Fran Lebowitz, Danez Smith, and Pam Houston reflect on the impact Toni Morrison had on their lives.
Toni Morrison (Photo © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
I met Toni in 1978. The Academy of American Poets sent me a letter. They had a reading series where they put two writers together and the guy asked me, “Do you know who Toni Morrison is?” She wasn’t that well known then. I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Do you like her work?” I said, “I love her work!” Then he asked if I wanted to read with her, and I said, “That’s ridiculous! I can hardly think of a writer I have less in common with.” But we became best friends instantly. I mean instantly. Right afterward, Toni said, “We should go on the road together!” I always knew how old Toni was. She was exactly twenty years older than me.
Here’s a thing that most people don’t know about Toni: Toni was one of the most fun people I’ve ever known. And I am an expert on fun. When Toni won the Nobel Prize, she took a bunch of people with her, including me, and she called us the Nobelettes. When I got to Stockholm, there was a message at the front desk: call Toni immediately. I said, “Okay, I’ll call from my room,” and they said no, you have to call her immediately. They were very excited that she was there. So I called from the desk and Toni said, “Fran, I need your help.” She had two things. “You have to help me with my speech, and I don’t know which gloves to wear.” I went to her room and it was just a sea of clothes and gloves. I mean clothes everywhere. The Nobel Prize ball, which you may never attend, is white tie, and, at least at the time, women wore opera gloves. The gloves were the first thing, the most important thing. Toni loved clothes. Manolo Blahnik was a friend of mine, so I arranged for her to get some shoes from him for the ball. I don’t think he knew her writing, but he loved her. Sue Newhouse once gave Toni a Judith Leiber bag—do you know what those are? You can look it up on your device. She made these extremely expensive bags, bejeweled, in the shape of raspberries or the Queen of England. And this was something that Toni just adored. She said, “Why don’t other people think of this?” I said, “Well, Toni, these things cost thousands of dollars!” But the best thing to give Toni was dessert.
This is another thing most people don’t know about Toni: though she was incredibly hardworking, she was physically incredibly lazy. The first time we went to dinner and a movie together—this was shortly after we met—we got out of the movie, and she said, “Let’s get a cab.” I said, “Toni, the restaurant’s five blocks away.” But we took a cab. And she loved, more than anything, dessert. As soon as we sat down, she would choose dessert, probably the most unhealthy thing you could eat on the menu. And you would know that all during dinner she was thinking about it. She would eat only three bites of her dinner, and then she would look at you. If she was a child, you would have said, “No!” But I would just say, “Fine, do what you will.” Toni didn’t really like New York. She was not an urban person. She would say, “Let’s go downtown,” about a certain place that was actually up. She couldn’t remember restaurants, she would just say, “Is this the restaurant that has the peach pie?” That was one of her main interests in life, dessert. When Toni’s mother was alive—so this was a long time ago—we had this bet going. Toni was always talking about her mother’s apple pie. And my mother was the Albert Einstein of apricot strudel. Toni and I had a bet on which was better. I pointed out that my mother also made apple pie, while her mother had never even heard of apricot strudel. I think I won that way. Once I said to Toni, “The amount of sugar you eat!” And she said, “You know, sometimes even sugar isn’t sweet enough.”
I asked Toni for advice all the time, but I almost never took it. The advice was always from the point of view of Toni. When I was young, my mom would say, “Be the bigger person.” And I would say, “No, I am by nature the smaller person.” Toni was the biggest person I’ve ever known. She couldn’t understand my inability to forgive. Toni would always take into account the problems that the person you were angry at had, and I wouldn’t. I always knew she was right, but I didn’t always do what she said. The things that made her angry were the things that made everybody angry. Do you know a woman who isn’t angry? You don’t. Do you know a black person who isn’t angry? A person Toni’s age? Because whatever’s wrong now, things were a zillion times more wrong then. Considering where she started and where she ended up, if you were the grudge holder I am, it would be impossible. People who aren’t in a constant state of fury aren’t paying attention. But Toni was paying attention. She was simply above it rather than swamped by it. I don’t know how you do this, because I cannot do this. People use the word compassionate a lot, and I don’t know many people who really are. Toni was. And forgiving. She was forgiving. Forgiveness is something I have no connection to. I would tell Toni, that’s the difference between Jews and Gentiles. I would say, “This guy did this to you.” And she would just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She was an enormous human. I’ve known lots of very smart people in my life, but Toni was the wisest.
When Toni was in the hospital several years ago, for a hip replacement, many people were visiting her, bringing her special editions of Proust, et cetera. I brought her the National Enquirer, Star, all the trashy tabloids that were still in print at the time, and a bunch of candy bars. Someone from Princeton said, “How could you give these things to Toni Morrison?” I said, “How could you not? You think she hasn’t already read Proust? She hasn’t read the newest edition of the National Enquirer.”
Once I was working on something and Toni asked to read it. She said, “Do you want my suggestion?” And I said, “No, I do not.” But she said, “I have just one suggestion: here, where you say ‘you,’ you should say ‘we.’” And I said, “Why?” She said, “Because that invites the reader in.” I said, “I don’t want to invite the reader in. I’m not a hostess, I’m a prosecutor.” But Toni did invite people in. That was her Toni-ness.
—Fran Lebowitz (as told to The Paris Review)
The first time I came across a book by Toni Morrison, I didn’t read it. Song of Solomon sat on my dresser unopened until it was too late and I was panicking, plagiarizing an essay on the novel for my eleventh-grade English class. Thank God I got caught. My teacher failed me for the paper, but made me reread the book and submit an essay anyway. At the time, I thought she wanted to teach me a lesson about following through on a task. But from where I am now, I can see that she was saying, “You’re not allowed to miss this. You need to see what Morrison has written for you.” Toni Morrison is, to me, the best writer the English-speaking world has ever seen. The best novelist, one of the best essayists, one hell of an editor, and, sometimes, one of our greatest poets in the midst of her prose. By the time I came to the world, there was no question that this black woman from Ohio, writing about black people in the Midwest, was one of the greats. What does that do to a young black writer? To a generation of black writers and writers of color? By Morrison’s example, we knew we could write ourselves and our people with love, rigor, and intention. We knew that bending our writing toward the comfort of some imagined white reader was only a distraction from the good and necessary work of achieving and dreaming up our people. We knew that the best writers don’t just clear space for their own name, but transform their abundance into the wealth of many. Morrison did the thing. She lived a mighty life. She was loved, and asked us to love harder. She wrote and we’ll be trying to catch up to her forever. Morrison is the foundation. I’m wrecked to see her go, but as I sit here I can’t help but think about all she did, all she enabled, all she built, all she dreamed, all those she invited into the room. Rest, Toni. You did magnificent. You took this language they beat into our people and made us a feast. Thank you for making us better. Thank you for it all.
In 2004, a few months before the publication of Toni Morrison’s Love, Oprah Winfrey selected me to do an interview with her and flew me to Manhattan to do it. No author had meant more to me as a young writer and to say I felt unworthy only scratches the surface. In preparation for the interview, I reread all of Morrison’s books, in order, from The Bluest Eye to Paradise, and then I read the galley of Love twice. I decided that I would not prepare any questions in advance, because I wanted our conversation to be spontaneous and fluid, free to travel anywhere it might.
In the cab on the way downtown to her apartment, I asked myself what the eff I had been thinking by not preparing questions, but it was too late to change my mind. I had a younger brain then, and a better memory, and I had devoted the prior three weeks to nothing but her words. I could cross-reference themes and metaphors and characters, and I could see her project as a whole, the intelligent, instinctual, deeply necessary arc of it. I was as ready as I ever would be for our talk.
Toni put me at ease the second I entered her apartment. I spent the next two hours engaged in meaningful conversation with the most articulate, most generous, most enlivened mind I have ever had the good fortune to be near. I say with great humility that she enjoyed the conversation, too, which is the reason she gave for inviting me to lunch, at her favorite French bistro around the corner, where our conversation broadened but never shallowed. After that we went shoe shopping at a store that exists as a fairy tale in my memory, carrying only the tiny, brightly colored Italian slippers Toni loved, each one seemingly made of glass. From there to the appliance store to check out a new stove she was considering for her house up on the Hudson, and then to the local bodega, for cigarettes, where the young boys whose dreadlocks were nearly as long as hers high-fived her, and called her Tooooo-ni and teased her mercilessly (to her great delight).
Back on the steps of her apartment, she invited me to stay for dinner.
I said, “You know, this has been the single best day of my professional life. All you really want from your heroes is for them not to be assholes, but I had so many unrealistic expectations of you, and you have exceeded every one. I think I should take a deep bow of gratitude and call it a day.”
Toni frowned. “There is a woman who’s coming to dinner,” she said, “a friend. She’s a little difficult. I’d appreciate it if you would stay.”
After dinner, I shared a cab with Toni’s friend back up to Midtown. “Oh my God,” I said, as soon as the cab pulled away from the curb. “I have never imagined a human being could be so powerful, so well spoken, so self-possessed, so wise, so funny … I didn’t expect her to be so funny …”
“Careful,” her friend said, “you’re gushing.”
We were flying up Park Avenue. It was late enough that we were making all the lights, and a light rain was falling, smearing the macadam with reflected color.
The friend said, “You know why I don’t read her books?” She exhaled a mouth of smoke, bouncing it straight off the surface of the cab’s NO SMOKING sign.
I shook my head.
“I don’t read her books because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to say, Fuck you, Toni.”
I let another five blocks whizz by before I said, “Well, I think you are needlessly impoverishing yourself.”
The cab dropped me off on the edge of Times Square, and I wandered around in a love-daze for hours. I stumbled into the Colony and bought a bunch of cheesy sheet music, a gesture which, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, put enough of a cap on that greatest of days that I could finally return to my hotel room and fall into bed.
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