Sometimes a backstory matters so significantly to the context of a book that it cannot remain untold. Saying so makes clear that Eve Babitz’s story is crucial to this collection of her work, from the name forward: I Used to Be Charming includes the first publication of the titular essay describing the event that changed her life. Ash from a cigar Babitz was smoking fell and set her skirt on fire, causing devastating third-degree burns. After a traumatic recovery, which she describes in the essay, she retreated from public life. She began writing the essay in 1997, after the incident, but only completed it for publication in this new collection from New York Review of Books Classics.
Organized chronologically, the essays in the collection were published between 1975 and 1997 in prominent magazines including Ms., Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. Babitz’s book-length essay on Fiorucci is a fitting culmination to the book, bringing the same sharp eye to the fashion brand, its history, and its strange cultish nature that she used to celebrate and critique life in Los Angeles. Her description of Elio Fiorucci’s wares says much about Babitz too, as she perhaps recognizes herself in what attracts her to the brand: “Fiorucci is selling glamour. He is selling Hollywood to the world… He is selling pearls and rubies and sequins and satins. Dress-up Raymond Chandler silver screen ladies of romance, broken hearts, dramatic entrances, and tragic farewells.”
Babitz knows all of these things, collects them, and arranges them in alluring, descriptive prose. That her work is not more widely read is surprising. Yet like much of the 1970s, the legacy of Eve Babitz has been lost until recently when, like much of the 1970s, historians and critics of culture have dusted off the decade to see what has been overlooked. There’s a particular kind of young woman in the late ’70s that Babitz represents in her writing: sexually free but not necessarily available, well-read, and well educated but not publicly bookish, fashionable without really ever worrying about whether her outfit works. This is, at least, the public persona she channels in her essays.
In the essay “Sunset Tango”, Babitz explains herself, unapologetically: “After all, I grew up in Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School with a very strong sense that nothing on earth mattered except looks and romance.” The clear certainty of self and scene that is present in all of her writing makes clear that Babitz is not one to apologize.
One could argue that HBO’s Sex and the City has a bit of an Eve Babitz feel to it, but Babitz sees little value in New York City, being deeply devoted to her hometown of Los Angeles and all that the city represents. That devotion runs strong in a 1977 piece for Vogue, where she celebrates the luxury of grocery shopping at Ralph’s in West Hollywood in the middle of the night, where you and three other people own the aisles and take hours to ponder which cheese you should buy. She is, in a word, charming.
She is also charmed, mostly. She channels the glamour and enthusiasm of an online influencer, with a slight hint of disaffection that an influencer would blather about on their second channel. Babitz doesn’t seem to have a second channel, or a backstage, except for maybe a faux backstage where she admits to things like feeling she could lose a bit of weight. But then she does, she claims, by eating only fruit and endlessly complaining to friends about it over the phone, only to emerge into the alluring LA scene, ten days later and 12 pounds lighter.
What may be her most notorious story, and the incident that put both her name and her body in the public eye, is recounted in “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art”, originally published in Esquire in 1991. Here, Babitz describes the scene in 1963 when photographer Julian Wasser arranged a shoot in which she played chess, naked, with Marcel Duchamp. The artist’s retrospective in Pasadena, where the shoot took place, was curated by Walter Hopps, with whom Babitz was having an affair. She has said over the years that she intended to make Hopps jealous by posing naked. Nonetheless, “I Was a Naked Pawn for Art” ends up being a loving tribute to Hopps and his influence in bringing world class art to the Los Angeles area.
In1991, Babitz wrote “Jim Morrison iIs Dead and Living in Hollywood” for Esquire, recalling her time at the Whisky a Go-Go and the Troubadour, as well as another forgotten Sunset Strip bar where she propositioned Morrison, before the Doors became a classic rock band and Jim their iconic lead singer. Her perspective on Morrison tells a very different story than those that have immortalized him.
On their first date, for instance, Babitz complained that her father, a classical violinist, was performing in Pasadena. Morrison implored her to drive to Pasadena to take in the show and was disappointed when she insisted they leave after intermission. It should be noted that Babitz was not a groupie but was a woman “on the scene” in Los Angeles in the 1960s when she writes, everyone “was wild for sex: they heard the phrase free love and ran amok across the land.”
Babitz is more than a child of the ’60s. She is also ’50s glamour and ’70s glam, reflecting on the decades with her sharp eye on cultural trends and transformations. A writer’s legacy, for good or bad, is that what they have written holds a particular moment in time. In this way, Eve Babitz is always charming. This collection does not preserve her work as a thing of the past but rather invites her influence to contemporary readers and writers alike.