Eve Babitz asked me to dance once, but I rebuffed her.
It was at the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association where she had been invited to sign her new book on the tango, and I waited in line to also ask her to autograph my copies of Slow Days, Fast Company and Eve’s Hollywood, two of her earlier books that I revered, and when I reached the table and set them down, she said something like “Oh, yes, I remember these,” and I probably gushed out something like, “I love these books.” She said, “We’ll have to dance later,” and I said something like “Sure. I look forward to it.”
But I knew I couldn’t ask her to dance. A girlfriend who was a swing devotee had coaxed me to come to the PBDA dances that offered lessons before the main event, but I literally didn’t know my right foot from my left. And I couldn’t bear the thought of mistakenly trying to lead the writer I admired so much in a fox trot while the music signaled a waltz. It all seemed so incongruous that Babitz, the consummate chronicler of 1970s and 1980s Hollywood and hip Westside L.A. should be signing books in this drab hall behind a Lutheran church in unhip Pasadena.
She may have wound up dancing with a NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who shed his white shirt and pocket protector for the evening and donned something sparkling and black, cutting a figure that would put John Travolta to shame.
Two by Two: Tango, Two-step, and the L.A. Night, published in 1999, would be the last book Babitz published. After a terrible car accident that left her hospitalized for weeks she apparently quit writing. This is our loss. But, fortunately New York Review Books and Counterpoint Press have over the past couple of years republished her books going back to her first one, Eve’s Hollywood, first published in 1972, and just this year, Black Swans, a book of stories from 1993.
One can count on two hands the really good books about Los Angeles and, curiously, most of them, whether fiction or fact-based, are about crime and law enforcement. Babitz’s are neither of these.
Spare me Raymond Chandler or John Fante or Charles Bukowski (try to go back to him as an adult), for my money the two best L.A. writers are Joan Didion and Eve Babitz.
As I am writing this I have just heard on the radio of the death of Anthony Bourdain. I’m feeling deep loss as I think of heroes and friends I have seen pass too soon. In a Times Book Review interview just a few months ago he said of the books he treasured most, “I’m a great Eve Babitz fan. I have everything she ever wrote.”
Both were children of privilege who lived exuberantly and wrote exquisitely. Babitz was a child of Hollywood royalty—but not of the movie star ilk. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a composer and first violinist for the 20th Century Fox orchestra, and her mother, Mae, an artist. Her godfather was Igor Stravinsky. The Babitz household was a gathering place for the likes of poets, Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, Lucy and Edward Herrmann (he, the composer of the score for Citizen Kane), Orson Welles, Vera and Igor Stravinsky, and composer and Stravinsky assistant Robert Craft, Charlie Chaplin, and Aldous and Laura Huxley.
She graduated from Hollywood High but resisted following her classmates’ path down Sunset Boulevard to UCLA. But except for a short time in New York she never ventured far from Hollywood where she found her inspiration and her métier.
Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album are definitive books about the ’60s and ’70s in California and L.A. They defined New Journalism, but the vision was largely apocalyptic, and Didion hated Los Angeles. The Northern California native wondered if there was any future at all in what she saw around her. She has a keen eye, but she is always the writer looking from outside in, observing, never the participant.
In The White Album she sits in a recording studio with three members of The Doors waiting for Jim Morrison to show up. When he arrives she writes, “He had on his black vinyl pants and sat down on a leather couch in front of the four big black speakers and closed his eyes.” All was silence. When at last he spoke it “was almost a whisper, as if he were wresting the words from some disabling aphasia.” Then “he lit a match. He studied the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowered it to the fly of his black vinyl pants.” Was he trying to shock her?
The difference between Didion and Babitz is that while Didion wrote about Morrison, Babitz not only wrote about him—she also slept with him. But that was before she became a writer. She was to write later (in Esquire Magazine): “Being in bed with Jim, was like being in bed with Michelangelo’s David, only with blue eyes. His skin was so white, his muscles were so pure, he was so innocent. The last time I saw him with no shirt on, at a party up in Coldwater, his body was ravaged by scars, toxins and puffy pudginess. I wanted to kill him.” But, she writes, “I could never be mean to him.” When he called at night, obviously drunk and incoherent, she says, “I just wished he were there.”
Babitz books are about the people she knew and the Hollywood scene from an insider, and an insider who also turned out to be a really good writer. But in her case there is never an ounce of the gratuitous cynicism of L.A. books going back to Nathanael West. She was immersed in the scene and she loved it, and she loved many men along the way as well, some of whom she names, others who are masked in her memoirs/short stories.
Babitz started out as an artist. In Eve’s Hollywood she writes lovingly of her paternal grandmother, a survivor of pogroms in Russia, “who is responsible for all of her children and grandchildren regarding art as the only possible occupation.” Eve didn’t disappoint. She designed album covers for the Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, and Linda Ronstadt and hung out with the artists who made the art world pay attention to L.A.: John Altoon, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengstson and Ed Ruscha, with whom she had a long-term affair.
She also famously, at the age of 19, sat nude at a table playing chess with artist Marcel Duchamp, for a promotional photograph for the surrealist’s exhibit at the Pasadena Art Museum.
In Black Swans, the narrator says “in those days we thought we’d live forever. We thought the more we had to regret, the better. Besides, we didn’t think death applied to us personally.” She found out differently as friends were lost to alcohol or drugs, or later on, AIDS.
In the chapter from which the book is titled, “Black Swans,” Babitz writes
I once knew someone who said their “drug of choice was whatever you had,” and I was more or less that way too. Wally was not an LSD aficionado; he didn’t believe in taking it anywhere but pastoral environs of charm and safety, whereas I came from an ethic that said if a drug was there, you grabbed it or someone else might. My friend and I used it as a thing to be on at night, socially, on the Sunset Strip before I met Wally. Other people may have used it to enhance their spirituality, but we used it to enhance nightclubs. You could suffer fools a lot more gladly when you were one yourself.
In eventual drug and alcohol recovery, Babitz transformed herself from the hedonist to a literary chronicler of her times.
But before that, starting in the mid-‘60s, she frequented clubs like the Whisky A Go Go, Ciro’s and the Troubadour. It was at the Whisky that she met her friend Jim Morrison who fronted the house band, The Doors. She recalls trying to dissuade him and keyboardist Ray Manzarek from naming the group after Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception. “It was so corny,” she said.
Coming from the uncool San Gabriel Valley, my friends and I, still in high school, would hang out on The Strip weekends, but we were too young to get into the coolest clubs that all sold alcohol. But we could get into Pandora’s Box and the Fifth Estate, a teenage hangout that got its name from the office of the underground Free Press, published in beneath the main rooms. The Fifth Estate showed free foreign films in one room, had an open mic for folksingers and poets in another, and served coffee and hot chocolate for free. It was also the focus of what would become a massive teenage protest in October of 1966 against the city’s newly imposed curfew law which led police to arrest and load into buses pre-18-year-olds found on the Strip after 10 p.m.
Eve Babitz friend Stephen Stills would write a song about the protest/riot called “Something’s Happening Here,” which became a hit for his band Buffalo Springfield.
We were on the outside desperately wanting into Babitz’s world.
But her writing isn’t primarily about celebrities. In “Tangoland,” from Black Swans she writes about her on again, off again attempts to master the most demanding of dances, and of trips to a club in the San Fernando Valley where one of the best teachers was to be found. For most people, she writes, “the valley was a cold shower.” You went to Malibu or Beverly Hills or downtown L.A. but the Valley was ground zero for L.A. haters. If you went there at all it was for a day job at Universal or Warner Brothers. “No one I knew would set foot in the valley,” she writes. But she went there to an obscure Bolivian restaurant called Norah’s that turned Argentine at night. She wanted to learn the tango from a master who taught there.
In a scene from the book, she’s at Norah’s for the tango master Orlando’s last night before returning to Argentina. Babitz draws us into the scene with some of her most graceful writing and typically sharp attention to detail. It was “on a Sunday when almost no one was there, he danced his last tango with a student who wore a cerise silk dress that opened like a rose in the steps they did, her white legs in black stockings, pivoting on silver high heels, his silver head and slinky feet—just one more time—carrying the dance below sea level into mermaid time and space, into deepest darkest tangoland.”
She finds though that after spending thousands of dollars and two years on lessons she just can’t master it. “Truth was…I wasn’t a dancer.”
Maybe I was wrong that night so long ago. I should have asked her to dance. She probably would have forgiven my ineptitude.
It’s good to find that most of her books have come back into print. Also in the works, Tristar Television will be producing a TV series about the 1960s and 1970s based on Babitz’s books. Hopefully, they’ll do justice to her fine writing.
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