Two things about Eve Babitz and Eve’s Hollywood after she’s gotten done with her dedication that’s eight pages and more names than I cared to count, along with dedicating the book to freeways, sour cream, the girl with the coke, and the color green, plus “the one whose wife would get furious if I so much as put his initials in.” The first is that she loves Los Angeles and is not about to let anyone call it a wasteland, not when she can tell childhood stories of Stravinsky and Charlie Chaplin and Bertrand Russell, her first time eating figs at the house of the violinist Joseph Szigeti, or Edward James who came to America “to see his ‘deah friend, Lawrence’ which meant D.H., but Lawrence soon died so Edward and [Aldous] Huxley drifted West to L.A.” (p. 8) and he later designed the World’s Fair Pavilion with Dali. Whom Babitz introduced to Frank Zappa much, much later.
The second is that readers who pick up the book expecting titillation will find very little of that; readers who pick up the book expecting name-dropping will find quite a bit of that; and both may well miss that Babitz is a terrific writer, in total command of form and pacing. She’s not afraid of two-page anecdotes, if that’s all it takes to tell her tale. The Central Market gets a paragraph on page 142; Cary Grant gets three lines, not quite a haiku, on page 269. But she’s also a collage artist, and she brings that same sensibility to assembling her “confessional novel,” so the small pieces break up the longer ones, giving readers a moment to pause, or they set up an impression that Babitz is making across several pieces. She was Stravinsky’s goddaughter, and despite how much she says she avoided music, she still absorbed a lot about composition. And her voice is contagious. So that’s three things.
I’m not really an audiobook person, but this would be a great audiobook with the right narrator. Since Eve Babitz is dead, I hope that Mia Barron is good in the role. Let’s listen to some Eve Babitz:
From “Grandma” —
Jewish grandchildren in L.A. call their grandfather “Zaidie” and their grandmother “Bahboo” until they realize not to. Then they call them “grandma” and “grandpa” like everyone else.
My grandmother is brilliantly charming and a complete manipulator and a whiner and has a laugh that makes the birds shut up so they can learn something. …
Grandma is about 75. She left Russia at the age of 13 because she got caught carrying documents for the Revolution. She had to stash the papers down an outhouse toilet and so she came to Canada. … When she was 6 or 4 she hid in a cellar during a pogrom in the house of some un-Jewish Jewish sympathizers.
The entire family tries to bear this in mind but it doesn’t seem to prevent outraged slamming down of phones and raised voices. No one ever raises his voice in our family except at Grandma. She knows how to do it.
Grandma recently had her house broken into when she was out and was so terrified that my mother finally elicited the reason. Grandma thought it was a pogrom.
We try to bear this in mind.
“Evie, darling,” she says, “when do you get married?”
“…” slam goes the phone.
“Who was that?” a friend asks.
“My goddam fucking grandmother…” I cry, livid.
“You mean the grandmother I met that night at your mother’s party?”
“God, she was fantastic. I wish I had a grandmother like that. I mean you can talk to her and everything and she’s so beautiful and intelligent and so funny.”
My grandmother wants me to get married like her and have ingrates for children and grandchildren who hang up on her. When she was 6 or 4 she was in a pogrom.
We try to bear this in mind. …
(It would be unfair of me not to mention that my grandmother is responsible for all of her children and grandchildren regarding art as the only possible occupation.) (pp. 15–17)
From “Santa Sofia” —
The Greek Orthodox Church down on Pico and Normandy is in that section of town where none of my peers would ever find themselves because it’s not near any freeway exits and besides, what’s down there? (pp. 90–91)
From “New York Confidential” —
When I arrived in New York, John it turns out is in Chicago, so Walter Bowart, whom I’d never met before and who didn’t believe there was such a place as California and who was suspicious of John anyway because John liked Andy Warhol and Walter thought Andy Warhol was the Death of Art, Walter put me up my first night in New York in the apartment of a friend. The friend had written speeches for Senator McCarthy and spent 5 years in jail for changing his mind. In New York, everybody was a story.
Walter and I were born on consecutive days. We always understood each other perfectly and had a wonderful time pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes until he saw the dove of peace on acid, which was a drag. But anyway, we are friends. He’s an orphan, it was part of his story. (p. 174)
From “The Girl Who Went to Japan” —
When she wasn’t modeling she was growing more beautiful in her small paper house in Kyoto. At night, she told me, she would sometimes go alone to a local club and choose “one of those … oh, they’re so beautiful … young Japanese boys” and in the mornings, I suppose, she licked her delicate chops from the feast and left the bones out for the garbage man. (p. 262)
From “The Landmark” —
When Janis Joplin O.D.’d one Sunday at the Landmark Motel, John Carpenter wrote a piece for the L.A. Free Press which clung pretty much to the theory, “What else is a Janis Joplin going to do on a Sunday afternoon alone in L.A.?”
At the time I liked the sound of it and thought, “Yeah, what is a Janis Joplin supposed to do alone in L.A. on a Sunday afternoon?” because at the time I didn’t question the notion that if you were from somewhere else and alone, you’d just naturally come to the conclusion that sitting around your motel room shooting up was pretty much it. On the other hand, she could have gone to Olvera Street and gotten taquitos. …
[Olvera Street] is uneven and bricky and lined with terrific shops where you can get things you think you want, cheap. And taquito stands for in case you get hungry. Taquitos are much better than heroin, it’s just that no one knows about them and heroin’s so celebrated.
Taquitos are what forced my hand and made me leave Rome after six months when I was supposed to stay a proper year, though that’s not what I told the man who sent me the $500 for the plane ticket back to him in L.A.
Eve’s Hollywood was published in 1972 and a lot more people know about taquitos these days, so maybe a modern Janis Joplin will find something to get her through that long dark tea-time of the soul and music will be better for it. Also, there are even taquitos in Berlin now (I checked), so a modern Eve Babitz could stay longer, though it’s still a fact that if newly acquainted overseas Americans get to talking for any length of time they will still exchange notes on where to find half-way acceptable Mexican food.
She has a gloriously bitchy go at Nathaniel West and Easterners who think he’s the best writer about Hollywood there ever was, at people who refuse to see beauty when it’s all around them in riotous bougainvillea, in flowers seen “against the sky of windswept blue, dangle in the air above us, it is like Mexico, the lushness is so simple, each ingredient of the highest quality, the air, the colors, the slight breeze.” (p. 191)
Babitz loves fun, and she loves the polished sheen of L.A., and she says she regards academia as “one of my more decadent perversions. There was the time I did three months devoting myself entirely to physicists in order to get a crack at Fred Hoyle, who I knew sometimes taught at Cal Tech (Fred Hoyle is the ritz of astrophysicists if you get a taste for astrophysicists), but all I found was a nice young man with a new Mercedes who knew C.P. Snow and called him Sir Charles, but the young man was so boring that I eventually went back to rock and roll.” (p. 230) Then she turns around and says that reading “has been my salvation and backbone throughout life.”
The time I wanted to kill myself in New York, Domby and Son saved me. Charles Dickens is perfect for accidental hit-bottom. Anthony Trollope is too, but he’s so divine that it’s a shame to waste him just because you’re in trouble.
When I travel, there are always certain books that go with me. Colette always is right there. … Without Colette, where would I be? For me, Colette is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do. When she describes a luncheon alone where all she has is a view of the Bois, a plum and a chicken wing washed down with a glass of cold white wine and capped with a Caporal—you get to sit in the Bois eating a plum and a chicken wing, sipping cold white wine and lighting a black tobacco cigarette. Colette has been there since I was 9 and discovered Claudine. (p. 231)
And so she’s off about Isak Dinesen and someone who knew her in Nairobi, about Virginia Woolf, M.F.K. Fisher, C.P. Snow, and Raynar Banham, author of “[t]his weird book called Los Angeles: A City of Four Ecologies. … It’s a book that is everything that Marshall McLuhan thought he was being but never was, it’s a book about forward march and the past sticks on as we hurtle through space. It makes the city make sense and I bought it for a rock-and-roll friend, who was complaining one day about L.A. and how he wanted to move into the country, so now he’s so transformed, he’s trying to get an apartment in the flats and out of the hills and the more McDonald’s Hamburgery it is, the better he likes it. It is, then, something when someone can make you see beauty where you only saw ugliness before. He is wonderful, that man.” (p. 235)
And there she is again, building her collage, running on to elucidate as well as titillate, loving L.A.