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Boulevardier

An HBO documentary shows how woman-about-town Fran Lebowitz manages to lead a writer’s life without the hassle of putting pen to paper

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Fran Lebowitz in the documentary Public Speaking. (HBO)

The legendary writer’s block of author, quote-monger, and party-page regular Fran Lebowitz might be contagious. I’ve been sitting at my computer for the past two hours trying to come up with an appropriately witty opening sentence for a piece about an allegedly very witty woman, and all I’ve got so far is “Writing is hard.”

So, I guess I’ll just go from there. Writing is hard. Writing is boring, writing is frustrating, writing is mostly remuneratively ludicrous. Writing isolates you from your friends and loved ones. The anxiety caused by writing can possess enough kinetic energy to power an international airport, and due to the long sedentary hours and the large amount of junk food and alcohol you are forced to consume while writing to keep you from killing yourself, writing also makes you fat.

Given these considerable negatives, it’s not surprising that Lebowitz has chosen to eschew the whole bloody business altogether. After all, if you are invited to the best parties, fulsomely praised and infinitely sought-after by the rich and famous and famously discriminating, command your own booth at the notoriously impossible-to-breach Waverly Inn, have a recurring novelty guest spot on Law & Order, and are photographed endlessly in bespoke Anderson & Sheppard suits in your capacity as official mascot for Vanity Fair, why bother to put finger to keyboard ever again? Fran Lebowitz has achieved the Impossible Dream: She gets to live out a writer’s most wild fantasy life without ever having to do the actual writing part.

As if this enviable existence wasn’t enough, now with Public Speaking, the documentary on Lebowitz that premieres on HBO tonight, she and her admirers (Graydon Carter, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, is a producer) seem to be trying to accord her universally beloved icon status, the cranky New York Jew’s answer to Oscar Wilde. For the first time since 1981, when her most recent book for adults was published (she put out a children’s book, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas, in 1995), Lebowitz’s legendary wit and wisdom will be on display for the unwashed masses outside the elite New York City cocktail-party circuit. With no less esteemed an interlocutor than Martin Scorsese (who directed the film and is invisible but for the faint edge of his glasses in the periphery of the frame), Lebowitz holds forth with what we understand to be her trademark incisiveness and brilliance on everything from the myth of secondhand smoke to gentrification to gay rights, with inevitable career resurgence and secure national treasure-hood to follow.

There’s only one problem: In the film, Lebowitz isn’t really that witty. Or that wise. She has her moments—an anecdote about being seated at the children’s table at the Nobel laureates’ dinner in Stockholm, an uncharacteristically earnest observation about how the loss of a huge discerning audience for the arts is the true, if unspoken, tragedy of the AIDS years, a refreshing honesty about her own laziness at a time when lack of productivity seems to be the last real taboo.

But here’s the thing: If you are the kind of person who is interested in Fran Lebowitz, you have at least four or five friends who are every bit as witty and amusing as Fran Lebowitz. They have the funniest Twitter feeds, and probably a Tumblr, and then are always ready to tell you a hilariously elaborate story about the crazy homeless guy who tried to feel them up on the train. And then they launch into a 20-minute-long prepared monologue about how Strollers Are Annoying (as Lebowitz does) and your eyes glaze over until you can head for the bar. “I have way too frequently for my own moral comfort been asked if I was an only child,” Lebowitz says, with no little pride. I’ve been asked that a lot too, although I don’t usually see it so much as a moral issue as a sign that I should probably stop talking about myself for a little while.

Susan Sontag—until her death the third member of New York’s great triumvirate of Overrated Jewish Lesbians, along with Le(i)bow(v)itzes Fran and Annie—famously called Fran “a rich man’s boor,” and, indeed, it’s easy to understand how Lebowitz’s tales of inconvenience and irritation might prove uproariously profound to those Masters of the Universe who have managed to eradicate petty nuisances from their lives. To the rest of us, for whom stroller rage and apartment envy and wishing things were cheaper form life’s heartbeat, they hardly seem worthy of comment.

There is one area in which Fran Lebowitz has by all measures succeeded brilliantly, one that Scorsese’s film, which consists almost entirely of uninterrupted images of her, gives us plenty of time to ponder. Fran Lebowitz has perfected her look. Her boulevardier wardrobe, her trademark cigarette/sneer, her unruly Beethoven bob: She has precisely distilled, or perhaps invented, our idea of what a “sardonic New York literary curmudgeon” should look like and has stuck to it faithfully for decades. This tastefully nihilistic pose has been her fortune and, perhaps perversely, also her undoing as an artist. “I’m not interested in other people, so I don’t expect them to be interested in me,” she claims. Fair enough (if somewhat specious), except that the single requirement of the art of writing—to say nothing of the art of conversation—is exactly that.

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because Lebowitz, as she is presented here, is not really a writer, or even a conversationalist. Literally famous for doing nothing for the past 30 years, Fran Lebowitz has become a brand, a reality star for fancy people. “That’s the problem with being ahead of your time,” Lebowitz observes trenchantly. “By the time everyone catches up with you, you’re bored.”

This time she’s right.

Rachel Shukert is a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and the author of the recently published memoir Everything Is Going to Be Great.

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Alexander Diamond says:

Don’t miss it if you can.

carol winer says:

I prefer to support my living artists!

Mr Mel says:

Who really cares?

Joel Lewis says:

I wondered of what younger people (below 40?) made of Ms. Leibowitz and why she haf such an adoring coeterie without doing much of anything except go to parties (Paris Hilton with a pedigree?). I don’t believe she has writer’s block, I think it is some sort of Cagaen (as in John cage) of seeing how long one can be called a “writer” without bothering to “write”. My question: how has she been paying the bills all these years?

sharon rosen teig says:

i eagerly picked up a book of fran’s witticisms at a library book fair, thinking I had scored something brilliant and hysterical..well, there was no brilliance and no hilarity..and after making at least 4 efforts to find what i had, no doubt, overlooked, i gave up and threw the damned book away!!! and again, why is she famous?????

tootie says:

Figures that you don’t like Lebowitz – you’re a (yuck) memoir writer.

NancyinBalto says:

I read Fran’s books in the early 80′s, just after college. I thought they were hilarious and read them several times. Alas, I’ve been waiting for a new book ever since then. Still waiting, Fran. Help a pal out over here, will ya?

I do agree somewhat with Shukert. This documentary wasn’t really all that. But if you read Fran’s interviews online, or in magazines, you get a better idea of how funny she is. Her books are funny too, in a quietly witty sort of way. Fran isn’t really a writer (well, at least not currently), I consider her more of a
raconteur, a personality. She’s not like reality stars, because those people don’t have any intellect and are dying for fame. Fran doesn’t want to be famous; she wants her ideas to be heard, sort of like a TV or radio host or op-ed person. She pays her bills with college tours and writing for publications, and I would imagine royalties. There’s no excuse for not publishing a sizable work since 1982, but I don’t think it’s part of a con game. No writer would want to piss off a publisher the way she obviously has all this time. She’s a perfectionist, and I can certainly relate to that. Bottom line: Don’t judge her by this doc alone.

“Literally famous for doing nothing” What is “literally” doing here? I think it’s supposed to mean something like “Famous for doing, in fact, nothing” but that’s not what “literally famous” means. “Literally” is modifying famous instead of nothing. But “literally nothing” doesn’t make any sense either.

Like, I mean, literally. Ok so that’s what it means, basically.

Rothman says:

i love her description of nature: the space between her apartment and the taxi cab.

C’mon! The show was fun and could’ve been an hour longer. No big claims were made about her and some of her observations were spot on.

35 years ago Fran seemed funny. Tody milady is dated.
Not funny.

Wow this reviewer is one of the most sadly envious people. It was a great doc…and a real relief to hear someone with a real functioning unsentimental mind on the tube as opposed to so many “dumbed down” or just plain dumb personalities that crowd the scene.

I lived outside of the US in Israel for 12 years but I’ve been back since 1980-1981. I know Annie Liebowitz but never heard of Fran Liebowitz until recently and I think she’s great. Would love to hear more of her.

All nicely put, and a fair reading of Fran Lebowitz. But I cannot imagine mentioning Susan Sontag in the same sentence as Fran Lebowitz. To call her an overrated Jewish lesbian was meant to do what, exactly? Was that necessary?
I did not love Sontag; spending a week in the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo during the war when she was there made me want to go over to the Serbs. But she wrote well, wrote a lot, championed a number of totally forgotten authors and helped their work see the light of day. Her essays on photography have lost none of their power. More conservative people bristled and exploded at her op-ed piece in the NY Times after 9/11. “We do not all have to be stupid together,” she wrote, sensing where the US was headed. And she was right. But we went and did stupid anyway.

“Fran Lebowitz has achieved the Impossible Dream: She gets to live out a writer’s most wild fantasy life without ever having to do the actual writing part.” Really? Perhaps that is YOUR dream but it’s not true for most writers I know and I saw no indication that it is true for FL. Anyway, since when is the definition of a writer dependent on the type or quantity of their output? And what’s with the “overrated Jewish lesbian” bit? Which part of that offends you?

Right on, Rachel. I excitedly picked up The Fran Lebowitz Reader only to find some mildly amusing moments in a hasty collection of extremely short essays. It was like getting a long email from a normally humorous friend who was bored and flu-addled. How Lebowitz is considered the wit’s wit is beyond me.

I do appreciate the existence she’s been able to cultivate for herself, though. It’s pleasantly anomalous when a woman is able to carve out a life of privilege based on entitlement alone.

“If you are the kind of person who is interested in Fran Lebowitz, you have at least four or five friends who are every bit as witty and amusing as Fran Lebowitz.” Brilliant, and absolutely correct. I am one of those witty and amusing friends. Fran’s writing was unique in its time, and she can still be funny on talk shows, etc., but her observations are no longer groundbreaking. I mean, who doesn’t hate the stroller traffic at Starbucks?

I want to thank those discerning writers above, of which there are many while merely a few half-wits think Shukert cares about their opinion any more than she cares about the existence of Fran Lebowitz.

But tell me, if Martin Scorses is such a klutz to consider the filming of Fran Lebowitz important, why is his current contract, as producer of:
Boardwalk Empire, renewed for another year. It is the only show I have cared to watch on HBO this season outside of the usual Bill Maher interviews because Bill has been right more often than wrong ever since Cheney attempted to intimidate him into being scared of his bluff (because Dick thought he was immune to criticism,ha,ha).

lcohen says:

Fran Lebowitz is a New York (if not national) treasure because she speaks the truth in a common-sense, no-special-interests, no-shill way. This didn’t used to make her unique, but it sure does these days. Her perspective on Big Subjects is clear-eyed and fresh. That’s not easy to pull off in an era of pundit overload. Most of what we consume is “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Fran rises above the noise. Now if she could only overcome her inability or unwillingness to WRITE. We need more Fran!

I’ve been surfing online more than three hours today, but I by no means found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth sufficient for me. In my opinion, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you probably did, the web might be much more helpful than ever before.

I’ve said that least 2641217 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

But she wrote well, wrote a lot, championed a number of totally forgotten authors and helped their work see the light of day. Her essays on photography have lost none of their power. More conservative people bristled and exploded at her op-ed piece in the NY Times after 9/11. Fran’s writing was unique in its time, and she can still be funny on talk shows, etc., but her observations are no longer groundbreaking. I mean, who doesn’t hate the stroller traffic at Starbucks?

Charles says:

Lebowitz haughty? An aesthete? A boor? There are no observations about Lebowitz in this article that she wouldn’t make about herself. That’s why she’s appealing. She’s aware of her insignificance inside a larger cultural lineage and of her privileged lifestyle inside the kingdom. A satirist balances self-deprecation with criticism. Satire brings perspective. That’s why her barbs continue to cut deeper than the opinions of writers for whom first-person is king.

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Boulevardier

An HBO documentary shows how woman-about-town Fran Lebowitz manages to lead a writer’s life without the hassle of putting pen to paper

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