In 1961, a precocious young artist named Eve Babitz wrote a letter to “Catch-22” novelist Joseph Heller, seeking help getting her book published. “Dear Joseph Heller,” it began, “I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.”
Heller wanted to see more (of the book) and, when he got it, sent the manuscript to his publisher, who also wanted to see more (of the book). That book never materialized, but no matter. Babitz went on to become a successful writer and artist and a notorious Los Angeles “it” girl. In the new biography “Hollywood’s Eve,” Lili Anolik tells the wild story of Babitz’s life. It is a swooning, sometimes madcap look at Babitz, “the louche, wayward, headlong, hidden genius of Los Angeles” who has in recent years become something of a feminist icon.
Babitz was born in 1943 to haute bohemian parents. Her father was a violinist for the Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra; her mother was an artist. Igor Stravinsky was her godfather. Babitz grew up in a house where stars such as Fats Waller, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin made regular appearances. Her myriad lovers included Jim Morrison, Paul Butterfield and Harrison Ford; later, there would be relationships with Annie Leibovitz, Warren Zevon, Steve Martin and Ahmet Ertegun. During a brief spell on the East Coast, she found time to introduce Frank Zappa to Salvador Dali, testify about the benefits of LSD before a Senate committee and work briefly as a secretary.
Needless to say, Babitz is a consummate provocateur. “All I cared about anyway was fun and men and trouble,” Babitz wrote in her 1982 roman a clef “L.A. Woman.” She got her share of all three, and then some. At 20, she began a relationship with Walter Hopps, the older, married curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. Hopps had organized a groundbreaking 1962 pop-art survey and persuaded Marcel Duchamp to let the museum host his first retrospective. Devastated when Hopps put the kibosh on her attending that show’s opening — he took his wife instead — Babitz vowed that “if I could ever wreak any havoc in his life, I would.” She succeeded brilliantly a few days later, when she agreed to be photographed nude, playing chess with Duchamp (fully dressed) in the museum. The result was what Smithsonian archivist Paul Karlstrom called “one of the most famous photographs certainly in California art history.”
Soon enough there were more rock stars, more booze and drugs, a stint designing classic album covers for Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. In the early 1970s, burned out and aged out of the groupie lifestyle, Babitz turned her focus back to writing. A Rolling Stone article helped secure a book deal for “Eve’s Hollywood,” a collection of odes and aubades to Tinseltown that if published today might be categorized as autobiographical fiction.
Reading “Eve’s Hollywood” is like going on a bender with your smartest, sexiest friend and listening to her dish nonstop until you both collapse into glittering, gleeful exhaustion. Yet sales and reviews were modest, and Babitz wasn’t taken seriously as a writer.
“She was seen as this sexy girl who somehow got Seymour Lawrence to publish her book,” her agent recalled. (The fact she was sleeping with Lawrence didn’t help her credibility).
More books followed: The superb essays collected in “Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.,” considered her masterwork. The novels “L.A. Woman” and “Sex and Rage,” both of which fictionalized much of the same material as “Eve’s Hollywood.” “Black Swans,” a collection of autobiographical stories written after Babitz got sober. A book on tango and another on the Fiorucci fashion house. Then, in 1997, a horrific freak accident derailed her life — her clothing caught on fire and left Babitz with third-degree burns on much of her body, skin grafts and months of recovery. The spotlight-seeker became a recluse.
The appearance of Anolik’s new book — an expansion of a 2014 Vanity Fair article — is part of a mini Babitz renaissance. Last year a new edition of “Black Swans” was published, Emma Roberts chose “Sex and Rage” as her book-club choice this summer, and Hulu is developing a series based on “L.A. Woman.” Babitz is a popular subject of millennial Instagramming. But readers looking for new revelations about Babitz’s famously fractious life will have to wait.
Anolik warns us on the first page that “Hollywood’s Eve” is “a biography in the nontraditional sense; a case history as well as a cultural; a critical appreciation; a sociological study; a psychological commentary; a noir-style mystery; a memoir in disguise; and a philosophical investigation as contrary, speculative, and unresolved as its subject,” and “above all else: a love story.” It’s also somewhat of a hot mess, but then so was its subject in her heyday.
The book riffs on Anolik’s original piece, and too much of the rest is padding, some of it written in a style that embarrassingly apes Babitz’s. Anolik skims over Babitz’s post-9/11 turn to conservatism and seems oddly uncritical of the ’70s groupie culture that normalized relationships between older men and teenage girls. Babitz’s rape as an 18-year-old gets only a fleeting mention. Yet the sections on Babitz’s younger sister, Mirandi, are surprisingly compelling, with Mirandi — prettier and sweeter-natured than Eve but also prone to her addictive demons — providing a different, often darker, perspective on her older sister. But ultimately, the only writer who could do justice to this brilliant, unruly life story is Babitz herself.
Elizabeth Hand’s novel “Curious Toys” will be published later this year.
Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
By Lili Anolik
Scribner. 277 pp. $26