I’m probably not supposed to admit this, but my first exposure to Fran Lebowitz came just last year. The rapid-fire New York intellectual burst onto the cultural scene in the ‘70s, well before my time, working at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and releasing two bestselling essay collections by the time she was barely 30 years old. I, meanwhile, had to wait for Martin Scorsese and his 2010 HBO documentary on her, Public Speaking, to provide a proper introduction.
Still, I was surprised—as was Lebowitz herself, it turns out—to learn that the documentary’s demographics skewed even younger.
“I was told by the head of HBO that the majority of the audience of my movie was people in their early 20s,” she says, over the phone from her apartment in Manhattan.
“This surprised me, because I, of course, have no interest in these people. I never think about them. And even when I was that age, I didn’t really think about people that young. Because I was always interested in older people. My friends were so much older than me. By the time I was 40, many of them had died of old age.”
Public Speaking shows the 62-year-old Lebowitz doing what she does best: talking. She tosses off witty, eloquent, expertly phrased riffs on pretty well any topic Scorsese throws at her, from heady fare like democracy and racism all the way down to her stubborn commitment to owning a car in Manhattan.
Being able to speak like this is clearly an art, but it can also seem like an endurance sport. Just watch the glasses of water at Lebowitz’s side at various points in the film. It’s not just that she doesn’t stop to take a sip—over time, you can actually see the water level rising as the ice melts. She’s talking that much, that quickly, and for that long.
I can now vouch for this gift firsthand. In fact, I’ve never had to rewind an interview tape so often while trying to transcribe. It also took a few minutes to get up to Lebowitz’s speed; my early, offhand mention of Ronald Reagan sent her on a tangent that could nearly have filled this column on its own, also touching on iPods, the fake poetry of business-speak, and how public schools are named. It was a good monologue, but I only had 30 minutes with her. I would have to choose my words more carefully.
One thing Lebowitz hasn’t been quite so prolific at is writing. Aside from those two essay collections, and the occasional short magazine piece, Lebowitz has dealt with literally decades of writer’s block—what she refers to as “writer’s blockade.” That’s partly why she transitioned into the public speaking business in the first place.
Famously, Lebowitz started writing a novel years ago, but got stuck. What I hadn’t heard, though, is that Signs of Exterior Wealth is not her only work in progress.
“I have two unfinished books,” she says. “Several years ago, I agreed to write a book in three months—even though it takes me that long to write a thank-you note. This was meant to fulfil my contractual obligations for the novel. So, of course, I got halfway through that book, as I got halfway through the novel.”
Lebowitz was engaged throughout our conversation, but she really came alive when I asked her what her library at home looks like. A lifelong bookworm (“Let me put it to you this way: if reading was a profession, I would be speaking to you from my villa in Tuscany”), Lebowitz says she always imagined she had somewhere around 5,000 books. Then she moved apartments two years ago, and was shocked to discover the true figure was nearly twice that high.
To help keep things under control, Lebowitz hired a private librarian. Together they settled on a system of categories, each of which is then alphabetized.
But some of Lebowitz’s collection thwarted even the professional.
“I have a whole category that this guy just calls ‘crazy books,’” she says. “Why do I have six books on soap carving? Because my whole life I’ve haunted secondhand bookstores, and books on soap carving are often very beautiful. Who would buy a book on soap carving? Me.”
Six of them, I say.
(profile originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, November 16, 2012)