Why Eve Babitz Matters

The Huntington Library, California, has acquired the Eve Babitz archive. Tony Wilkes explains why the memoirist and fashion writer matters.

Virginia Woolf read Proust and wrote to Roger Fry: Oh, if I could write like that! Theres something sexual in it – I feel I can write like that, and then I cant. Eve Babitz felt the same, not for Proust, but Colette. Colette was like a concubine which fascinated me,she said. She made me want to be her and write like her.Ive read Colette and Virginia Woolf and four books of Proust but still. My Colette is Eve Babitz.

When she was fourteen Babitz started writing her memoirs, I Wouldnt Raise My Kid in Hollywood. A few weeks before shed been picked up and kissed by a man shed never see again except on the front of the papers two years later when he turned up dead in Lana Turners bathroom. Id been writing that book sort of before that,Babitz explains in her first book Eves Hollywood (1974). After that, Ive always been writing it.

That book she turned into others: Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (1977), Sex and Rage: Advice for Young Ladies Eager For a Good Time (1979), L.A. Woman (1982) and Black Swans (1993), all memoirs or essays, though ones called a novel,based on her life in Los Angeles. They were panned by critics. A reviewer wrote in the New York Times: I discern the soul of a columnist, the flair of a caption writer, the sketchy intelligence of a woman stoned on trivia.She fell out of print.

But by the time Babitz died last December, aged 78, all of her books were reissued. Some were bestsellers. Critics had written she ranked with Joan Didion. Following the reissue of her first book, in 2015, The New York Times ran the story: The Eve Babitz Revival. Her collected journalism, including fashion writing for Ms. magazine and Vogue, was published in 2019. Now, the Huntington Library in Southern California has acquired her archive, a collection of art, manuscripts, journals, photographs and letters spanning 1943-2011. There are 22 boxes, filled.

Babitz was born in 1943 to L.A. culturati. Her father was a studio musician. Her mother was an artist. I looked like Brigitte Bardot and was Stravinskys goddaughter,she wrote. Her skin radiate[d] its own moral laws.In Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude (1963), Babitz is the Nude. The dedication to Eves Hollywood, running nine pages long, includes Warhol (who loved her tan), Joan Didion (for having to be who Im not), the whipped cream at the Polo Lounge, and some guy named Derek Taylor: Tell them, Derek, how great I am. Like you once introduced me to a Beatle as the best girl in America.’”

In The Guermantes Way (1920), Proust describes some fictional memoirs written by Mme. de Villeparisis. Its long but its relevant: She had retained from the period in which she lived, and which she described with great aptness and charm, little but the most trivial things it had to offer. But in a certain book of memoirs written by a woman and regarded as a masterpiece, such and such a sentence that people quote as a model of airy grace has always made me suspect that, in order to arrive at such a degree of lightness, the author must have been imbued with a rather weighty learning and a forbidding culture.You could swap Villeparisis for Babitz. Hes writing on Babitz.    

Her airy grace and forbidding culture derive from the L.A. Cool School.Centred around the Ferus Gallery, founded in 1957, this group of artists led Art in America, in 1966, to report a distinct L.A. sensibility,an emphasis on polished, slippery surfaces,a kind of formal hedonism.Babitz, at the centre of this scene, wanted to write with a finish so gorgeousthe work stands away from ordinary life as an enamelled example of something handled as though someone cared, for once, for the form.She wrote in Slow Days: When the Ferus Gallery began exposing Los Angeles art in the fifties, people quickly observed that everyone seemed to be obsessed with perfection in L.A.

And her prose is perfection. Writing in Eves Hollywood, Babitz writes of the Finish Fetish, an art that is glossy, glamorous, stylish, a style so widespread it became known as The L.A. Look.Babitz is a Finish Fetish writer, polishing her prose to a rhythmic smoothness. Compare C.C.s regular school clothes carried with them the same spirit as Monroe in Niagaracombined with a whore of Batistas Havana,with a line from Lord Byron: The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold; / And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.But Babitz stays casual, sliding by, careless, loose. You are gutted into silence, awed.

But critics dont like surfaces. Especially ones that are made to look easy. Interviewed by the Archives of American Art in 2000, the transcript reads: Well, you know what that implies-?, Thats Im a shallow person?” “No. No.” “I am a shallow person. I can be superficial because I know what Im turning down.What Babitz turns down is a reading that digs, that violates art to find meaning under the surface, hidden. For critics, truth is the rapture of the deep,Babitz wrote, whereas to us the rapture of the shallows is more than enough.

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