“I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz” collects nearly 50 of Babitz’s nonfiction pieces, as well as the full text of “Fiorucci,” her 60-page deep dive into the Italian fashion sensation. Babitz’s journalism treads familiar ground for readers of her lightly fictionalized memoirs. Los Angeles and celebrity are front and center, but so too are Babitz’s struggles with sobriety and the life-threatening accident that left her scarred from third-degree burns. On the page, she is consistently self-referential yet never myopic, occupying the marginal space between fiction and nonfiction with panache.
Despite counting some of the 20th century’s most dazzling creatives as her friends and lovers — Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Jim Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, Ed and Paul Ruscha, Annie Leibovitz and Andy Warhol, to name a few — Babitz only resurfaced in 2014 when Lili Anolik waxed poetic on the author’s smoke-wreathed glamour and legendary biography in “All About Eve — and Then Some” for Vanity Fair. The article triggered a wave of reissues of her work with NYRB Classics and Counterpoint Press. Her books — once out of print and long forgotten — are now readily available and count Jia Tolentino, Stephanie Danler and Emma Roberts as fans.
“I Used to Be Charming” pays homage to the riotous glory of shopping and people-watching at the Ralphs on Sunset, swimming nude through a bougainvillea-strewn swimming pool, dashing off notes on engraved Tiffany & Co. stationery and stalking debauchery at the Troubadour’s bar. In examining the quotidian moments of the rich and famous with wit and levity, Babitz opens her reader’s minds to simple truths lurking in plain sight. Her choice of topics — from the trials and tribulations of navigating life with a 36DD bra size to the symbolism of ordering onions in Archie comics — showcases the ingenuity of her observations. Babitz may embrace pop culture, but she doesn’t forsake the classics, mixing allusions to Colette, Igor Stravinsky and Henry James with Jim Morrison, Rudolph Valentino and Arthur Murray. Flattening the hierarchy between highbrow and lowbrow, Babitz harks back to an earlier tradition of decadence without shame, while asserting that style, entertainment and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.
There’s a freedom in these pieces that sends readers flipping to the end to double-check that, yes, these were crafted as articles destined for newspapers and magazines. Babitz dances freely from what is strictly business to the kind of personal scenes and candid asides that never seem to make it into print nowadays. “All This and The Godfather Too,” arguably one of the best pieces in the collection, showcases this bygone style to perfection. Haunting the set of “The Godfather II” on assignment, Babitz is granted now-unheard-of access to the production. She travels from the Hollywood soundstages to closed sets in Lake Tahoe to Francis Ford Coppola’s offices in San Francisco to watch him cut five hours of footage into a three-hour movie. Along the way, she makes her on-screen debut as an extra and dishes on how “the huge old soundstages, the detailed sets, everything had to stop for one $10,000 hour because nobody thought to show Michael Gazzo where the commissary was.” She manages to squeeze in a meditation on the lasting influence of Hollywood High alongside a critique of the “ghastly” 1950s costumes and the disappointing spread from craft services.
Ironically, her talent for composing humorous work with airy asides makes it easy for the casual reader to dismiss her strength. Despite her near constant name-dropping and appreciation for insider antics, there is sincerity at the core of everything she describes. “You can find the transitory spirit of Los Angeles if you look carefully as you drive by so quickly, beyond the false fronts, the pancake makeup, and the sequins of your regrettable sister who’s gone on the stage and captured everyone but you by a simple determination to sprawl indifferently out into the sunset,” Babitz writes of her hometown. It’s a sentiment that can be applied to Babitz, too.
Lauren Sarazen is a freelance writer based in Paris.
I USED TO BE CHARMING
The Rest of Eve Babitz
By Eve Babitz
NYRB Classics. 448 pp. $18.95