Eve Babitz's Archive Reveals the Person Behind the PersonaBreaking News
tags: feminism, literature, archives, 1960s, popular culture, womens history, criticism
Kevin Dettmar is the W.M. Keck Professor of English at Pomona College.
Eve Babitz was one of the truly original writers of 20th-century Los Angeles: essayist, memoirist, novelist, groupie, feminist, canny ingenue. By the time of her death at the end of last year, she was enjoying a renaissance. Two essay collections, Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company, were back in circulation; I Used to Be Charming, a gathering of previously uncollected pieces, was released in 2019. That same year, Lili Anolik published her deliciously fangirlish biography, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. A half-century after her major-magazine debut at Rolling Stone, Eve Babitz was being introduced to a new generation of readers by writers who had sharpened their craft by reading her.
If you know only one thing about Eve Babitz, it’s probably that in 1963, at the age of 20, she was photographed at the Pasadena Art Museum playing chess with Marcel Duchamp—in the nude (elle, not il). In March of this year, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, less than four miles from the venue of that chess match, announced the acquisition of the Babitz archive—a few dozen bankers boxes of manuscripts, original works of art, journals, photographs, and correspondence.
I was lucky enough to be granted early access to the archive. A longtime admirer of Babitz’s work, I could hardly believe my good fortune. As a teenager, my point of entry was her writing about rock and pop: If you know only two things about Babitz, the second is probably that she’s the L.A. woman in the Doors song. (One of the archive’s nice surprises: an unpublished story called “… Coming Closer …” based on her relationship with Jim Morrison.) I was overwhelmed with curiosity about what her papers might reveal. What could the personal documents of a writer who was so public about her private world teach us about her work? How much of that persona was a performance and how much a reflection of her real anxieties and ambitions?
One of the oddities of the archive is that when it comes to her letters—I spent time in just two boxes, which mostly contained correspondence—one doesn’t know whether any of these notes were ever sent to their putative recipients: These are not carbons but original drafts, many of them signed. Babitz comments elliptically on this peculiar epistolary practice in a letter to her friend Carol Grannison-Killorhan: “Today I’m going to mail the letter I write to you instead of sticking it into a file of unmailed letters I’ve started because they’re practically a diary.” I read this, of course, in a file of unmailed letters.