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Eve Babitz, who chronicled and reveled in Hollywood hedonism, dies at 78

Eve Babitz in 1974. (Mirandi Babitz)

Eve Babitz was in her teens when she declared to her mother, “I think I’m going to be an adventuress.” Then she added, “Is that all right?”

Ms. Babitz would have more adventures than most, growing up fast and voluptuous in Hollywood, reveling in almost every form of excess from sex to drugs to booze and still more sex — and never feeling the least bit of shame over any of it.

She was 20 when she sat down at a chessboard opposite the 75-year-old conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. He was fully clothed. She was wearing nothing at all.

Ms. Babitz designed album covers for the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Linda Ronstadt. She had affairs with famous men when they were still unknown, including actor Harrison Ford, artist Ed Ruscha and comedian Steve Martin.

She recalled her first encounter with rock star Jim Morrison: “I met Jim, and propositioned him in three minutes. … Being in bed with Jim was like being in bed with Michelangelo’s David, only with blue eyes.”

But Ms. Babitz was far more than just a Hollywood party girl or rock-and-roll hanger-on. She was one of the most incisive chroniclers of late 20th-century Los Angeles, drawing on her experiences to write several novels and essay collections that have come to be recognized as modern classics. Her books, written in a bold, gossipy, wry and unsentimental prose, were largely ignored when they first appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, but a recent revival of interest has made Ms. Babitz a literary touchstone for a younger generation of writers, many of them women.

“Eve is to prose what Chet Baker, with his light, airy style, lyrical but also rhythmic, detached but also sensuous, is to jazz,” her biographer, Lili Anolik, wrote in a 2014 Vanity Fair article that brought new attention to Ms. Babitz’s writing.

Ms. Babitz, who once reportedly said that “anyone who lived past 30 just wasn’t trying hard enough to have fun,” was 78 when she died Dec. 17 at a Los Angeles hospital. Anolik said the cause was Huntington’s disease, which causes a progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.

Ms. Babitz grew up in a bohemian family in Los Angeles: Her father was a violinist for studio orchestras and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and her mother was an artist. Famous musicians — her godfather was the composer Igor Stravinsky — were constantly dropping by the house, and poets Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth gave readings in the living room.

She went to Hollywood High, largely ignoring her studies to read novels by Henry James and Colette. She was drinking scotch at 13 — sneaked to her by Stravinsky — smoking cigarettes and cultivating a look of casual allure.

Ms. Babitz lived in New York for a year and tried Paris and Rome, but she found her abiding inspiration in much-maligned and misunderstood Los Angeles, which she rarely left in the last 50 years of her life. She scoffed at newcomers who considered it a cultural wasteland populated by airheads.

“Los Angeles isn’t a city,” Ms. Babitz wrote in an essay in “Slow Days, Fast Company” (1977). “It’s a gigantic, sprawling, ongoing studio. … Work and love — the two best things — flourish in studios.”

She idolized Marilyn Monroe, saying her artistry was just as important, in its way, as that of her onetime husband, playwright Arthur Miller. Ms. Babitz understood from an early age that in L.A. beauty was a form of currency, which she analyzed as if she were an economist.

“In the Depression,” she wrote in her first essay collection, “Eve’s Hollywood” (1974), “people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West.”

In her autobiographical 1979 novel “Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time,” she described how she had embraced Los Angeles since childhood. She and her younger sister came of age in a world where anything seemed possible under a sun that never stopped shining: “The two girls grew up at the edge of the ocean and knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden.”

For years, Ms. Babitz was a habitue of nightclubs and parties and an eager participant in all the sybaritic indulgences her hometown had to offer.

“All I cared about anyway was fun and men and trouble,” she wrote in her 1982 novel “L.A. Woman.”

Deeply aware of the effect she had on men, she took the sexual initiative in her affairs. She had numerous boyfriends and lovers, but never married.

“Our year together was one of my favorite years, but I couldn’t have lived through two of them,” writer Dan Wakefield said in 2014 of his relationship with Ms. Babitz. “My God, the decadence!”

The famous photograph with Duchamp, whose 1912 painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” is a landmark of modern art, came about as a ploy of sexual comeuppance toward Ms. Babitz’s married lover at the time, curator Walter Hopps. She was upset that Hopps had invited his wife to a museum opening instead of her. Ms. Babitz decided that “if I could ever wreak any havoc in his life, I would.”

When a photographer suggested the idea of the nude chess game, Ms. Babitz agreed. Hopps walked in on the photo shoot, was shocked by what he saw, then turned and left without saying a word.

Meanwhile, Ms. Babitz was trying to beat Duchamp at chess.

“I became interested in playing and tried to stop thinking about holding in my stomach,” she wrote in a 1991 essay, “but every time I thought I was so brilliant, like taking his queen on the fourth move, I’d lose.

“Of all the things that have ever gone on between men and women, this was the strangest, in my experience.”

Eve Babitz was born May 13, 1943, in Los Angeles. She tried to learn classical guitar as a child, but her father and his musician friends “winced and got depressed. I always went out of tune. I couldn’t tune, and I didn’t care.”

In her teens, she wrote a novel that “Catch-22” author Joseph Heller showed to his agent after Ms. Babitz wrote him a letter that read, in its entirety: “I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.”

The novel was not published. Ms. Babitz attended a Los Angeles community college, then turned to photography and design before deciding to “write stories about Los Angeles that weren’t depressing.”

Besides “Eve’s Hollywood,” “Slow Days, Fast Company” and “L.A. Woman,” her books included the novel “Sex and Rage” (1979) and a 1992 collection of short stories, “Black Swans.” She also published books on the Fiorucci fashion house and on tango dancing, at which she became adept.

Her novels and essay collections were republished in recent years, and a new book of essays, “I Used to Be Charming,” appeared in 2019. Her work has been discussed at scholarly conferences, which Ms. Babitz declined to attend.

In the 1980s, Ms. Babitz entered Alcoholics Anonymous to overcome her dependence on liquor and cocaine and began to retreat from her earlier life of excess.

In 1997, while driving home from a party, Ms. Babitz was trying to light a cigar when her skirt caught on fire, leaving her with third-degree burns over half her body. Given a 50 percent chance of survival, she was hospitalized for 14 weeks, including six weeks in intensive care, and underwent skin grafts and other procedures.

“You don’t expect your skirt to kill you,” she later told the Los Angeles Times. “But I didn’t think I was going to die. It wasn’t my style.”

In recent years, according to Anolik, whose biography was published in 2019, Ms. Babitz lived alone and often listened to right-wing radio shows. Survivors include a sister.

“I did not become famous,” Ms. Babitz wrote in “Slow Days, Fast Company,” “but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like cloth and rancid gardenias.”

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