Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles. She describes her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, as a confessional novel. Nevertheless, it reads like a memoir in the form of a series of sketches, snapshots of a bohemian lifestyle, a life lived in the cultural melting pot of LA with all its colour and splendour. Taken in its entirety, it’s quite a ride.

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First published in 1972 when Babitz was 29, Eve’s Hollywood consists of 45 vignettes and a scrapbook of photos. Some pieces are very brief (a sequence of three pitch-perfect lines on Cary Grant); others are more substantial (mini-essays on the allure of young ingénues, the trials and tribulations of adolescence and the author’s early lovers). In some ways, the following quote sets the tone for the book – it’s taken from the second snapshot, a piece entitled Hollywood and Vine.

When I was 14, I began writing a book, my memoirs, entitled I Wouldn’t Raise My Kid in Hollywood. A few weeks earlier I had let a spectacularly handsome man drive me home from a party I wasn’t allowed to go to, and when I told him I was 14, he dropped me off a block from my house and said, paternally, before he gave me an unpaternal and never-to-be-forgotten kiss, “Don’t let guys pick you up like this, kid, you might get hurt.” After that I never saw him again except on the front page of the papers two years later when he was found dead in Lana Turner’s bathroom. He was called Johnny Stompanato, poor guy. I’d been writing that book sort of before that, but afterwards I began writing it for real. After that, I’ve always been writing it. (pg. 14)

Eve Babitz grew up in the midst of a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio Twentieth Century Fox. Her mother, Mae, was an artist (a few of her drawings of LA appear in the book). Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky (Eve’s godfather), the opera singer Marilyn Horne, and the influential poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. Here’s one of Eve’s early recollections of Stravinsky.

Stravinsky himself was Stravinsky.

He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking. (pg. 10)

Several of the vignettes focus on Babitz’s adolescence, the time she spent at Le Conte Junior High and Hollywood High. She writes openly and engagingly about teenage life in the late 1950s, Friday nights at the Polar Palace ice-skating rink and summer days riding the waves at the rather rough beach at Roadside. None of the kids from Eve’s school went there, only the kids from West LA, ‘tough kids with knives, razors, tire irons and lowered cars.’

Babitz is particularly good on the beauty and power of teenage girls. In The Sheik, she highlights the 20 or so girls at Hollywood High who were extraordinarily beautiful, too beautiful for the constraints of the high school environment. The building itself was awash rumours of the girls’ love affairs, their tears and laughter echoed through the corridors. Even the teachers seemed powerless in the face of this overwhelming force of nature.

These were the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams. In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West. After being born of parents who believed in physical beauty as a fact of power, and being born beautiful themselves, these girls were then raised in California, where statistically the children grow taller, have better teeth and are stronger than anywhere else in the country. When they reach the age of 15 and their beauty arrives, it’s very exciting—like coming into an inheritance and, as with inheritances, it’s fun to be around when they first come into the money and watch how they spend it and on what. (pg. 81)

Babitz develops this theme in Ingenues, Thunderbird Girls and the Neighbouring Belle: A Confusing Tragedy. In this piece we meet Sally, Eve’s best friend in Hollywood High, a beautiful, rich and tragic ingénue. For Eve, it was love at first sight.

It was a romance. Everything to do with Sally was a romance, that was how she was. She wasn’t one of those cheerfully sunny girls who bring spring into a room with them, She was way too Garbo, sullen and tragic. It’s their best friends who flee shrieking from the patio. (pg. 97)

Naturally, several of Babitz’s vignettes capture something of the cultural milieu of Los Angeles. There are the drugs of course, but some of my favourite pieces focus on other aspects of LA life: the sight of a roller skater crossing Sunset Boulevard; the sheer joy of eating taquitos from a roadside stand on Olvera Street, the best taquito place in town; a beautiful mini-essay on the Watts Towers, a set of sculptural structures designed by Sam Rodia. There are many more. This is a book that sparkles with a lively sense of place and time.

Perhaps most importantly, Babitz is keen to put paid to the notion of Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland. She pushes back against the outsiders’ view of LA, those people from the East Coast or abroad who look down on a city they consider to be rather ‘shallow, corrupt and ugly’.

Like talking about uprisings in front of the slaves, people travel to Los Angeles from more civilised spots and cast their insults upon the days, only to see their own reflections sniffing down their noses back. It’s perfectly all right to say, “Los Angeles is so garish and a wasteland,” as they sit beneath the arbors and pour themselves another glass of wine though it’s already 3 p.m. and they should be getting back to the studio to earn their money. (pg. 192)

There are other cultural musings too. Babitz writes of her ultimate love for Lawrence of Arabia, a film she resisted seeing for a year as a result of all the hype and the shower of Academy Awards it attracted. In The Hollywood Branch Library, we hear of the writers Babitz loves and admires, writers such as Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates. Here she is on Colette whom she discovered at the tender age of 9.

When I travel, there are always certain books that go with me. Colette always is right there. I wouldn’t trust myself anywhere without Earthly Paradise, what if something happened and I didn’t have it? What if the electricity went out and all my friends died? Without Colette, where would I be? For me, Colette is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do. (pg. 231)

Colette as a spiritual guide – isn’t that wonderful?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I really loved this book. It’s a difficult one to describe, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of it here. Babitz’s style is at once both easy going and whip-smart (she is eminently quotable). There is a breezy lightness of touch to her writing that feels so effortless and engaging. The same is true whether Babitz is writing about the deeply personal (the loss of her virginity at the age of 17, ‘it was the Rainier Ale that did it’) or the more surprising (a short piece on her dislike of photocopying is a delight). There are touches of humour threaded through this collection of vignettes too.

In the end, it’s a book you have to experience for yourself. In some ways, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (both of which I rate very highly). I feel as though I’ve found a new friend in Eve Babitz, one I’d like to return to again and again.

Eve’s Hollywood is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

37 thoughts on “Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi! I feel sure you would love this one. Joan Didion and her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, are mentioned in the acknowledgments: ‘And to the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.’ It’s one of many, many dedications at the front of the book.

      Colette is wonderful, a real treasure – another great option for WIT Month.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great description, isn’t it? There’s a whole section featuring Sally, quite an intriguing girl by all accounts. The book is just full of lines like that – such a quotable writer.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I thought you might pick up on the Colette reference! Have you read Earthly Paradise? I haven’t, but Babitz’s comments about it leave me feeling that I ought to seek it out.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. If ever there was a book that captured the cultural milieu of 1950s/’60s LA then this could very well be it. The sense of place and period really shine through.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    The book sounds very honest. I think that this kind of very honest and realistic memoir has become somewhat more common in our day. I think that in 1972 it was in its infancy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I think you’re right, it comes across as a very open and honest account of Babitz’s early years in LA (plus a year in NYC when she was in her twenties I think). It made me wonder how the book was received at the time of its publication, whether it was considered somewhat daring or out there for its day. I’ll have another look at the intro to see if it mentions anything more about it there.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    What a seductive review, it sounds like you’ve found a little gem here. And Colette, I’ve yet to read, but just got myself a copy of the Claudine novels, though looking at the size of it, it might be my summer chunkster for next year!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. This is right up my street, I must admit. In my other life, I would be living in California – preferably in the 1940s, but failing that the ’50s or ’60s will do very nicely.

      I’m still pretty new to Colette, but what I’ve read to date has been wonderful. The Claudine novels sound excellent – that’s your #WITMonth reading for 2017 all sorted then! :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Confessional is a good description for the style as it feels quite intimate and personal. One of the things I really liked about this book was Babitz’s ability to see past the surface veneer of those stereotypical images of Hollywood. I guess it’s what I was aiming to articulate with my comments about her desire to push back against the perception of LA as a cultural wasteland. That’s why I loved some of the more surprising vignettes, the glimpses of beauty in the most unlikely of places or situations. Joan Didion and Lucia Berlin have a similar knack when it comes to capturing these kinds of images. Renata Adler too – it reminded me a little of her book ‘Speedboat’.

      Reply
  3. buriedinprint

    What a curious collection of topics. From secret kisses to films! The bookish essay interests me immediately, but her voice seems so compelling that I expect I’d be drawn into the others as well. I’ll keep an eye out for this one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Her range is impressively varied which makes this a particularly fascinating collection of pieces. I loved her reflections on favourite writers – it would make a great topic for a little novella in its own right.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the voice is key here. I really loved her style, but (as with most things in life) it might not be to everyone’s tastes. She’s in the same kind of territory as Joan Didion, Renata Adler and Lucia Berlin if that helps.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. Given the book’s title, I wonder whether some readers might come to it expecting an insider’s view of the Hollywood film industry. If so, they might be somewhat disappointed as there’s actually very little about the movie business here, just the vignette I quoted near the beginning, Hollywood and Vine. In many ways, I’m quite glad Babitz didn’t focus on that aspect of Hollywood – her view of Los Angeles culture is much broader and all the more fascinating as a result.

      Reply
  4. Caroline

    You did a very good job at conveying its strengths. I was tempted by this but felt unsure now I know I’d like it very much. I try not to buy too many books, so it will have to wait but I’ll keep it in mind.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. Her style is really interesting, and I think you’d like it. Also, the range of vignettes is so diverse that you’re bound to find something of real interest here. Even if you don’t connect with a particular vignette, you know there’ll be another along in a few minutes that may well take your fancy. I’d love to hear what you think of this collection.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    A couple of questions: was it written as a book or are the pieces in it collected? and what age do the memories go up to – does it only cover her teenage years?
    I also wondered if you’ve ever read Postcards from the Edge – I haven’t, but thought it might make an interesting comparison.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Interesting questions, Grant. As far as I can tell, it was written as a book, although I did wonder if she’d already written or sketched out some of the pieces before then. It reads like a memoir or a collection of vignettes, so the ideas behind some of these sketches could have occurred to her at various points in time. Some of the pieces cover her late teens and early twenties too. There’s a chapter on the year she spent in New York when she was 22 – it was the late sixties then, wild times in the city.

      Funny you should mention Postcards from the Edge as I was thinking about it just the other day. I have read it, but it was so long ago that much of the detail escapes me now! Definitely worth reading though, especially if you are interested in the Hollywood culture.

      Reply
  6. Kat

    This sounds like great fun! I have heard good things about Babitz and your quote about Colette has decided me I must read this. By the way, NYRB seems “big” on vignette-books. I just reread Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and they also have reissued Renata Adler. A ’70s thing?!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The vignette on favourite writers is one of the highlights in this collection – I could have read so much more about this.

      Funny you should mention Renata Adler as Eve’s Hollywood also reminded me a little of Speedboat at times. Sleepless Nights is very high on my wishlist as it keeps cropping up in various conversations – I’ve heard so many good things about it. You could be right about these vignette-based books being a ’70s thing, or perhaps they just started to come to the fore around that time. They seem to have come back in vogue again fairly recently with books like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. They can be a bit hit or miss depending on the narrative voice, but the Babitz certainly worked for me. Hope you enjoy it too!

      Reply
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  9. Max Cairnduff

    Not sure. The Colette bit seemed a bit precious to me, and is it really brave to travel to Hollywood to seek one’s fortune? If so many have been brave, or is it only those who succeed who’re brave after the fact? It seems a touch self-congratulatory, for after all isn’t she one of these brave and beautiful people? I also wonder at how true it is that there are certain books she always travels with, and if so does she read other books? How does she fit it all in her luggage?

    Clearly I am in a difficult mood today. Still, the Adler comparison is interesting. Not a definitely not, but not a definitely yes for me either. I’ll see if I can read a chapter somewhere.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fair enough. It’s funny, Guy wasn’t convinced about it either and yet I thought of both of you as being in the potential target audience for this book! Yes, Babitz is one the beautiful people there’s no doubt about that. Her family were lucky; they lived comfortable, bohemian lives, and one gets the sense that there was always something fascinating going on around them. I think she means brave in the sense of it being a risky (potential foolhardy) move for people to up sticks and head off to Hollywood in the hope of making their fortune. That said, I do see what you mean, especially when I read the quote again in isolation. All the passages worked for me in the context of the book, so maybe it’s a case of reading the vignettes (or at least a sequence of them) in full. It might be an idea to try a kindle sample if you fancy taking a look, but no worries if it doesn’t appeal. We can’t possibly click with everything.

      Reply
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