Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Pal, Fran Lebowitz

One February evening, Jean and I found out by accident (the way we find out most things) that author Fran Lebowitz was going to be talking at the Rubin Museum of Art in March on "the illusion of language". I called to buy tickets the following afternoon, only to discover they'd sold out that morning.

Unlike most people, at that time I had no idea that Fran had written for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, or had published her first book, Metropolitan Life, at the age of 28, or that she'd hung out with the glitterati at Max's Kansas City. Around that time I was living in Texas, where we received no news that was not Texas-related, and then in Tokyo, where we received more news about the United States than we did in Texas. I did not know that the hallowed name of Dorothy Parker often comes up when people try to describe Fran Lebowitz.

Fran as Judge Janice Goldberg

In February, the most important thing I knew about Fran was that she had a tiny periodic role on Law & Order, playing Judge Janice Goldberg, and that if she had five lines in the entire program, those were the best five lines in the show. (Did she write them herself?) She was riveting. The other thing I knew about Fran was that she seemed to have a kind of uniform. Even in a fuzzy picture you could probably identify her. Identifiable hair, glasses, man's suit and shirt. She had a distinct fashion philosophy that worked (works) well for her, so we're showing a number of pics here demonstrating her look.   (A kind of Fran Through the Ages.)  I had to see her.

The Rubin Museum has a strict policy that once tickets to its small theater are sold out, those awaiting cancellations cannot put their name on a waiting list until 5pm the day of the show. No amount of pleading or cajoling or reasoning or bribing or offers of credit card numbers or solemn oaths that of course you'll be there will avail.  (I know, 'cause I tried.)  And you have to be there in person to put your name on the list - a major pain in the neck for those of us who work the day shift - and you will not be informed till almost 7pm if any tickets have become available.

The evening of Ms. Lebowitz's appearance, it was a dark and stormy night (really!), so Jean decided, understandably, not to chance it, given the odds and the gauntlet one had to run. I, on the other hand, was there to put my name on the list at 6pm. I asked how far down the list I was, and was told that information was "confidential". (Why?  Did they think I'd publish it on Wikileaks?)  Happily, there are three nearby thrift shops. I found a necklace of hammered hollow silver fruit in my spare time, and five minutes before the show started, my patience was rewarded with a ticket.

Fran and Betsey Johnson

As the last of us entered the auditorium, a woman at the door waved us all in, saying the show was sold out, and would we please fill all available seats. I made it all the way to the stage without finding a seat, and was about to cross to the opposite side when I spied an empty seat in the first row. As I was taking off my coat, I could not help but notice the gent two seats away from me. He had a gorgeous full head of curly gray hair, in the manner of Simon Rattle, renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Simon Rattle

'Wow', thought I, followed by 'mind your own business'. But since we all love to get a compliment from a stranger, and since, after all, one of Idiosyncratic Fashionistas' goals is to celebrate gray hair, in the few moments before the show began, I forced myself to say to the gent "I must admire your hair before they tell us to shut up". (What I meant was before the museum staff starts the program.)  How eloquent of me!!! He responded politely, but I was so flustered by my own forwardness (didn't your mother tell you not to talk to strangers?) that his response did not register. And then the program began, and we all did shut up.

Fran n Andy

The moderator came up on stage, and that was the first inkling I had that Fran would not be the sole speaker. She was going to have a companion in conversation, Steven Pinker, whom the moderator began to describe in glowing detail. The two details that stuck in my mind were Harvard professor and one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in the world. 'Holy cow', thought I, and 'way cool', continuing in eloquent mode. Upon that introduction, who should get up on stage but the man whose hair I'd admired.

There I'd been, only moments before face to face with a man recognized as one of the most influential thinkers in the world. I could have asked him about prospects for world peace. I could have asked him what I could do to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  But nooooooooooo. My topic of choice was hair!

Unsurprisingly, Steven and Fran did not talk about the illusion of language, the prearranged subject, but took off at a gallop on any topic that interested them. 

Pairing a thinker with a humorist is unfair, like pairing Hillary Clinton with Lady Gaga. The evening belonged to Fran. I was able to scribble some of Fran's bons mots, as below.

My idea of a long relationship is Labor Day Weekend.

No one has ideas anymore. Every advertisement uses Einstein - that's how long it was since anyone had an idea.

[Responding to a remark by Steven Pinker] You show cartoons at Harvard? I'm so glad I didn't go to college.

[On Facebook, computers and writer's block:] You don't need Facebook not to write.

[On being asked if she agrees with a member of the audience who doesn't like Woody Allen:]
Totally! ...I don't often have the chance to say that!  [that I agree with someone].

[On Pinker's assertion that things are getting better:] Not at my house!

[On Pinker's observation "You like to talk about the negative":] I don't like to. I'm compelled to.

[On gay rights] Do you think marriage is going to be mandatory? 'Cause that's my fear.

[On the question Do you own a television?]  I own one, and I watch whatever is on at 3 o'clock in the morning. I mostly am seeking to fall asleep.

[On texting:] How bad could it be? It can't be any worse than television.

There is no government anymore. There's business.

[On the question Sarcasm is a natural response. Did you develop it?]   No. That's what natural means.

People always say they want plain language, and then they get offended when you use it.

[On the question What is the most awkwardly diplomatic situation you've ever been in?]
I'm rarely in a diplomatic situation. I don't know what you mean.

Q: [Do you see a greater role for telepathy in the future?]
A: No.
Q: I'm a professional psychic, and …
Audience heckler: Then you should have known the answer!
When asked if she had ever been on jury duty, Fran said she always got excused. She described being in a jury pool before a "Caine Mutiny Captain Queeg"-like judge who rambled on at length to the prospective jurors, finally asking his captive audience "Would you want ME to decide?" Fran's view (unspoken, one imagines, to the judge): "I wouldn't let you decide on the appetizers."

Audience Q: Fran…. Ms. Lebowitz…
A: PROFESSOR Lebowitz.

I had such a great evening, I had to buy both of the authors' latest books - Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined; and Fran's The Fran Lebowitz Reader - and have them both sign them.

Fran in blue velvet

When it was my turn to get Fran to sign my brand new copy of The Fran Lebowitz Reader, I noticed she had on a great pair of cuff links, which she graciously displayed for me. 

It's a die that's been cut in half to make the pair. I was so taken with the pose that I asked if she would do it again for a photo, and here's the result. I gave Fran our Idiosyncratic Fashionistas post card, knowing fully well - since she mentioned it during the course of the evening - that she doesn't have a computer.  Maybe she can use it as a coaster.

Here's Fran in the huge clock at Grand Central Station.  (VI is apparently the only one that opens.)  Martin Scorsese and HBO did a documentary about her, Public Speaking, from which this photo is taken.  Fran came up with the photo concept herself, having taken a tour of Grand Central.

from HBO's Public Speaking

Below, Fran scribbled a "frowny face" (her words, not mine) on the title page of my brand new book with her inscription (barely discernible in the red light of the museum). 

She then looked up at me and said, about the face, "That's ME, not YOU." She probably says that a lot. But I'm very happy with it: she signed it "your pal".

the finished product

I have not nearly given Mr. Pinker his due. Well, what do you expect from someone who can come up with nothing better to say to one of the world's most highly regarded thinkers than that she likes his hair? You can find the knockout New York Times review of Better Angels HERE.

Fran is famously quoted as saying Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.  Myself, I'm thinking small people talk about hair.

Fran wore: a blue jacket, white shirt, blue jeans, brown custom made cowboy boots from Austin, cuff links.

Steven wore: a gray (?) suit (tricky lighting!), white shirt, periwinkle (?) tie (really tricky lighting), and black cowboy boots.  

In the top photo, Valerie is wearing Cookie Monster finger puppet cuff links (attached with tiny safety pins since she doesn't have any shirts with cuff link openings).  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Jean said she'd have LOVED to be the fly on the wall at this meal!
Fran and friend


  1. I've been a fan of Ms. Lebowitz since I first read a piece of her writing. Her caustic wit resonated with me, and I've always thought we would have got along quite nicely, so I'm quite envious that you got to meet her! I had no idea she was on Law & Order.

    Just because we talk about hair, and hats, and shoes, does not mean we are small people. Au Contraire, I think we are quite large (in presence, not size)!

  2. You had me laughing out loud with this great blog entry. Oh, to have been able to be in that audience. Thanks for sharing the very interesting night with us along with Fran Lebowitz's numerous bon mots!
    jill in Ontario