Lunch With Lebowitz,
The Humor Columnist Meets With The Real To Reel Guys At The Russian Tea Room For A Talk That Is Literary, Humorous And Definitely NOT Tragic
American writer Fran Lebowitz. Image by Christopher Macsurak and used under a Creative Commons license.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 31, 2015 — At the beginning of her fame as a humor columnist (“I Cover the Waterfront” for Interview magazine) and later at Mademoiselle, Fran Lebowitz was often compared to the reigning doyenne of American barbed wit, Dorothy Parker.
“I am flattered because I admire Dorothy Parker very much,” Fran told us, “but our writing styles are not at all similar. I am a comic writer, but the only thing alike about us is that we’re girls. She was short; I am short. But it certainly isn’t a comparison I bridle at.”
It was just a tough one to live up to.
We sat down with Fran a couple of times back in the late 1970s and early 1980s; once at the old New York Statler Hotel opposite Pennsylvania Station when Fran was riding high on her bestselling collection of “New Yawkish” essays, Metropolitan Life, another time for lunch in the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street on a wintry day not long before Christmas or long after the publication of her follow-up bestseller, Social Studies.
Over the course of her erratic career Lebowitz has proven to be quite versatile as an author, essayist, sardonic social commentator, occasional TV actress on Law & Order, serial-attendee of just about any NYC gala or benefit and staunch defender of smoker’s rights. But perhaps more than anything else, Fran, now 64, possesses an absolute genius for procrastination.
We asked her – when she was at the height of her literary productivity – how much time she devoted to her writing and, commensurately, how much time to procrastinating about deadlines.
“About a half-hour a year,” Fran fired back as a curlicue of smoke from a long exhale formed a gray halo around her head. “I write just exactly as much as I have to. When I count words, I count words. Metropolitan Life was so late I kept looking at my contract to see how many words were required. I literally sat in my room at four o’ clock in the morning going 40,321, 40,322 … My entire life’s work would fit in the pocket of my coat; even when I die that will be true.”
Funny stuff, but, regrettably, no exaggeration. Fran’s literary output to date are the two books of essays, The Fran Lebowitz Reader which is an anthology of the two books of essays, and a small children’s book called Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas.
Dorothy Parker once said that her own collected works of poems, criticism, reviews and short stories would hardly fill a tiny library shelf. But Parker’s output is prodigious compared to Lebowitz’s sparse literary yield (think Henry James to Harper Lee).
Although book critics in droves had weighed in with the Dorothy Parker comparison, Fran saw herself – first and last – as a comedic writer.
“I have no interest in writing anything of a tragic nature,” she said. “I think comedy is the hardest kind of writing there is. I have a great disagreement with Woody Allen who somehow imagines it to be, if not easier, then less worthy. But this is proven wrong by the fact that hardly anyone does it. Many people want to become rock ‘n’ roll stars because that’s an easy job. Comic writing is a hard job. To be funny for one second is difficult.”
When we met Fran at the Russian Tea Room it was her choice – a convenient location as she said she’d be shopping for Christmas presents in the area. As we waited for her and watched Buck Henry scuttle from table to booth greeting people in loud tones of undue familiarity, we couldn’t help but notice the slick array of designer clothing in the restaurant; noontime at the Tea Room was an ode to the garment industry. It was a relief to see Lebowitz walk in, a cigarette dangling from her lips, dressed in the same weather-beaten pea coat she had worn during our visit with her at the Statler Hotel a couple of years before.
Lebowitz’s shopping spree had been successful.
“I bought the greatest toy gift,” she said. “It’s a car with a boy and girl in it made by a company in China. The car runs around on a battery, the boy drives, and the girl has a camera. About every 30 seconds it stops and the girl takes a flashbulb picture. It’s the greatest work of art I’ve ever seen. Thank God Nixon opened up China so we can get toys like this. At first, the flashbulb didn’t work, so the salesperson asked me if I’d be interested in a rabbit that grows hair.”
We moved on to the business at hand – lunch, which meant confronting a stumbling block common to New Yorkers: foreign waiters whose nationality and menu advice remain a complete conundrum. Our waiter was par for the “course.”
“I’ll have a club soda with a lemon peel and do you have any melon?” Fran asked.
“Yes, we have Spanish melons,” our waiter garbled.
“Did he say Spanish measles? If he did, I’m getting out of here,” Fran whispered.
“No it is Israeli Spanish melon,” he replied.
“I don’t care what the nationality of the fruit is, I’ll eat it,” Fran said.
Good food ranked high on the list of Lebowitz’s priorities. She even gauged friends by culinary criteria.
“I don’t know how to cook,” she told us. “When I was finishing Social Studies I stayed in a house for 30 days without leaving it, sacrificed to the mercy of my own cooking. For my birthday my parents had given me one of those popcorn machines, so popcorn was the mainstay of my diet. It’s very nourishing and filling, a good hot meal in 30 seconds, and it only costs 11 cents a day. The other thing I learned how to make was baked potatoes. You can cook them while you’re writing, and when you smell them burning, they’re done.”
Writing was always the means to a sarcastic end for Lebowitz. Her razor-edged wit and hardcore urban cynicism deprecated any trend, dissembler or militant nonsmoker that came within a close radius of her pen. But that satisfaction didn’t seem enough. As her fame increased, Fran told us she entertained notions of becoming the next emperor of Japan, “a good entry-level position,” or the commandant of a concentration camp for mimes, among other job prospects.
“I was on a television talk show hosted by Gene Shalit, and I asked the president of Standard Oil if I could have his job since he was about to retire,” Fran said. “I don’t think he was familiar with my type of person because during a commercial break he said there were a few people ahead of me. I believe the figure he quoted was 63,000. I said to him: “I know you now, doesn’t that count?” He got mad at me later on because Shalit asked Marvin Hamlisch, who was a guest, what his favorite song was; then he asked David Brenner what his favorite joke was. I asked the president what his favorite price increase was. I like being on talk shows; it is extremely American and it’s easier than writing.”
Back then some of Lebowitz’s favorite TV shows included Family Feud, One Life to Live and General Hospital. But one show actually owes Fran a debt of gratitude.
“I happened to be in the forefront of the fight to keep The Mary Tyler Moore Show reruns on the air in New York,” she boasted. “One night when Mary Tyler Moore was supposed to come on, the Toni Tennille Show appeared in her time slot. I called up NBC and asked them what happened. They said they didn’t know. The next day a friend of mine from the New York Post called the vice president of NBC and said they had taken it off the air because they didn’t think anybody was watching it. We managed to get it back on in two days.”
Despite Fran’s penchant for TV, she hadn’t wholly neglected the literary sphere, at least as far as reading (not writing) was concerned. Her favorite authors included “the standard English faggots,” she said, “Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde. I prefer Woody Allen’s writing to his movies. There are things that he’s written that I really think are terrific. ‘The Earl of Sandwich’ story is so great. The trouble with Allen is that he only does parodies. I think it is easy to spot where the joke is going to come from him. That’s why he is so imitated. Also, he likes to repeat a trick. He doesn’t write seven sentences without sticking in incongruities like, ‘Is there life after death? And if so, Can you get a sandwich in midtown?’”
At the time, an intense dislike of actors (before she became one, that is) caused Fran to completely boycott theatergoing. So it was puzzling when she said that Katharine Hepburn, who was starring on Broadway in “The West Side Waltz,” had apparently called her on the telephone.
“I’m afraid I was very brusque to her,” Fran said. “I was watching ‘General Hospital,’ the phone rang, and I went into my kitchen to answer it. A woman asked, ‘Is this Fran Lebowitz? I said, ‘Yeh.’ She said, ‘Will you hold for Miss Katharine Hepburn?’ Someone came on the line that actually sounded like Katharine Hepburn. She told me how much she enjoyed my work and that she just wanted to wish me the best of luck. I muttered thanks and hung up. I waited for two hours for some practical joker to call and say, ‘Doesn’t my friend do a great Katharine Hepburn imitation?’ I finally got tired of waiting and called a press agent who handles some big stars and he said that Hepburn often does things like that. So now I wonder if I should send her an apology.”
We doubt she ever sent it. An apology would somehow have been quite out of character for Fran. It’s not good to shatter one’s literary persona in a single stroke.
Postscript: In 2004, Vanity Fair excerpted parts of a book Fran was writing called Progress. Word has it that the book now has a publication date sometime this year. For fans of Lebowitz’s writing (and they are legion), the wait for new fiction – or anything – from her has amounted to a dry spell longer and more tenacious than the California drought.
All we can hope for is that she pops some popcorn, burns a few potatoes and sequesters herself into a hermetic environment absent General Hospital, and finishes the book.
Admittedly, considering we’re talking about a writer who considers procrastination to be a career path, it’s a faint prospect; but we’ll take what we can get.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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