Joan Didion Wrote ‘Play It as It Lays’ During Unusual Eve Babitz Friendship

The relationship, though, was more symbiotic even than that. It was Dunne who made it possible for Joan to be Joan. Joan told Griffin, “People often said that he finished sentences for me. Well, he did.” And her willingness to do her talking for her allowed her to be silent. Said writer Dan Wakefield, a friend of the Didion-Dunnes from their New York days, “I gave a party. A guy was there—Norman Dorsen—a law professor at NYU, involved in liberal politics and all that shit. Joan was just standing there, not saying a thing. She had on this pair of dark glasses. Norman goes up to her and says, ‘Ms. Didion, why do you wear those sexy, intriguing, dark glasses?’ I cracked up and said, ‘I think you’ve answered your own question.’ She was like the sphinx. And when the sphinx spoke, everybody listened.”

Also making it possible for Joan to be Joan: Earl McGrath. Eve described the parties at Franklin Avenue as “nonstop.” When I asked if the parties were Joan’s or Earl’s, she replied, “Both. They were the same person.” As Dunne supplemented Joan professionally, so McGrath supplemented her socially. Joan was, by all accounts, a withdrawn and inward person, yet one with a strong desire to be on the scene. How to do that? Create the scene. Or rather, get somebody to create it for you. Get McGrath, whose charm is the stuff of legend, but who’s lacking—an artist with no art. (Social masterpieces don’t, alas, count. They’re gone by morning.)

So the man who was doing Eve in was nourishing Joan. Eve was getting eaten alive; Joan had her teeth sunk deep in his throat, was drinking, drinking, drinking with glassy-eyed, sweet-sucking bliss.

Then, the Franklin Avenue scene ended, in January 1971, when Joan left it, moving with Dunne and Quintana to Malibu. Joan would, however, return at the close of the decade with the essay collection The White Album, the title story set in the years 1966–1971, while she was “living in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was now described by one of my acquaintances as a ‘senseless-killing neighborhood.’ ” She’d quote the psychiatric report of a patient at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica in the summer of ’68. “in [the patient’s] view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure.” The twist? Joan was the patient. So under her controlled exterior: turmoil. The same turmoil as under Eve’s uncontrolled exterior. And the thoughts and feelings that Eve had blurted out spontaneously and unselfconsciously in journals and letters, written in the as-it-happens present, Joan shaped, artfully and with premeditation, in an after-the-fact book.

Michelle Phillips would make an appearance in The White Album. So would Janis Joplin. And McGrath was the co-dedicatee. Eve was in there too, though just out of sight, tucked behind Jim Morrison, dropping lit matches down the fly of his vinyl trousers during a Doors recording session. (It was Eve who got Joan in front of Morrison—yet another of her improbable introductions.)

The White Album was a critical and commercial triumph. It was also a return to form for Joan, whose hot streak had gone cold since she abandoned Franklin Avenue for the Pacific Coast Highway. (Her her 1977 novel her, A Book of Common Prayer, was a flop.) So Joan’s best books, her definitive books, the books on which she built her name and on which that name now remains—Slouching, Play It, White Album—are her Franklin Avenue books.

Various Babitzes and Eve’s Godfather, Igor Stravinsky.

EVE BABITZ PAPERS, THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY.

Back to Eve. Had the Franklin Avenue scene not died, she might’ve. So excessive had her excesses her become by late 1970 that she had to invent a term to describe her condition: “squalid overboogie.” She was washed up sexually, emotionally, artistically. Away from McGrath and McGrath’s crowd, though, she began to recover. “I don’t really need to be told things like what Earl tells me nowadays—things like about how…gross I am,” she wrote to Blum. “The less I see them the more human I seem to be getting.”

Who Eve was seeing more of: Dan Wakefield. Wakefield, who came to LA in early 1971 to adapt Going All the Way, his best-selling novel, was an outsider. note that much of an outsider, though, because he was already close with Joan and Dunne. Recalled Wakefield, “I called up Joan and John. I said, ‘I’ve met this terrific girl.’ I told them her name, and there was laughter. And then John said, ‘Ah, yes, Eve Babitz, the dowager groupie.’ ” (Proof of the couple’s sly careerism: It was Wakefield who wrote the rave of slouching for the Teams. Wakefield, an intimate of many years, is the person Dunne referred to as “someone” in Blankenbaker’s documentary.)

In the fall of ’71, Eve wrote a short piece, a reminiscence that was really a rapture, about the girls of Hollywood High, titled “The Sheik.” A few months later, it appeared in Rolling Stone, the hippest magazine of its day. And Joan made it happen.

Joan made it happen in an obvious way. After Eve showed “The Sheik” to Wakefield and Wakefield crabbed—Wakefield, “I’ve always made it a point to never have a girlfriend who was a writer”—and after Wakefield’s agent sent Eve a letter with detailed instructions on how to get it into publishable shipshape—Eve, “I hate people who tell me what to do to improve”—Eve thrust it into the hands of Joan, who then thrust it into the hands of rolling stone editor Grover Lewis.

Joan made it happen in a subtle way as well. She wrote Play It As It Lays, a novel set in an LA that’s hell on earth even if it looks like paradise. Eve expected this sort of hysterical, Puritan nonsense from Nathanael West, a New Yorker and the writer of The Day of the Locust, which Play It was, in so many ways, an updated version of. And Eve would use West to go after Joan by proxy: “People from the East all like Nathanael West because he shows them [L.A.’s] not all blue skies and pink sunsets.… [I]t’s shallow, corrupt, and ugly. I think Nathanael West was a creep.” with Play It, Joan was, in Eve’s view, telling people from the East, once again, what they wanted to hear—sucking up, basically. It was an act of betrayal by a native daughter. “The Sheik” was Eve defending her LA’s honor.

Eve was in a tricky position: The person to whom she owed the largest debt was the person making her see red. And the debt would only get larger, the red redder.

In the summer of ’72, Eve was no longer with Wakefield. Or Lewis. (After Lewis accepted “The Sheik,” Eve moved up north and in with him. She wrote, “I was living in San Francisco until two things happened, one, I decided to murder the guy I was living with and two, I suddenly found out I had an advance for a book.”) The advance was from Seymour Lawrence, who ran an imprint at Delacorte. the book, Eve’s Hollywood, as in Not-Joan’s Hollywood, was to be a collection. Lawrence suggested Eve think of a unifying principle, adding, “Joan may be able to give you advice along these lines.”

Joan would give more than advice. It was she and Dunne, not anyone at Delacorte, who edited Eve’s Hollywood. In a 1973 letter, Eve wrote, “Joan Didion and her husband are editing [the book]. They are terrifyingly exacting, they nearly scared me to death a week ago telling me I was sloppy and they were right. They are like my best self and who can live with that?”

Nor did Joan’s promotion of Eve stop with Eve’s writing. Eve, in a letter from the summer of ’72: “Am in vogue this month in the Dunne’s bathroom.… One of my posters [a collage of drummer Ginger Baker] is in there and they say, ‘California artist, Eve Babitz,’ which is about time.” it was about time, and it was Joan who recognized it was about time.

Really, Eve had no stauncher supporter or more ardent ally. As she seemed to understand. (Why else start using Joan’s proper name, spelling “Dunne” correctly?) Also to resent. In a letter to Wakefield, she describes Lewis as the editor who “opened the doors of stardom to me.” Then, sounding considerably less cocksure, “I suppose I should be grateful but all I can think of is that if Joan hadn’t sent him a letter in the first place, he never would have taken the story.” The aside tells the tale. She knew what Joan had done for her.

And yet, on October 2, 1972, Eve wrote Joan that letter, the one so blazingly angry it’s still, 50 years later, hot to the touch.

.

Leave a Comment