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Joan Didion and Eve Babitz Saw Two Essential Sides of California

Babitz was Los Angeles’s defiant booster, while Didion gave fodder to naysayers’ suspicion—but the two late writers’ bodies of work beg to be taken in tandem

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Joan Didion and Eve Babitz passing within days of each other is the kind of detail either woman would seize on in her writing. Over the decades, the two shared a sporadic connection: Both lived in and documented Los Angeles around the same time, though the overlap was more concrete than just a mutual subject. Babitz grew up at the base of the Hollywood Hills—just off Franklin Avenue, exactly 2 miles due west from where Didion would rent a house in what a friend, quoted in the title essay of The White Album, called a “senseless-killing neighborhood.” The photographer Julian Wasser shot the iconic photos of Didion with her Corvette Stingray in the driveway of that house and the image of a nude Babitz playing chess with the artist Marcel Duchamp. Eve’s Hollywood, Babitz’s debut, contains several pages’ worth of dedications, each a microcosm of her gifts for casual name-dropping and efficient storytelling. Sandwiched between Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey (“who I’d do anything for if only they’d pay”) and Duchamp (“who beat me at his own game”) are Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne, “for having to be who I’m not.”

For all Babitz and Didion had in common, the implied contrast was a fair one. The pair traveled in similar circles—Harrison Ford was famously Didion’s handyman, and slightly less famously one of Babitz’s many conquests. (Others included musician Jim Morrison, artist Ed Ruscha, and comedian Steve Martin.) But though they enjoyed a similar vantage point, each refracted their view through a very different lens. Didion’s prose was chilly and spare, legendarily so; Babitz was chatty and effusive, always cool but never aloof. Taken together, their catalogs complement one another. The slice of L.A. they chronicled was narrow, yet it takes up a disproportionate amount of space in the city’s vast mythology. It’s a good thing its legacy didn’t fall on a single set of shoulders.

I first encountered Didion in my ninth grade English class, when the teacher assigned the essay “The Santa Anas” for the day’s reading. (This being California, exposure to Didion was part and parcel of a standard public school education.) The piece, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and later collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as part of the longer essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” is a marvel of simplicity. In just six paragraphs, Didion conjured up the vision of L.A. that would dominate her work, and our imaginations, from then on. “Uneasy,” “eerie,” “surreal,” “violent”: These are the adjectives Didion uses to describe the titular wind’s effect on the Southland, a region the writer defined by the incidents that punctured its sunny mystique. Didion’s words apply equally to the place where the Manson murders, per her popular theory, ended the 1960s, or where the heroine of her novel Play It As It Lays drives the freeways “as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions.”

Like most of her readers, I didn’t come across my first Babitz until much later. Didion’s place in the canon has long been secure; Babitz’s took a concerted campaign after years of relative obscurity. The shift began in 2014, when eventual biographer Lili Anolik profiled Babitz for Vanity Fair, and the momentum continued through the next few years, when the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books republished two of Babitz’s books and compiled assorted nonfiction into a third. Babitz had lived largely in seclusion since the late ’90s, when a car accident (she dropped a lit match in her lap while driving her Volkswagen Beetle home from lunch) left her with severe burns over much of her body. For her, the late-in-life resurgence was as much a practical boon as a creative one. Between the reissues and a potential TV show, the 2010s brought Babitz “more money than she had ever made in her life by a lot,” her agent told The New York Times in 2019.

Babitz’s trajectory reflects, in some ways, that of her hometown and eternal muse. “People with sound educations and good backgrounds get very pissed off in L.A.,” she writes in Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.—one of NYRB’s two reprints, following Eve’s Hollywood. “‘This is not a city,’ they’ve always complained.” Babitz pinpoints the condescension that persists in venues like the Times’ lifestyle pages to this day, even as she forcefully argues against it. The city, she admits, is “Sprawlsberg. Ninety degrees, smog all over everything, giant glum vistas. No wonder writers from the East so joyfully leap on the old L.A. tradition with cries of ‘ugly! plastic! Wasteland!’ ... It’s embarrassing if you love L.A.” Only later would the rest of the chattering class get on her wavelength.

But Babitz was never that embarrassed of her hometown, championing her native habitat with the unabashed enthusiasm of a true believer. She even named a novel, the tale of “a twenty-something blonde Jim Morrison groupie” who sounds not unlike Eve Babitz, L.A. Woman, the full-throated identification that comes with a baseline of civic pride. (Many of Babitz’s books blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, another indirect tribute to a city that’s made illusion its stock and trade. Sometimes, Eve’s Hollywood is billed as a “confessional L.A. novel”; at other times, it’s an “essay collection.” The truth is likely somewhere in between.) She was also prone to definitive declarations on the nature of her city, airy pronouncements that come from a place of presumed authority: “It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A.,” she wrote in the essay “Daughters of the Wasteland.” “That’s the trouble with Hollywood; the things that don’t exist are likely to kill you if you threaten them,” she added in Slow Days, Fast Company. In the world capital of faking it ’til you make it, Babitz made herself an expert on the city simply by proclaiming it so.

It’s easy to love L.A. if you’re the goddaughter of Igor Stravinsky, as Babitz was, and went to high school under the watchful eye of a Rudolph Valentino mural, as Babitz did. (It was an essay on Valentino, the matinee idol and namesake of Hollywood High’s mascot the Sheik, that got Babitz her first Rolling Stone assignment—referred to an editor by none other than Joan Didion.) It’s equally easy to be skeptical if you’re a fifth-generation Californian of pioneer stock, as Didion was. Like “The Santa Anas,” a firm undertow of menace runs through her writing on the Golden State in general and L.A. in particular. The namesake chapter of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a grim portrait of drugged-out hippie teens in San Francisco’s Summer of Love, is taken from “The Second Coming,” the same W.B. Yeats poem that asserts “the center cannot hold.” In the opening essay of The White Album, she writes of L.A. in the late 1960s: “A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in.” Where Babitz found freedom in the city’s unmanageable chaos, Didion saw the beginnings of a spiral.

Partly, this tone reflected Didion’s own disposition, prone to migraines and depression. (She checked herself into a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation in the summer of 1968, an experience she then transposed onto protagonist Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays.) But her natural pessimism wasn’t the ungenerous view of an outsider looking down on L.A., the sort of East Coast snobbery Babitz and even Didion abhorred. A Sacramento native, Didion instead wrote with the protective instinct of someone who felt a special claim to the land they grew up in—someone both fascinated and perturbed by that land’s rapid changes.

Some of the most articulate expressions of Didion’s territorial instinct came later in her career, in reported features for magazines like The New Yorker. By that time, Didion had relocated back to New York, but continued to spend time in, and write about, the West Coast. “Trouble in Lakewood,” published in 1993, examines a Los Angeles suburb torn apart by accounts of sexual misconduct by a gang of teen boys known as the Spur Posse—a moral plight Didion ties to the economic one caused by the deterioration of the postwar aerospace industry, of which Lakewood was a de facto company town.

It’s a convincing argument, one Didion fortifies with the knowledge of a woman whose family came to California long before that postwar bubble drew millions with the pipe dream of eternal prosperity, immune to cycles of boom and bust or even the basic laws of supply and demand. “New people, we were given to understand, remained ignorant of our special history, insensible to the hardships endured to make it, blind not only to the dangers the place still presented but to the shared responsibilities its continued habitation demanded,” Didion writes of her childhood. “Places like Lakewood did not exist before the new people came.”

The idea of unearned optimism from naive arrivistes also figures into “Letter From Los Angeles,” a dispatch on internal struggles at the Los Angeles Times that Didion builds into a broader survey of a city’s constructed image of itself. “Los Angeles has been, throughout the whole of its brief history, a boomtown,” Didion notes. “People who live here have tended to believe, and have been encouraged to do so by the increasingly fat newspaper dropped at their door every morning, that the trend would be unfailingly up.” Didion always wrote with the firm conviction that what goes up must come down—not because she couldn’t see California’s appeal, but because she descended from people who outlasted the initial high.

Babitz and Didion were often at odds. Babitz reveled in suspending disbelief, while Didion never brought herself to; Babitz was L.A.’s defiant booster, while Didion gave fodder to naysayers’ suspicion. To a newcomer to the city, though, there’s something essential in both points of view. In a city that doesn’t reveal itself easily, Babitz’s odes are an encouragement to keep digging, to enjoy the decentralized jumble rather than bridle against it. And in a place that often lies to itself about its own staggering inequalities, Didion’s notes of caution push you not to take L.A. at face value—to trust your instinct that all may not be as it seems. Theirs are bodies of work that beg to be taken in tandem, even before their deaths demanded it.