“Polite Conversation is Rarely Either”: Fran Lebowitz’s Top Quotes

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Fran Lebowitz
Photography and copyright Brigitte LacombeCourtesy of Little, Brown Book Group

As the Fran Lebowitz Reader is published in the UK for the first time, a selection of the famously cranky wit’s best, most Lebowitzian soundbites

Fran Lebowitz is at the top of many people’s list of dream dinner-party guests. The writer, humorist and first-rate epigrammatist is famously, almost irresistibly, cranky; letting fly her astringent opinions on everything and sundry with absolutely no fear of causing offense. Her natural emotional state, more often than not, tends towards annoyed. She is also laugh-out-loud hilarious, charming, brilliant, erudite, and chic. 

It’s these qualities that have caused people all over the world to flock to hear her speak. I say flock to hear her speak, rather than to buy her books, because she is also famously in a 40-year standoff with her pen. The patron saint of writer’s block, Lebowitz has achieved the enviable position of being a celebrated writer who publicly hates writing and has not published a new book in decades.

Born in Morristown, New Jersey, Lebowitz moved to New York as a teenager in the late 60s and found an outlet for her razor sharp wit at cultural hotspots like Max’s Kansas City where, as she says, being funny was appreciated. Before long she was writing for Andy Warhol’s Interview, first reviewing bad movies and then moving on to general observations on the passing scene in her column “I Cover the Waterfront”. Her wit was acerbic, her taste was impeccable, and her language meticulous and she quickly gained a cult following.

In 1978 her columns were collected for her debut book Metropolitan Life which became an overnight sensation and was followed by Social Studies in 1981. Then, the writing stopped. What never stopped, however, was the wit (and the opinions), and in the intervening years Lebowitz swapped pen and paper for a medium she is clearly more comfortable with: an hour of conversation with 30 minutes of questions from the audience. 

Her success as a public speaker is at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s seven-episode Netflix series Pretend It’s a City. Released earlier this year, it proved an enormous lockdown success and introduced Lebowitz to a new generation of fans. Thanks to her renewed popularity, The Fran Lebowitz Reader, a 1994 book which combines the essays of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, has finally been published in the UK this week by Little, Brown Book Group, with a UK tour following next summer.

Despite now being over 40 years old, the essays are as swift and sly as ever; the satire as sharp, the wit still bone-dry. For Lebowitz, there is no bigger crime than the crime against taste and the pieces bristle with aesthetic grievances. “I’d much rather be punched in my nose than in my sensibilities”, as she says. 

To celebrate the UK release of The Fran Lebowitz Reader, we present to you a selection of the best, most Lebowitzian soundbites from the book. 

  1. “I am not a callous sort. I believe that all people should have warm clothing, sufficient food, and adequate shelter. I do feel, however, that unless they are willing to behave in an acceptable manner they should bundle up, chow down, and stay home.”
  2. “There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness or death. Any attempt to prove otherwise constitutes unacceptable behaviour.”
  3. “Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks – chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to actually sit down and write.”
  4. “All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”
  5. “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself – a wise move at any age, but most especially at 17, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.”
  6. “To me the outdoors is what you must pass through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab.”
  7. “Should one of you boys happen upon a girl who doesn’t put out, do not jump to the conclusion that you have found a lady. What you have probably found is a lesbian.”
  8. “Polite conversation is rarely either.”
  9. “A great many people in Los Angeles are on special diets that restrict their intake of synthetic foods. The reason for this appears to be a widely held belief that organically grown fruits and vegetables make the cocaine work faster.”
  10. “Perhaps the least cheering statement ever made on the subject of art is that life imitates it.”
  11. Bonus from her interview with Alexander Fury: I’m always interested in clothes, plus there are beautiful girls. It was a perfect thing to me. What could be more perfect than a fashion show? I can’t imagine anything more perfect than a fashion show.”