“Is That the Blue You’re Using?”: Eve Babitz and the Undermining of the “Didion Approach” to California

There aren’t many authors left whose long-awaited work you can continue to yearn for while they promise that “maybe” “one day” it will come. All of these types of writers hailed from the twentieth century (including J. D. Salinger, half-taunting his readers with the prospect of releasing his next Glass family saga every so often before finally kicking the bucket). Whereas a writer trying to pull that shit today would simply be dropped by their agent and/or publisher. No one has time for the “artistic process” anymore when the coffer has to be filled, so empty as it is in the realm of shilling literature. Eve Babitz was the last of that dying breed. Perhaps the only other author at this moment in time teasing that “maybe” “one day” they’ll release that book they’ve been chipping away at for decades is Fran Lebowitz. Who is a huge asshole. Not just because she’s one of those “New York only” varietals, but because she genuinely seems to think her writing might just be “too good” to share. Though, to be fair, it’s difficult to blame her for wanting to withhold her work from a sparse reading clientele she has deemed too doltish to understand wit anyway. 

As Lebowitz is to New York (once upon a time), Eve Babitz was to L.A. On an interesting side note, Babitz would end up being represented by Lebowitz’s agent, Erica Spellman. Such was the “six degrees or less” separation between Eve and everyone else. That’s just how it is with “it” girls. And one such tie she had was to Didion, who actually gave Eve her first big start in publishing by recommending her to an editor at Rolling Stone (Didion couldn’t take the lead herself due to a contract at Life), hence the publication of “The Sheik,” a jaded love letter to Hollywood High. Even more than Didion, who instead holds the broader title of being a “California writer” (lest you forget, Madame Didion hails from the capital of the state, the proverbial “every city” of both CA and America), Babitz is the “L.A. writer.” To boot, Babitz was from L.A., that supposed rare quality that has made people marvel at the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Billie Eilish for also being born there. And yes, MM was a great idol of Babitz’s. Because all things L.A. were so ingrained into her identity that she couldn’t possibly write any prose that didn’t feature the town in a significant way. Even Bret Easton Ellis couldn’t be bothered to do that after Less Than Zero (a book, incidentally, that Eve provided a blurb for: “[Less than Zero] is the novel your mother warned you about. Jim Morrison would be proud.”).

In a sense, Babitz was sort of like a real-live Cher Horowitz before Amy Heckerling brought that character to life. And not just because Eve was known for saying “whatever” quite often. Like Cher H., she was born of privilege and totally blasé about celebrity not just because she was created in the land of that machination, but also probably because her godfather was, well, Igor Stravinsky (what with her father, Sol, being a respected violinist playing for the “motion pictures” released by Twentieth Century Fox). One becomes desensitized to things like fame when they’re around it all the time. And Babitz was actually around the kind of fame that one could call “intelligent” (you know, before reality TV somehow rendered all types of fame on an “equal” playing field–established writer? YouTube “star”? It’s all the same). Take, for example, her first major moment in the limelight: a photo of her playing chess in the buff with Marcel Duchamp. Something she would have mixed emotions about for most of her life when it made her perhaps more famous than her writing. And something she only did to get back at Walter Hopps, better known to her as the married guy she was fucking who didn’t invite her to Duchamp’s gallery opening because his wife was there. Such is the way of being an L.A.-based female author: not only does no one take you seriously, they also want to attach any “greatness” you might have to a man. 

Being that so little was known about Eve on a deeper level before Lili Anolik came along to bring us the now famed Vanity Fair article from 2014 called “All About Eve–And Then Some,” it took that kind of a deep dive to renew interest in her work again. Modest though its breadth may be, especially in comparison to the woman whose shadow she lives in, Didion’s, it remains the most honest portrayal of what L.A. really “is.” Granted, there are quite a few people who are sick of white women of means being the ones who get to tell “L.A.’s story.” Thus, the appearance of a book like Inter State: Essays From California. Another work that, like Babitz’s, seeks to “kill Didion” by dismantling her as the sole voice of a milieu. Anolik noted in her article, which would become the basis for the biography, Hollywood’s Eve (a play on the title, Eve’s Hollywood), “[Didion and Babitz are] writing about L.A. at the exact same time with a totally different vision of what Los Angeles is, and I think you need both of them. In many ways they’re yin to the others’ yang. I’ve heard from other people that they were enormously fond of each other, they genuinely liked one another. I think The White Album and Slow Days, Fast Company should be read together.” 

Anolik wasn’t so kind in Hollywood’s Eve, when she finally outright admitted, “I am arguing that Eve’s entire literary career was a response to, nay, a rebuttal of, Play It As It Lays.” So basically, Eve, so often reduced to being compared to an “early Carrie Bradshaw,” was saying what Carrie did about New York: “I can’t have nobody talkin’ shit about my boyfriend” (despite appearances, however, New York leaves so much more to talk shit about than L.A.–the existence of a character like Carrie within it being at the top of the list). And Babitz, regardless of coming from her own background of “affluence,” was actually far more devoted to the life bohemian than Didion ever was. For a start, it never would have occurred to Babitz to actually become someone’s wife. That, to her, was abhorrent, on par with the lines she writes in L.A. Woman (yes, a direct nod to her ex-lover, Jim Morrison) when Ophelia (Eve’s sister character) asks, “But you know so many men. Isn’t there even one for you?” The Eve response: “They’re all adjectives…they all make me feel modified; even a word like girlfriend gives me this feeling I’ve just been cut in half.”

In contrast, Didion considered herself half of a “writing couple” once she allied with John Gregory Dunne. Through John (originally from Connecticut), Didion was given her final East Coast “knighting.” Deemed fully legitimate by East Coast intellectuals (a euphemism for douchebags with no actual taste of their own), she had the kind of literary clout that Eve never would. Because she was not to be taken seriously. She did not speak of Serious Things the way Joan did. Yet for as “hardcore” as Joan was, she didn’t have the courage to truly embrace the artist’s lifestyle which Eve lived her entire life. As Anolik points out, “it’s not an easy life: she never married, had children… never had a steady job or economic security. She lived this improvisatory, bohemian life, and you could say she paid the price. But she also got the reward. It was a difficult path and she’s a difficult person, for all her charm.” That is, if you caught Eve on one of her charming days, for she could be just as prone to cutting a person down with her rapier wit. Maybe that’s why she fell in “friend love” with a gay man, the cattiest breed of all, if we want to be cuntily honest as well. Specifically, Earl McGrath, who would serve as the Max character in Sex and Rage. The person who cast doubt on her early artist’s pursuits as a painter and collagist (inspired by Joseph Cornell). As any gay man not fully out would be, McGrath was married to an Italian countess. He never had an official title, per se, though, in death, he would be credited as a “writer, music executive, art collector, and gallery owner.” In short, a jack-of-no-trades. Other than knowing how to be at the right place at the right time, and network with the right people. This is how he came into Eve’s orbit in the late 60s. The two grew Siamese twin close until McGrath’s venom reared its ugly head with the line quoted in Sex and Rage: “Is that the blue you’re using?” As Anolik interprets the phrase, it’s an easy way to make an artist (of any kind) doubt themselves and their vision. Something Eve herself undercuttingly intended with the work she was putting out about L.A. at the same time as Didion. 

In the same Vanity Fair article that relaunched Babitz to the level of fame that got a basique like Emma Roberts to call her out as a viable book club read, Eve was quoted on her empathy toward Mailyn Monroe: “Marilyn kept putting herself in other people’s hands, believed them. They let her think that she was just a shitty Hollywood actress and Arthur Miller was a brilliant genius.” Sort of like what Eve almost did with Earl. Of this MM assessment, Anolik comments, “Eve, though, knew the truth, that really Marilyn was an artist in disguise, the cheesecake stuff just a front, a way of hiding in plain sight.” That’s what Eve did her whole life, especially during her “ingenue years” when her body was at its most noticeable to men. But Eve, like Marilyn, knew that she could weaponize her body as men were ogling it. Use it to get into the best parties, meet the most fabulous people, make the connections that would later behoove her when she least expected it. Like Joan herself, for example. A “rival” that Babitz never bore any ill will toward (at least not until Joan got on her soapbox about the town being no good, a wasteland, etc.). As Eve recalled, “Joan and I connected. The drugs she was on, I was on. She looks like she’d take downers, but really she’s a Hell’s Angel girl, white trash… [she] was all the rage then.” Still is, in fact. Maybe because she played it safer than Eve. Lived more carefully, with less carpe diem gusto. Such is the risk of coming from a conservative background, what with Joan being from the Republican land of Sacramento. Ironically, it was Eve who would become hyper-conservative in her later years, as though forgetting about blowing as many rails as dicks in her more liberal epoch. And one hates to say it, but maybe that conservatism ultimately stemmed from the very disease she died of on December 17th. Of course Eve wouldn’t die of anything that didn’t somehow have a tie-in with L.A.–thus, Huntington’s disease being what did her in. An inherited illness (though who knows with Eve and her drug use) that causes mental decline, among other horrors. The worst thing a writer can suffer. And yet, she was still teasing about those books she had in the pipeline. If only her comments about her right-wing leanings were a tease, too. One supposes she would have been glad to die in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. 

Babitz’s resonance with a new generation is almost unfathomable considering her “la-di-da” views on just about everything. She doesn’t “hold up” the way Didion’s prose is meant to. Babitz, instead, embraced frivolity and excess in a manner that doesn’t quite compute with post-#MeToo feminism. Accordingly, Babitz is perhaps the sole source of defiance to be had in a sea of “polite partying” narratives. Yet there is something very feministic about Eve’s work in that she constantly regards herself as “one of the boys” even while fucking them. She could do it just as casually as a man. For it was her will to work within the system of patriarchy designed to work against her. Other women who tried the same–like the socialite she’s frequently compared to, Edie Sedgwick–wouldn’t make it out alive. And, talking of Sedwick, it’s almost cruel that Eve should end up having her body burned from a match setting her gauze skirt on fire in the late 90s. As though to absorb the Final Destination-esque wound that Edie never did when she set her Chelsea Hotel room ablaze by leaving the candles lit while passed out on drugs. 

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Eve assured, “I’ve got other books to do that I’m working on. One’s fiction and the other’s nonfiction.” To be fair, all of her books were nonfiction. She added, “The nonfiction book is about my experiences in the hospital. The other’s a fictionalized version of my parents’ lives in Los Angeles, my father’s Russian Jewish side and my mother’s Cajun French side.” Loyal, hyper-niche readers continued to wait for these projects to materialize–sort of like the one Bret Easton Ellis mentioned about Sean Bateman being a hustler in West Hollywood–but they never did. In cliche fashion, perhaps they only can arrive on the shelves posthumously. When the writer’s temperament no longer needs to be considered. Even though Joan Didion probably has an ironclad Last Will stating what can and cannot be published in the wake of her own death. Because not only does the faux bohemian live a longer life, they also ensure a more organized afterlife.

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