Fran Lebowitz, ace epigrammatist, is further a first-rate conversationalist, a hall-of-fame bibliomaniac, a chronic self-caricaturist, a gal-about-town, the soul of the city, a snappish social critic, a snappy dresser, a popular emcee, a mandarin, a mascot, and the least-prolific great humorist of the American experiment. Surely she has bubbled into your consciousness by way of a quote of the day or floated there from a picture on a party page—eyes adamant with confidence, bobbed hair thick and wavy, lips splendid for making full phrases. She’s around, always, and more so than usual this month on account of Public Speaking, a documentary profile premiering tonight on HBO. It’s something of an anthropologist’s recording of an idiolect, a bit like the project of a landmarks preservation committee, and a lot of fun.
How to make a proper introduction? At 27, she published her first book, Metropolitan Life(1978), a collection of comic essays amounting to a virtuoso display of contempt against modern manners, degraded language, and urban indignity. John Leonard, writing the rave review that made it a hit, made a special claim for her tongue and her taste in the New York Times: “To a base of Huck Finn, add some Lenny Bruce and Oscar Wilde and Alexis de Tocqueville, a dash of cab driver. … Serve without whine.” There was little else for a charmed reviewer to do but reprint as many of her bons mots as space allowed. “All God’s children are not beautiful,” she wrote and he quoted. “Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.” Those 15 words speak for themselves with the weight of a thousand. A critic can only observe that the “in fact” provides an essential pause, establishing an exact measure of scorn.
At 31, popularly regarded as the funniest woman in New York, she published a second collection, Social Studies (1981). In a highlight of the accompanying press tour, she sent her persona lounging jumpily through a New York magazine interview. “All of life, as far as I’m concerned, is an excuse not to write,” she said in describing her work habits. “It’s really scary just getting to the desk. … I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.” At 42, when the Paris Review swung by for a chat, she gave the sense that chatting—in interviews, at lecture dates, by the side of David Letterman’s desk—was itself her primary occupation, confiding that new work was coming slowly. (“interviewer: What did you do for those five years before you started writing the book? lebowitz: I sulked.”) At 60, Fran is 29 years late turning in a novel to Knopf, and in Public Speaking she claims for herself a perverse superlative: “I’m the most outstanding waster of time of my generation.” The book, Exterior Signs of Wealth, is not coming along nicely. “I moved a couple of months ago and so I saw it in the bottom of a box,” she told me over coffee the other day. The half of it that exists holds up. “I found that I’m sure I still agree with myself.”
Public Speaking is directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the author’s old friends, and produced by Graydon Carter, one of her most loyal patrons. (Her chief duty as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair is to give Carter numerous suggestions: “Hardly any have ever have been taken, and I cannot think of a single time I was wrong.”) Most of the film’s 83 minutes find the author speaking off the bespoke cuff about a broad range of topics. From a table at the Waverly Inn, she gabs to Marty about New York City and comes off as the ambassador from Manhattan. On stage before an audience with her pal Toni Morrison, she defines the difference between humor and wit and sounds like a culture minister without portfolio. Style as always is a matter of rhythm: She rattles the sentences along like a rush-hour train, rounds them out with the bright toll of a bell in a tower, managing to seem brusque and voluble at once. A bit of archival footage transports us to the 1993 Nobel banquet. Fran, tagging along when Morrison won the literature prize, sat with the children of the prizewinners, where she briefly deceived her young companions in telling them that the reindeer on their plates was beef. This is an indelible image: a writer who thinks of writing as a “rarefied form of tantrum” reigning as the empress of a children’s table.
The girlhood of Frances Ann Lebowitz unfolded in Morristown, N.J., where her father ran a furniture store nearby and her mother never quite recovered from having been the jitterbug champion of New Haven. The archetypal anecdote of her school career concerns a third-grade incident in which she was sent to the principal’s office for reading James Thurber behind her geography book. Kicked out of 12th grade, she came to New York to launch careers in writing and in nightlife, beginning a column at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in 1972 and running among the scenesters in the back room at Max’s. Not incidentally, she was Warholian in her attention to the aesthetics of self-invention, adopting a uniform of men’s jackets and Brooks Brothers shirts to suit an anti-contemporary style of thought. As someone once said of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, her disguise intensified her personality. Nor is it incidental that she quit drinking and such at the age of 19; there is nothing quite like spending one’s 20s going out all night, every night, uninfluenced by drugs and alcohol, to deepen one’s appreciation of the human comedy and sharpen the voice of certitude.
These were the makings—this was the minting—of a free-range performance artist, a consummate guest. Considered as a social creature, Fran Lebowitz is maybe the real Truman Capote, enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and famous while abhorring the word lifestyle. Considering her years of trudging to college campuses to make speeches and thus money, she is justified in calling herself “the Willy Loman of literature,” a line she has yet to tire of. Witness the little slap she administered to Michael Kinsley, then the editor of this magazine and a former co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, in this 1998 episode segment of The Charlie Rose Show, round about the 11-minute mark.
The topic was the problem of Monica Lewinsky. Fran was alone on the panel in being equally disgraced by Ken Starr’s office and by Bill Clinton’s conduct: “There’s this idea now because of TV shows like Crossfire that [if] one person is right, the other person is wrong.” Kinsley was unwilling to take her point: “And you take the high-minded view that everybody’s wrong.” Fran: “Everybody’s wrong. I’m not sure it is ‘high-minded,’ but at least it is minded.” Watching her draw her triumphant head back after delivering the sentence, an ornamental gesture conveying satisfaction at parrying smugness, I think of a line in Ellen Moers’ study The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm: “The dandy is permanently one-up. He maintains his position by the use of a wit which transcends verbal flourishes to involve all the resources of his being.”
This was six years before Jon Stewart appealed to Crossfire’s hosts to “stop hurting America,” by the way. “That’s the problem with being ahead of your time,” Lebowitz says in Public Speaking. “By the time everyone catches up with you, you’re bored.”