Writer who debated merits of kids returns with book just for them FRAN LEBOWITZ: UNBLOCKED

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- Fran Lebowitz wants people to know she does not hate children and dogs. Just dogs.

The 44-year-old writer feels compelled to set the record straight on this subject, in part because her first book in 13 years is a children's story, "Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas." Some consider this strange, coming as it does from a woman who once observed: "Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky. One can only assume that this has something to do with not smoking enough."

Her words, Ms. Lebowitz concedes. But not all of her words.

"The essay was called 'Children: Pro or Con?' People remember only the con," she mock-complains. "Because of the personality I have, people think I dislike children. Also, they think I dislike children because they know I dislike dogs. They don't make the distinction." A tiny, perfect pause. "I do."

Sitting down to tea in the Jefferson Hotel, Fran Lebowitz is everything one expects, and more. Predictably, she is witty, quick and stylish, in a crisp white shirt, tailored jacket, jeans and truly remarkable brown-and-green cowboy boots from the 1930s. Not so predictably, she also is an awfully good sport for someone once suspended for ditching a pep rally.

"Pep was mandatory," explains the determinedly unpeppy Ms. Lebowitz, who ultimately was expelled from her public high school in Morristown, N.J. She went on to a private school, which also expelled her. At 18, she made her way to New York, determined to be a writer.

The result was not unlike the kind of inspirational women's magazine piece she might mock. In 1978, Ms. Lebowitz, whose work had appeared in Interview and Mademoiselle, published "Metropolitan Life," short essays polished to what one writer called "an aphoristic sharpness." After a first printing of 6,000, it went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. "Social Studies" followed quickly, by Ms. Lebowitz's standards, arriving in 1981. (Vintage has reissued both collections of essays as "The Fran Lebowitz Reader," to take advantage of the new book.)

Critics, struggling for the kind of shorthand necessary when someone new bursts on the scene, compared her to Mary Hartman and Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce. She often was compared to W. C. Fields, which may explain her half-right reputation for hating children and dogs.

And then, after all the sound bites and fury -- nothing. Well, not quite nothing. Ms. Lebowitz remained in the public eye, albeit as someone described increasingly as "a cafe society fixture," known for friends such as Calvin Klein. (Just this month, she could be seen at the Klein spring fashion show, sitting behind Kim Basinger.)

But her writing stopped. The woman who had longed for a separate room in which to write now had such a place. She just couldn't bear to enter it.

"I made the perfect room, with the perfect desk," Ms. Lebowitz recalls. "This is after writing 'Metropolitan Life' in a slum, on a desk that was left there by the previous tenants, with no lights. I made the perfect room. And I never used it. It was just decorative."

She joked about her block because she jokes about everything -- her smoking, her sloth. She supported herself by going on the lecture circuit, an experience that enriched her repertoire of anecdotes as well as her bank account. ("My punishment for not going to college was going to every college in the country," she says.) She tended to her hobby, collecting stories about old smokers.

"Tell me she smokes two packs a day," she pleads, when told of an 88-year-old woman who sneaked cigarettes despite a diagnosis of emphysema. It happens that Ms. Lebowitz smokes two packs a day.

Not writing proved to be even worse than writing, which she had once described as a life sentence. So, after a 10-year drought, the prodigal writer returned to her desk and the novel she had abandoned. She also began writing "Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue" (Alfred A. Knopf), a wry, 60-page tale about two New York children intent on helping two pandas move to Paris, which she completed in the summer of 1993.

Why a children's book? "I always wanted to do it. After 'Metropolitan Life' came out, I wanted to do it, and I was very much discouraged and then dissuaded. My editor at the time said: 'Everyone who writes a successful first book wants to write a children's book. It's a way of not writing their second book.' "

But Ms. Lebowitz, who still considers the simultaneous consumption of a Nancy Drew mystery and a Sugar Daddy "the perfect human activity," never dropped the idea. So it was there waiting for her when writer's block ended.

She is pleased with the result, which some have called "old-fashioned." She prefers to say the finished project, a handsome, text-heavy book with simple pen-and-ink drawings, merely looks "book-y."

Certainly, some panda-lovers have strong feelings about the title animals, Pandemonium and Don't Panda to Public Taste, who wish to live in Paris so they can eat chocolate eclairs. While in New York, they settle for pizza.

"I've gotten a few letters from panda experts," Ms. Lebowitz says dryly. "Self-proclaimed panda experts. 'Pandas don't eat pizza.' 'You're giving people the wrong idea. They won't understand the reason that pandas are in such peril is because the only thing they can eat is bamboo.'

"I didn't know the first thing about pandas," she admits, unfazed by the criticism. "I didn't know they were from China. That's how little about the natural world I know. I didn't know they ate bamboo. I didn't know you could eat bamboo. I didn't know what bamboo looked like, so I imagined fields and fields of awful furniture."

She smiles. "I think the panda-lovers don't give me enough credit. Because there are very few pandas and I just made two more."

She had some help, of course, from the architect Michael Graves, a neighbor in Princeton, N.J., and the book's illustrator. He was too busy, she says, but wanted to do it anyway, which provided an unexpected bonus: her first-ever chance to harangue someone over unfinished work.

"It was really an exhilarating experience," she says. "I drove him completely insane. I would stand in the driveway, because we shared a driveway, waiting for him to come home. I'm sure he dreaded me."

While not dogging Mr. Graves to draw pandas, she was rediscovering television, "the perfect suburban activity." Another Princeton neighbor, writer Toni Morrison, turned her on to the spectacle of the Menendez trial, the famed patricide-matricide case in California carried by Court TV.

"Toni Morrison got me addicted. We would watch every day together, by phone. I found out later that she gets up at 4 a.m., and she had already done all her writing." A well-timed drag on a Marlboro Light. "That's why she won the Nobel Prize instead of me."

A LEBOWITZ SAMPLER

A sampling of Fran Lebowitz doing what she does best: Talking.

* On fashion and style: "No one invents anything anymoreEverything just keeps coming back and back and back. I'm 44, I've seen platform shoes three times already. I think if you see platform shoes three times, you should be 104. Always the worst styles, the worst things, come back. The good things never come back. Like, the kind of people who can write, say, the Bill of Rights, they don't keep reappearing. But platform shoes, every four years, like clockwork."

* On television talk shows: "The average American is vociferousluneducated. On television talk shows, they speak English as if it were their fourth language. The average American, who is now the below-average American, knows about 11 words. On talk shows, it's three. If you know only three words, it limits the possibilities for sarcasm."

* On democracy: "People don't understand democracy. Peoplthink 'all men are crated equal' means all people are equal in value, in the sense of their abilities, their behavior, their morality. When in fact, all it means is equal before the law, we're going to have the same laws for everyone. We have everything backward. First of all, we have different laws for everyone, we have very unequal treatment before the law. Yet we have to listen to every idiot who calls a radio station. We should be able to say: 'This guy can be on the radio, he's interesting. You can't, you're not.' "

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