In late 2021 I was called home to clear out the house in which I was born and in which most of my mother’s family had lived at one time or another over the past fifty years. The only consolation in a desolate and laborious task like this is thumbing through old photographs of a world that has long since departed, one of four-channel light sequencers reflected on parquet dance floors, hair styles like thermal insulation fixed with spray, and oval fingernails gently tapping glasses of ice-blue bitter lemon.
It is a world of hunched shoulders and grooving granddads, Baccara eye makeup and the reverberations of a Mediterranean imbibed from the pages of the Thomas Cook brochure. I am not idealising the working class of the 1970s, but in these images it appears irrefutably far more glamorous than much of life is today.
The question of glamour might not seem like an immediate concern for the readers of Tribune magazine, yet only by looking through these pictures was I able to grasp the full scale of a multiplying and intergenerational pessimism that I suspect to be the result of unending hardship and a completed corporate takeover of our waking lives.
And then Eve Babitz died. With that news came a sense that glamour really might be an irretrievable reality confined to forty years in the past, whose existence will be read in centuries to come as a result of a post-war euphoria met with the last vestiges of a socialist hope.
Babitz, after all, was a writer who at every turn fought the two main enemies and pitfalls of contemporary writing, and personal writing in particular: where dourness and dreariness bled from the pages of so many canonical texts prescribed to us on syllabuses and creative writing programmes—what could often feel like an added assault during the years of financial hardship and loneliness that defined life in my early twenties—Babitz’s writing served as an antidote, her voice cackling through the dirge of self-pity, urging a sense of life, participation and pleasure even when such things were not forthcoming.
This optimism might have partly been the result of a charmed existence on the West Coast of America, in which her parents were both semi-successful film industry types working in the golden era of Hollywood and close personal friends with Stravinsky, among others. But then Babitz did just about the most generous thing anyone could do with that position by completely debasing herself, or to be more precise, dispensing with the very idea of debasement, which can never be separated from ideas of eligibility in the market economy.
To show us that she, and everyone connected to the world of which she was a part, were rotters of the highest order, Babitz’s work is replete with self-destructive tales of sexual rejection, spite, and a celebrity cohort that can’t have been too pleased about her levels of indiscretion. Where her peers were brittle and bony, clipped and perfected, Babitz was tall, ungainly, voluptuous, unashamed, and beaming, sometimes nude—and this applies as much to her writing as her person.
Babitz pursued a truth that many of us far less fortunate than her know by instinct, but might not have had the ability to otherwise articulate: that true joy is only to be found in life’s absurd little details. A fact that the literary world, in its neurotic preoccupation with the eternal and the profound, seems to continually overlook.
There is a measliness after all, a lack of generosity, in the insistence that we should avoid extraneous detail, which to Babitz constitutes the whole point. Extraneous detail is where life occurs, in all its stupid, stubborn curiosity. This is the essence of glamour, which is different to wealth and in fact has everything to do with the dispensation of wealth, status, and the ‘pick me’ culture that prevails in publishing. It is the observance of joy in small rituals of laughter and drunkenness, the refusal to read tragedy into the shifting tides of passion and love.
Babitz does not chide or lament, beyond perhaps the missed opportunity of a frisson with a high school player or a Hollywood movie star. She does not succumb to self pity or victimhood, or if she does it is with enough distance to perceive her own absurdity in these emotions. In this sense she was always a generous writer not so much concerned with expelling her own pain, but striving beyond that pain to actively and always seek out the humour, for the reader’s sake as much as her own.
In the dedication pages to Eve’s Hollywood (which include, among other things a namecheck to her hairdresser, as well as The Beverley Hills Hotel, eggs Benedict, and Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of ‘Long, Long Time’), is a mention of another West Coast literary stalwart: Joan Didion. We have been flooded with comparisons between the two authors in recent weeks, a fact that seems trite when justified on the basis of the two women’s coterminous existences. It feels less trite, however, on the discovery of this direct nod from one to the other.
Babitz thanks Didion and her husband John (often billed as the Didion-Dunnes), ‘for having to be who I’m not’. The implication being, that where Didion tended to embody the analytical gaze of cool detachment, Babitz’s own work would necessarily and always emerge directly from the uncensored quagmire of late-century America. In fact it is suggested in the very title of the book that Babitz would make no effort to see herself as separate from the world in which she lived: resulting in a body of work that is often subjective to the point of pettiness, childlike in its transgressions, and consequently more exalted and alive than the vast majority of its peers.
In tweets that have been shared ad nauseam since her passing, Didion is praised for her gall in confronting Warhol with a precise and withering ‘what?’, following Warhol’s lament that life should constitute ‘magic’. But it is Babitz, who in the same dedication page to Eve’s Hollywood, writes, ‘And to Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey who I’d do anything for if only they’d pay’: a far more damning assessment, all the more so due to Babitz’ admission of her own mercenary nature.
Because if Warhol’s propensity for whimsy was trying at times, it was nevertheless responsible for challenging many social orthodoxies and bigotries in modern America. His real offence lay in the hypocritical reliance on unpaid labour. How could the great satirist of American greed ever square such a charge?
In this and so many other instances, Babitz will remain the great enquirer of LA and American culture. We are not meant to love LA. We are meant to prefer the municipal projects of Europe and Central America, with their infrastructure and public transport systems. It is not to overlook its many social ills and injustices to say that its legacy of playfulness and fundamental unseriousness is what makes LA the city of the late twentieth century.
That legacy can never be separated from Babitz, who let others contend with, and seek to distill the tectonic activity of social and political life in America, while happily fulfilling her role as the great chronicler of its profound vapidity and inconsequence.