At 76-years-old, Eve Babitz, the Los Angeles icon and underground legend is having quite the revival. In the bloom of her youth, Babitz was famously photographed in Life Magazine playing nude chess with the artist Marcel Duchamp. By the time she turned 20, the voluptuous ‘it’ girl had already bedded some of the world’s most celebrated men.
Born to a bohemian family in the Hollywood Hills, she cut a sensuous swath through Tinsel Town during the 1960s and 1970s: ‘I was 23 and a daughter of Hollywood, alive with groupie fever, wanting to f*** my way through rock ‘n’ roll and drink tequila and take uppers and downers, keeping joints rolled and lit, a regular customer at the clap clinic, a groupie prowling the nights of summer.’
Eve Babitz (pictured in 1959) was raised Hollywood, California by a mother who was an artist and a father who was a musician in the 20th Century Fox orchestra, her godfather was the composer Igor Stravinsky. Acknowledging her sex appeal she wrote in her 1974 memoir: ‘I looked like Brigitte Bardot and I was Stravinsky’s goddaughter’
Her cool and unapologetic honesty brought Eve some much deserved early literary attention when she published her 1974 memoir, Eve’s Hollywood – a book that is now considered a masterpiece of candor and a brilliant evocation of an era. Her literary debut was followed by more parties, drugs, trysts and six other books in succession.
Two decades of pathological partying had almost razed the self-described ‘rock ‘n’ roll adventuress’ by the ‘80s – Eve had to get sober or die. ‘All I took was speed, painkillers like Percodan and Demerol for fun or Mogadons,’ she said in 2014. ‘Oh, and LSD or mushrooms or mescaline if it was a nice day.’
Over time, Eve Babitz lapsed into obscurity. A freak accident in 1997 left her body covered in third-degree burns from the waist down with a 50% chance of survival- Babitz said she lost the will to write after that.
But eventually, it was the writer, the unsparing observer of her own life with a celebrated sense of gallows humor that emerged from Eve’s scorched garden. The chronicle of her excruciating ordeal, in a never-before published essay will be featured in this Saturday’s edition of Air Mail- the newly launched online news service, co-founded by Graydon Carter and Alessandra Stanley, formerly of The New York Times.
After Babitz made her debut posing naked for a photograph while playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, she tore through Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, artists and musicians. ‘I was 23 and a daughter of Hollywood, alive with groupie fever, wanting to f**k my way through rock ‘n’ roll and drink tequila and take uppers and downers, keeping joints rolled and lit, a regular customer at the clap clinic, a groupie prowling the nights of summer’, Eve confessed
Babitz pictured in 1959 was a student at Hollywood High School. ‘People don’t know what it was to suddenly possess the power to f*** every single person you even idly fancied, they don’t know the physical glamour of that – back when rock ‘n’ roll was in flower’
To put it simply, Eve Babitz set herself on fire. She had just finished Sunday brunch in Pasadena with her family; they took one car and she drove alone – excited to smoke her cherry flavor cigar that she said made her ‘feel like Clint Easton.’ Still driving the same 1968 VW Bug that Steve Martin had given to her many years before; Eve accidentally dropped the match while trying to light her smoke – her body was instantly engulfed in flames.
She threw herself out of the vehicle onto a patch of grass – setting it on fire along with a few bushes in the process. Her pantyhose melted to her skin, her skirt vaporized and her legs were scorched to a crisp. ‘The thing is, this wasn’t the first time I had been nakedly embarrassed in Pasadena,’ said Babitz, in her typical deadpan manner.
Of course, the first time was in 1963 when she posed nude for the legendary chess playing photo with the Marcel Duchamp. It was revenge on her married boyfriend, Walter Hoops – a curator for the Pasadena Art Museum who failed to invite Eve to the opening party for the Duchamp retrospective. The photo became one of the most enduring images of the twentieth century and it served as Babitz’s unofficial coming-out party. ‘Walter thought he was running everything and I finally got to run something,’ said Babitz in her 2019 biography written by Lili Anolik.
Half-naked and completely charred below the waist, Babitz got back in the car, she said her hands felt like fire but she was able to shift, steer and brake her way back to her mother’s house in Glendale where she was living at the time. After many years devoted to raucous partying, Eve contemplated the irony of possible death-by-hapless accident at the age of 54: ‘Had I managed to avoid all the damage I had done up to this point, breaking hearts, being unreliable, only to hit that brick will because of a match?’
Eve (right) poses with her parents, Mae, Sol Babitz and little sister, Mirandi. Babitz’s parents were bohemian intellectuals that constantly entertained their close family friends Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Bernard Herrman and Aldous Huxley
Speaking of her godfather Igor Stravinsky, Eve wrote in her memoir: ‘He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking’
Babitz essentially disappeared after she got in a freak accident that put her in the hospital for three months and left her body covered in third degree burns. She speaks about the harrowing event in her never-before published essay that will be featured in Air Mail
Waiting in the driveway was Eve’s sister Mirandi. ‘My skirt caught on fire, can you believe it? I’m going to put aloe on it,’ explained Babitz as if her skirt had inexplicably and spontaneously combusted on the drive home. Eve still had plans to go dancing that evening with her former boyfriend, the artist, Paul Ruscha. In her former heyday, she had also charmed the literal pants off of Paul’s brother, Ed Ruscha: ‘Eve was our Kiki of Montparnasse,’ he said.
At a young age, Eve learned to capitalize on her assets and sexuality for access to men and as a teenager she wrote to Joseph Heller, the author of Catch 22 who was twice her senior. The letter in its stunning entirety read: ‘Dear Joseph Heller, I am a stacked eighteen-year old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer. Eve Babitz.’ Needless to say, it grabbed his attention and he introduced Babitz to his editor. Lili Anolik wrote in Vanity Fair: ‘She’s managed to pique the interest of a Major Artist. Even better, she’d done it not by denying her sexpot voluptuousness but by reveling in it.’
Plans for the dance floor derailed into six weeks in the burn intensive care unit at the Los Angeles County Hospital where she was given a 50% chance to live. All the skin on Eve’s lower body was completely gone. ‘And I used to have such great skin,’ she wrote in a vestigial flicker of self- love – the tone, reminiscent of the same beguiling girl who once famously said: ‘I looked like Brigitte Bardot, and I was Stravinsky’s goddaughter.’
At a young age, Eve learned to trade on her sexuality for access to men. As a teenager she wrote to author Joseph Heller: ‘Dear Joseph Heller, I am a stacked eighteen-year old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.’ It grabbed his attention and he introduced Eve to his editor
The pathological party girl sought help in the 1980s for her addiction problem. It was around this time that Babitz began to lapse into obscurity. Talking about her drug abuse in 2014 she said: ‘All I took was speed, painkillers like Percodan and Demerol for fun or Mogadons. Oh, and LSD or mushrooms or mescaline if it was a nice day’
In her essay titled ‘I Used to Be Charming,’ to be published by Air Mail; Babitz writes about the agonizing skin grafts she had to endure after she burned off her lower body: ‘…the doctors would remove skin from my scalp, shoulders, back and arms,’ she said. ‘Two weeks later, they would staple it back on, reupholstering me with my own skin’
‘First-degree burns really hurt, like getting boiling water splashed on you or a serious sunburn; second-degree burns are those horrible things you don’t want to have either; but third-degree burns, which is what I had, meant that my nerve endings were burned off. So I wasn’t in much pain at all,’ she explained in her essay for Air Mail.
While in the hospital, Babitz underwent two agonizing skin grafting surgeries that left tracks of black staples across her entire body, from her wrists down to her ankles. She explains in visceral detail: ‘…the doctors would remove skin from my scalp, shoulders, back and arms,’ she said. ‘Two weeks later, they would staple it back on, reupholstering me with my own skin.’
During brief moments of consciousness when the pain medication wore off, the consummate comic and unfailing realist found time to muse on her surroundings in the emblematic Eve way. On the strict no smoking policy, she said: ‘You can imagine what I was going through: not only was I in the burn unit but I was being forced to kick tobacco cold turkey.’
On her male nurse, David: ‘I was so weak, strong arms were my ideal. I began to regard the men able to move me to the weighing machines with the least fuss as my saviors. I’d never gone in for muscles, but now they were all I looked for in a man.’ (A far cry from her youth when Babitz told Anolik that she was ‘a slave to skinny boys with long hair who sang and played guitar- a groupie plus.’)
On the female orderly just doing her job: ‘…imperious killjoy nurse,’ a ‘caricature of Loretta Swit’s character on M*A*S*H…’
On her relationship with her sister Mirandi: ‘My sister and I have had the same dynamic practically since she was born, she being obliging and kind while I am horrible and ungrateful.’
An unapologetic groupie, Eve was the girl that carried around her diaphragm in a matchbox. Pop artist Ed Ruscha said, ‘Eve was our Kiki of Montparnasse’
While reflecting on her relationship with her sister Mirandi (left) in the essay, Eve (right) said: ‘My sister and I have had the same dynamic practically since she was born, she being obliging and kind while I am horrible and ungrateful’
Some of her conquests include singer Jim Morrison (left) and actor Harrison Ford (right) of whom she said ‘could f***. Nine people a day. It’s a talent, loving nine people in one day. Warren (Beatty) could only do six’
On finding her silver linings: ‘At least I hadn’t burned my face, or run into a traffic pole headfirst.’ On finding hope: ‘I held on to the happy thought of being well enough to go back to the Glendale Galleria, not far from my house. I dreamed of shopping at the gap and Nordstrom, as shallow as that sounds.’
Bedridden and bound to the confines of a bleak hospital room, Eve was still unflappably Eve.
Meditating on her predicament that nearly left her penniless, Babitz wrote: ‘I once read in The Village Voice that an artist was anyone over 25 without health insurance- well that was me alright: over 50 without health insurance. Did that make me a real artist?’
In truth, Babitz is an artist in many ways: as a muse, as a writer and as a painter. Before she became a fêted literary cult figure she made bedfellows with Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records who gave Eve a job designing album covers for musicians like Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. Eve insists that this was merely a ‘hoax’ to get access to musicians. In her emblematic self-deprecating wit, she once wrote in Rolling Stone Magazine: ‘I posed as an album-cover designer and photographer…That I today have some album covers and photographs to show for myself is a monument to the attention-to-detail of my disguise.’
Annie Leibovitz, a close friend of Eve Babitz, shot the cover to her 1974 memoir where she wore a bra and boa. Proud of her sizable 36DD assets she told Anolik: ‘These breasts have conquered the world’
Among the many excruciating challenges, Babitz said that learning to walk again felt like she was stepping on piles of broken glass. ‘Amazing tortures arrived for me in the form of occupational therapy,’ she said. The crushed-glass sensation meant that Eve’s nerve-endings were growing back after they had been completely burned away. ‘Screaming from pain is the signal that you’re getting better.’
Movement in her hands and arms was limited since doctors had cut too deeply during the skin graft, causing her wounds to weep with blood for weeks.
Enemas that treated Babitz for pain medication induced constipation were just a regular, if not trifling nuisance. Bedsores were another thing. Removing the ones that had formed on her heels was a pain so surprising, that Babitz said, ‘Nothing else, outside of a bikini wax, even came close.’ She added: ‘But then after my bikini wax, I’d vowed I’d never subject myself to another.’
It took a whole year for Eve to finally feel whole again. Faced with astronomical medical expenses, Mirandi organized a benefit at Eve’s former pleasure palace, the Chateau Marmont. All the ghosts of Eve’s romantic past contributed to the auction: Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper, Ahmet Ertegun, Steve Martin and Harrison Ford; the latter two donated $50,000 each. From her hospital bed, ‘A prostrate Eve, in full Camille mode, raised her head. Through cracked lips she croaked out the words ‘blow jobs’ before collapsing back on the pillow,’ wrote Lily Anolik in Vanity Fair.
Eve plunged deeper into isolation after the fiery inferno that almost cost her life and hasn’t written a book since. She did, however, order a new set of business cards. In line with her celebrated sense of self-lacerating wit, they read: ‘Eve Babitz Better red than dead.’
Eve Babitz, the larger-than-life ‘it girl’ all but faded away with history after the accident. Her books, were long out of print. But curiously, after a Vanity Fair profile pulled her out of obscurity; Babitz became an overnight hero to the millennial generation who admired her unrepentant sense of self