“Dear Joseph Heller, I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.” Eve Babitz wrote this postcard in 1961. I’ve always found it a funny, provocative bit of literary history. Heller’s novel Catch 22 was published that year—he would have been a reasonable person for an ambitious young writer to contact.
Marcel Duchamp Playing Chess with Eve Babitz, Pasadena Art Museum 1963, ©Julian Wasser 1963, © Succession Marcel Duchamp
Two years later, she was playing chess nude with Marcel Duchamp. At the time, Babitz was Walter Hopps’ girlfriend, and Hopps had just been made the director of the Pasadena Museum of Art. Duchamp had been an active participant in the art world in the early part of the 20th century, but had “retired” from art to play chess. (He was secretly producing art during this time, but few knew this.) Perhaps the thinking was that it would be dada gesture to have Duchamp play a game of chess with a beautiful nude woman. It was a different time.
Decades later. Babitz wrote about this episode for Esquire. “I Was a Naked Pawn For Art” appeared in 1991. Babitz wrote, “Los Angeles was a hick town with a vengeance, artwise. [. . .] In the Fifties, my mother once picketed the [L.A. County Museum of Art] with her friend Vera Stravinsky, just to call the museum’s attention to the fact that nobody from L.A. was inside.” Vera Stravinsky was the wife of composer Igor Stravinsky, who was Babitz’s godfather. Her father was a classically trained violinist who played for movies and tried in his own small way to elevate L.A.’s culture. “My father was a violinist with taste and determination, and he and his friend Peter Yates began something called Evenings on the Roof atop Peter’s house. There, slick studio musicians who could sight-read anything performed never-before-heard works by, say, Stravinsky or Schoenberg, who both lived in L.A., where the Philharmonic rarely played anything newer than Brahms, and even that nobody went to.”
As an aside, this kind of crossover between the world of Hollywood and the art world was also part of my experience when I lived there. I lived in a garage apartment above the studio of a sculptor. He did his personal work when he wasn’t working as a set sculptor for Hollywood. One day, I came home from work to find him carving a life-size styofoam Keebler elves tree in the back yard for a commercial.
Babitz was fine arts royalty when she met Hopps. He quickly involved her in the nascent L.A. art scene, through his gallery, Ferus, and his art friends, including Ed Ruscha (described by Babitz as “the cutest”) and Ken Price (“even cuter”), and Barney’s Beanery, a run-down hangout favored by the art crowd.
Hopps eventually was hired as curator of the Pasadena Museum of Art, and was quickly promoted to director. He brought in Duchamp for his first retrospective. Babitz attended a pre-opening party with her sister and photographer Julian Wasser.
The public opening was very crowded and lots of fun. I got myself some red wine and wandered over to a raised platform where Marcel and Walter were playing chess, and my father came by and watched with a cynical expression. (He told me later, “That Marcel is not very good, I could have beaten him on the fourth move. And your friend Walter can’t play at all.”)
Her father was wrong about Duchamp, who was a chess master. He was probably right about Hopps. It was Wasser who came up with the idea of Babitz stripping down and playing Duchamp at the opening of the exhibit.
Heretofore, the only nudes in L.A. were calendar girls—starlets trying to make the rent. Of course, me being the nude sort of made me feel like I was pretending I was way bolder than I really was. But then, anything seemed possible—for art, that night. Especially after all that red wine.
She agreed to Wasser’s scheme. She sat at the table and played as well as she could. But Duchamp was a much better player and quickly beat her in every game. After a while, she got dressed and played one more game with Duchamp.
Babitz went on to write a number of books. I’ve read one of them, and thought it was OK but wasn’t bowled over by it. But people whose tastes I respect hold her in high esteem, so I think I will try some ,ore of her books. Eve Babitz died last Friday at the age of 78.
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