Opinion | Listening to a very much alive Fran Lebowitz and pondering the death of mass culture
Confirmed: a cranky, bon mots-dropping septuagenarian will bring all the younglings to the yard.
Which I discovered, basking in the audience last week at the Fran Lebowitz talk at Roy Thomson Hall, much of it made up of millennials and gen-Zers. An icon, basically forever — presumably for being a writer, even though she has been “blocked“ for decades, but mainly just for being Fran Lebowitz — she met a fresh new blast of fame last year courtesy of the Martin Scorsese-led Netflix series “Pretend This Is a City,” dropping then to an itchy, pandemic-captive viewership.
A Stones tour-level reception. Over 2,500 butts in seats. All out to see Fran — who has been described as “a misanthropic party animal” — hold forth on a swath of subjects and play rhetorical racquet ball with questions from the Toronto audience, all while dressed in her normcore jeans, her Anderson & Sheppard blazer and her signature cowboy boots.
Cole Porter, Puerto Rico, Roe v. Wade, Putin, NATO, the joy of not cooking, the cello and, of course, her friend “Marty,” just some of the ground covered. Part resurrection of Lenny Bruce, part old-school Gore Vidal raconteur act: the shtick.
What was extraordinary about the evening, in my view, was less Lebowitz than the audience response to her, in the same way that the best thing about her Netflix series was how much, and how openly, Scorsese laughed at her. That utter delight to be in her presence — to see his eyes crinkle and his mouth settle into guffaw mode — was a balm during lockdown. But just as exhilarating, on this side of 2022? Seeing this live audience sync to every word coming out of the curmudgeon. The way the laughter would start in one part of the concert hall, move into bigger ripples still and then turn into an oceanic howl.
The moment that somehow has stayed with me the most however? When, during the Q&A, someone stood up and asked about Joan Didion, the legendary writer and literary journalist in her own right who died just months back. Speaking fluidly on her legacy, Lebowitz made a point of mentioning that Didion was more than a decade older than her. Just sayin’. Then Lebowitz dropped this, seizing on all the influential people who have died recently: “It’s like we are being asked to move to the front row.”
A throwaway line that many perhaps did not catch … but to me was like: OK, wow.
It also made me think how much of Lebowitz’s life now — being on the road and being asked to constantly opine — must involve people asking her about people who are dead, either long (see: Warhol) or recent (see: Didion). In fact, my thesis was born out when someone stood up a little later to ask her about Stephen Sondheim, the superstar composer who left us at 91 in November. Surprisingly, Lebowitz never met Sondheim, though of course she did find a few things to opine about.
In the days since the talk, it has been weighing on me more. Thinking of all the celebrated people who have checked out recently, people who seemed to be an indelible part of the culture to me growing up — people like Didion and Sondheim, yes, but also Betty White and Cicely Tyson and Madeleine Albright and Sidney Poitier and André Leon Talley and I could go on — it almost seems like dying has come more into vogue. Which is absurd, of course. I am obviously noticing more people dying because I have danced on a longer horizon of time, and more people who have been part of the zeitgeist to me for decades — particularly being a news and culture junkie — are in the winter of their lives.
But still. Every week seems to bring a new hit. I had barely digested the news that Naomi Judd was gone last week, when I learned that photographer Ron Galella had kicked the bucket. For someone like me, whose imagination was stoked early by the images he took of Jackie O — particularly the photo he dubbed his “Mona Lisa,” the famous black-and-white photo of a windblown Jackie, crossing a street in New York — mourning someone like Galella was, in fact, mourning a whole era. In a world where everyone is a paparazzo — their smartphones aimed, our feeds gestating — it is hard to even explain the influence of Galella and the mystique he stitched onto so many public figures. Famously, there are three million photos in his archives.
Of course, the deaths of famous folk — in the social media era, but always — have often served as a time marker. An around-the-fire-pit moment. I mean, you either remember the death of Diana or you do not. A true global viral moment before viral was a thing. It is the divide. As I learned when a gen-Xer I know broke up with someone younger, the Di death amnesia being a cue. It just wasn’t gonna work.
I also then think of what it probably felt like to a whole generation of people when many of the great stars of the Old Hollywood era — big, big stars — started dying in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Cary Grant, 1986. Bette Davis and Lucille Ball, 1989. Ava Gardner, 1990. Audrey Hepburn, 1993. Frank Sinatra, 1998.
Mourning the modern wave of really famous people is the same but also different, in that we might be witnessing the last gasp of names that reverberate broadly through the culture and across generations. Those are bound to be fewer and fewer, now that pop culture is so fragmented, and we have orbits within orbits of famous people due to the rise of streaming and the sheer volume of content. Also, the popularization of influencers, reality stars and micro-celebrities. Mourning famous people today is also mourning a culture itself that is dying. A mass culture.
Of course, there is dead and then there is dead. The great Elizabeth Taylor, who departed over a decade ago, continues to tweet. Her estate does anyway. Likewise: Jackie Collins. Still selling books from the great beyond. The aforementioned Leon Talley posted posthumous photos of his own memorial service the other week, courtesy of his still active Instagram account.
In 2022, death does not necessarily need to mean the end. Something Lebowitz will not have to worry about. She is not on Twitter. She is not on anything. Does not do social media and did not even watch her own Netflix series, as she told us in Toronto, because … well … that would require a Wi-Fi code.
Pondering the dead, but living life on her own terms. Was just that kind of night.
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