Kathryn Harrison’s memoir On Sunset is published this month. She shared five Los Angeles memoirs with Jane Ciabattari, noting, “I think of L.A. as a floating world, less landscape than smoke and mirrors. When I think of L.A., of growing up there, I think of those mirages on the asphalt, heat that looks like water.”
Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. or Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz
Babitz’s memoirs are said to be “fictive,” but they read as true. I stack them alongside “novels” like Peter Devries’ The Blood of the Lamb, or my own first novel: a thinly disguised autobiography. They’re perfect L.A. narratives, their subjects are like perfect denouements; you can’t anticipate what hits with the force of inevitability.
Jane Ciabattari: Babitz writes, “I did not become famous but I got close enough to smell the stench of success,” and “all art fades but sex fades fastest.” Plus she reads Virginia Woolf for comfort (in “Bad Day in Palm Springs”) in her own life. She was Stravinsky’s goddaughter, photographed nude at twenty playing chess on the beach with Marcel Duchamp, had several infinitely more famous lovers. Is her access to the innermost circles in L.A. what makes her work memorable? Or are her observational skills the key?
Kathryn Harrison: Both, and more. She had a passport to people and places her readers would not have been able to experience other than through her vision, and she had great observational skills—the talent for picking the perfect detail—but she also had a finely attuned ear for dialogue, and the sine qua non of a sense of humor about herself. She isn’t only a window but a guide, with a finely tuned BS detector.
Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford
It may not be literature, but it’s a seminal work. An exposé of a Hollywood legend, written by her vengeful adoptive daughter and precipitating a landslide of the kind of bad publicity that guaranteed Joan Crawford a longevity her peers can’t claim, and installed her as a cult heroine. Sort of the perfect Hollywood trajectory.
JC: Mommie Dearest came out in 1978, a year after Joan Crawford’s death. When Christina describes her adoptive mother’s alcoholism, her beating her up at thirteen, her controlling behavior, it was a take-down revenge moment in our culture. Which parts of the book resonate most with you?
KH: I think it’s the whole, rather than parts, that resonates with me, as a writer perhaps more than a reader. There are few people who have written memoir who don’t struggle with how they portray people, and themselves: what and how much to reveal. As Crawford writes on the first page, she’s so angry she is shaking with rage, and it is hard to write a sympathetic book from a point of rage—even righteous anger can disable a reader’s trust that a narrator is reliable. So I regard the book as a cautionary object, a text to consider carefully for what it can teach a young writer.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Year of Magical Thinking is split between Los Angeles and Manhattan, through which a lot of fabulous people stroll: I don’t consider this Didion’s finest work, but rather a seminal work of her L.A. incarnation, more name-dropping than cerebral, interesting for the writer/place/time more than the work.
JC: Didion structured the book to reproduce the experience of grieving her husband and her daughter, and that includes “collapsing time” and layering into the text repetitions of “all the frames of memory” that come to her from their life together. Which of the Los Angeles scenes in the book seem to most capture their marriage?
KH: It’s Didion’s return to Los Angeles after the deaths of both her husband and daughter that remains with me, and delineates a marriage by tracing what’s analogous to a chalk outline of a corpse on the sidewalk. Didion carefully plots her routes through the city she knows so well, navigating every block with the intent to avoid any association that might trigger what she calls “the vortex”—a dizzying black hole of memory and grief. I found that a very affecting and unusual portrait of a marriage: not what it is, but what it is no more.
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
A memoir infused with true crime, his mother’s death segueing into the infamous case of the Back Dahlia—L.A.’s most persistent ghost, a Hollywood hopeful exsanguinated and dismembered.
JC: This memoir was like a missing piece in Elroy’s work, the seed of his genius at rendering investigations into violence against women in books like The Black Dahlia. He was ten when his mother was murdered in 1958, and after he goes back to investigate decades later, her writes, “I robbed your grave. I revealed you. I showed you in shameful moments. I learned things about you. Everything I learned made me love you more dearly.” Do you connect with his using memoir as an exploration and also as a grieving process?
KH: Thank you for not using the word catharsis. A lot of what is explored in memoir is grief—loss, abandonment, sexual abuse, murder, suicide, shipwreck, the death of a child, coping with a grave illness… I teach memoir at Hunter College’s MFA program, and very few writers are driven to share happiness. A flaw in the species perhaps. We do seem to be creatures with narrative souls—and narrated Gods, Gods who are stories. We turn to storytelling for explanation, we make stories—coherence—of our lives, and of the grief they hold. It’s not a thing only writers do; we all do. It’s why we learn to talk.
Chicken: Self Portrait of a Young Man For Rent by Henry David Sterry
The Hollywood underbelly. I felt it was written by one of legions of children trying to make their way in that weird polluted city of dreams, clinging to the periphery of “the business” that defines and degrades and exalts, the machine of fame, that thing we confuse with immortality.
JC: “It’s a sick, twisted Wonderland and I’m Alice,” Sterry writes, describing his initiation at seventeen as a male prostitute or “chicken.” How does the Hollywood underbelly today compare with his experience 1970s?
KH: Well, most street drugs (crystal meth being the most dramatic example) are stronger and more easily available. Sex isn’t any less of a commodity. The climate allows for year-round homelessness. Fame beckons ever more strongly. Social media inflames every species of desire. I can’t imagine the landscape is any less dire. There is no human society without an underbelly, no more than there is a person without sin. The complexion may change—the AIDS crisis left its mark, now #Metoo is redrawing a few features—but human nature seems pretty consistent, back to Sodom and Gomorrah.