Los Angeles has always been treated like the frivolous youngest child in a large family. While its more respected, over-achieving siblings New York and Chicago are praised and admired, Los Angeles’s charms—its architectural delights, culinary offerings, and geographical wonders—are consistently undermined by a skin-deep focus on Hollywood. No matter how substantive and multifaceted L.A. becomes, the whole world treats the city like a vainglorious brat. “Get down off the table, honey, everyone knows you can tap-dance already.”
Only Eve Babitz could appreciate that vainglorious brat’s clever mind and her incomparable tap routine. Raised by an artist mother and classical-violinist father who played first chair in the 20th Century Fox Orchestra, Babitz was uniquely positioned to appreciate L.A.’s conflicted multiplicity: She socialized with Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo as a child; sipped glasses of scotch from her godfather, Igor Stravinsky, at age 13; attended dance parties in Laurel Canyon at age 16; and was photographed naked playing chess with Marcel Duchamp at age 20. Not only had Babitz marinated in the wild and terrible folds of Los Angeles’s love affair with itself well before she lost all of her baby teeth, but by the time she was 32 years old, she’d created album covers for Buffalo Springfield (Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967), the Byrds (Untitled, 1970), and Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel, 1974), befriended Joan Didion, and seduced Jim Morrison, Ed Ruscha, Steve Martin, and Harrison Ford.
“Get down off the table, honey, everyone knows you can tap-dance already.”
Yet with the publication of I Used to Be Charming, a collection of Babitz’s magazine pieces and essays from the 70s through the 90s, we discover that Babitz’s appeal transcends rubbing elbows with stars, rockers, and Surrealists the same way Los Angeles’s qualities eclipse the tedious running analysis of Oscar season (which, with global-marketing hyperinflation, has ballooned into a year-round marathon of autoeroticism like no other).
Instead of smoothly mimicking the jaded sophistication of her peers, who always insisted on viewing Los Angeles as a doomed dystopia packed with half-wits, Babitz sings the praises of the City of Angels so convincingly that her prose can feel like slipping into the dark chill of the San Gabriel Mission, tasting the perfect carnitas taco from Yuca’s in Los Feliz, or marching up into the dusty hills that draw your gaze past downtown Los Angeles to the sparkling Pacific beyond. Babitz’s style feels prescient yet anachronistic, like a precocious child who’s been trapped in a time capsule for several decades: arrogant, disbelieving, unapologetic, willfully abrasive. No one knows anything about anything besides Eve Babitz—which is exactly why it’s so delightful to have her around.
No wonder there’s a Babitz resurgence afoot. Hulu is developing a show based on her books, NYRB Classics has republished three collections of her essays, and a new generation of readers seems to be savoring her brash, unaffected prose. This latest collection runs the gamut, from an inside look at the dynamics on the set of The Godfather Part II to a profile of steamy-80s-fiction author Jackie Collins to a novella-length riff on the joys of the designer Fiorucci, built on such gushing proclamations (“Nothing sits still at Fiorucci,” “Fiorucci is flash,” “Fiorucci is the whole twentieth century in one place”) that it reads like a cross between Beat poetry and ad copy.
Such is the paradox of Eve Babitz: When she’s not gossiping, bragging, or showering on praise worthy of a press release, she’s issuing unrepentant verdicts on widely beloved icons. “The Doors were embarrassing, like their name,” she writes. “I dragged Jim into bed before they’d decided on the name and tried to dissuade him; it was so corny naming yourself after something Aldous Huxley wrote. I mean, The Doors of Perception … what an Ojai-geeky-too-L.A.-pottery-glazer kind of uncool idea.” This is not the snobbery of old people with money, but the hard-won discernment of an adventure-hungry, sharp-tongued lurker who first entered the Troubadour at age 14.
“I have moved to Santa Monica,” Babitz writes in another piece, “into the rafters of this handmade 1906 house that is on a rambling, flowery hill overlooking what could be Fairbanks, Alaska, and Maui, and Tierra del Fuego—but not Boulder.” Babitz rarely deigns to explain her bold assessments, but we get it: Boulder thinks way too much of itself, whereas Los Angeles has been gaslighted into such a state of low self-esteem that it can’t seem to recognize its own beauty. (And while New York builds the High Line and savors every square inch of its ragged good looks, Los Angeles will take the perfect spot with a glorious view of mountains and ocean in the distance and erect an Office Depot there.)
No one knows anything about anything besides Eve Babitz.
Babitz embraces an unself-conscious high-is-low/low-is-high perspective that places her well ahead of her time. She raves about violet fur shorts, Jackie Collins novels, and sleeping with Jim Morrison (“like being in bed with Michelangelo’s David, only with blue eyes”), but casually insults Lombard Street, Val Kilmer, Luke Perry, Michael Gazzo, and Oliver Stone. (“Being a film major in the sixties was hopelessly square…. Even Jack Nicholson wasn’t cool in the sixties.”) Although John Gregory Dunne reportedly referred to her as “the Dowager Groupie,” writer (and former boyfriend) Dan Wakefield insists that Babitz was respected and her “withering retort[s]” were feared by the artists, musicians, narcissists, and scene-sters in her midst. Wakefield also reports that Babitz read voraciously; schooled him on California history, literature, and pop culture; created art “boxes” (but gave it up when she discovered Joseph Cornell’s); and took photos with a Brownie box camera, adding a sepia tone to them decades before this was as common as digitally powdering your nose on Instagram.
I Used to Be Charming might offer an uneven ride, swinging from thoughtful pop-culture analysis to extended bouts of name-dropping to frothy musings about which types of man legs are the sexiest, but it’s never the least bit boring. There’s something divine about Babitz’s vision of the world, mixed with some incandescent undercurrent of delusion—sordid, surreal, and alienated from reality. “If you’re going to drink the way Glenn (Frey) and I did,” Babitz writes, “you should do it when youthful exuberance and an iron constitution let you wake up the next day ready for more trouble and not wait till you’re so old that you wish you were dead the morning after and are unable to appreciate plummeting headlong into oblivion the way God intended.” Every essay lurches as unpredictably as Babitz’s prose, toggling rapidly between sneering and leering. But even when Babitz leers, it’s like the Pope waving through the glass of his Popemobile: her leering conveys a blessing.
Her merciless observations of flaws and shortsighted choices never scratch the record or spoil the party, yet there’s an edge that tells you that things are getting less interesting, people are losing their minds or dying or sobering up. The music is changing, the coke is running out. People can be so disappointing, she seems to sigh, but only when you’re at the wrong party. The world is a filthy carnival of delights, she seems to growl, so let’s have some fun, goddamn it! She demands more action, more fun, but she always sounds a tiny bit dissatisfied. Like this town by the sea that keeps expanding farther into the desiccated plains beyond, Babitz always seems to want more. But shouldn’t the voice of Los Angeles be the voice of the insatiable? We’ve had some wild times, the arid landscape whispers. They never have to end, you know.
Heather Havrilesky writes the advice column “Ask Polly” for New York magazine