Biographies We Need: The Delightful Drollery of Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz - Biographies We Need
Fran Lebowitz © Christopher Macsurak

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

Perhaps we should call this particular piece a "memoir or autobiography we need," because it would be criminal to suggest that anyone other than Fran Lebowitz should write this. Sartorially predictable, with a wit often compared to Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz is, by her own admission, more famous for not writing than for writing.

Her first book, Metropolitan Life, a collection of sardonic essays on the trials and travails of urban living, was published in 1978 when she was twenty-seven; her second, Social Studies, came out four years later. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf has now been waiting more than thirty years for the final installment in the trilogy, and something tells me that if Lebowitz remains successful as a talker, an occasional Law and Order bit actress, a virulent Luddite, and a hybrid teetotaler-bon vivant nightlife fixture, they’re going to be waiting much longer.

But what of wee Lebowitz, with her child-sized men’s blazer and jeans and her itsy-bitsy cigarette? Frances Ann "Fran" Lebowitz was born on October 27, 1950 in Morristown, New Jersey. Her parents owned a furniture store, and her childhood was, by all accounts, a pretty uneventful fifties suburban upbringing, replete with tree-climbing, duck-and-cover drills, and bibliomania. Contrary to overwhelming assumption, Lebowitz is not an only child -- she describes her younger sister only as "taller," and still living in New Jersey.

Lebowitz describes her child and adult self as comically inept but also brimming with confidence and certitude. In an essay entitled "Digital Clocks and Pocket Calculators: Spoilers of Youth," she claims she was "unquestionably the first child on [her] block to use the word indisposed in a sentence," but continues on to lament that she didn't learn to tell time until she was nine years old. She told (good friend) Martin Scorsese for his 2010 documentary Public Speaking that she wanted to be a professional cellist in elementary school, but quickly realized that, being fifth cello out of five in her school orchestra, she would never be as good as Pablo Casales, so she quit. Lebowitz describes herself often as a terrible student whose main method of procrastination was reading. In fact, she was a such a prolific reader that she was actually pleased when she got kicked out of high school (for, she says, "nonspecific surliness") because it gave her more freedom to indulge in her famous pastime.

She eventually earned her GED and, soon thereafter, moved to New York, making ends meet by driving taxis, writing pornography, and cleaning apartments. In 1972, Andy Warhol hired her to write a column for Interview magazine (when she knocked on the door of the Factory for the first time, she announced herself as Valerie Solanas.) Interview led to Mademoiselle, which led to a friendship with Graydon Carter, the aforementioned documentary by Martin Scorsese, and enough money for the car aficionado to purchase an old school Checker cab.

Now, Lebowitz is at once ubiquitous and completely mysterious. She makes her living with endless speaking engagements -- she often calls herself the "Willy Loman of literature" -- during which she orates on everything from television to the virtues of children to the fight for gay rights. It's doubtful Willy Loman had as many people buying what Lebowitz is selling. And yet, with all this talking, we the people know very little about Lebowitz’s personal life: her lovers (if there have been any), her heartbreaks (ditto), and so forth. While we would never expect her to sacrifice her trademark drollery for the sake of a traditional redemption narrative, we’d love to hear basically anything Lebowitz has to say about herself (and anything else, for that matter.) C'mon, Fran -- how about it?