Eve Babitz is a writer, and a very good one at that. But whenever anyone writes about her, they always lead with a list of her sexual conquests. Rarely left to stand on its own, her work is always qualified and defined by who she's fucked. (At this point in the article, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you she fucked Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Ed Ruscha and Harrison Ford before they were famous. She was also photographed nude, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, at the age of 20.)
She's not upset by it, though. In fact, she encourages it. "My work is about a time when I did fuck a lot of people, and, I guess, people are interested in that," she says. "I think people should be more interested in who they are having sex with [than] who I am. [But] whatever brings them to the books is totally fine with me."
While possessive of a wholly unique voice, she remains a relatively obscure literary figure. She's also become a bit of a reclusive figure, abstaining from public appearances and rarely giving interviews since a 1997 accident covered the bottom half of her body in third-degree burns (this interview was conducted via email).
Despite being at the epicenter of the glamour and decadence of 70s Hollywood (and having the anecdotes to prove it), mainstream success eluded her. The men she fucked got famous; she didn't. As she wrote in the intro to her book Slow Days, Fast Company, "I did not become famous, but I got near enough to smell the stench of success."
A resurgence of interest in her work, however, may very well place her rightfully in the zeitgeist. Her first two books, Eve's Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company, were re-released by NYRB Classics two years ago, and her 1979 novel Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time was republished earlier this month to stellar reviews; at the time of original publication, reviewers were decidedly less kind. (Kirkus called it "a trendy, self-involved frolic.")
Perhaps she was never respected as much as other female authors of her time because of the literature world's intellectual bias against California, a recurring subject of her work (Joan Didion, a fellow Daughter of the Golden West, presumably got a pass because she loathed Los Angeles). "I'm considered an L.A. writer," she says, "but that's 'cause a lot of people are too lazy to see that what I'm writing about is just people who happen to live in L.A. They could be elsewhere, they just couldn't surf or eat at Musso's or go to the Beverly Hills Hotel."
Or perhaps it was because she wrote with depth about the psyches and internal lives of women most people only write about one-dimensionally—the muse, the sex kitten, the party girl ("Only me and Collette wrote about women this way," she says).
She fucked a lot of people because she was fuckable in a time and place (Los Angeles, the 70s) in which people fucked a lot. Certainly her life and work would have been different were she not stacked, but she also wouldn't have written as beautifully about the nuances that exist within self-aware women who just so happen to exude sex. Being seen as desirable is what gave her access to experiences otherwise out of reach for those cursed with average looks—a willingness to engage in those experiences is what gave her fodder for writing. She's the first to admit the power her attractiveness held.
"We reward people for their looks," she says. "It's the first thing we see. We are drawn in—we think more about giving the beautiful person or the perceived beautiful person more of a chance. We can't pretend we don't. It's an imprimatur, a way in for people. I think it brings people in, but whether or not they take you seriously is an ever changing landscape. Now people are taking me seriously. Is it me now or the 'beautiful' young me, who knows? Does it really matter?"
Other documentarians of the era were relegated to the sidelines of the party, watching and judging from a distance. But Babitz's books, both "fiction" and non-, are first-person narratives of a woman on the inside. "I wrote what I felt and what I saw," she says. "It doesn't mean it was true or not, it was what I felt."
Part of being on the inside meant indulging in the lifestyle of those on the inside—living fast and getting loaded (she's since become sober). While she certainly had a good time, Babitz says she "never thought of myself as a 'good time gal.' I was a person who was living my life, a writer who was writing. I didn't think of it as 'partying.' The drugs and drinking weren't something that was my identity, in my mind. It's just what we did, like getting dressed or having lunch. Just another form of the continuum."
The protagonist of her most recent rerelease, Sex and Rage, like all Babitz protagonists, is a proxy for the author and the book, like all Babitz books, is a love letter to Los Angeles, a city she is inherently tied to as a Hollywood High grad and the daughter of a violinist who worked for 20th Century Fox. The Los Angeles of the present, of course, is now a pale ghost of the Los Angeles of her youth, but she's pragmatic about the existence of change.
"The L.A. I lived in and wrote about doesn't exist anymore," she says. "Everything is transient. The Los Angeles of my youth was just that—mine. Everyone feels like that about the place they grew up, my place just happens to be L.A. Of course, to me it's a pale ghost, but to someone else growing up now, it's their home. It was a small factory town (that old cliché, but it was). Now it's an international city, probably not that different from New York or Tokyo. Although you still can't surf in those places."
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