Blocked writer Lebowitz displays wit by word of mouth

Fran Lebowitz answered questions at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Monday. Fran Lebowitz answered questions at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Monday. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / May 19, 2011

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At this point in her career, Fran Lebowitz, the New York writer, is probably best known for (a) not writing, (b) playing a judge on “Law & Order,’’ and (c) OK, some people have never heard of her at all.

But those who still quote from the best-selling essay collections that made her famous, “Metropolitan Life,’’ (1978) and “Social Studies’’ (1981), packed Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre Monday to revel in “Public Speaking,’’ Martin Scorsese’s documentary on his witty pal.

The screening started at 7, with a Q&A to follow. But first, the sound check.

Coolidge employee: “You can use the lectern, or if you want to walk around, we have a wireless mike.’’

Lebowitz (in trademark men’s blazer and button-down shirt): “Standing is enough exertion.’’

Second Coolidge employee: “The mike can be whatever height you like.’’

Lebowitz: “No, it’s whatever height I am. I’ve accepted my height.’’ (She’s around 5-foot-4.)

Lebowitz, 60, is suffering from a decadeslong case of writer’s block, but speaking — particularly when she has the mike — that’s no problem. After all, this is the woman who wrote “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.’’ “My dream is to answer questions,’’ she said. “I just didn’t know I’d have to travel so far to answer them.’’

After the screening the questions came fast: What’s her opinion on Donald Trump’s decision not to run? How can a man with that hairstyle take a job that involves getting on and off helicopters? How did she land a role on “Law & Order’’? By begging connections for an audition, blowing it (according to her), and taking a small part as an arraignment judge. “I’m hoping to become a real judge.’’

The famous smoker also took aim at childhood asthma. When she grew up, in the ’50s, she never heard of anyone suffering from the condition. “I know I’m not a doctor, but it seems clear that asthma is caused by a lack of secondhand smoke.’’

Afterward, she signed books, including a Kindle edition. “Can I write on this?’’ she asked, pointing to the screen. The fan cheerfully directed her pen away from the screen and to the Kindle’s cover, but Lebowitz’s confusion wasn’t surprising. Earlier she mentioned texting from a microwave.

Books signed, Lebowitz stepped outside the theater into the damp, chilly night, and enjoyed a Marlboro Light. And then, she was off into the waiting Lincoln, the pleasure of her wit lingering in the air.

Beth Teitell can be reached at