The Unexpected and Welcome Rebirth of Eve Babitz

November 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

Eve Babitz

Before I came across her books in the Hollywood public library, I had never heard of Eve Babitz, who famously chronicled Los Angeles during its late-1960’s to mid-1970’s heyday. This was 1989 or 1990; I was new in town and eager to read about my new hometown. I checked out “LA Woman” and Slow Days, Fast Company, and was instantly drawn to her stories about musicians, actors, old Hollywood, hotels and the city itself, which she captured in all its jasmine-scented, smoggy glory. I read Sex and Rage, a roman á clef whose protagonist Jacaranda Levin, like Babitz herself, was born into a bohemian family in Hollywood in the early 40’s. Like her inventor, Jacaranda reached adulthood at a propitious time, and entered the burgeoning L.A. music scene by designing album covers and photographing musicians.

Babitz was was funny, sexy and clever, with a knack for being everywhere at the right moment. She had a gift for friendship that gave her a large circle of allies, both male and female, and what she lacked as a novelist she more than compensated for in effervescence and nerve. In short, she was irresistible. How had I not heard of her before?

During the nineties, I began to notice Eve Babitz’s name in articles about Los Angeles. These pieces compared her, usually unfavorably, to Joan Didion, the other famous chronicler of Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s, but although Babitz and Didion took on some of the same subjects and were friends, they had more differences than similarities. Didion was the consummate outsider, always observing her subjects at a safe, ironic distance. An anxious introvert from Sacramento, Didion never seemed at home anywhere and cannily used her outsider status to maximum advantage, peering through windows at the party within. Didion also differed from Babitz by writing about Los Angeles not for Angelenos or Californians generally, but for the New York literary world she aspired to enter. Didion’s Los Angeles was not home but a strange, exotic place, full of weirdos and existential danger. Long before the effects of climate change became apparent, she famously proclaimed, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.” This statement was not for Californians but for Easterners who couldn’t imagine living in the state, and who probably hadn’t visited. Those of us who make our homes in Los Angeles owe Didion our thanks for repelling them.

In contrast Eve Babitz was a born insider, an “It” girl who observed everything—from the musician-packed bar at the Troubadour to the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to the set of “The Godfather, Part 2”–from its white-hot center. Her very first foray into public life was an exercise in high art: playing chess in the nude with a clothed Marcel Duchamp in a series of famous photographs by Julian Wasser. Only eighteen, Babitz became a Rubenesque sensation. Soon she knew every artist and musician in Los Angeles: not only her parents’ musician friends like Igor Stravinsky, who was also her godfather, but major visual artists like Ed Kienholtz, Billy Al Bangston and Ed Ruscha. While hanging around the Troubadour bar, she befriended Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. Her lovers during that period included Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Paul Ruscha, Fred Roos and Walter Hopps. Though all these people became famous, Eve Babitz had the advantage of knowing them before they were.

Nothing illustrates the Babitz-Didion difference like their respective first encounters with Jim Morrison. Didion, dying of boredom in the recording studio where the Doors were painfully birthing “L.A. Woman,” writes:

It is a long while later. Morrison arrives. He has on his black vinyl pants, and he sits down on a leather couch in front of the four big blank speakers, and closes his eyes. The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival is this: No one acknowledges it by so much as a flicker of an eye….He lights a match. He studies the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowers it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. Manzarek watches him. The girl who is rubbing Manzarek’s shoulders does not look at anyone. There is a sense that no one is going to leave this room, ever. It will be some weeks before The Doors finish recording this album. I do not see it through.

Whereas Babitz remembers Morrison this way:

I met Jim early in ’66, when he’d just lost the weight and wore a suit made of grey suede, lashed together at the seams with lanyards and no shirt. It was the best outfit he ever had, and he was so cute that no woman was safe. He was 22, a few months younger than I. He had the freshness and humility of someone who’d been fat all his life, and was now suddenly a morning glory. I met Jim and propositioned him in three minutes, even before he so much as opened his mouth to sing….”Take me home,” I demurely offered when we were introduced.

From the 1970’s until the early 90’s, Eve Babitz wrote feature articles for glossy magazines such as Esquire, Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler. The last thing I remember reading of hers was an account of the L.A. Riots, which she missed entirely because she was holed up with a lover at the Bel Air Hotel. At that point Babitz, who was in her late 40s, seemed the girl who stayed too long at the fair, too fun-loving and oblivious for her own good.

After 1992’s Black Swans she published no other books, though it wasn’t until 2014 that I learned why. A freak 1997 accident set fire to her skirt and left her with third-degree burns on the lower half of her body that nearly killed her, along with her career. Babitz’s account of the disaster and its aftermath makes up the title essay of her new book, I Used To Be Charming. The only new piece in the collection, which otherwise consists of magazine articles, some of which have aged better than others, it’s worth the price of the book:

Here I was…over 50 years old, still so stupid that I was risking my life for a smoke….had I managed to avoid all the damage I’d done in my life up until that point, breaking hearts, being unreliable, only to hit that brick wall because of a match?

The accident turned Babitz into a recluse, but it wasn’t her final act. Rediscovered by Vanity Fair editor Lili Anolik and new admirers like Lena Dunham, she has recently emerged, phoenix-like, to promote the new book. Outliving many of the friends and lovers she wrote about is accomplishment enough, but Babitz–unlike Dorothy Parker, the writer she most resembles–didn’t succumb to a bitter, alcoholic old age, nor did she flee Los Angeles. Now 76, battered but unbroken, Eve Babitz is finally getting the respect she deserves.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Lived (and Wrote) Here

September 9, 2016 § 3 Comments

The F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, MN/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

The F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, MN/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

While visiting the Twin Cities for a wedding over Labor Day weekend, I squeezed in some sightseeing. One of my destinations was the F. Scott Fitzgerald house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, a street notable for its grand Victorian houses and large lots. Though Summit is St. Paul’s Millionaire’s Row, the houses on it include apartment buildings, at least one former boarding house, and row houses, including Fitzgerald’s. Always keenly aware of money and social standing, he referred to his family’s house as “a house below the average on a street above the average,” though it is attractive and substantial. Rented by Fitzgerald’s parents while he was at Princeton, it was the home Fitzgerald returned to after leaving college for the Army and a stint in advertising in New York City. In 1919, he wrote This Side of Paradise, his first novel, in his bedroom, taking cigarette breaks on the balcony because he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors. When This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication, Fitzgerald ran up and down Summit Avenue, spreading the good news to drivers of passing cars.

img_4797Today the Fitzgerald House is on the National Register of Historic Places. (It’s also for sale: $625,000 for 4 bedrooms, 2 baths and 2 half-baths.) As I gazed at it, I was struck by the contrast between the place where Fitzgerald’s career began and the nondescript West Hollywood apartment house where it ended only two decades later. Between those residences were a great many other Fitzgerald residences, including the estate on Long Island where he wroteThe Great Gatsby, apartments in Paris and Rome, a villa in the South of France, and a grand hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, near the sanitorium where his wife Zelda was institutionalized.

As he moved from house to house, Fitzgerald’s career soared and foundered. At the start the Depression in 1929, Fitzgerald’s short story rate at the Saturday Evening Post was $4,000–$40,000 in today’s dollars. He spent as fast as he earned, however, and by 1937 he was laboring in Hollywood as an unsuccessful, albeit highly paid, screenwriter. In 1940, while writing his comeback novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald was felled by his third heart attack in the ground floor apartment of the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his last companion. He was only forty-four but had lived in more houses than most centenarians.

Next time: F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here

Sources: Matthew J. Bruccoli: “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald,” 1994.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald Walking Tour of St. Paul, MN” http://wcaudle.com/fscotwlk.htm

In a Time of Drought, Remembering Hollywood’s Brief Independence

September 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

Clausen's Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Clausen’s Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

When I was making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I was surprised at how many of the people who signed my releases wrote “Hollywood” rather than “Los Angeles” as their address. A century after its incorporation into Los Angeles, Hollywood’s history as an independent city seemed to endure in the minds of residents, whether or not they were fully aware of it.

Hollywood went from mostly unsettled land to a metropolis in a matter of two decades. Most of what is now the district of Hollywood was purchased in 1877 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, a wealthy Kansas couple who came west to Los Angeles and, after the death of their only son, went looking for a rural retreat. After laying out streets and building a home, they deeded property to churches and enticed other like-minded Christians to move to their town. New residents opened businesses and grew citrus and exotic fruits like pineapples and avocados. But by the turn of the century, Hollywood was more than a farm village: it had become a resort for city dwellers who came by bicycle and streetcar from downtown Los Angeles. Two restaurants catered to daytrippers, and the rather grand Hollywood Hotel provided lodging for those who wanted to stay longer. Among the town’s charms was its microclimate: noticeably cooler than downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood was known for its ocean breezes. (In spite of Hollywood’s tall buildings, these can still be felt near Sunset and Vine, and sometimes carry a whiff of salt.)

In 1903, Hollywood was incorporated as a dry, Godly city: the un-Los Angeles. Its first laws were sumptuary: no alcohol for any purpose, either at home or in businesses; no gambling, no brothels. Its dryness was absolute: liquor going west from downtown had to be transported around Hollywood, a substantial detour that pleased neither merchants nor the Los Angeles City fathers. Though Harvey Wilcox, the stricter of Hollywood’s founders, died in 1891, his widow Daeida (despite her remarriage to Philo Beveridge, a bon vivant who enjoyed flouting the law by drinking wine) kept up her husband’s teetotaling tradition.

Things might have continued along these lines for a while longer if not for the problem of water. Hollywood had very little, and more often than not found itself in drought. The start of construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1905 allowed City Hall to present the town with an ultimatum: either become part of Los Angeles or make do without its water. Knowing the town wouldn’t survive without access to the Aqueduct, Hollywood gave up its independence, becoming part of Los Angeles in 1910. Today, in the fourth year of a severe drought, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct


Yet Hollywood still feels distinct from Los Angeles, even in the midst of its current building boom. In 2000, a referendum was launched to return Hollywood to independence, but Los Angeles fought hard against it and it failed. Today Hollywood’s seven years as an incorporated city are remembered through its bylaws, which reside in bound volumes the Los Angeles City Archives. But Hollywood’s larger legacy is quotidian: its customary use by residents when giving their address.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-i-ranches-orchards-and-laws/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-ii-city-of-churches/

The Millennium Hollywood Project: A Highrise Future For a Gridlocked Little Town

March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

Artist's Rendering of the Millennium Hollywood Project/Courtesy LA Times

Artist’s Rendering of the Millennium Hollywood Project/Courtesy LA Times

As readers of this blog know, Hollywood was once an independent city, culturally and politically distinct from Los Angeles. In fact, it was the anti-Los Angeles: religious, semi-rural and dry. From 1903 to 1910, Hollywood passed its own laws and collected its own revenues. It not only outlawed alcohol but forced Los Angeles to send liquor westward in a circuitous route around it. Life would have probably continued in that vein for a few more years if not for the matter of water. In an arid region, Hollywood’s survival depended on water from the California Aqueduct, then under construction. But the only way for Hollywood to tap into the Aqueduct was to become part of Los Angeles, so like a lot of other little towns, it did.

Change came immediately. There was massive new development in the form of movie studios and houses for the new stars and moguls of that industry, and by 1920 Hollywood had surpassed downtown Los Angeles as an urban hub. Its glory days were shortened by the Great Depression, and over the decades Hollywood became a seedy and crime-ridden place. Despite various attempts at rejuvenation, things didn’t really turn around until a decade ago, with the completion of Hollywood and Highland in 2002.

Since then, Hollywood has became not only a tourist destination but a kind of Nightlife Ground Zero for suburbanites from miles around, drawn here by restaurants, clubs, theater and concerts. Anyone attempting to drive through Hollywood on a weekend night can see the difference: streets that not so long ago were the nighttime domain of panhandlers, hookers and homeless people are now thronged with young women in tight dresses and stiletto heels and the men who want to meet them. Hollywood Boulevard, once so blighted that the average tourist spent only 20 daytime minutes there, is now vibrant, glittering and packed with pedestrians–and lots and lots of cars.

Unfortunately, the major aspect of Hollywood that hasn’t changed is the streets–essentially the same ones laid out by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox in the 1890s. The exponential increase in traffic has overburdened them to the point where certain streets such as Franklin Avenue are now congested day and night. During rush hour, gridlock is common, and on Franklin drivers often jump the median line in an attempt to gain some advantage, terrifying the oncoming traffic.

Given the evidence, it’s safe to assume that few of Hollywood’s visitors arrive by public transport, yet this is what Mayor Villaraigosa thinks will happen if a massive new project call Millennium Hollywood is built. Occupying a large swath of land north of Hollywood and Vine, the development features two towers over 50 stories (dwarfing the current tallest building in Hollywood, at only 20 stories) as well as numerous other buildings. Where all the cars for the new residents and workers are supposed to go is anyone’s guess–certainly the developers and City Hall haven’t given it much thought. The objections of 40 neighborhood organizations have just been dismissed, and it seems obvious that some version of the scheme pictured above will be built.

Of course there’s so much more to the story–including a clear conflict of interest at City Hall that uncannily mirrors one of a century ago. The more things change in Los Angeles, the more things stay the same: needless to say, I’ll be writing more about Millennium Hollywood and its antecedents in the future. In the meantime, I’m taking a couple of weeks off to do other, non-Hollywood things, and will be blogging again in mid-April.

Restless Dracula, Part I: Bela Lugosi’s Many Los Angeles Homes

June 15, 2012 § 18 Comments

Bela Lugosi and his dog in front of his Westshire Drive home, 1930s

A recent screening of “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s wonderful 1994 feature about the schlock filmmaker’s association with the down-and-out Bela Lugosi, made me all the more curious about Lugosi’s life in Los Angeles. I had seen the movie three times before, but this showing–at the American Cinematheque–had a bonus: a Q&A with the screenwriters. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski conceded they had made up most aspects of Wood’s and Lugosi’s friendship out of necessity, since relatively few details were known.

Though it takes place mostly in Hollywood, “Ed Wood” shows Lugosi living in genteel poverty in a Baldwin Hills ranchburger (though the house appears to be in the flats). This seemed odd to me even during my first viewing in 1994, when I knew nothing about the actor’s life. But I knew that in the 50s, Baldwin Hills was a middle class, mostly Jewish suburb with few, if any, Hollywood associations; what would an impoverished Hungarian Catholic movie star be doing there? Years passed, during which I saw “Ed Wood” twice more: once at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival (where none of the French laughed at the jokes and all the Americans did), and once on DVD. Each time the Baldwin Hills detail struck a false note, though I couldn’t disprove it.

Upon moving to Beachwood Canyon in 2005, I learned that Lugosi had lived in an imposing Tudor house on Westshire Drive. From the outside, it seemed a fitting residence for him, certainly moreso than the little ranch house in the movie. The inside was a mystery until a year ago, when the house came on the market after the death of its most recent owner. Although badly neglected, it was at least spared the usual bad 1960s or 1970s makeover. In fact, it probably looked much the way it did during Lugosi’s residence–stately and peaceful, with sweeping views of the Canyon and city. The above photo shows its provenance: Lugosi poses with his white German Shepherd at the front gate, which remains in place.

Bela Lugosi lived in the Westshire house during the 30s, though the exact dates are unknown. Confusingly, he also seems to have lived next door for a time, in the so-called Roy Rogers-Kathy Bates house. When I began to research Lugosi’s down-and-out years, I found his final, “Ed Wood” period address: an apartment at 5630 Harold Way in Hollywood, where he lived from about 1954 until his death in 1956.

But what about the years between? Like most movie stars of his era, Lugosi moved a lot–and by that I mean nearly every year. The invaluable Movieland Directory shows some 20 addresses for the actor over a quarter century, all in Los Angeles. Though he lived as far west as Blue Heights Drive (in what is now West Hollywood) and as far east as Cedarhurst Circle (in Los Feliz), Lugosi generally preferred Hollywood, particularly the hills. Except for a brief, Dracula-related rental on South Hudson near LA High in Mid-City, and another on N. Westmoreland Avenue, he never lived south of Sunset Boulevard, which finally puts to rest the Baldwin Hills idea.

Interestingly, one of his addresses in the 1930s was 1534 N. McCadden Place, a charming Craftsman that until recently housed a restaurant, Cafe des Artistes. Another of his short-term addresses was the Hollywood Athletic Club ((6525 W. Sunset Blvd.), notorious playground of Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields.

Throughout the 30s and early 40s, Lugosi lived in mostly attractive single-family homes whose square footage ranged from 2,736 to 8,436. But during WWII he decamped to North Hollywood, where he lived in an unimpressive 5-unit apartment building, apparently known as “The Dracula House,” at 10841 Whipple Street. That address was less than ten miles away from the Hollywood Hills but far removed from that neighborhood’s prestige and charm, and far cheaper. Lugosi’s last apartment on Harold Way–where he apparently moved after drug detox–was even less impressive, but at least he was back in Hollywood, his home.

As for his eternal address, Lugosi is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, ironically close to his fictional Baldwin Hills address. An alternative resting place–his star on the Walk of Fame–can be found at 6340 Hollywood Boulevard.

Next time: More on the Westshire House

Additional Source: http://www.movielanddirectory.com

Hollywood Sign Tourism: Joys of the Low Season

November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Monday, I took a first-time visitor to Los Angeles from Hollywood to the Pacific, via Sunset Blvd. We wound up at a restaurant overlooking Santa Monica Beach, which was empty of people. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “Well, it’s winter,” I said. “But it feels like summer,” he said. No matter: despite its relatively balmy climate, Los Angeles does have a low season, and this is it. 

That’s why November thru February is my favorite time of year. It’s not just that there are fewer tourists; there are fewer Angelenos, as hordes leave for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Some manage to stay away during the weeks between the holidays, while others clear out from mid-December until after Sundance.) For those of us who stay behind, there’s less traffic, more parking and more quiet. And in Hollywoodland, tourism that intermittently reaches manageable levels.

These photos were taken in the western part of Beachwood Canyon around 4pm yesterday. The recently cleared picture-posing area, which in summer held crowds of a hundred or more, was empty.

Across the road, the Lake Hollywood lookout had fewer than a dozen tourists.

On the blind curves of Mulholland Highway, there were no illegally stopped cars, only a couple of walkers and a dog. If not for the ubiquitous trash cans (the same ones that took out my passenger’s side mirror last spring as I dodged an oncoming car), my view of the Hollywood Sign would have been perfect.

The Pineapple Tract of Beachwood Canyon

September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Clausen's Ranch, which includes the future Krotona Hill, c. 1895/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

While doing research for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I found my way to the Los Angeles City Archives, which keeps bound volumes of the many laws enacted by Hollywood during its brief period (1903-1910) as an incorporated, self-governing city. While I was there, I also studied early 20th-century Hollywood maps, and was fascinated to see the area north of Franklin between Beachwood and Gower labeled “The Pineapple Tract.” 

The name refers to the tract’s former incarnation as the farm of J.B. Rapp. (See photo below.) He began as a lemon grower but expanded into more exotic fruits–dates, avocados and pineapples, among others. Although it is likely that these fruits had their origins on local ranchos, Rapp was among the first to grow them commercially. At a time when oranges and lemons were rare delicacies for most Americans, pineapples and avocados must have caused a sensation.

Hollywood’s frost-free climate made the cultivation of these crops possible, but it took vision to grow things for which there was little apparent demand. Rapp succeeded on several levels: he grew and created a market for exotic fruits, while in the process enhancing Hollywood’s reputation–and property values–as an American Garden of Eden. Among those drawn by the promise of year-round fresh produce was the Theosophical Society, which established itself  just north of the Pineapple Tract in 1911. In a letter to Annie Besant, A.P. Warrington, head of the American Branch, rhapsodized about the Canyon’s farming potential:

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything….

Unbeknownst to Warrington, Beachwood also boasted thin soil and an abundance of produce-devouring wildlife. This may explain the fact that the Krotona Colony’s map shows several ornamental gardens and a decided lack of farm plots. As a resident whose efforts to grow vegetables have been thwarted by squirrels and tree rats, I sympathize.

Next time: bananas!

Pineapples on J. B. Rapp's Farm/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards

 

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/the-agrarian-origins-of-beachwood-canyon/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/beachwoods-earthly-paradise-the-lost-gardens-of-the-krotona-colony/

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