The writer, who chronicled the California of the 1960s and 70s in novels such as Slow Days, Fast Company, has passed away at the age of 78
Eve Babitz, the cult writer who chronicled the highs and lows of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, has died at the age of 78. In a statement shared with the Associated Press earlier today, Babitz biographer Lili Anolik confirmed that she passed away on Friday (December 17), following a resurgence in the popularity of her work in recent years.
Babitz was born in Hollywood, California, in 1943, to classical violinist Sol Babitz and artist Mae Babitz, and was immediately surrounded by prominent figures working in and around the film industry. After striking up a friendship with her parents, famed composer Igor Stravinsky became her godfather, and she also attended Hollywood High alongside several movie stars.
Her writing – including essay collections, memoir, and novels such as Eve’s Hollywood and Sex and Rage – often revolved around this scene as it developed through the 60s and 70s, tapping into its larger themes and celebrating the minutiae of its decadent culture. Babitz herself was, quite literally, at the centre of it all, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Joan Didion, Jack Nicholson, and Andy Warhol, but also injecting her sharp wit into every line.
Below, we remember Babitz’s life, writing, and relationships through her own words.
“I had thrown my body in for art”
Following high school, Eve Babitz arrived in the public eye in style: naked, and playing chess against Marcel Duchamp on a gallery floor. Then 20, she was photographed playing the nude chess match against the (fully clothed) Dada pioneer in 1963, during his retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art.
“I had thrown my body in for art. I had thrown myself into this game for art,” she later said, looking back on the now-famous photograph. “You know, I was not a very good artist. But this was, like, one thing I could do.”
Elsewhere, she would remember thinking: “Anything seemed possible — for art, that night… Especially after all that red wine.”
This sense of possibility and comfort in her own body would run through Babitz’s writing career. Despite the fact she was often likened to her more cynical California counterpart, Joan Didion, she differed – as noted in the announcement of her death – in that she “often found magic where Didion saw ruin”.
“I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success”
Over the course of the decade that followed her photo with Duchamp, Babitz herself found some success in the field of visual art. A job designing artwork for Atlantic Records artists led her to create album covers for the likes of The Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, and perhaps most notably the collage-covered second album of Buffalo Springfield, from 1967.
Elsewhere, she would appear as an extra in The Godfather Part II, which premiered in 1974, the same year as the publication of her debut novel, Eve’s Hollywood. On Didion’s recommendation, she also had writing published in Rolling Stone magazine, and later in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Esquire.
From 1977 to 1993, she would publish several more novels and short story collections, including Slow Days, Fast Company (which included the above musing on fame), Sex and Rage, L.A. Woman, and Black Swans. Her books sold modestly, receiving mixed reviews, and she rarely published after the 90s.
Her most recent publication, however, is the non-fiction collection I Used to Be Charming, which came out in 2019. The titular essay reflects on a 1997 accident that saw her badly burned after ash from a cigar fell on her clothes while driving, resulting in severe scars and a retreat from public life.
“I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer”
“Dear Joseph Heller,” Babitz once wrote to the author of Catch-22. “I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.” Of course, this statement showcases her self-referential, tongue-in-cheek humour, but it also points to her candid attitude toward sex, the body, and unapologetic promiscuity.
Naturally, Babitz got a reply from Heller. More famously, however, she dated the Doors frontman Jim Morrison in her twenties, saying: “I met Jim, and propositioned him in three minutes.” Among others, she also had flings with LA-based artist Ed Ruscha, Steve Martin, and Harrison Ford. “The thing about Harrison was Harrison could fuck,” she told Lili Anolik in a rare interview for Vanity Fair, back in 2014.
Outside of romantic relationships, Babitz also used her seemingly magnetic presence on the LA party scene to create connections between outsized personalities such as Salvador Dalí and Frank Zappa. Her thoughts on marriage remain fairly ambiguous, however, with the narrator of Eve’s Hollywood declaring: “My secret ambition has always been to be a spinster.”
“LA has always been a humid jungle alive with seething LA projects that I guess people from other places can’t see”
Despite living in New York for a year, and brief spells in Paris and Rome, it’s undeniable that Babitz felt a strong connection to her home state of California. “Except for Rome, I thought Europe was nowhere compared with LA,” she wrote in a 1991 article for Esquire. “Everywhere I went, everyone I met was in awe of California and dying to go to Hollywood. Not a single one wanted to go to New York.”
The high-profile milieu of Los Angeles, which she was introduced to by her parents and later her unbelievable list of acquaintances, populates her writing, and the insight into a bygone social scene is a large part of its allure. However, Babitz is never entirely swept away by the glamour, also delving into Hollywood’s underbelly, characterised by typically-Californian misadventures and three-day binges at the Chateau Marmont (echoing her own struggles with substance abuse).
Even so, the backdrop never fails to tempt you back in, urging the reader to drop everything and buy a plane ticket to LA. “‘Wasteland’ is a word I don’t understand anyway because physically, surely, they couldn’t have thought it was a wasteland — it has all these citrus trees and flowers growing everywhere,” she wrote of California in the autobiographical essay “Daughters of the Wasteland”.
“Culturally, LA has always been a humid jungle alive with seething LA projects that I guess people from other places can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like LA, anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in LA, to choose it and be happy here.”
“It used to be only men who liked me, now it’s only girls”
Despite disappearing from the public eye for over a decade after her near-fatal accident, Babitz reemerged for Anolik’s 2014 article in Vanity Fair, which regarded her as an overlooked genius. A reissue of Slow Days, Fast Company and other books followed, leading to her discovery by a new generation of readers – particularly younger women.
Joking that “it’s only girls” who liked her writing in the 2010s, Babitz acknowledged the contemporary reappraisal of her work, with writers such as Jia Tolentino praising her representation of “pure pleasure” in the pages of the New Yorker.
Back in 2017, the renaissance of Eve Babitz even led Hulu to announce a coming-of-age comedy project titled LA Woman, based on her memoirs (which were optioned in 2015). In 2019, Anolik also published a critically-acclaimed biography of Babitz, titled Hollywood’s Eve, cementing her popularity in the later years of her life.
At the age of 76, however, Babitz didn’t seem taken with the idea of being thrust back into the limelight. “All publicity is great,” she told her sister, Mirandi Babitz (as reported by the New York Times in 2019). “But not really in your 70s.”
Eve Babitz is survived by Mirandi.