The woman who shoos off sacred cows

Canadian readers would be absolutely venomous if i wrote that i was purchasing a horse...

Every time a man tells me he doesn’t want to marry me after all I buy a horse. That’s not my thought, actually, because as diligent readers know, I am happily married. Anyway, buying horses while my husband is on bail, and all sorts of Nosy Parkers in Ontario have to be told about every little investment we make until his contretemps ends, puts a bit of a crimp on things. No, the sentence belongs to Melissa Kite, who used it once as the opening of her Real Life column in The Spectator, and I liked it so much I was determined to use it at the first opportunity. Canadian readers would be absolutely venomous if I wrote that I was purchasing a horse and would inform me that since most people couldn’t possibly afford such a purchase, mentioning it shows how callous and uncaring I am about real life in downtrodden Canada.

I was reading Melissa Kite because whenever I contemplate my underachievement, I read people I admire—Orwell, Camus, Melissa Kite, Dorothy Parker. And Fran Lebowitz—who is actually the point of this column and appears in a must-see HBO documentary called Public Speaking, available on DVD in May. Lebowitz is pea-green enviously literate and very funny. Even if she is not writing books anymore.

Meanwhile, absolutely everyone I know, except me and Lebowitz, whom I do not know, alas, is publishing a book even if sans words. Like Wagner’s Eternal Ring, published by Rizzoli, whose “author” told me all about it at the last dinner party I went to. The book arrived from her today and it is huge, 240 pages of photos each 34 cm x 22 cm. Even my sister co-authors books every new moon when not in the kitchen updating recipes in her husband’s The G.I. Diet books.

Lebowitz published Metropolitan Life in 1978 and Social Studies in 1981. After that, her writing went mainly silent, although, fortunately, she didn’t. She became extremely talkative and visible in her lesbian mode of singularly plain male clothing. Indeed, she may be the sole celebrity in America who is famous for being clever and repetitively dressed rather than dumb and underdressed. She’s created a new sub-genre: the stand-up intellectual cultural comic who lectures rather like Stephen Leacock or Mark Twain but without their literary output.

“Surely even someone of your tender years has noticed,” she says to a young questioner in Public Speaking, directed by Martin Scorsese. “Too many people are writing books, period. The books are terrible and this is because you have been taught self-esteem. And apparently you have so much self-esteem that you think, you know what, I shouldn’t keep these thoughts to myself. I should share them with the world.”

Back in 1976, Ms. Lebowitz composed the anthem for underachieving writers: “Walter Cronkite appears on the screen,” she writes. (Echo boomers: Walter Cronkite was TV news in the 1970s.) “He begins, ‘Good evening, Fran. While you were lying on the couch today rereading old copies of English Vogue and drinking Perrier water, your book wrote itself. All indications are that it’s perfect. A source close to the New York Times book review called it “splendid, brilliantly funny, a surefire hit.” ‘ ” If only.

Because Lebowitz is lesbian with Jewish hair that frizzes in humidity—something I so understand that it alone endears her to me—she is allowed to use caustic wit to say what straight whites could not.

In Public Speaking, the hapless questioner asks, “Do you feel that gay rights is [sic] progressing in this country to be as equal as the civil rights conversation?” Her reply, slightly edited:

“I don’t think these things are alike . . . There is a difference between being marginalized and oppressed . . . Do you think gay marriage is progress? Are you kidding me? This was one of the good things about being gay. I am stunned that the two greatest desires apparently of the people involved in the gay rights movement are gay marriage and gays in the military. Really? To me these are the two most confining institutions on the planet: people used to pretend to be gay to get out of going into the army.”

Sacred moo cows of every colour are shooed off by Lebowitz, who can link oranges to giraffes or in this case smoking to homosexuality. “When I arrived in New York in 1969, gay bars were illegal, in back rooms, but you could smoke in them . . . Now gay bars have plate-glass windows, they have valet parking, people sit in the windows, but you have to go outside to smoke . . .

“If you had told me when I was 14 years old that the behaviour in which I engaged that would have been considered most deviant would have been cigarette smoking I would have had a whole different adolescence . . . All the things they say about second-hand smoking now they used to say about homosexuality. You can’t be around children. It was really the second-hand nature of homosexuality. You will live to see that this data on second-hand smoke is fudged.”

Lebowitz has observations on cultural elitism (a good thing), on racism (bad but it’s “very important to have a black president so we can get it over”). She attributes the dumbed-down culture to the elimination of informed audiences in the ’80s AIDs epidemic. Partly true, I think, but exaggerated. We tend to see the world through our own condition.

If Lebowitz ever needed confirmation of the ineffectiveness of “blockades” (as she calls her own 30-year dry spell of writing), she need only light a cigarette, sit down with a girlfriend and watch Public Speaking. Words, spoken as well as written, have powerful consequences.

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