Lili Anolik is unabashedly head over heels for the subject of her new book. She and Eve Babitz regularly text and talk on the phone; Anolik sends packages of chocolate-covered strawberries. The spark was ignited in 2010 when Anolik came across a quote by her future subject. “I don't remember the exact quote, but it was of course about LA and sex, and I was instantly entranced and I wanted to know who this woman was.”
The woman is an author of seven books; a designer of album covers for the likes of Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and Linda Ronstadt; the goddaughter of Igor Stravinsky; a graduate of Hollywood High; the nude woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp in the famous photograph; a lover to many including Jim Morrison, Ed Ruscha, and Harrison Ford; basically, the epicenter of the burgeoning pop-cultural scene of Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s.
Anolik tried to learn more about this fascinating figure, but books by Babitz were out of print, and very little was written about her. Anolik managed to track down one book, Slow Days, Fast Company, sealing the deal for her infatuation with Babitz’s work. “Her sensibility was idiosyncratic and unexpected, and her prose had a real rhythm to it,” says Anolik. “I thought she has this feeling for place—for Los Angeles, which is this kind of beautiful city that's filled with hope and optimism, but underneath the hope and optimism I just felt like she got the city with all of its ironies and all of its complexities.” Anolik pitched a story to Vanity Fair,where she is now a contributing editor and began an investigation into this it girl who fell out of the limelight.
When Anolik first tried to make contact with Babitz—by finding her address in the phone book and mailing her requests to meet—she was given the cold shoulder. Gradually connecting with Babitz’s inner-circle—her sister, a cousin, the photographer of that Duchamp pic—Anolik finally made some inroads and hopped on a plane from her home in New York to have lunch with Babitz in Los Angeles at the iconic Original Farmers Market. Very little was revealed over burgers except for Babitz’s insatiable appetite, but after many more conversations, Anolik published a 6,000-word profile that she says only began to scratch the surface. Luckily, Babitz approved of the Vanity Fair article. “She left a voicemail saying, ‘So glad you got in the story about the blow job,’ ” Anolik recalls.
Once Anolik had the trust of her subject, she had to keep going. “[Eve] had this fascinating, complicated life with multiple acts,” explains Anolik. “She started as a daughter of Hollywood—her mom's an artist, her dad's a musician…their house was this wonderful salon of musicians and writers and poets. And then she becomes a muse and a groupie and the posing in the picture with Marcel Duchamp…and then in her 20s she's discovered as a writer by Joan Didion, and then penultimately she’s this California horror story.”
Each of these titillating acts are explored—with great admiration and love—in Anolik’s new Kirkus-starred book, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.(Jan. 8). This chronicle of how Babitz’s deep entanglement in LA’s “café society”—where she was a fixture at places like the Troubadour, Barney’s Beanery, and the Chateau Marmont—is about more than just being a wallflower on the Sunset Strip. “It wasn’t the gaudy glitter of celebrity that so dazzled Eve. It was all that brilliance assembled in one place, on one scene,” writes Anolik, who shines a light on the brilliance of Babitz herself.
Babitz’s sharp and funny voice, provocative lifestyle, and all her stranger-than-fiction experiences create a Hollywood biopic that no movie director could have ever imagined. “Evie's memory is frighteninglygood for someone who's abused drugs and has participated in every form of debauchery that they are offered,” says Anolik, who often questioned the plausibility of Babitz’s recollections, but she was always able to corroborate the stories. And Babitz’s stories are beyond extraordinary: Harrison Ford was her pot dealer; she was one of the first people ever to wear contact lenses because her next-door neighbor invented them; she was the one to suggest that Steve Martin perform in a white suit and that Jim Morrison don leather pants; she was the host of a dinner party where Michelle Phillips told an anecdote to Joan Didion, who asked to use it for the seminal ending of Play It Like It Lays.
Anolik traces some of these real-life stories through the narratives behind Babitz’s own books. Her autobiographical novels, several of which were published by Knopf at the time, were a “cult favorite, never a mainstream success,” unlike the books of Didion and Nathanael West, both of whom offered much grimmer views of California. As the unofficial champion of Babitz’s literary canon, Anolik’s initial Vanity Fair piece helped to launch a resurgence of interest, and since then several of Babitz’s books have been reissued. In Hollywood’s Eve,Anolik devotes extra attention to her personal favorite and first read from Babitz’s oeuvre, Slow Days, Fast Company (1977, reissued in 2016) which she quotes throughout the book, including this passage:
You can’t write a story about L.A. that doesn’t turn around in the middle or get lost….No one likes to be confronted with a bunch of disparate details that God only knows what they mean. I can’t get a thread to go through to the end and make a straightforward novel. I can’t keep everything in my lap, or stop rising flurries of sudden blind meaning. But perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse or sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full, no matter how fast the company.
This emphasis of “sense” and “pulse” and a dreamlike unfolding also drives Hollywood’s Eve, which does not fit the mold of a biography—it’s a bonafide love story. Anolik achieves an incredible intimacy with her subject, who talks to almost no one these days—especially about her “final act.” In a freak accident while driving home from a family brunch on a Sunday morning, Babitz caught herself on fire while trying to light a cigar. This tragic accident in the late ’90s left her in chronic discomfort, and she lives a very quiet existence today. Although Babitz never returned to the social scene that she dominated for decades, “The force of her personality and the force of her spirit are unchanged,” Anolik says. “She still sounds just the way she sounds in her books in a funny kind of way.” In a final ode, Anolik writes about her subject at peace in the present:
Eve is now in her mid-seventies. Her hair is no longer a silvery shade of platinum but straight-up silver. The drugs she takes are to ward off pain rather than induce psychosis and are paid for by Medicare. And yet she remains a beloved and brilliant little girl: beautiful, serenely self-absorbed, wholly without conscience or remorse, and an unending source of marvel and freshness and delight.
Bridgette Bates’ poetry collection What Is Not Missing Is Light is the recipient of the Black Box Poetry Prize. The photo above is of Lili Anolik with Eve Babitz.