Author Eve Babitz, who captured and embodied Los Angeles culture, has died at the age of 78

Eve Babitz, the author known for her hedonistic chronicles of Los Angeles, drawn largely from her own life, died Friday at the age of 78.

According to her sister, Mirandi Babitz, the causes of death were complications of Huntington’s disease. Babitz, who had last lived in an assisted-living facility in Westwood after many years in West Hollywood, died at UCLA Medical Center.

Babitz’s books oscillated between fiction and non-fiction, but everything was rooted in her own experiences. Her books have included Eve’s Hollywood, Slow Days, Fast Company, Sex and Rage, Black Swans, and the 2019 collection I Used to Be Charming.

Her writing described a world of decadent glamor with finely tuned detail, but also a sense of open-hearted joy, often shared with the genuine candor of a close friend deep in a soggy late-afternoon lunch. The overblown details of Babitz’s own life — among her well-known former lovers are Jim Morrison, Ed Ruscha, Harrison Ford, and Steve Martin — sometimes threatened to divert focus from her work.

The cover essay of the latest collection deals with an accident that almost took her life in 1997: Babitz was badly burned when a cigar she was smoking while driving set fire to her skirt. (“I used to be charming,” she told a caregiver about her appearance as she healed.)

After that, she largely withdrew from public life. Once a ubiquitous presence that permeated the Los Angeles art, literature and rock music worlds, it fell into relative obscurity until a new generation revived its reputation and legacy in recent years. This was thanks in part to the work of a biographer, Lili Anolik, who published Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of LA in 2019.

“She could be difficult, she could be kinky, but she was always a joy,” Anolik said. “I only knew her when her health was failing and she might be down a marble or two, and that was her quiet almost indecently charming: an easy laugher who liked to eat and, if you made her talk about the past, told the best stories. Her bravura knowledge was intact to the end.”

“I think it meant a lot to her,” Mirandi Babitz said of her sister’s late literary comeback. “She was very excited that all these things had happened. I think she said a couple of times that at 70 it’s a bit hard to have all that attention, but she was very happy that people really got their jobs.”

Even as she writes about major events, including the accident that changed her life, Babitz never lost her cutting yet oddly light-hearted wit. “My friends would kill me if I died,” she recalled the moment a paramedic arrived.

“She knew what she was doing,” said author Matthew Specktor, who wrote an introduction to the 2016 reissue of Slow Days, Fast Company. “She understood what she was writing and the way she was writing was not at all lighthearted. But she was able to retain a certain lightness of spirit or tone that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the work.”

Babitz was born on May 13, 1943 in Los Angeles. Her father, Sol Babitz, died when he was 20th Century Fox Orchestra, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Her godfather was the composer Igor Stravinsky, and her young life was surrounded by her parents’ bohemian friends. She attended Hollywood High School.

In 1963, Babitz posed nude while playing chess opposite artist Marcel Duchamp in a photograph by Julian Wasser that gained international fame. Babitz later wrote extensively about the encounter in a play collected in I Used to Be Charming.

After a stint designing album covers for Atlantic Records, including releases by Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and Linda Ronstadt, she turned to writing. Her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, was published in 1974.

Eve Babitz looks down with palm trees and the sky above her

Eve Babitz photographed in Hollywood in 1997, just before a devastating, near-fatal accident.

(Paul Harris/Getty Images)

Babitz has often been compared to Joan Didion, who also channeled the spirit of Los Angeles in essays, although they were almost opposite in style or effect. Among the raucous, absurdly long dedications in “Eve’s Hollywood” — which included the Eggs Benedict at Beverly Wilshire and the Sandblots at Musso and Frank — Babitz mentioned Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, by calling “the Didion-Dunnes.” thanked for having to be who I’m not.”

“Eve was perfectly in tune with the ultra-decadent, ultra-exuberant 1970s, which happened to be the decade she did her best work, and yet she was pretty much ignored,” Anolik said. Joan Didion, on the other hand, exploded into superstardom with 1967’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a dark and anxious collection of essays written at the height of the super-groovy Flower Child era. So Didion’s success — or at least the timing of Didion’s success — is as counterintuitive as the timing of Eve’s late-blooming fad.

“Eve has only really come to prominence in the last six or seven years, in a time that could be described as puritanical or neo-Victorian, certainly not as fun-loving as she and her books have always been,” said Anolik. “My personal theory is that there is a prevailing mood in the moment; but then there’s a vibe underneath that vibe, and when you tap into the vibe underneath, you really have something. If Didion was our secret superego then, Eva is our secret self now.”

Over time, Babitz’ work was largely out of print. Following the publication of an article by Anolik in Vanity Fair in 2014, followed by reprints of her old books, the revival began as a new generation discovered the work, personality and survivor behind it. The unabashed quality of Babitz’s writing, his energy and unvarnished honesty heralded the era of personal online essays – perhaps another reason for his rediscovery.

“She’s a tremendously literary writer who carries that very effortlessly and that’s appealing, that’s kind of a good role model for everyone,” Specktor said. “And of course the fact that she’s doing a character like that, who wouldn’t want to be that on some level, who wouldn’t want to live like that? She was having fun and wasn’t ashamed to have that fun and explore it as a literary theme.”

She brought her writing and said, ‘Who will kill me if I write this?’

Mirandi Babitz on her sister, the author Eve Babitz

Blurring the lines between essay and fiction, memoir and storytelling, Babitz made her life her art and her art her life in a way that would have been easier to envy from afar than to those trapped around her.

“She brought me her books before she published them,” recalls Mirandi Babitz. “She brought her writing and said, ‘Who will kill me if I write this?’

“And of course I got mad at her sometimes and gave her cautionary tales,” she added, “but I knew she would do it anyway. Because she wrote it and it was always good, always true and interesting. So why not?” Author Eve Babitz, who captured and embodied Los Angeles culture, has died at the age of 78

Caroline Bleakley

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