In New York City, sometime in the early hours of October 30, a car made its way uptown. The streets were unusually empty for that hour (or any hour in NYC). A hurricane was in town and instead of the benign ambivalence with which the city usually greets new arrivals, New Yorkers welcomed this new guest with outright antipathy. Most heeded the calls of the authorities to stay at home. Author Fran Lebowitz, the woman in the car, did not. She had escaped her powerless apartment and was on her way to the rarefied (and, fortunately, electrified) confines of her friend’s Upper East Side apartment.
At 4:30 p.m., Lebowitz, holed up in her friend’s apartment, managed to place a call to me as planned and in no time at all gave me the rundown on the situation. “I’ll describe it to you — I’ll try and leave out my full anger,” she said. (The journalist in me, knowing that full anger is exponentially more profitable than half — or lesser — anger, could barely contain my disappointment.) “Con Edison shut off the electricity in my neighborhood. It didn’t actually go off — they shut it off … ostensibly to preserve their assets.” A poor telephone connection garbled the next sentence. Just as I wondered how wise it was to conduct an interview in the middle of a natural disaster, the phone spluttered back to life and Lebowitz continued: “Instead of sending them a check for my bill this month, how about I send them a letter about how I’m trying to preserve my assets?” There it is, that crackling wit for which Lebowitz is famous. The sort that booksellers call the “grand statement.”
Frances Ann Lebowitz grew up in New Jersey but moved to New York City in the early 1970s. After a period of working “terrible jobs” — which included driving cabs, being a chauffeur and cleaning (with a specialty in venetian blinds) — Lebowitz landed a writing job for a small Manhattan newspaper. Before long, she was working at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, where she had a regular column until 1981. To those not used to being woken by a subway train rattling under their apartment at 3 a.m., this might sound like the archetypal New York City success story, but Lebowitz treats her fortune with the sort of jaded nonchalance that only a real Manhattanite could muster. “If I had been an heiress — which would have been my first choice if anyone had asked me before birth — I wouldn’t have done anything, because I am immensely slothful,” she told me.
With two published books to her name and a job with Andy Warhol by 1981, Lebowitz might have possessed every totem of “me-generation” success, but as the ‘90s approached, her life took a rather different course. Although her writing was so promising in her first two collections of essays, “Metropolitan Life” and “Social Studies,” and her 1995 book for children “Mr. Chas & Lisa Sue Meet the Panda,” it dramatically ceased upon starting her first novel. Lebowitz was hit with one of history’s most famous cases of writer’s block (or “writer’s blockade” as she once called it in an interview with David Letterman).
The novel, “Exterior Signs of Wealth,” was about artists who want to be wealthy and wealthy people who want to be artists. Though I’m told that as of now the writer’s block has abated, Lebowitz is quick to remind me it has not disappeared, which I assume is her way of warning us not to expect “Exterior Signs of Wealth” anytime soon. As for artists who want to be rich and rich people who want to be artists, I suppose we’ll have to make do with her second career as a roving lecturer for the time being.
Buried under thick swathes of heavily-accented cynicism, Lebowitz’s published writing is concerned with the relationship between the public and private spheres. Like Dorothy Parker, to whom she is often compared, Lebowitz takes the absurd and grating behaviors of others and brutally dismantles them for her readers with wit and honesty. Take her advice on smoking in hospitals from “Social Studies:” “In a hospital, the most frequent objection of the nonsmoker (that your smoking endangers his health) is rendered entirely meaningless by the fact that everyone there is already sick. Except the visitor — who is not allowed to smoke.” And though Dorothy Parker might be the best American comparison, to me, Lebowitz bears more resemblance to the young Evelyn Waugh in her ability to skewer the same urban, upper-class culture that she has come to represent (she is practically an institution in Vanity Fair’s society page, “Fairground”).
As our conversation moved closer to home, glossing over topics like whether Los Angeles is actually a city and why California is to blame for the left’s obsession with smoking restrictions, I wonder how Lebowitz can possibly survive as a roving lecturer. For someone so dependent on New York — she once told David Letterman that she wouldn’t move to San Francisco “unless there was a soldier behind (her) with a gun” — the role of a traveling lecturer seems to be a rather odd fit. Has she grown accustomed to the people-on-top-of-people conflict of urban living, which she so successfully chronicled in her essays, that the only remaining frontier for her acid-tipped pen’s inspiration is out West? For the sake of “Exterior Signs of Wealth,” I certainly hope she finds some inspiration of any kind out here, but I’m skeptical. San Francisco, after all, is “pretty” but “it doesn’t meet (her) criterion for a city: you cannot stick your hand in the air and hail a cab.”
What: Strictly Speaking: Fran Lebowitz
When: Thursday, Nov. 15
Where: Zellerbach Hall
Tickets: Cal Performances
Contact Thomas at [email protected]