She speaks truth to power – or at least to silly pretension – with aplomb and fearlessness.
Mice, however, are another matter for Fran Lebowitz.
It’s a late weekday afternoon, as Lebowitz finishes an interview in the deserted cafeteria at HBO’s Manhattan office building; the network begins airing a Martin Scorsese documentary about the writer, “Public Speaking,” tonight (11/22/10). Suddenly, she shrieks and lifts her feet up on to the chair where she’s sitting.
“I just saw a mouse,” she said. “I can’t tell you how afraid I am of mice. I’d rather see a wolf than a mouse.”
The appearance of a rodent in a corporate dining room aside, it’s an otherwise lovely afternoon for Lebowitz, acclaimed as humorist and scourge, who gets to talk about her favorite subject: herself and her opinions of whatever is placed in front of her. That, in fact, is most of what “Public Speaking” is about: Lebowitz offering her thoughts on a variety of topics, from cultural democracy to the joys of smoking cigarettes to the unseen effects of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The film was the brainchild of her friend Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, who proposed it in 2002.
“I said no because I didn’t want people following me around with a camera,” Lebowitz says. “Apparently I’m the only person in America that’s true of.”
But a couple of years ago, Carter approached her again, saying that Scorsese wanted to make the documentary: “I knew he’d do something different,” she says.
The film consists principally of footage shot at a speaking engagement and during a lengthy interview session filmed at Carter’s restaurant, the Waverly Inn, in the West Village. As Scorsese edited the film, Lebowitz says, she saw “seven completely different movies. The last three versions, each time I said, ‘Marty, it’s done.’ Marty would still be working on it if it was up to him. But he’d still be cutting ‘Casino,’ too, if they’d let him.”
Watching the film for the first time, however, unsettled her: “Seeing myself was shocking,” she says. “I consider myself a person devoted to the pursuit of truth. But I’ve also convinced myself that I look the same as I did in 1981.
“I said, ‘I look horrible. What’s wrong with the movie?’ I had no idea how I look. How is that possible? I have no idea. If I’m capable of deceiving myself to that extent, then anybody can.”
Part of her self-deception, she admits, may have something to do with aging. She recently turned 60, which she describes as “truly, deeply horrible. But, in the wisdom of nature, you can’t see as well, so you can’t see what you really look like. Those two things occur together for a reason.
“What everyone says when you turn 60 is, ‘It’s better than the alternative.’ If the only thing worse than being 60 is death, that’s pretty bad. The worst part is that only one person was surprised when I told them I’d turned 60.”
Lebowitz, who grew up in Morristown, N.J., moved to New York in her late teens after being kicked out of high school. She did a variety of jobs, including driving a taxi, before establishing herself as a writer. Andy Warhol hired her to write a humor column for Interview magazine and her first book, “Metropolitan Life,” a collection of hilariously droll essays, became a best-seller in 1978. So did her second collection, “Social Studies,” published in 1981.
Since then, however, with the exception of a children’s book, Lebowitz has suffered one of the most famous cases of writer’s block in contemporary history. So, at what point does writer’s block stop being an problem and become a trademark?
“To me, it’s still an obstacle,” she says. “I have half a novel, for which I signed a contract in 1981. And I have half of another book; that one is only five years late. It was meant to be a book-length essay.
“I dislike writing for the same reason I always did: It’s hard. I dislike labor. I love idleness. It’s too much work and I like not working. Only coal-mining is harder. I feel sorry for coal miners. Whenever there’s a mining disaster, I’m riveted.
“Really, writing is better than almost every other job. But it’s hard, it’s arduous. It’s not that I have nothing to say. The problem is that I say it. And writing and talking? Not the same thing.”
A compulsive reader who got in trouble as a girl for reading when she should have been doing something else, Lebowitz says, “I loved to write when I was a child. But from the first second I got my first assignment, I hated it. I have a resistance to authority – even my own.”
Reading, she says, “still gets me in trouble. That’s what I’m doing instead of working. If I actually solved the writer’s block? I’d probably be writing books. People keep them longer than magazines. As my editor points out, and not affectionately, ‘You have a reverence for books.’ And I do. I buy books for kids, I buy books for babies. I’m doing my part.
“People act like there’s a war between print and the Internet, but that’s wrong. The war is between words and images – and images won a long time ago. That’s the big divide – and this is a visual era. To me, it seems regressive. They’ve found cave paintings that are 30,000 years old. Back then, they probably said, ‘That’s a good start.’ Then we learned how to write.”
As she thinks about it, Lebowitz notes that, in fact, she has found something that makes writing seem less onerous. She recently sold the co-op she owned in midtown Manhattan and left it for a loft she rents downtown.
“There is something worse than writing: moving,” she says. “It was such a horrible experience. Writing is less horrible than moving. It turned out I owned 8,500 books. I moved last summer – and two weeks ago, the last book got put away.
“I owned a co-op and sold it to rent. I’ve got the soul of a renter. It’s so relaxing to rent. When you own an apartment in New York, the most frightening words you can read are, ‘Dear Tenant-Shareholder.’ That doesn’t happen when you rent. When I lived in my old apartment, I bought that building a roof, two sidewalks and an elevator. But you don’t even own that elevator – you just paid for it.”
The mouse makes another dash across the cafeteria floor, so it’s time for Lebowitz to leave.
“I once saw a rat strolling down Fifth Avenue – a big rat. And he was strolling – he may even have been smoking a cigar,” she says. “I’ve read that, if you live in New York, you’re never more than six feet from a rat. Now that is a truly horrifying thought.”