A Woman for Us to Be Until We Figure It Out

‘Sex and Rage’ by Eve Babitz, read at the Chateau Marmont

Catie Disabato
Aug 22, 2017 · 8 min read
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When I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2008, I had almost no friends and a job transcribing interviews for the Dr. Phil Show — that is to say, I had almost nothing. Every day after work, I’d grab whatever book I was reading and park myself at the end of a bar. I’d arrive around opening at four or five in the afternoon; once it became too loud to hear the book’s words inside my head, I’d head home to my apartment — empty save for the American cockroaches that had colonized my kitchen — and wonder when I was going to figure out what kind of life I wanted to live.

My first year in Los Angeles, reading over a drink was more than an escape into a comforting fantasy world. It was a way to get to know the sprawling summertime city I’d decided to make my home, a yearlong bar crawl that took me from the beaches to the edges of the desert, even over the hills and into the Valley, Sound of Music–style.

I wish I’d known about Eve Babitz that year, but in the late 2000s, she had temporarily fallen through the cracks of the literary world. Her five books of memoir/auto-fiction were all out of print. The woman herself had receded from public life in the late ’90s, following a freak accident in which her flowing skirt caught on fire via cigarette ash (or cigar ash—reports vary) while she was driving, leaving half her body covered in third-degree burns. It wasn’t until 2013 that Babitz’s name first drifted by me, as an internet whisper on Emily Gould’s Twitter timeline. Gould had just read Slow Days, Fast Company and was “obsessed.” I couldn’t find a used copy for less than $200, so I decided to spend about $20 on another title that drew me in just as sharply: Sex and Rage: Advice for Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time.

In Sex and Rage, Babitz writes a version of herself, Jacaranda Levin, named after the trees that bloom each May with lavender-colored flowers so beautiful I’ve forgotten what autumn even looks like. The novel takes us through Jacaranda’s twenties in Los Angeles, where she makes some two-faced friends who betray her as quickly as they befriended her. She develops a drinking problem and, in an attempt to hide her alcoholism, nearly ruins her chance at a literary career. Jacaranda’s disastrous twenties reminded me of my own experiences: an unending toxic relationship cycle with a shitty dude, permanently alienating a wonderful friend, unable to finish my first novel. Anxious, Jacaranda hides in bathrooms to avoid her friends and hides in Los Angeles to avoid her New York City literary agent. I avoided my loneliness in bars, inside books. I took Sex and Rage to dark L.A. dive bars like Ye Rustic Inn (renowned for its chicken wings) and the Drawing Room (renowned for being open at six in the morning).

The first time I read it, I tore through Sex and Rage in a delirious single sitting (minus the commute between bar one and bar two), hungry for the ending that would absolve Jacaranda and thus provide me with a pattern for my own absolution. Babitz doesn’t give Jacaranda an easy finish — it probably would’ve felt cheap if she had — but in the end, Jacaranda’s bad decade doesn’t define her whole life. The novel culminates with Jacaranda entering her thirties: Her life isn’t perfect, and she’s not certain how she’ll go forward, but she knows she’s survived the most emotionally volatile years of her life and now gets to live as a better version of herself.

Though I sought absolution by overidentifying with Jacaranda, what I actually found was a way to live day-to-day with my own uncertainty about how to make solid relationships and create good art. By the time I reached my early thirties, steadier and more confident, I didn’t need Jacaranda anymore, but I felt as fondly toward her as I did to my own young self. On July 11, when Counterpoint Press reissued Sex and Rage, I couldn’t wait to do Jacaranda the honor of bringing her beautiful new neon-yellow cover out to Babitz’s old stomping ground: the Chateau Marmont.

Modeled on a French Loire Valley castle called Château d’Amboise, the Chateau Marmont opened in February 1929 as an apartment building — perhaps these beginnings account for its notorious soundproofed rooms — but Black Tuesday left the owners unable to rent out the luxury accommodations, and the Chateau was sold and converted into a hotel. Just off the Sunset Strip, the Chateau quickly developed a reputation as a playground for Hollywood’s youngest and hottest. Harry Cohn, the former head of Columbia Pictures, famously told actors William Holden and Glenn Ford, “If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” (The Chateau liked the quote so much that you can still find it on its website.) Nathanael West checked in to write The Day of the Locust; James Dean met Natalie Wood while auditioning for Rebel Without a Cause in Bungalow 2. Hollywood still parties at the Chateau’s bars and bungalows, sometimes too hard — just ask Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, both of whom earned themselves lifetime bans from the grounds, the latter for racking up $46,000 in unpaid room charges.

Babitz has included the Chateau in nearly every one of her books. In Eve’s Hollywood:

I spent the [Watts] riots in a penthouse at the Chateau Marmont with this ex-philosophy major from Stanford whose family owns all the more oily pieces of land in Arizona, Mexico and California.

In Slow Days, Fast Company:

The Chateau’s basement parking lot is so impossible. Even sober. It’s no mean feat to negotiate, with its gigantic pillars everywhere, so they must have meant for all the boozers and dopers and midnight drivers to pull into the open field across the street.

In Black Swans:

I had almost a year frequenting the Château Marmont as the girlfriend of someone who lived there, Walter. In fact breaking up with him, my worst regret was that I’d broken with the Château Marmont too.

(Different copy editors, different accent use.)

In her nonfiction book Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill, A.M. Homes (who pulled a reverse-Jacaranda when she moved into the Chateau to write about Los Angeles) relied on Babitz to describe the hotel: “‘I mean, it was built for, you know, peccadilloes,’ says writer Eve Babitz, a longtime friend of the hotel.” (I had to look up “peccadilloes”; it means “small sins.”) “‘So obviously the people who built it knew what they were doing. You know, if you want to commit suicide, if you want to commit adultery, go to the Chateau…And it’s not afraid. It doesn’t mind brilliant talent, or romance, or lunacy.’”

Homes writes, “The relaxation response is a phenomenon reported by numerous guests — as soon as they arrive, they feel better.” I came to the Chateau with a book in my hand that reminded me of a younger, less stable version of myself and a pile of Jacaranda-like anxieties about writing this essay. The relaxation response immediately took hold of me. I left my neurosis somewhere below the tile stairs at the hotel’s entrance.

Though I usually prefer the bar, I took a table in the Chateau’s beautiful garden restaurant. In the early afternoon, sunlight winked through crisscrossed leafy green ferns and strands of blossoming flowers. The drink menu was mostly old school and basic but had room for one trendy option: frozé, a slushie of wine, vodka, and strawberry syrup. It came in a wine glass and decorated with a frozen strawberry bobbing in the center of the bright-pink icy liquid. They were so delicious, I had two.

In my second reading of Sex and Rage, I was no longer looking for characters to disappear into, no longer looking for a fictional person to fill a void of loneliness as vast as the sprawl of Los Angeles. Less interested in validating my own driftlessness through Jacaranda, it was her creator who held my attention this time around: What I now see in Babitz is a woman whose life on which I can pattern my own, a woman whose work I respect and who is living a life I admire and desire. At 31, I know enough to not want to be Babitz — to live well, I must live as myself — but I want what she had: a psychic connection to the city I love and a strong literary voice with which to tell my stories.

Most of the articles you read about Babitz will mention that she was an It girl. (Even Sophie Atkinson’s deft reckoning with Babitz’s legacy in her review of Sex and Rage for the Hairpin falls into this It-girl pattern.) They will mention her appearance in the famous photograph of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with a naked girl. (They will also mention that Babitz appeared in the photograph to get back at a married art-curator boyfriend.) They will mention her affairs with Harrison Ford and Jim Morrison. Many of them will call Babitz a muse. I don’t actually have any problem with this, because her work addresses her partying and affairs, and because, by many reports, Babitz loves to be characterized as both It girl and muse.

That said, I personally hate to think of her as a muse. I have never experienced her that way. I can’t think of Babitz as something that inspires creation, but as an artist — a creator — because to me, that’s the truth of her legacy. Babitz isn’t the famous men she fucked or the photographs she posed in. She is the five books of memoir and fiction she left behind for young women, freshly moved to Los Angeles, to find. She’s a narrative and a path for us to inhabit until we find our own paths, our own stories, our own lives. She’s a woman for us to be until we figure out who we want to be, and then, instead of a body to inhabit, Babitz becomes a dear and cherished drinking companion.

Catie Disabato

Written by

LA writer. Debut novel 'The Ghost Network,’ from @MelvilleHouse.

From Raymond Chandler’s hard-drinking detectives to Joan Didion’s ennui-soaked bacchanalia, the Los Angeles literary scene has long been mixed in the same highball glass with its tiki joints and Hollywood dives. Novelist Catie Disabato spends hours on her favorite solitary pastime, reading alone in bars. In this series, she crawls through LA’s bar scene with a book in her purse, exploring the resonances between the best reading and the most delicious libations.

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