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‘I Used to be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz’

  • Published at 05:19 pm October 12th, 2019
I Used to be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz

Nicholas Lezard’s choice

I’d never heard of her. Which was odd, in a way, because she seemed to know everyone, I discovered. Igor Stravinsky, for crying out loud, was her godfather. But more on that later. I was just in a doctor’s waiting room, reading a proof copy of this book on the grounds that sometimes you need a big book in a waiting room, the publisher had sent me a copy, and I was mildly annoyed with myself for not having heard of her, and I started reading her essay “My Life in a 36DD Bra” which is, yes, what it’s like to have larger-than-average breasts, and I came across the sentence “I always knew that if I ever really wanted anything, all I’d have to do was lean forward slightly,” and I laughed so suddenly and loudly that everyone in the waiting room jumped. I think it was the word “slightly” that did it for me.

Eve Babitz, as I said, knew everyone—everyone in Los Angeles, that is, which is plenty—her lovers included Jim Morrison and Harrison Ford—but the really interesting thing about her is how well she wrote, with an easy, flowing familiarity and grace which makes you wonder if she ever had an unoriginal or poorly-phrased thought in her life. And if someone is this much shameless fun on the page, one can barely imagine how much fun he would have been in the flesh. No wonder Harrison Ford etc.

She was born in 1943, and so was exactly the right age to be when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and everything changed. From then on, or so it seemed, she was at the center of LA life, in particular the art and music scenes. “When I was a madwoman in the 1960s” is how one of the pieces here begins, and by the time you read these words, they come as no surprise. Perhaps her most famous moment was when she posed for a photograph, nude, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. As you do. (She did this before the Beatles reached America, so maybe they didn’t change everything after all.) Her piece about this—the splendidly-titled “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art”, written twenty-eight years afterwards, is about much more than the photo session: it’s a freewheeling account of the art scene in LA, and by the time you’ve finished reading it you too feel as though you were at the center of things, with your own parents going off with Igor and Vera Stravinsky to listen to Jelly Roll Morton or—somewhat incredibly—mariachi bands. Vera complained about the couture and said that Paris was “the only city ... where anyone sensible would want to live. ... So I grew up listening to adults complain about LA and its hopeless cultural condition, but not in that condition myself, being surrounded by such high magic.”

This is the center of Babitz’s writing: her enthusiasm. I suppose this may be a West Coast thing—“Lady, with that hat,” she is told in New York, “you gotta be from California”—but she has a lot of time for everything and everyone. She is frank and funny about feminine desire; but when she writes, for Playboy of all magazines, that ballroom dancing is better than sex, you believe her, even if you’ve never tried ballroom dancing. She’s worth quoting at length on this (look at that majestic parade of semi-colons): “It’s better because it’s a flirtation that can go on forever and ever without being consummated; because you can do it with strangers and not feel guilty or ashamed; because you can do it outside your marriage and not get in any trouble; and because you can do it in public, with people watching and applauding. And when you’re doing it right, you can’t think about anything else, such as what you forgot at work or that the ceiling needs painting.”

In 1997, everything changed again, but this time for the worse, and only for her. Trying to light a cigar while driving, she set fire to her gauzy dress, and ended up with third-degree burns; she nearly died, and her muse seemed to be turned off, as if at a tap—once she’d written about the incident, and her agonizing recovery. (It gives this volume its title, and has the dates “1997, 2019" at the bottom, which suggests she may have at least tinkered with it this year.) If her prose at times recalls that of Dorothy Parker (it may seem lazy to compare any witty female American writer to Dorothy Parker, but there is definitely something Parkerish there, even if it’s only in her convention-busting confidence) then her fate does too: she became a recluse, like Parker (although, unlike Parker, a sober one), and she was more or less forgotten until the American writer Lili Anolik, who became deeply fascinated by her, wrote a profile for Vanity Fair in 2014. Since then this publisher has put out two of her books (Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.), which is why this book is subtitled The Rest of Eve Babitz. And if the prose is as good—as funny, generous and original—as what you can read here, then I shall be getting those books too. 

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.