How 1970s "It" Girl Eve Babitz Became Young Hollywood's Latest Obsession

courtesy of Lloyd Ziff; Inset: Mae Babitz/courtesy of Mirandi Babitz
Eve Babitz at L.A.'s Farmers Market in 2011 (Inset: in 1959).

The woman who had affairs with Harrison Ford and Jim Morrison and partied with Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate also is seeing a literary renaissance, with a biography set for release Jan. 8, her books getting reissued and a TV series adaptation in development at Hulu.

For decades, Eve Babitz was one of Hollywood's best-kept literary secrets. A onetime "It" girl who had affairs with Harrison Ford, Paul and Ed Ruscha, and Jim Morrison; partied with Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate; designed album covers for The Byrds and posed naked for an iconic photo with artist Marcel Duchamp, she wrote "fiction" from the '70s through the '90s that mirrored her adventures — earning praise from none other than Joan Didion.

"Look, had I not come along, somebody else would have," says Lili Anolik, the author of Hollywood's Eve (out Jan. 8 from Simon & Schuster, $26), a book on Babitz that is part biography, part cultural analysis and part memoir. "Her story is so great."

Still, Anolik, 40, couldn't have anticipated young Hollywood women's response to her 2014 Vanity Fair profile of Babitz. Publishers have since reissued Babitz's books (including Eve's HollywoodSlow Days, Fast CompanyL.A. Woman; and Sex and Rage), and stars Emma Roberts, Zosia Mamet and Lola Kirke and Sweetbitter author Stephanie Danler have flocked to them. Amy Pascal and Elizabeth Cantillon are developing a show based on four Babitz books for Hulu, while outlets from BuzzFeed to The New Yorker have published stories on Babitz's sudden popularity. 

Anolik still talks often with "Evie," 75, who finds the Time's Up era attention bewildering, the author says. "She said something funny when I talked about all these women being into her," Anolik recalls. "She said, 'My whole life, I always got attention from men, and now it's girls who like me.' " 

Prior to the release of her book, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Anolik about kickstarting the Babitz renaissance, why she resonates with millennial women and how her writing grasps the "moveable feast" of Hollywood.  

For our readers who won't have read the book, how did you first end up coming across Eve Babitz?

Back in 2012, I came across a quote of hers in another book: It was something about L.A. and sex, obviously, because it's Eve Babitz. I was so taken with the quote that I wanted to know who this woman was and what she’d written. She had no online presence at that point and all her books were out of print, but you could get the out-of-print books on Amazon, so I got Slow Days, Fast Company. I read it as soon as I got it and I was knocked out by it; I just went bananas. I thought the sensibility was idiosyncratic and original and her prose has rhythm and force. It's slangy and American and relaxed, but it's also elevated and elegant, and I loved how she wrote about Los Angeles. I bought all her books I could get my hands on at that point.

When did you eventually start writing about her?

My pursuit of her was very, very long. I read that first book in 2012 and I wrote her a letter. There was really nothing about her online, but she was in the white pages, so I just wrote her a letter, or two or three, and I didn’t hear back. Time passed and I got the chance to pitch Vanity Fair, so I pitched a story on Eve a year or two later. The editor that I pitched didn't buy it, but he was interested, and so I started chasing her again and I still couldn't get anywhere. But in a lot of her books there will be dedication pages, so I knew who her circle was. I became close with her cousin, Laurie Pepper, and her sister, Mirandi, and a number of her ex-boyfriends. I guess she got curious and told Paul Ruscha, who was her longest-term boyfriend, that I could take her out to lunch. I flew out to Los Angeles the next morning and then we were on. Once we got together, then we started talking on the phone all the time and I would see her every six or eight weeks.

As you mentioned, Eve hadn't yet become a literary celebrity when you first started writing about her. When did that happen, and how did it coincide with your writing process?

The Vanity Fair profile came out in the Hollywood Issue in 2014 and then things really started to pick up. About a year after, New York Review Books Classics reissued Eve’s Hollywood. Then they reissued Slow Days, Fast Company, and then Counterpoint Press started reissuing her books and Simon & Schuster reissued L.A. Woman. Right around the time Eve’s Hollywood got reissued, Sony Pictures TV-Tristar bought the right to four of her books, and now Hulu's making a TV show of Eve's HollywoodSlow Days, Fast CompanyL.A. Woman; and Sex and Rage.

She’s really caught on with millennials. All of a sudden she’s become a literary celebrity, and it's kind of wild to see. Look, had I not come along, somebody else would have. Her books are so great, particularly Slow Days, Fast Company, and her story is so great. Somebody would have done it, but I suspect that maybe it would have happened after she died. It’s been crazy because she was a private obsession for me, and now so many people are obsessed with her.

Do you have any theories on why Eve is so captivating to readers today in a way that she wasn't when her books were first published?

It's completely fascinating to me. Evie really starts getting published in the mid-'70s and hits her peak in the late '70s, and she seems totally aligned with the decade, sensibility-wise: She’s all about pleasure [and] decadence, she's wild, druggie, all the things that the '70s were, and yet she didn’t really catch on then. And now we’re in the #MeToo moment and she seems antithetical to the #MeToo moment. I had this very funny conversation with an ex-boyfriend of hers, Dan Wakefield, who was a big writer then — they were together when she published [her essay] "The Sheik." I told him that she was huge with young women, and he was laughing and said, “The #MeToo women?” And I said yeah. He said, "The only time she ever said 'Me too' was when she wanted what you had — the drugs, the drinks, the dudes."

But I think that, first of all, Eve is a very funny writer. There’s a darkness there, too, a harshness and an equivalence that I'm sure is probably resonating. But I also feel like we're in a moment that looks like a hard and definite thing — that everyone feels a certain way — but really there’s a haziness and an ambiguity and counter-feelings to what's getting exalted at the moment. There's an endless dialectic going on in the world, and somehow Eve has tapped into that, right now.

Did you have any conversations with Eve about the #MeToo movement?

I never talked to her explicitly about the #MeToo moment, but she’s aware that she’s catching on in this way that she never did in her career. The way I interpret how she's reacting to what’s going on now is a mixture of disinterest and dismay. I think she would have loved all this when she was younger, and she's so gratified by it now, but I think it’s bewildering to her. She said something funny when I talked about all these women being into her; she said, “My whole life, I always got attention from men, and now it’s girls who like me," and she couldn’t believe it.

As your title suggests, Eve was both a product of, and mythmaker of, Hollywood. What does her story say about Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s?

She’s just one of those people. She's like F. Scott Fitzgerald, where their life seems to mirror what the country is going through. If anyone partook of ‘70s L.A., it was Eve. It was Quaaludes, coke, screwing around a ton, it was that post-pill, pre-AIDS moment that she fully, fully embraced. And then 1980 hits and she sobers up and she starts going to AA. She just seems to have gone through in her personal life what the decades were going through. It seems like the country as a whole was going through this all, but probably Los Angeles in a more concentrated way.

Did the process of writing this book reveal anything to you about the state of Hollywood today?

There’s a moveable feast to Hollywood that I think Eve understood. When she was talking about the Sunset Strip, her scene in the late '60s and early '70s, she said the Sunset Strip "was more Hollywood than Hollywood." I think she meant that’s where the action was, that's where the sex and youth and the energy was. That was a moveable thing, and Eve clearly understood that because she was interested in rock 'n' roll, meaning the Sunset Strip, when that was more vital than the movie industry. That would change with Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, but she seemed to have that sense that it was a moveable thing, that it’s a state of mind rather than a neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Is there an analog for Eve now in Hollywood?

First of all, to me Eve is so sui generis, there’s nobody like her. There was that quality where she was this major connector in Hollywood, not just connecting one person to another — though she did that — [but there were also] funny things, like she'd introduce Salvador Dali to Frank Zappa, or she’d be the link between Jim Morrison and his leather pants, which would become the look of rock 'n' roll.

But also [in Eve's time], Hollywood is this mob, and she could go from Walter Hopps and Andy Warhol, major movers and shakers in the L.A. arts scene, to photographing The Eagles and designing album covers for The Byrds and photographing Linda Ronstadt; at the same time, she was very tight with Joan Didion and John Dunne. I don’t think the world is that small anymore. I can’t believe that someone could traverse all those worlds now. I do cover stories for Vanity Fair and I'll be talking to Kristen Stewart, and she’ll tell me that so much of her life is lived inside her house. [Meanwhile,] I remember doing an interview with Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, who was in Eve's circle, and her talking to me about this club called The Daisy. It was structured like a speakeasy and there would be this little slit in the door and they'd let you in if you were famous or an approved person. And then you could kind of behave in any way you wanted once you were inside there. It was a [completely safe space] for famous people, and it was all kind of people mixing: Dean Martin, The Beatles, all these worlds would collide. I can’t imagine that existing now. Eve’s so particular to her time and place.

Eve also took a while to emerge. As you said earlier, she wasn’t big during her time; she’s happening now. So it’s so hard for me to anticipate who that could be; it would have to be someone under the radar at this point.

As you mention, Joan Didion discovered Eve. Do you think Eve’s work, which is so different, could become nonfiction canon like Didion's?

Oh yes. I think Slow Days, Fast Company could last. I think it’s an L.A. masterpiece. I know I give Joan Didion a bit of a hard time in my book, but she's great — she's a wonderful stylist, her sensibility I probably have more of a problem with — and you need Eve and Joan to balance each other out. They're writing about L.A. at the exact same time with a totally different vision of what Los Angeles is, and I think you need both of them. In many ways they’re yin to the others’ yang. I’ve heard from other people that they were enormously fond of each other, they genuinely liked one another. I think The White Album and Slow Days, Fast Company should be read together. A Ph.D. student in Indiana is now doing a doctoral on those two — isn't that funny? To me, it makes sense. They're essential; they need each other.

Now that Eve is more well-known than she was, and is considered a literary icon, what do people still misunderstand about her?

Sometimes it will feel to me like she gets talked about as a Carrie Bradshaw before there was a Carrie Bradshaw and that will bother me, because if you really get into her work and life, she was a really difficult, singular, odd person — that's what makes her an artist, she's extreme. Her sister Mirandi — who's the loveliest, nicest person, and whose life followed the same trajectory as Eve up until early middle age — is, to me, much more of a Carrie Bradshaw figure in that she's much more relatable. Evie will call herself a "groupie" and it’s totally ridiculous — she'll have slept with rock 'n' rollers but … there was never that passivity, which is what I associate with a groupie, who just wants to be there, around the rock 'n' roll guys, and is there in more a servile capacity. Eve just wasn’t.

To me, if someone was going to ask me if her life was a cautionary tale because it has that difficult ending with that fire, I feel like she was an artist before she was anything else, and gauged out of herself a masterpiece, and maybe more than one, and that would have made it all worth it. But it’s not an easy life: She never married, had children, never had any security in her life, never had a steady job or economic security. She lived this improvisatory, bohemian life, and you could say she paid the price. But she also got the reward. It was a difficult path and she's a difficult person, for all her charm.

Has Eve read the book?

No, Eve has not read the book. She read the Vanity Fair profile, and I know she was happy with it because I got the rare phone call from her. We talk several times a week and she always takes my calls, but when she wants to talk, which is not infrequent, she'll tell Mirandi or Paul or Laurie and she'll tell them to tell me to call her. One of the few times she called me was after the piece came out. The call went straight to voicemail and she obviously started talking before the beep, and the part I got to hear was: “So glad you got in the story about the blow job” and then she hung up — she was happy with it. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.