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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

Rachel Shukert
November 22, 2010
Fran Lebowitz in the documentary Public Speaking.HBO
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 the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

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