Friday 21 August 2020

Slow Reviews | literature | 1974

Eve’s Hollywood

Tiff Stevenson on a book that was its own form of influencer culture

If Eve Babitz came of age now, she’d be an Instagram influencer that you didn’t hate. A pioneering slashie with Gatsby tendencies, straddling careers in modelling, design, photography and writing. Sometimes photographed naked and playing chess with Marcel Duchamp; sometimes introducing Salvador Dali to Frank Zappa; sometimes snapping (and occasionally sharing a bed with) Jim Morrison. She was the archetypal It Girl, yet with higher aspirations. She lived her life as art unfolding.

When my friend Steve handed me Eve’s Hollywood, I looked at the cover of twentysomething, underwear-clad Eve, replete with feather boas, and thought: “Nah!” Now, I should have trusted Steve, we first met after one of my shows, so I know he has exquisite taste in female artists. Besides, he’s given me many wonderful gifts and always at the perfect time.

Soon after, I was spending some time in Los Angeles, having just got my American visa. I pushed my cynicism aside and picked the book up, thinking that, at worst, it could be a travel guide of sorts. In the first chapter, Babitz writes: “It takes a certain kind of innocence to like LA.” Then: “…when people are not happy they fight against it.” I felt my hackles go up. Maybe happiness is easy when you are a socialite who also happens to be Stravinsky’s god daughter.

But I kept reading, albeit through a gauze of slight disdain, until there it was on page six: “I would never eat figs because I thought they were vile threats to happiness!” It’s one of my favourite writing devices, to be verbose or hyperbolic about something inconsequential. It’s deployed regularly by a character in another of my favourite novels, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces. Babitz is a stacked and beautiful Ignatius J. Reilly.

Eve’s Hollywood goes on to chronicle the hopes of immigrants, artists, grifters and dreamers. The book is endlessly insightful and so ahead of its time. Like Babitz, I’m obsessed with people and snatches of conversations. She imbues the characters around Sunset Strip, Redondo Beach and Hollywood High, as well as her own family, with depth and humanity. They are your friends, your enemies and the people you admire from afar.

Art is often the lens through which Babitz looks at the world. An entire chapter is dedicated to a dance craze known as ‘The Choke’. Her Presbyterian middle school would often hold dance contests at which the Mexican girls were always the best. They never won, though. The white girls did – the Judys and the Susans – the same girls whom Babitz would outrun to the record player. “If the white girls got there, who’d tell what they’d play – ‘Mr Sandman’ was one their favourites and that’s shit as shit could be.”

Tell me you can’t see that right now as a viral tweet. In those 15 pages, Eve manages to unpack racial bias, appropriation and systemic oppression in her Hollywood of the 1960s.

She was also prescient on beauty privilege and the reluctance to acknowledge it: “Beauty, unlike money, seems unable to focus on the source of the power. Money knows why it’s in the room.” The significance of talking about this in the 1970s should not be underestimated. In fact, Eve never saw herself as particularly feminist, yet many of her stories have a thread of intersectional feminism running through them.

At one point, I started sharing quotes on Twitter and a male fan of mine replied: “Read Eve’s Hollywood in early 2018 & have been raving about her ever since. If she was a bloke she’d be talked about like Kerouac or Hunter S Thompson”

That struck a chord with me. All these literary heavyweights that we attribute stream-of-consciousness to, whom we praise for their ability to be flippant and yet deeply poetic, tend to be men. Eve’s Hollywood showed that female writers could tackle the excesses of a rock-and-roll lifestyle in an equally poetic and funny way, but from their own perspective too.

Some comfort can be taken from the fact that Babitz has had a bit of a renaissance recently. In the era of #MeToo, there’s something about her work that’s timeless, or as she put it herself: “How come the Beatles never got busted for statutory rape – because they’re white?” And now long-overdue adaptations of her work are in the pipeline. Late for Eve, maybe, but for the rest of us a wonderful gift at the perfect time.  

Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill  

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