Most New Yorkers, given the chance to write about a city they love, would choose grand old Gotham. But Lili Anolik fell in love with Los Angeles via Eve Babitz, a then-largely overlooked writer. Anolik writes a captivating biography of a louche “it” girl from the sixties and seventies and the society that created her. While Babitz captured Anolik’s heart, “Hollywood’s Eve” is likely to capture yours.
As far as biographies go, it is utterly unconventional, much like its heroine. Anolik tells us in the introduction that the book is “a case history as well as a cultural; a critical appreciation; a sociological study; a psychological commentary; a noir-style mystery.” Though warned, we are ambushed by the non-traditional narrative as the story unfolds.
Babitz is the daughter of two Bohemian parents, a Jewish violinist and a Catholic pen-and-ink artist. Born in 1943 and raised in Hollywood in a home filled with radical ideas and star-studded celebrities, she was perfectly poised to develop her larger-than-life personality to become the embodiment of the sexual revolution that flourished in California in her time. Babitz not only got to know all the Old Hollywood stars and jazz musicians, but also learned how to charm them and delve into their secrets, most often in the bedroom. Beyond providing us with a raw portrait of Babitz herself, the book also offers an insightful depiction of West Coast hippie culture, when Los Angeles was indisputably the pop culture capital of the world.
The story is told chronologically, so we hear about Babitz’s heyday right at the beginning. We read about how she introduced Frank Zappa to Salvador Dali, and convinced Steve Martin to wear white suits. As we rise with her myriad of lovers and fall with her discovery of alcohol and drugs, we begin to understand why Anolik refers to her as a “lewd angel.”
Many readers will be seduced by the writing in this book — it is loose, breezy, glitzy, juicy, colorful, manic, rich, compelling – much like Babitz herself. The anecdotes of her antic love affairs and her belief in both personal freedom and substance-fueled hedonism easily pull you into their magnetic orbit. The tone is relaxed and conversational, and the sensibility is utterly idiosyncratic.
Anolik turned her 2014 article for Vanity Fair into a full-length paean to Babitz, who became an icon of art and sex. Now Babitz’s seven novels and story collections, which were largely ignored when they were first published, are being reissued, and she has become a feminist icon. Millennials Instagram her book covers and choose her works for their book groups. A mini-Babitz revival is taking place, including even a Hulu series on her life. The source of her appeal? Perhaps that she lived life on her own terms, Anolik posits.
This is a book that celebrates the things that made Babitz successful. So if Anolik seems utterly non-objective about her subject, she reminds us of what she wrote early on — her book is a love story: “The lover, me. The love object, Babitz.”
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.