(Apologies, have tried resizing this — unsuccessfully. I suspect some of you won’t mind this size of an image one bit in this instance.)
By Eve Babitz
New York Review Books, £10.99 paperback
Eve Babitz was an LA It girl of the 1960s. She’s been compared to Madame de Sevigne and to Chet Baker. She was introduced to one of the Beatles as “the best girl in America,” and Earl McGrath, former president of Rolling Stones Records, referring to her active romantic life, famously said: “In every young man’s life there is an Eve Babitz. It’s usually Eve Babitz.” Her curves will be familiar to those of you who’ve seen Julian Wasser’s photograph of Babitz playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. He is besuited. She is birthday-suited.
Her father was a studio musician, her mother an artist, and her godfather was Igor Stravinsky. She published this, her first book, when she was 28, in 1972. There is much about it that will aggravate, not least the epic dedication, name-checking nearly everyone she ever met, which reminds us that there was once a fantastic party that we weren’t invited to attend. There is also much here to amuse and entertain. Luckily the balance tips to that side.
Brainy, brilliant Holly Brubach provides the introduction to this new edition. Brubach was, for my money, the best writer at speaking intelligently about fashion and its importance, not only commercially but psychologically, when she wrote for The New Yorker. But that’s an aside. Here she offers cogent thoughts about the inherent differences between America’s east and west coasts (and the people who grow up there), concluding, “It was Babitz who finally — unapologetically — gave voice to LA’s unique appeal and laid to rest the by then weary notion of the city as a cultural wasteland.”
She’s spot on in saying that Eve’s Hollywood “feels like a series of soliloquies delivered by a friend over fruity [cocktails].” It is therefore also true that readers may careen from “I love you, you’re my best friend,” to “put-em-up” in the space of a few pages. I know I did.
Babitz labelled this book a “confessional novel” but I prefer to call it a memoir, albeit one in which certain identities and realities are disguised. (What I wouldn’t give for a concordance, not being cool enough myself to guess everyone’s real names. I did discover that James Byrns = Gram Parsons.)
Babitz was a brainy youngster. Though not academic, she was a compulsive reader. “In my high school, I was pretty and smart and scornful and impatient. . . . I had fun being wide-eyed and sarcastic in class.”
Coming of age in Hollywood taught her that beauty was a bargaining chip, and the passages recounting her teenage years are full of admiration for the way that certain women could light up and command a room. These were her role models, though she couldn’t always measure up, for hers was a different sort of allure. She explains, “The girls at our school. . . were extraordinarily beautiful. And there were about 20 of them who separately would cause you to let go of reason.” I like the way she describes this without gendering it — for women, as well as men, were susceptible to their power. She is also clear-eyed about the price women pay for not understanding that it’s their beauty others are after.
At times, Babitz’s writing feels childish, or brashly provocative in the way of the faux profound. Then all of a sudden her perspicacity is breathtaking. Some of the incidents are marvellous, such as the time she got dolled up and then picked up by a handsome older man, but blew the seduction by revealing she was 14. He warned her not to accept rides from strange men in future. He was Johnny Stompanato. (But not for long.)
Some other passages I underlined:
“Sally had that same missed beat in her face from which Marilyn [Monroe] derived her special tragic wonder.”
“My mother once told me that in high school she won the state championship for catsup making. The girl with whom she’d shared a kitchen only won 4th place though they’d made the catsup in the same pot and there was no difference. My mother put hers in a glass jar with flowers painting on it that she painted herself. Packaging is all heaven is.”
“In LA when someone gets corrupt it always takes place out by the pool.”
“For me, Colette’s Earthly Paradise is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do.”
And finally this, which brilliantly describes a number of men I’ve known: “His eyes listen to you, carefully watching to see what you want to hear so that it shortens the time until his hands can undo your clothes and touch you back into heaven, into blue heaven and lies.”
If you’ve ever wondered what it was like being one of the pretty, pursued girls, if you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live through heady times (sex, drugs, art, rock and roll) in the hedonism capital, read Eve’s Hollywood. And for a host of other reasons, go on and read Eve’s Hollywood.
Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote
With the Lost Photographs of David Attie
New York Review Books, £19.99 hardback
Here’s an beautiful book of photographs by David Attie, which is guaranteed to fill you with yearning for long-gone days in the borough of Brooklyn. They’ve been exquisitely packaged, topped by an essay from Truman Capote, which originally ran in Holiday magazine in 1958, and tailed by a note from Eli Attie, the late photographer’s son. [Eli, it turns out, was Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriter and a television writer, notably for House and The West Wing.]
There’s an additional introduction from the late George Plimpton, which accompanied the original, un-illustrated edition of this essay, published in 2002 by The Little Bookroom.
This book came to be when Angela Hederman, publisher of TLB, received a note from Eli explaining that he’d found his father’s negatives — hundreds and hundreds of them — and proposing some kind of collaboration. She must have danced a wee jig after receiving that letter — as this reader did on receiving the book.
it is full of choice nuggets. We learn from Plimpton that John Knowles (author of A Separate Peace) was the editor who commissioned Capote’s magazine piece. He also quotes James Dickey, who said: “The sure-handed crystal-making detachment, the integrity of concentration, the craft of the artist by means of which the intently human thing is caught, Truman Capote had, and not just at certain times but all times.”
Capote’s essay is forthright and magical, and starts, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” He explains all the reasons why one might shun the borough, then offers plentiful rebuttals. Living, as he did, in Brooklyn Heights — ie: on the waterfront — he evokes shipping lanes, seadogs, billowing sails, and old Federal houses covered in shingle.
He reminds us that Brooklyn has, at different times, been home to Hart Crane and Thomas Wolfe, not to mention Henry Ward Beecher. He recalls the house in Middagh Street that in the 1940s housed Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, W.H. Auden and more, and which is the subject of February House, by Sherill Tippins, which I heartily recommend you read, as well.
Capote describes how the Heights became gentrified after World War II, and how, in 1956, he came to reside in a friend’s basement on Willow Street, in a house with a capacious back porch covered with atmospheric wisteria that reminds him of Louisiana.
There is much more, including wondrous cameo appearances by neighbourhood eccentrics, but I don’t want to give it all away; I want you to buy this and read it for yourself, for Capote was one of the best writers who ever put marks on paper.
The black-and-white photo section reveals everything from the workings of the waterfront — and views of Manhattan’s skyline, as was — to the street lives of children, shopfronts, a wedding, scenes set in bars and hotel lobbies, and much more. They are gorgeous, evocative, and haunting.
Eli Attie then explains that Capote “effectively launched my father’s career” — something he only learned after his dad’s death. He describes the process of excavating his father’s work from a series of dusty crates, and how he then left those precious negatives in a taxi! There’s much, as well, about his father’s working process, and the progress of his career.
This book is that rare thing: practically perfect in every way.