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Fran Lebowitz – a true New Yorker talking through the cheers and boos

31 Aug

Lebowitz portrait

Fran Lebowitz is a comic writer who has a difficult time writing. So instead, she speaks.


She’s the quintessential New Yorker. She loves her town. She celebrates it and it celebrates her. Real New Yorker’s like people with opinions – brash, bold ones – and brash, bold opinions are Lebowitz’ chief currency.


Her Grade A conversation makes her popular and in demand. She’s simply fun to be around.


waverly signI never met her, but her charismatic magnetism is on display in a documentary entitled, “Public Speaking.” The film is directed by her friend, Martin Scorsese. Much of the footage is of Scorsese and Lebowitz sitting and talking in her hangout restaurant, The Waverly Inn in the West Village.


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In the film, Lebowitz complains that New York has gotten boring. The grit and nastiness she liked disappeared when the city cleaned up to attract tourists. Especially sanitized was Times Square, an area Lebowitz says no self-respecting New Yorker ever visits.


A second trauma that damaged New York, she says, was the AIDS epidemic. The city’s great culture, especially the performing arts, existed in such a high state only because of the demanding and enthusiastic audiences, mostly gay. In her view, the audience is just as important, if not more important, than the performers. The old New York audiences knew every nuance of ballet, opera, all of it. They wouldn’t tolerate a single flaw, and the performers were aware of this. But the caliber of the audiences fell as thousands of gay New Yorkers died of AIDS. This, she said, devastating New York culture and all of the performing arts.


Lebowitz has an interesting take on the gay rights movement. She said the best thing about being gay was you could avoid marriage and the military. Now, those benefits have been undone by foggy-headed reformers who were trying to do good.


The author of several books who has made countless public appearances, Lebowitz tells Scorsese of her most horrible experience on a stage. She was booed by over a quarter million people.


The setting was a massive rally of activists trying to convince leaders of the old Soviet Union to allow Jews (Lebowitz is one) to emigrate. Lebowitz was among the speakers who was asked to read a letter of appeal from one of thousands of oppressed Jews. But she also was asked to say a little something first.


Referring to a petition with thousands of signatures, she said something like:


“I expect the leaders of Russia to respond positively to these demands. I know I wouldn’t want this many Jewish women mad at me.”


And the boos rained down on her.


So be it. Nobody can take a joke anymore.

The theme of this blog at NotebookM is, “Speaking, because it is allowed.” What I love about Fran Lebowitz is she speaks. God bless her for that. And God bless Martin Scorsese for bringing us this film about her.


By Lanny Morgnanesi


Lebowitz Quotes


“Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.”


“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”


“Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.”


“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”


Tolstoy, who wrote of aristocracy, had much in common with the Occupy movement

5 Sep

My work recently brought me to the writings of a reformed rabbi named Dr. Joseph Krauskopf. He lived around the turn of the 20th century. While not well-known today, he was friends with presidents and world leaders during his day.

In today’s light it is easy to categorize him as a visionary and possibly a radical. What may be truer is that free thinking and free speech flourished more then than now, and that others at the time were expressing similar ideas – equality and dignity for all, women’s rights, the end of poverty, a government hand in the inspection of food and housing, world peace.

In 1894 Krauskopf traveled to Russia and met with Count Leo Tolstoy, known now as a great novelist; known then as an incredibly influential, larger-than-life, cultish leader of humanists. Krauskopf, in utter awe of the man, recorded every facet of the meeting. The account is fascinating and revealing. In one exchange, the Russian asks the rabbi if he had read “What to Do,” a work of non-fiction by Tolstoy calling for the liberation of the oppressed.

Krauskopf had not, but said he did read “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

Tolstoy, according to Krauskopf, described those books as trash and said he would prefer if the world instead read his “serious writings.”

But what I really want to report here is Tolstoy’s timeless description of the United States and its faults.

“You call yourselves a republic; you are worse than an autocracy. I say worse because you are ruled by gold, and gold is more conscienceless, and therefore more tyrannical, than any human tyrant. Your intentions are good; your execution is lamentable. Were yours the free and representative government you pretend to have, you would not allow it to be controlled by the money powers and their hirelings, the bosses and machines, as you do.”

I wish someone would read this from the podium at the Democratic National Convention, or from any podium for that matter.

What are your thoughts?

— Lanny Morgnanesi

An obit is written for the death of Facts

22 Apr

On Thursday, in reaction to the claim by a congressman that 80 federal legislators were card-carrying Communists, Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune wrote an obit on the death of Facts.

If reporters had asked the right follow-up questions, Facts might not have died. Here are the questions I would have asked of Florida Republican Rep. Allen West:

1. If it is true that congressmen and women are card-carrying Communists, where do they actually carry the cards?

2. Do those who carry the cards also attend the meetings?

3. How do the Democrats and Republicans feel about multi-party membership?

4. Are any of the cards expired?

5. Do the 80 get free Cuban cigars?

Any more questions?

Sticks, stones and free speech

10 Feb

Hateful or merely unfunny?

I’ve noticed that more and more celebrities, politicians, broadcasters and sports figures are saying things that offend people. Reporting gaffs, if they are indeed that, has become its own news genre.

What people say rarely offends me. I’m an advocate of free speech. And I like to hear what people really think. Don’t others feel this way? It is difficult for me to believe that, say, a Jew, would prefer an anti-Semitic congressman keep quiet and never be found out, rather than speak honestly and reveal himself.

Do those who complain about people like Roland Martin think Roland Martin would be a different person if he didn’t say what he said?

I once found myself among a large group of traveling North Koreans. They didn’t say a word, didn’t crack a facial expression, didn’t show they were human. Fear encapsulated them. I’d much rather be around a bigot than an automaton. I’m hoping the current tendency to castigate offensive utterances doesn’t turn Americans into North Koreans.

Can’t we just ignore celebrity offenders? That’s severe punishment, since these are people who can’t seem to live without attention.

There once was a politician in my town who probably was a good fellow at heart. He liked to make jokes and never worried about offending people. He thought himself a scream. He held a high county office and once had to deal with a small riot in a Hispanic neighborhood.

He was unable to play it straight.

During a public meting he said this: “We could have avoided the problem if someone had just put up a taco stand.”

He was roundly criticized.

At the next meeting, he took the podium to apologize, even though he was not the kind of man to do so.

“I was completely wrong,” he told his audience. “It’s the Mexicans who like tacos. The people who rioted were Puerto Ricans.”

And he belly laughed.

Was this man a racist or simply a failed comedian?

To me he was someone who refused to hide himself. If I chose to, I could have run from him, knowing more about him than I knew about most people.

He lost the next election, retired and died. Roland Martin, on the other hand, probably has followers on social media than ever before.

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