Christmas-related festivities have arrived! Put some serious 60s and 70s literary punch in your mulled wine with Joan Didion and Eve Babitz. They are your quintessential California Girls, extremely gifted writers and artists and they hung out with Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and the rest of the American rock’n roll royalty back when things were still more rock than roll.
I only recently really discovered Joan Didion, though it would have been difficult to ignore her lately anyway. The super-chic French Céline had her front their accessories campaign two years ago (Didion is 82 years old), she had a book out recently (South and West) and Netflix released a documentary about her life a month ago. I read few of her books this summer and decided to finally finish her biography The Last Love Song (by Tracy Daugherty).
Eve Babitz is a less known writer – at least to me. I read her “Slow Days, Fast Company” last Christmas and liked the sarcastic, maniac style with a lot of namedropping, which is legitimate given the crowd she circled in (apparently there was a saying going around L.A. at the time that “In every young man’s life there is an Eve Babitz. Usually it’s Eve Babitz”, which in the Didion biography is attributed to Babitz’ friend Earl McGrath -some friend!). Together with Didion she was very much part of California’s most happening scene in the 60s and 70s, and their books literally read like the “Who Was Who” of that era (past tense because most of them famously died very young). Babitz, like Didion, also worked as a journalist and her essays have been published widely over the decades in various magazines.
When reading the memoirs of these two ladies it’s difficult to think of anything they’d not have seen in their youth. Charles Manson passed away last week while I was finishing reading Didion’s biography. Didion was friends with Sharon Tate, one of Manson Family’s victims, and she wrote about the murders in her book The White Album. We are told about post-gig brandies to Janis Joplin chez Didion, two days before Joplin fatally OD’d. Didion and Babitz are very candid about drugs and alcohol (once you read the books you’ll understand why – there was little else going on at that time). Didion’s husband (the late John Gregory Dunne, also a writer) describes one of their dinner parties, thrown in the honour of Tom Wolfe’s latest book: “We invited one hundred people. After the first 250 showed up, we stopped counting. It was a fucking zoo.” Didion usually offered to do the cooking, and Babitz describes her, alternating between “Dexies and gin” as “She was drunk and on drugs – it was an incredible performance. How come she held it together so much better than the rest of us?”.
I’m giving the partying a glamorous spin here – it was not all fun, games and mind expansion. Especially Didion’s books that describe 60s California are widely considered as the most poignant societal criticism and cultural artefacts of that era. But since we are in the middle of the party season, why not take the bygone mayhem as great entertainment that it is?
As it is weekend and parties are abound, I recommend you make acquaintance with Joan and Eve. If for nothing else, to reassure you on a morning after the night before that no, it was really not that bad – there have been wilder parties and worse hangovers, guaranteed.