CALIFORNIA GIRL

The Sunday Times

   Eve Babitz and Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum, 1963.  Photo: Julian Wasser

Eve Babitz and Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum, 1963. Photo: Julian Wasser

Long before the Chateau Marmont became Lana Del Reys muse and Sofia Coppola immortalised its faux gothic grandeur in Somewhere, there was Eve Babitz. The hotel on Sunset Boulevard is as central to the writings on her beloved Los Angeles as fires, earthquakes and the Santa Ana winds.  I stumbled on her book Eves Hollywood the day before the 1994 earthquake. An Englishman abroad I looked beyond Hollywood to Heaven and begged to be buried in England as the city shook. A Babitz essay had a different take: ‘If God wants me to believe in him, Ill do it, but only for the Pacific Ocean and sunsets. Earthquakes are only earthquakes. If God wants me to believe in him hell have to do better than that. Ill wait under a door frame. I waited under a door frame because there is nothing to do but wait. Outside, apartment blocks buckled and sidewalks crumbled. In the distance fortress Chateau Marmont, the first building in LA to be earthquake-proof, remained aloof. It’s foundations and secrets in tact. When the author A.M. Homes opted to write a book on the hotel in 2001, she made a beeline for Eve Babitz.  It was built for you know, peccadilloes’, Babitz informed her.  'If you want to commit suicide, if you want to commit adultery, go to the Chateau. It doesn’t mind brilliant talent, or romance, or lunacy.  It was from here that she witnessed Los Angeles ablaze during the Watts riots of the 1960s. It was here her former lover Jim Morrison jumped from a fourth floor window into the pool below. It was here a line-up of former lovers - Harrison Ford, Steve Martin among them - gathered for an auction to raise money for hospital bills weeks after Babitz herself was set ablaze. 

Neither violent riots nor violent weather caused the fire that Eve Babitz survived in 1997 -  but cigar ash falling on her skirt while driving her car. She sustained third-degree burns from her waist to her calves. 'Death, to me, has always been the last word in people having fun without you, she writes in Eve's HollywoodFirst published in 1974, it’s finally been re-issued with the original Annie Leibowitz cover of the young Eve Babitz: a still life of party girl in bra and feather boa.Whereas the novels - Sex and Rage, LA Woman, Black Swan - are thinly-disguised fictional outtakes from her life, this is a catalogue of perfectly-formed autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes from the 1950s onwards. She has described it as a confessional novel but its closer to memoir, and her journalism at its very best. Growing up in Los Angeles the child of well-heeled, well-connected parents - Igor Stravinsky was her godfather - she believed that besides death and moving elsewhere, there was one further danger of being a teenager in Hollywood: having your schoolmate get discovered One of her peers gained notoriety within the Manson family. Meanwhile Babitz achieved something close to it in 1963, aged 20, when she was photographed naked playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She had chutzpah as well as connections. She wrote to Joseph Heller: ‘I am a stacked eighteen-year old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer’. But it was Joan Didion that kick-started her writing career, when she passed up a freelance job at Rolling Stone and recommended Babitz instead.

In Eve's Hollywood among the pages of dedications to people, places and stimulants - Desbutol, Ritilin, Obertrol - she acknowledges Joan Didion ‘For having to be who I’m not’ Both writers became chroniclers of Los Angeles. In 2004 Didion documented her frontier family’s history in Where I Was From (‘if we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?’) having been one of its most fervent, yet eloquent, detractors since settling in New York.  For her it had become a cultural wasteland, a burning city where the winds revealed how close it was to the edge.  For Eve Babitz - a ‘daughter of the wasteland’ and the antithesis of Didion’s pioneer girl - it remained home, and a place she celebrated despite its faults (the San Andreas among them).  A view at odds with notorious critics of Hollywood such as Nathanael West - the subject of an essay in Eves Hollywood -  who reputedly wrote The Day of The Locust (1939) at the Chateau Marmont. The LA-based journalist, Steffie Nelson, who has written at length on Babitz says:  'No matter what cruel realities she might face, a part of her still buys the Hollywood fantasy, feels its magnetic pull as much as that Midwestern hopeful who heads to the coast

Lana Del Ray was one such hopeful. She was recently described as the spiritual successor of Joan Didion - a stretch, I know.  Come to California be a freak like me, she sings on the recent album Honeymoon. But if you take out the pout and the suicidal tendencies she’s actually closer to Eve Babitz. Particularly when you read actor James Franco fawning over her in V Magazine : When I listen to her stuff, I am reminded of everything I love about Los Angeles. I am sucked into a long gallery of Los Angeles cult figurines, and cult people, up all night like vampires and bikers. 

Babitz herself regards the writer Colette, who she discovered at the age of 9 in the Hollywood public library, as a major inspiration: '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. This is perhaps something Babitz comes close to achieving when describing the Hollywood of her youth. And a skill highlighted by New York Times contributor Holly Brubach, who provides the new introduction to Eve’s Hollywood.  'I like to imagine Babitz recounting all this at the Boutique, a restaurant that no longer exists, she says, 'where she’d drink dry Champagne and order a Leon Salad: Swiss cheese, ham, salami and lettuce chopped to “the cheerful consistency of linguine.” Or maybe at the also-extinct Luau, a garish Polynesian restaurant that was, she tells us, Stravinsky’s favourite'.

Whereas Joan Didions output has been absorbed into the New Journalism canon that emerged in the 1960s, with its east coast leanings, and ambitions to succeed with non-fiction where the novel was failing, Babitz remained outside of it, often cast as a lightweight because of her subject matter. She was on the other coast, and her short essays are gossipy, witty and conversational. In which she is frequently centre stage, cast as the smart party girl at the heart of the action, documenting her own experience as much as that of others. The drugs that came close to destroying her, long before burning cigars. The lovers - in the absence of husbands and kids -  that later achieved fame in the their respective fields, some of whom donated art work to the auction at the Chateau Marmont (Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper) and others that bid $50,000 for it.

Since the fire she has become something of a LA recluse in a town where others pursued fame in their youth and settled for anonymity in their dotage. Sightings of her, interviews with her, calls returned by her are as rare as earthquakes. There is nothing to do but wait. New published writing has been  unforthcoming - apart from 49 tweets on an old Twitter account.  Perhaps the re-issue of Eves Hollywood might prompt something from her on the ever-changing Los Angeles of the present. Long after the Boutique and Luau have gone, factories from the 1920s become the flagship stores for designers, like the recently-launched Rick Owens homage to Cecil B. DeMille on La Brea. The Chateau Marmont, built in 1929, remains despite seismic shifts and shifting times -  both a hangout and a hangover from another era. 'Hollywood doesnt exist’, writes Babitz. 'I firmly believe, however, that it did exist. And like Rome, we are living amidst the fallen columns and clothes-lined courtyards, in the ruins of an empire of the self-enchanted which was once, briefly, more devastating than Caesar’s...'