Listening to the Thelonious Monk quartet's 1957 concert with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, I read the news that Eve Babitz was gone.
Strange that my sadness at her death came with Monk and Coltrane's majestic music performed at the cathedral of New York City culture. She might have laughed at that. Babitz defended Los Angeles against East Coast intellectual critics. Her essays and stories made 1970s and '80s LA as memorable as Proust's Paris, Isherwood's Berlin and Nelson Algren's Chicago.
Free from years of suffering, Babitz, 78, died at UCLA Medical Center Friday. She'd been battling Huntington's Disease, which attacks brain cells. As a heavy rain fell, and Coltrane's sax and Monk's piano spoke of joy and sorrow, I remembered the ebullient spirit of her original American voice.
Mainly a recluse after suffering horrible burns in 1997 when she caught her dress on fire trying to light a cigar while driving, Babitz witnessed a rediscovery of her work. Vanity Fair writer Lili Anolik found Babitz living in seclusion and wrote a 2014 article about her and her then out of print writings. The article led to the re-release of Babitz's books and her discovery by a new generation of mainly women readers.
Her collections "Eve's Hollywood" and "Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh and LA," chronicled her experiences in Los Angeles' rock and film culture, fueled by sex and drugs. An artist who designed album covers, Babitz also wrote for a variety of magazines ranging from Rolling Stone, Vogue and Esquire to smaller niche publications, immersing herself in intersecting film, music and literary circles.
A fearless counterculture adventurer, she had affairs with Jim Morrison, Stephen Stills, Ed Rusha, Harrison Ford and Steve Martin and sank into a destructive cocaine addiction. Yet she kept writing, publishing authoritative and affectionate pieces about Los Angeles' food and culture and childhood reminisences as well as her lurid countercultural reports. She was one of the rare writers able to observe events objectively even while participating in them.
Like a friend gossiping at lunch, she wrote with an intimate, colloquial voice, laced with comic misgivings about her own misbehavior. Like other writers exploring decadent mileus, she mixed hedonism with a severe moral code.
Babitz gave a harrowing account of her accident and burn rehabilitation in her long essay, "I Used to Be Charming," the lead article in a 2019 collection that reprinted some of her journalism from the 1970s and '80s. The pieces showed her versatility, including a portrait of Francis Ford Coppola's budding film production company in San Francisco.
"I Used to Be Charming," compiled from her notes about the long and grueling burn rehabilitation, is a profound testament to human resilience. Elevated by her humor and courage, the piece is a classic that deserves frequent reprinting in anthologies.
Babitz saw her beloved Los Angeles supplant New York as America's culture center. No matter how frivolous her subject, her voice kept its distinctive authenticity, brave and true.