Icons of Style: Fran Lebowitz and Quentin Crisp

“Frances Ann (Fran) Lebowitz (born October 27, 1950) is an American author and public speaker. Lebowitz is known for her sardonic social commentary on American life as filtered through her New York City sensibilities.  Some reviewers have called her a modern-day Dorothy Parker.”  (Wikipedia)

Some of her books (I have these three):

  • Metropolitan Life, Dutton, 1978.
  • Social Studies, Random House, 1981.
  • The Fran Lebowitz Reader, Vintage Books, 1994.

“Quentin Crisp became a gay icon in the 1970s after publication of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, detailing his life in homophobic British Society. […] Quentin Crisp was born Denis Charles Pratt in Surrey, England, on December 25, 1908. A self-described flamboyant homosexual, Crisp changed his name in his early 20s as part of his process of reinvention. Teased mercilessly at school as a boy, Crisp left school in 1926. He studied journalism at King’s College London, but failed to graduate. He then moved on to take art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic. […] He moved to Manhattan in 1981, when he was 72 years old; settling in a studio apartment in the Bowery. […] Quentin Crisp died in November 1999, just shy of his 91st birthday, while touring his one-man show.” (These biographical details were taken from biography.com)

He once described himself in this way:  “I am the last of Britain’s stately homos.”

So what have these two got in common?  For a start, the ‘sardonic social commentary’ that Fran Lebowitz is famous for, was practiced with equal skill by Quentin Crisp.  And they both lived in New York City.

For those unfamiliar with Lebowitz’s writing, here’s a taste from her essay, “My Day:  An Introduction of Sorts” from The Fran Lebowitz Reader:

12:35 P.M. – The phone rings.  I am not amused.  This is not my favorite way to wake up.  My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast.  This occurs rather less often than one might wish.

[…]

1:20 P.M. – I go downstairs to get the mail.  I get back into bed.  Nine press releases, four screening notices, two bills, an invitation to a party in honor of a celebrated heroin addict, a final disconnect notice from New York Telephone, and three hate letters from Mademoiselle readers demanding to know just what it is that makes me think that I have the right to regard houseplants—green, living things—with such marked distaste.  I call the phone company and try to make a deal, as actual payment is not a possibility.  Would they like to go to a screening?  Would they care to attend a party for a heroin addict?  Are they interested in knowing just what it is that makes me think that I have the right to regard houseplants with such marked distaste?  It seems they would not.  They would like $148.10.  I agree that this is, indeed, an understandable preference, but caution them against the bloodless quality of a life devoted to the blind pursuit of money.  We are unable to reach a settlement.  I pull up the covers and the phone rings.  I spend the next few hours fending off editors, chatting amiably, and plotting revenge.  I read.  I smoke.  […]

Yes, she reads, she smokes, she writes, she gives interviews, and she has performed in a television drama (as a judge in ‘Law and Order’)–and I had to force myself to stop typing any more of ‘her day’ or this would have been a very long article in which I would have said nothing on my own account, which I feel a strange compulsion to do.  You may prefer to read more of what Fran has to say, and I wouldn’t blame you, but for that you will need to purchase one of her books (see above).  I believe there may be more than the three I’ve listed.

And speaking of my strange compulsion to write things, she says (again in The Fran Lebowitz Reader, p. 12)…

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.  Your life story would not make a good book.  Do not even try.

All well and good if the aspiring amateur enjoys sweets, Fran.  My personal preference is for salty/savoury, and I’m afraid that that would not produce the desired effect.  I will need another means of diversion.

And now I’m going to call on Quentin Crisp in support of a person trying to express themselves in some way…

First, the profound:

“Ask yourself, if there was to be no blame, and if there was to be no praise, who would I be then?”

Then, the glib:

“There are three reasons for becoming a writer: the first is that you need the money; the second that you have something to say that you think the world should know; the third is that you can’t think what to do with the long winter evenings.”

Maybe the glib is more profound than I think.  It is February, after all, and I started this blog last month, in January.  The winter evenings have been very long indeed.

As for Quentin Crisp’s own means of earning a daily crust, he wrote books (The Naked Civil Servant, How to have a Lifestyle, Manners from Heaven: a divine guide to good behaviour, and Resident Alien, The New York Diaries, among others.)  He also did theatre and film work, as well as interviews.  Here’s a quote from Resident Alien, The New York Diaries:

When I go on television, I remember that there only one law prevails:  the survival of the glibbest.   If your interviewer asks the question, ‘What is the secret of the universe?’, you do not stutter, you do not hesitate, above all you do not say, ‘A good question.’  You say, with a gracious smile, ‘I am happy to tell you there is no secret.’  The remark is inane, but you are smiling and your lips are moving.  You’ll be back.

Back to Fran, this time in the Paris Review, Summer, 1993, No. 127, Fran Lebowitz, A Humorist at Work, Interviewed by James Linville and George Plimpton:

I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

Also…

There are few books written by people in their twenties that, even if they are great books, are not in some way young people’s books. It’s that base longing of youth that really irritates me. I like a person who is more embittered. That embittered sensibility is not possible in a young person. You can be nasty when you are young, but you really have to be older to achieve bitterness.

Well then!  Slothful and embittered…this is the stuff of which writers are made. I’m quite sure that I can find these attributes somewhere in my nature without looking for too long. I have been cultivating them for some considerable time, and have finally, in the past few years, realized some success.

Doesn’t matter, anyway.  Even if I never rise above the level of dilettante as a writer, I’m having fun doing this blog. But never mind that, here’s an interesting thing…

“In September 2007, Lebowitz was named one of the year’s most stylish women in Vanity Fair’s  68th Annual International Best-Dressed List.  She is known to wear tailored suits by the Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard.”  (Wikipedia)

I found that a little startling, I have to say.  Fran has always dressed in a ‘mannish’ sort-of way…most often a shirt, a suit jacket, jeans, and cowboyish boots.  This mode of dress seems to have been pretty consistent throughout her life.

Fran on windowledge

The very first time I ever saw Fran Lebowitz was in a television interview with someone a very long time ago (probably more than 20 years).  The format was for the interviewer and Fran to be sitting on chairs facing one another in a pool of light with the surrounding set dark, if I remember correctly.  I was fascinated, because I couldn’t decide whether she was male or female.  Her voice was low—probably the result of her heavy cigarette habit—and her mannerisms were somewhat ambiguous from a gender standpoint.  She had no makeup, her hair told me nothing, and even the way she sat in the chair did not specifically signal ‘male’ or ‘female.’

I came to the interview late, so I didn’t hear her introduction at the beginning of it.  I’m not sure that there was any internet then to enable me to find out anything more about her.  I may have heard her name mentioned, but ‘Fran’ can also be a man’s name (Fran Tarkenton, for one).  So I listened to the interview not only for interest in the subject matter (whatever it was), but also for a clue as to her gender.  It was an interesting exercise, and I’m not sure that I resolved the conundrum during the program.

This puts me in mind of the very first time I saw k.d. Lang, as well.  That was in the music video of the song, ‘Crying’ with Roy Orbison.  I thought she was a young guy.

So either I’ve got a problem, or these women are sufficiently androgynous to fool some of us.

The fact that Vanity Fair thought Fran Lebowitz was one of the year’s most stylish women in 2007 begs the question of what constitutes ‘style,’ I think.  ‘Stylish’ evidently does not mean that a woman dresses in haute couture from one of the major fashion houses.

And here I’m going to call on Quentin Crisp again, this time to define ‘Style’ for us.  Incidentally, I have one of Quentin’s books, Resident Alien, The New York Diaries.   I also have the movie based on his autobiographical book, The Naked Civil Servant, which starred John Hurt as Quentin Crisp–so I do have a little more original material than just ‘Quentin Quotes’ from websites.  The DVD also has a documentary of the man himself as an added feature.

Here’s Quentin Crisp’s definition of ‘Style’ as distinct from ‘Fashion’:

“Style, in the broadest sense of all, is consciousness.  More specifically it is a consistent idiom arising spontaneously from the personality but deliberately maintained.”

and

“Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.”

Elle.com reporter Kathleen Hale interviewed Lebowitz on March 24, 2015, about her unwavering devotion to men’s shirts, suit jackets and Levi’s…

Kathleen Hale: You don’t have a uniform, per se, but you wear a jacket, a men’s shirt with cufflinks, Levi’s jeans, cowboy boots, two gold rings, and tortoiseshell glasses every single day.

Fran Lebowitz: Yes.

Walk me through your outfit.

This jacket is from Anderson and Sheppard in London. I don’t go there, they come to me. Or they did. Now they have a dummy made of me.

What people don’t know is: Clothes don’t really fit you unless they’re made for you. Especially when you wear men’s clothes, like I do. American women think that clothes fit them if they can fit into them. But that’s not at all what fit means. I get all my shirts at Hilditch and Key. There’s one in Paris and one in London. There’s not one here, I don’t know why. They’re men’s shirts—they don’t really fit—but I don’t really care if shirts fit perfectly. I have all my suits and jackets made, but I’ve never had a shirt made. I’ll have them shortened, so that there’s not three yards of cloth hanging down. But it’s not as important to me that they fit perfectly.

I used to buy all my shirts at Brooks [Brothers], but that was completely ruined about 20 years ago. They discontinued the shirt I liked. If I had only known this—I mean, if you’re going to discontinue an item that thousands and thousands of people buy, announce it. Say, ‘We will no longer be making our excellent Brooks Brothers cotton shirts that we made for 5,000 years. We’re going to change them in some awful way. We’re alerting you so you can buy a lifetime supply.’ Shirts don’t go bad, they’re not peaches.

Quentin Crisp on the other hand, while he didn’t actually dress in drag, was effeminate and wore makeup to enhance eyes, lips and complexion.  His clothes were essentially male in character, but given flair and individuality usually with a silky cravat and a fedora set to a rakish angle atop his tinted coiffure.

Quentin Crisp 5

His definitions of ‘style’ and ‘fashion’ work very well for Fran, I think.  She is definitely stylish rather than fashionable, and her mode of dress is certainly a “consistent idiom arising spontaneously from the personality but deliberately maintained.”  That also works very well for Quentin, himself.

Choosing quotations from a womanish man to explain the personal style of a mannish woman seemed very apt, to me.  I don’t know if they ever met in person, and I can’t find evidence of what they might have thought of one another.

I like it that Quentin and Fran blur the lines between the sexes a little in the way they present themselves.  Once one discards surface appearance for being a meaningless way of defining a person, what’s left is the essential human being.

Both Fran Lebowitz and Quentin Crisp are self-revelatory and insightful in their writing, while being witty, engaging and sometimes acerbic.  Possibly they’ve exaggerated aspects of their personal lives, as well as their thoughts and opinions, for their reader’s or listener’s entertainment–and to pay the rent, of course–but I’ve enjoyed their writing, and am intrigued by their personalities.

Sadly, Quentin has left us long since, but I expect to hear more from Fran.  I believe we need people who are capable of showing us the world as they see it; people who are not swept along by media hype and marketing and technology, and who can point out different aspects of our lives–and theirs–in a quirky, humorous way.  That’s what Quentin did, and what Fran has done and is doing.

I like their style.

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