The Eve Babitz Revival

Eve Babitz doesn’t have a computer, and if you phone her, she is likely to hang up on you. Since the afternoon nearly two decades ago when she dropped a lighted match on her lap while driving home from lunch in her ’68 VW Bug, she has kept mostly to herself, holed up in her West Hollywood apartment with her cat and seeing select visitors. Now 76, Ms. Babitz is dimly aware of her surging popularity, particularly among young women, but aging hits burn victims even harder than it does the rest of us, and lately she has turned more inward. “All publicity is great,” she has told her sister, Mirandi Babitz, as Mirandi recalled recently, “but not really in your 70s.”

No matter: next month New York Review Book Classics, a.k.a the thinking person’s book series that also looks great on Instagram, will publish a collection of her magazine articles. “I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz” is the publisher’s third title exhuming the work of a voluptuous voluptuary with fizzy prose who once announced to her mother that “adventuress” might be her career choice.

Along with the chillier and more established Joan Didion, Ms. Babitz was a woman sending dispatches from the front lines of 70s era West Coast bohemia, gently satirizing the incestuous music and art worlds of Los Angeles. But she seemed to be having lot more fun than Ms. Didion: she wasn’t just at the party; more often than not, it seemed, she was the party itself.

Ms. Babitz wasn’t famous, exactly, but she was always known: for being Hollywood royalty (she was Igor Stravinsky’s goddaughter); for her love life (a partial list of Ms. Babitz’s paramours includes Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, Annie Leibovitz and Walter Hopps, the influential — and married — curator who was a founder of the then-rollicking Ferus gallery in Los Angeles); for her physique (Rubensesque in a land of Twiggys); and for “that photo” (of a nude 19-year-old Ms. Babitz playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, a photographic stunt Ms. Babitz agreed to in order to irritate Mr. Hopps, which subsequently became so ubiquitous that it even showed up, Ms. Babitz once said, on a poster for the Museum of Modern Art).

When she was just shy of her 30th birthday, Ms. Babitz published her first memoir, “Eve’s Hollywood”: stories of adventure, anthropological observation and, charmingly, food (Ms. Babitz would have made a terrific restaurant reviewer). Its dedications ran to 8 pages, and included her gynecologist, the Chateau Marmont, freeways, sour cream and “the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.” She would go on to write six books, memoirish novels and collections of personal essays, none of which sold particularly well, along with a book-length vanity project commissioned by Fiorucci (about Fiorucci), and countless magazine articles. “F. Scott Fitzbabitz” is what Erica Spellman Silverman, her longtime agent, christened her author, whom she used to phone every Monday at 7 a.m., to make sure Ms. Babitz was awake and working.

She may not have received her professional due, but for a long time she was required reading if you had a taste for deeply personal writing by sharp and funny women, of the sort being practiced by peers like Laurie Colwin, Cynthia Heimel and Nora Ephron, all of whom were more or less the same age as Ms. Babitz, who was born in 1943.

The conflagration that resulted from trying to light a cherry-flavored Tiparillo in her car, in 1997, seared her hands and the lower half of her body; the Uggs she was wearing spared her lower legs and feet. With no health insurance, the accident not only crippled her, it nearly beggared her. Celebrity friends donated their belongings and art work at an auction held at her beloved Chateau Marmont, and Mirandi secured a small settlement from the company that made the skirt she wore when she went up in flames. And for a long time, that was the last one heard about Ms. Babitz, who had became a recluse, a misanthrope and, most challenging to her liberal community, a conservative.

In the last decade, however, there has been a steady renaissance of her work, thanks in part to young “book influencers” — literary enthusiasts with digital platforms like Emily Gould (who recently described Ms. Babitz’s revival as “the Babitzance”) and Emma Roberts, a founder of the Belletrist.

Along with reprints of her work by NYRB Classics and Counterpoint, a Hulu series based on her work is in development and many, many pixels have since been devoted to her oeuvre: debating her appeal to millennial woman, fretting over her white privilege, or simply delighting in her undulating prose and the smaller, wilder world she inhabited. A year or so ago, the New York Public Library convened a panel on the Eve effect, led by her literary and cinematic daughters, Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker; Karah Preiss, Ms. Roberts’s partner at Belletrist, and Zosia Mamet, a star of HBO’s “Girls,” who praised Ms. Babitz unabashed hedonism. The event was packed. Nostalgia for 70s era bohemia runs high, particularly in these fractious times.

Elizabeth Cantillon, the producer who with her colleague and friend Amy Pascal bought the rights to four of Ms. Babitz’s books for a television series she is calling “L.A. Woman,” described the project as a “sisterhood of Eve.” “I feel about Eve the way Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg feel about World War II,” she said. “I can’t get enough.”

One of Ms. Babitz’s most dogged boosters has been Lili Anolik, a 41-year old writer who pursued Ms. Babitz for her 2014 Vanity Fair profile, “All About Eve — and Then Some,” a hypnotic tribute to an author who isn’t herself anymore, her harrowing ordeal having dimmed her faculties and her energy, though not, by all accounts, her sense of humor. (This dimming is why most of Ms. Babitz’s literary suitors have worked with her sister and her agent.)

Ms. Anolik’s profile grew into an idiosyncratic biography, out last January, called “Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.” which is woven through with Ms. Anolik’s passion for her subject.

The other day, Ms. Anolik compared their relationship to that of “a lovelorn suitor and a tempestuous mistress,” she said. “I buy her stuff to keep her in a good mood” — to date, out-of- print books, chocolate-covered strawberries, three MAGA hats.

“It’s not like I had a special eye,” Ms. Anolik said, noting how many writers and editors had been in pursuit of Ms. Babitz around the same time as she. “I was just so obsessed. I couldn’t leave it alone.”

She sent letters — Ms. Babitz did not answer them — befriended Mirandi, along with Paul Ruscha, an old lover, and others. It was a courtship years in the making, Ms. Anolik said, undertaken when Ms. Babitz had more energy for that sort of thing. The relationship has deepened even as Ms. Babitz has faded. On a river cruise in Russia, answering questions by email, Mirandi said she considers Ms. Anolik one of the family. “Some days she is completely herself,” Mirandi wrote of her sister, “funny as hell, etc, but it’s unreliable and sometimes she throws tantrums and hates everybody.” She is pleased about her newfound popularity, Mirandi continued, “a bit confused about what it all means but does love all the income which she desperately needed.”

Ms. Spellman Silverman said that on this go-round, Ms. Babitz has “made more money than she ever made in her life by a lot. The new books have sold four or five times what they did originally. And the television rights, that was a lot.”

The new collection features more of her distinctive voice, a reprieve from what Ms. Babitz once derided as the “merciless” seriousness of the literary establishment. In her introduction, Molly Lambert, 36, a Los Angeles-bred writer, relishes her “loping Western pace,” that allows “for constant detours and longer looks.”

In “All This and the Godfather Too,” a piece about the making of the Godfather II that originally appeared in Coast magazine in 1975, Ms. Babitz records the shenanigans of a drunken actor, skewers Francis Ford Coppola’s pretensions and wanders unfettered through the sets. She also gets to be an extra. It helped that Fred Roos, Mr. Coppola’s producer, was an ex-boyfriend.

Some of the pieces in the new collection appeared in magazines that expired decades ago (do you remember “Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing”?). But the title essay, “I Used to Be Charming,” which recounts the brutal aftermath of the accident, is new, and was a particularly heavy lift for the book’s editor, Sara J. Kramer. When Ms. Babitz was recuperating, Mirandi had encouraged her sister to take notes, which she did, nearly 50 pages worth. But they were sketchy, not always coherent and without a time frame, written when Ms. Babitz was in a lot of pain and under heavy sedation. “It was a mess,” Ms. Spellman Silverman said, “yet it had all the qualities of Eve. Funny and poignant and sexy.”

Ms. Babitz writes of wrenching herself out of her car and rolling on grass to put out the flames. Startlingly, she gets back in the car and drives to her sister’s house, naked and charred. When the paramedic arrives, she declares, “My friends would kill me if I died.” At the hospital, she wonders if being over 50 and without health insurance means she’s a real artist. At the rehab facility, she tells a male staffer, “I used to be charming before I got here.” (She later had “Better Read Than Dead” printed on business cards.)

Of Ms. Babitz’s revival and renewed appeal, especially to millennials, Ms. Spellman Silverman said, “Young women now have a lot to prove, and I think there’s a lot of anger. Eve was never angry. She never felt like she was a victim. Nobody ever forced her to do anything, except maybe me. She never felt she was being used. She loved the way she looked, and as a result everybody else did, too. She was having a great time, and I think young women like her work because they see a freedom in the way she lived. And I don’t think they have the same freedoms.”

Penelope Green is a feature writer in the Style department. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Manhattan. @greenpnyt Facebook

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