To Wit: A conversation with writer Fran Lebowitz

Humorist, writer, and cultural commentator Fran Lebowitz appeared at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring on May 12 for a screening of “Public Speaking”, directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is mostly a collection of conversations—with Nobel-winning author (and close Lebowitz friend) Toni Morrison at Princeton; with Scorsese and writer Theodore Bouloukos at the exclusive Waverly Inn in New York; and question-and-answer sessions during her lecture tours. It documents Lebowitz’s life, and, of course, opinions, through her lifeblood—her own words.

After the screening, Lebowitz took to the stage to answer questions about the making of the film, literature, politics, and even religion.

A man asked Lebowitz if she believes in God. “No,” she replied, and then asked him, “Do you?” When he answered yes, she said, “Well, I’m glad we got that nailed down.”

Other queries from the audience revealed a collective cultural dismay for which only Lebowitz might offer some relief: “What does it say about our society that a joke like Donald Trump commands so much attention?” Lebowitz: “Once Ronald Reagan, not even a movie star, but a B actor, becomes a President of the United States, why not Donald Trump?”

One questioner started, “Could you give your opinion, please, on…” Lebowitz quickly interrupted, “Yes!”
Lebowitz didn’t appear to be stuck in the time that her books were bestsellers. Although she is renowned for her long stretch of writer’s block, she’s known more recently as much for her views on politics and race as for her wit.

Afterwards, Lebowitz signed books at the exit of the theater. She wore her signature attire—cowboy boots and jeans topped with a tailored men’s-style jacket and shirt. Lebowitz has been portrayed at times as curmudgeonly, but she exuded ease while chatting with fans that were toting vintage copies of her books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, or the latest collection of her essays, The Fran Lebowitz Reader for her to sign. One fan invited the famous smoker and critic of New York’s smoking laws to a legal outdoor smoke event in New York’s Paley Park. A woman whose son was accompanying her asked Lebowitz if she had any advice for the 18-year-old. “Yes,” Lebowitz said, “Stay eighteen.”

She didn’t seem to have any “handlers,” but one would be hard pressed to find a situation in which Lebowitz couldn’t handle herself.

I talked to Lebowitz after the last book was signed. She had slipped on a chic forest green trench coat, preparing for her trip back to New York that night. What advice would she give other writers about handling rejection?

“When I was really young I wrote a book of poetry which was rejected, and I lived to be thrilled by that because it was a terrible book,” she said. “Sometimes, rejection is good.”

I asked if she was scared as an 18-year-old to move to New York. Without a trace of hesitation, she answered, “No.” “Have you ever been scared,” I asked. “Yeah, every time I sit down to write. I reserve all my fear for the blank page.”

Fran Lebowitz

About the Author

Lavinia Rachal
Lavinia Rachal is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Express, The Greenbelt News Review and Jambalaya Magazine.