isn’t going to be your average life story. And why should it be? Eve Babitz herself dodges simple categorization. Her writing dances between enthusiasm and droll wit, fiction and autobiography. And like any good, realistic love story, Hollywood’s Eve is complicated, inspiring both elation and outrage, intellectual camaraderie and bitter disagreement. Anolik’s years of research, recorded interviews, and passionate reading and rereading of Babitz’s work give the book its heft, but it’s her overt subjectivity — her uncompromising affection for her subject — that makes Hollywood’s Eve sing.
Anolik tackles her subject matter with a relaxed, conversational tone, and is as present in this book as Babitz herself. She speaks directly to us, inviting us into her exploration of Babitz and her milieu. It’s not easy to confront your literary idol head on, as it turns out. Despite years of interviews, their relationship remains uncomfortable, only achieving a true rapport over the phone. Anolik confides in her readers, sharing her doubts, hesitations, and fears of what she might find on this journey. We come to know her through her analysis, and her asides and opinions work to create a conspiratorial bond with her reader. Though heavy authorial intrusion is normally aggravating, here it is both endearing and an apt stylistic homage to Babitz’s own voice and writing style.
If you know anything about Babitz, it’s probably the fact that she knew everyone. Her Rolodex is so star-studded that, at times, Babitz the person can get lost inside Babitz the persona. The combined effect of so many famous names threatens to obscure the intelligent, idiosyncratic, erratic young woman in their midst. Anolik combats this from the start. Beginning Hollywood’s Eve in the second person, she asks us to step into the 16-year-old Babitz’s shoes, circa 1959. Painstakingly yet playfully, she brings Eve Babitz, in all of her complexities, to life.
But the famous names are there too. She describes Babitz’s iconic Pasadena Museum of Art photo shoot with Julian Wasser and Marcel Duchamp in glorious detail. We nibble on the anecdotes: Babitz introduces Frank Zappa to Salvador Dalí. She puts Steve Martin in the white suit. She mentions her godfather, Igor Stravinsky, and is a regular at dinner parties chez Didion-Dunne. We’re also served the usual inventory of the notches on her bedpost — Walter Hopps, Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, Paul Ruscha, and Annie Leibovitz, to name but a few. These facts are relevant because her life fueled her fiction, yet it’s refreshing to see Anolik sidestep the now-customary practice of burying the lede — that Babitz was exceptional regardless of whom she knew.
It would be all too easy to slot Babitz into the cultural consciousness as a West Coast Edie Sedgwick, because that’s what she could have become, had she not turned to writing. But unlike Sedgwick, Babitz was not a star-fucker. “The stars she was fucking she was fucking when they were still earthbound, celestial ascension but a dream,” Anolik writes in defense of Babitz’s pure, lusty intentions. She went home with people “for the fun of it, for the thrill of it, for the hell of it. Never, though, for the prestige of it.” Moreover, her substance-fueled hedonism was part of her artistic practice. Anolik compares Babitz to an amalgamation of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, “out of control and debauched once the sun set, disciplined and focused once it arose, ready to cast a cold eye on the previous night’s antics, reap the fruits of her beauty and daring.”
Throughout Hollywood’s Eve, Anolik goes a step further than the stampede of articles that have followed her 2014 piece. Dropping the veil of fiction, she identifies the key players in Sex and Rage, revealing the venomous Max as the ubiquitous Earl McGrath and Etienne Vasily as Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. More importantly, Anolik reveals Babitz’s own take on her work. Babitz’s blurring of the line between genres calls to mind the faddish term “autofiction,” but neither Babitz nor Anolik make use of it. “Everything I wrote was memoir or essay or whatever you want to call it,” Babitz said. “It was one hundred percent nonfiction. I just changed the names.” Sending off her first story, “The Sheik,” she says, “I thought it was an essay, but Rolling Stone saw it as fiction, and that was fine with me.” Anolik goes on to fact-check Babitz’s assertion that Hollywood High was a lush corral for would-be starlets (it was), affirm the way she blew through her book advances (first on a round of caramel custard for everyone at Musso and Frank’s, then so much cocaine that her living room was transformed into a sea of bloody kleenex), and tease out the fraught relationship between Babitz and her younger sister, Mirandi. Though Babitz would immortalize her childhood home on the corner of Cheremoya and Chula Vista as paradise — filled to the brim with Old Hollywood stars and studio jazz musicians, as well as bookcases stocked with Proust, M. F. K. Fisher, and Virginia Woolf — Anolik offers a parallel narrative through Mirandi’s eyes. Ignored by her parents, bullied by her older sister, and assaulted by their handyman Mr. Sorenson, a gritty drunk who lived in the shed at the back of their yard, Mirandi was decidedly not in paradise. Here we see the other side to Babitz most acutely: her determined self-centeredness.
However, when Anolik turns on Joan Didion, she loses me. It was Didion who launched Babitz into the literary scene, recommending her to editor Grover Lewis as a new contributor to Rolling Stone when she herself was locked into a contract with Life. Of course, Anolik didn’t invent the rivalry. Babitz herself defines herself in contrast to Didion in her eight-page dedication to Eve’s Hollywood, somewhat derisively thanking “the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I am not.” And in Black Swans she confides that she “wanted to look up to and admire men, not be like Joan Didion, whose writing scared the hell out of most of the men [she] knew.” Anolik argues “that Eve’s entire literary career was a response to, nay, a rebuttal of Play It as It Lays.” Pages are spent criticizing Didion’s “dismal view,” and Anolik even includes an interlude in which Eve responds to her “respectful but tough” Vanity Fair article on Didion in the 1960s and ’70s by “crow[ing], ‘You did it! You killed Joan Didion! I’m so happy somebody killed her at last and it didn’t have to be me!’” Both Anolik and Babitz are entitled to their opinions, but it’s troubling to see, yet again, a reinforcement of the idea that women are always in direct competition, that there’s not room enough for everyone to create and succeed. Even in light of the fact that Didion is lionized as a literary titan while Babitz has spent most of her life as a relative unknown, the either-or feels cruelly reductive. Can we not have both? To accept Los Angeles as a place that contains both Babitz’s lush, breezy idylls and Didion’s cool, apocalyptic wastelands is to see the city as it is.
Like many other millennial women, I found Eve Babitz in the mid-2010s. Anolik’s Vanity Fair profile had worked its magic, and NYRB Classics had reissued Eve’s Hollywood in 2015 and Slow Days, Fast Company in 2016. Counterpoint Press kept the ball rolling with Sex and Rage in 2017 and Black Swans in 2018, their bold color-blocked covers dominating #bookstagram scrolling. Suddenly Eve Babitz was everywhere. Anolik positions this snowball effect as a discovery, rather than a resurgence, of Babitz’s work, and she takes full credit for it. Carefully cataloging a slew of dismissive reviews from the literary powers that be, Anolik claims that “Eve wasn’t being rediscovered because to be rediscovered you must first be discovered, and she never was, not properly.” So why now? Babitz’s tales seem counterintuitive in the era of #MeToo. “It used to be only men who liked me, now it’s only girls,” Babitz said in response to her deferred success. It’s near the end of the volume that Anolik offers what is, to me, the most convincing explanation for Babitz’s continuing appeal, despite our changing attitudes. In 1966, Babitz is 23 and living in New York City. She writes to Mirandi:
These days I’m trying very hard to figure out what it is I’m doing. I’ve thought of a lot of things and one day the thought that I might never live with a man or get married dawned on me. I thought in my mind that there are only three men I got smashed on anyway and two of them were inaccessible (Brian and Chico) and the third was John Barry [an artist], for some reason. And then I got a letter from John Barry. So he wants me to come to Oklahoma, drop everything and marry him and live in Oklahoma. Only, shit! Heaven forbid — Oklahoma! My god! So it turns out I can’t do it.
Yes, she’s brash. Yes, she’s a sexual aggressor. She’s lived her life on her own terms from start to finish, and that power is seductive. As a reader, as a woman, I want to unlock that level of self-assurance and uncompromising, triumphant authenticity. Yet even Eve Babitz wasn’t always so certain. As Anolik puts it, “To be Eve Babitz is a daunting prospect even if you happen to be Eve Babitz.” Like the best of Babitz’s own writing, Anolik’s biography shows us Eve in her raw entirety.