Across Twenty Years of L.A. Life

Charles Manson Under Arrest

I am currently reading Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion entitled The Last Love Song. Halfway through the book, I feel as if I had relived the 1960s and the 1970s. I had never realized what a key literary figure that Joan Didion (as well as her friend Eve Babitz) were in my life. While Eve represented to me the world of L.A. celebrities, Joan’s wide screen writings took in the whole local and even international picture.

If one lives in the West L.A. area over a number of years, one finds oneself on the fringes of history. On June 5, 2004, for instance, Martine and I were turned away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley because the ex-president had just died. The funeral home that handled his body was within walking distance of my apartment, at 26th Street and Arizona in Santa Monica.

The scene of the crime when O. J. Simpson killed his wife and Ron Goldman was only five blocks north of me on Bundy Drive. (It building got so many visitors that they demolished the building.)

On June 25, 2009, I had difficulty getting home from work because thousands of people had showed up at the UCLA Hospital when they heard that Michael Jackson had died.

One of our clients at the accounting firm where I worked was the actor Richard Anderson, who lived at 10130 Cielo Drive, right next door to the house in which Sharon Tate and her friends were slaughtered by the Manson Family.

Joan Didion

While I never met Joan Didion, I always felt a curious parallelism between her works and my life. Not because I was a successful writer or filmmaker, but because she tracked life in Southern California the way I did. For the most part, what interested her interested me. I suspect that if I had met her, she and I would not have seen eye to eye: I am not interested in the kind of active social life she lived, or in heavy drinking, or raising a child (at which she self-admittedly failed).

The fact remains that, in following her works, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, I feel as if I am reliving my life during the formative years of my early adulthood. So much so that it is almost eerie at times.

Down Two Muses

Christmas 2021 was going to see Los Angeles minus two of her muses. We just lost Joan Didion (above) to Parkinson’s disease; and six days ago, we lost Eve Babitz (photo below) to Huntington’s disease. Didion and Babitz were, to my mind, the leading writers about life in Southern California over the last half century or so.

I remember when I was first introduced to Didion by my friend Stephanie Hanna, who recommended back around 1970 that I read her great collection of essays entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Since then, I have read at least eight other volumes of her fiction and nonfiction.

Eve Babitz was a more recent discovery, thanks mainly to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), which brought out most of her work in the last few years. I consider Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company to be among the best works written about life in Southern California.

Joan Didion died in her 80s, and Eve Babitz at the age of 78. That makes me feel vulnerable, as I am a male who is about to reach his 77th year next month. In many ways, my acceptance of women as a source of outstanding literature about the local scene is due to these two powerful figures.

Now, as I look around me, who is there to take their places? No one that I can recognize at this point. I am just going to have to start looking….

Eve Babitz’s L.A.

The Sunset Strip, Where L.A. Came to a Head

Whenever I read Eve Babitz, I think of L.A. the way it was when I first came here from Cleveland by train at the tail end of 1966. Being a stuck-up Easterner and a graduate of an Ivy League college, I naturally thought there was something fundamentally wrong about the West Coast. In time (lots of time) I grew even to love it.

I just finished reading Eve Babitz’s novel L.A. Woman, which brought memories rushing into my brain:

And I was an L.A. woman. In fact, looking back on those one-night stands, I must have been crazy. Yet there were thousands of girls living between Sunset and Santa Monica in between La Brea and La Cienega who painted the town red like me—and who got away with it too.

When I arrived, Eve was hanging out with Jim Morrison of the Doors, whom she just refers to as Jim in the novel. Every weekend when the weather permitted, thousands of Teeny-Boppers rioted on the Sunset Strip. The war in Viet Nam was entering a new and uglier phase, and I thought that nowhere else were there women quite so beautiful as the ones I saw on the street every day.

Eve Babitz When She Was Younger

Eve Babitz was, to put it mildly, a righteous babe. What set her apart from all the others was that she had a brain and was able to describe her wild life without prejudice.

If you want to see Los Angeles from a different perspective, I recommend these books of hers as an excellent place to start:

  • Eve’s Hollywood (1974)
  • Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (1977)
  • Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time (1979)
  • L.A. Woman (1982)
  • Black Swans: Stories (1993)

I have read all five of the above and look forward to reading her recently published collection of essays entitled I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz (2019).

Hollywood’s Own Muse

Eve Babitz, Author of Black Swans

Perhaps the saddest thing about Southern California is that so much that has been written about the area comes from clueless East Coast authors who whose work is characterized by a kind of extreme cultural tone-deafness. If you want a true picture of Los Angeles, you have to read Eve Babitz who, alone, seems to understand what the city in which I live is all about. In her story “Self-Enchanted City” in her story collection Black Swan, she writes:

When people would first arrive from New York, they’d say stuff like “This place is full of fruits and nuts and you have no seasons.” So I knew they saw through the cheap thrills of shallow sunshine and were principled easterners determined to be unimpressed. But after a few weeks, even they would show up at Barney’s Beanery driving a brown Porsche, and they’d move into one of those Snow White wishing-well houses where all they could hear were birdies in the trees and all they could see were hollyhocks, roses, and lemon blossoms. And then they’d undergo a kind of molecular transformation, losing all their winter fat, their bad teeth, and their attitude that life was about artists being screwed by “the establishment.” And if they were fast enough on their feet, they’d soon become the establishment themselves. Or, at the very least, they’d wind up writing screenplays about Marxist good guys disguised as cat burglars.

The Chateau Marmont, Archetypal Hollywood Hotel on the Sunset Strip

Eve neglects to mention that they still kept one foot in the East by wearing a New York Times baseball cap. Earlier, she describes what has happened to Hollywood:

But for anything to age gracefully, eternal vigilance is necessary, and Hollywood has not been carefully tended. It has been knocked down flights of stairs, abandoned, left for dead, and sold into slavery. Still, if you ask me, some parts are just as beautiful as my dream version—even more beautiful if you subscribe to the Tennessee Williams decadence-as-poetry theory that ravaged radiance is even better than earnest maintenance.

I am only about a third of the way into Black Swan, but am continuing to make further discoveries every page.


Slow Days, Fast Company

Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz

The following is based on a book review I published on Goodreads.Com yesterday:

In the 1960s and 1970s, when I used to dread the approach of another lonely weekend, I wished I could meet a girl like Eve Babitz, intelligent, articulate, and drop-dead beautiful. And there she was, living just a few miles from me in Hollywood while I was in Santa Monica. Describing a friend of hers, “she lacked that element, raw and beckoning, that trailed like a vapor” behind her.

Like her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. is a series of seemingly biographical essays with a hefty admixture of fiction. Where the first book talked about Eve’s teeny-bopper years in the 1960s, in her second she becomes the lovely, knowing score girl that everyone wants to meet … and bed. She hung out with the likes of Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, artist Ed Ruscha, and gallery owner Walter Hopps.

Highly Recommended

Highly Recommended

What she writes about in Slow Days, Fast Company is about her friendships and relationships with people who are usually not identified with their last names; and even their first names could have been modified. In the end, it doesn’t matter a bit. Eve knows success, and how it twists people so they becoming boring “celebrities” who rely on drugs and booze to get through the day. She writes:

But everyone knows that it would have been much better to have been popular in high school when your blood was clean, and pure lust and kisses lasted forever, Chocolate Cokes in high school are better than caviar on a yacht when you’re forty-five. It’s common knowledge.

Eve Babitz knew herself far better than most people, and she had a wicked sense of humor, as in this exchange:

The very next night I was having dinner with this fashionable young rich man who looked at me as I smoothed some paté over some toast and said, “You better watch out with that stuff. It’ll make you fat.”

“Well, gee,” I said to him, “there are so many perfect women, it’s just horrible you have to spend time sitting here with me.”

Horrible indeed! No use being morose about it, however. Even if I never found an Eve Babitz, I can appreciate her discriminating mind even at this distant remove. This is a girl who did not believe in the viability of most relationships: “The real truth is that I’ve never known any man-woman thing to pan out (it may pan out to them, of course, but couples in middle age who don’t speak to each other are not my idea of a good movie.)”

Eve Babitz in her time and place—Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s—was as good as they come. She is in many ways the best that Los Angeles has to offer. If you read her books, I think you will understand why.

Eve Babitz and the Taquitos

Cielito Lindo, Specializing in Beef Taquitos on Olvera Street

Cielito Lindo, Specializing in Beef Taquitos on Olvera Street

As I was visiting the Taste of Ecuador Festival by Olvera Street yesterday, I decided to find the place that Eve Babitz writes about in her book Eve’s Hollywood about what could have kept rock star Janis Joplin from OD’ing. Toward the end of the book is an essay entitled “The Landmark,” which she dedicated to food writer M. F. K. Fisher. She starts at the very beginning of Los Angeles:

In 1781 a Franciscan with 24 ex-cons and runaway slaves decided to name something that didn’t exist La Ciudad de Nuestra Signora [SIC] La Reina de Los Angeles and proceeded to build a church and a street called Olvera Street. The church and the street are still there, preserved by this huge city called L.A. as a landmark from when one street was named the City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels. The 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.

Now Eve’s book was written over forty years ago. I decided to see if I could find her favorite taquito stand, which she describes as follows: “The best place to get them [taquitos], though they are also sold in other places throughout the mall, is the place on the Northeast part of Olvera Street.”

Making Taquitos at Cielito Lindo

Making Taquitos at Cielito Lindo

It just so happens that the Northeasternmost restaurant on Olvera Street is Cielito Lindo (“My Little Beautiful Heaven”), which has been around since 1934 and specializes in taquitos in a way that none of the other restaurants on the Street do. Once again, Eve continues:

They have black frying pans with long handles that are about a foot and a half in diameter and have sides that flare out about 3 inches high so that oil won’t hit the cook. With metal prongs, the guy lays the raw taquitos neatly in the oil over a fire of coal that produces a heat of such intensity that blast-furnace clouds encompass the buyer as he watches the taquitos cook and the guy turns them over when they are done on one side.

Except for the coal fire, which is now probably against some city health or safety regulation, that’s pretty much what I saw at Cielito Lindo, such that I am 100% sure that this is the place to which Eve would have directed Janis Joplin to keep her from that nasty heroin.

By the way, the taquitos were delicious. I will return there for more. Their chile rellenos are pretty good, too.


LA Writer: Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp

Eve Babitz Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp

This is the start of a new series of blogs by me to be called “LA Writer.” Los Angeles has its own literary scene, some native born, some expatriate, and some just passing through. I plan to make at least one entry in this series each month.

You are a famous French painter and chess master named Marcel Duchamp. It is October 1963, and you are at the Pasadena Art Museum to attend the opening of a show dedicated to your work, mostly from the earlier part of the century. You are seated at a chessboard. Across from you is a nude 20-year-old who is, in many ways, the numero uno L.A. babe of the 1960s. Her name? Eve Babitz.

All you could say? “Alors!

Eve didn’t win the chess game, but she won the match. It didn’t take long before she was widely known. Her boyfriends included Jim Morrison of the Doors, Ed Rucha, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, and practically everyone who was anyone in the world of art and entertainment. The chess game was just a start.

She is also the author of a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional memoir entitled Eve’s Hollywood, which shows her to have been wide awake in a decade in which many were half-asleep at best. Not only is she an excellent writer: She designed scores of album covers for rock bands—and you know that album covers of the time are some of the most memorable icons of the 60s.

Eve Batitz by Ed Rucha

Eve Batitz by Ed Rucha

Eve’s style is all her own. It’s the way a beautiful and confident young woman who was on top of the world—but who had a serious brain—would write. For example, about the city of her birth:

Culturally, L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a “wasteland” and other helpful descriptions.

That leaves out Woody Allen.

Take, for example, this description as to why quit being a Brownie:

In grammar there is a noun and there are adjectives. Adjectives modify the noun, they alter it and cramp its style. I didn’t want to be a Brownie girl. So I quit the Brownies.

And how’s this for a mission statement:

What I wanted, although at the time I didn’t understand what the thing was because no one ever tells you anything until you already know it, was everything.

Eve Babitz was a gorgeous young woman at the top of the world who knew what she liked and was not afraid to talk about it in a way that was both interesting and all her own. She writes with a supreme confidence in a slightly unorthodox, yet highly workable style, that is highly engaging.

In my review of Eve’s Hollywood for Goodreads.Com, I wrote:

When I arrived in Los Angeles between Christmas and New Years in 1966, I was fully prepared to “put up with” the place while my heart remained in … Cleveland, for God’s sake! I am sad to say it took a number of years before I woke up and let the magic of the place begin to work on me. Those first few years I now regard as “the lost years.” I studied film history and criticism at UCLA, saw thousands of movies, but was oblivious to the flower-scented air, redolent with night-blooming jasmine.

Now I have found a writer who has helped reconcile me to my own past: It is Eve Babitz, whose book Eve’s Hollywood covers my black-out years. Eve was born in L.A. of artistic parents and lived in Hollywood, living life to the fullest—sleeping with the likes of Jim Morrison of the Doors, artist Ed Rucha, and numerous other males known for beauty and/or brains.

Eve’s Hollywood is available in a paperback edition published by New York Review Books.