Lisa Birnbach

Late Nights

Since yesterday when David Letterman announced his not-exactly-imminent-retirement, I have been trying to find my segment on his show online.  I found the date:  September 19, 1984.  It was the third season of “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC.  I followed the newly-crowned Miss America and Bill Cosby.  

Late Night With David Letterman Season 3 Episode 102

Show #0445 (840919)

Up until that day, I had never experienced such nerves in my life.  I played Shroeder in a Peanuts-themed show in the 4th grade without my eyeglasses, and I was a wreck beforehand fearing the worst:  falling off the edge of a stage I couldn’t see.  I know I had major jitters when I had to take my Red Cross Junior Lifesaving Deep Water Test at sleep away camp, but Letterman trumped them all.

Earlier that morning, I had appeared on the Today Show, where I had been as cool as a cucumber.  Afterwards, Robert Morton, my Late Night producer showed up to review my answers for later that night.  We were discussing my college guide book, Lisa Birnbach’s College Book,

and since I had written every word and knew my material well, I wasn’t taking notes.  ”Morty” handed me a pen and instructed me to write down my “lines.”  Why, I asked.  ”This isn’t an interview show; it’s a comedy show.”

Thus begat a day of agony.  One hour before I was due to report back to 30 Rock, I found myself practically sleep-walking into a bar on 7th Avenue, by myself.  It was about 4 in the afternoon.  I was 25.  Everyone else was a middle-aged or older doorman or elevator man, having arrived after his shift ended.  

Who Was I?  What in the world was I doing?  

I ordered a shot of whiskey, which I downed standing up, and somnolently drifted out, walking the remaining blocks to Rockefeller Center.  Once at NBC’s check-in, I misspelled my own name.

I am not exaggerating for comic effect, I misspelled my own name.

What you should know was that in those days, (Late Night season 3),  David Letterman was a tough host — unlike most others, he was not interested in getting to know his guests beforehand or on air, not interested in making them look good — in fact, far from it.  Our stumbles were tv pay dirt for the program.  ”Wake the children, call the neighbors…” was a typical ironic preamble for those of us guests who weren’t famous.  

And yet, I loved this show.  I had become a committed fan to it over the preceding three years.  I loved the back and forth between Letterman and Paul Shaffer.  I thought the irony was modern and cool.

By the time I hit the greenroom I was thoroughly terrified.  The scotch hadn’t helped.  And not only was I surrounded by Cosby and Miss America and their entourages, but for the first time I had an entourage:  my editor, my book agent, the publicity department of the publishing company (I believe I was their first writer who had been booked on the show), and a reporter from a national magazine whom I’d never met, who was… reporting a story about me.  

I didn’t relax until the first time the audience laughed at something I said.  And I heard my brother Jon’s laugh, which made me feel good.  (He is not nor has he ever been a fake laugher.)

Jonathan B. in 1980:  

 The whole 5 or 6 or 7 minutes went by in a heedless flash, except somehow I remembered “my lines.”  I acquitted myself.  I didn’t embarrass myself.    It was okay.

And of course….   I had a tape of my segment that I watched and rewatched.  (It’s on an antique format — like a kinescope.  I should have it transferred to a digital file one day.)

But if I were such a good guest, why was it another 11 years (Plus 1 day) and a new host until I was booked again?  

I was back on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” during his season 3. 

464September 18, 1995Jerry HallJonathan BrandisLisa Birnbach

And that I do not remember at all.

My Daughters’ Validation

In the last few years my closet space has decreased, and I’ve had to figure out what to do with the clothes I’m not wearing often or at all.  Some have enormous shoulder pads.  

Some drape poorly because I removed the shoulder pads and the shoulders deflated.  Some are fantastic. They were mostly those spur of the moment-where-will-I-ever-wear-this-but-it’s-been-marked-down-so-much-I-can’t-pass-it-up variety.  Sample sales, and so on.  (Remind me to tell you sometime about “The Mother of All Sample Sales” — as Betsy Carter described an Armani behemoth I traveled to in the 90s.)

(Not that one exactly, but close.) And pieces like these:

The ones that were never worn I took to the high-end consignment shops around town:  Michael’s, Ina, Designer Resale, etc.  It was hard to part with some of them, but getting the small checks in the mail was a teeny consolation.  And a reminder not to do all that impulse shopping.

But beyond those, my first choice is to share them with my daughters, Exhibit B and Exhibit C.  We are all about the same height (I may be a smidge taller, but they will wear high heels which more than make up the difference).  We’re not built totally alike nor they like one another, and of course, my taste is older than theirs.  Nevertheless I cannot tell you how happy it makes me when they want to rescue an item that is otherwise going away (to charity, to a friend, to a friend’s charity).  

It makes me kind of proud that they like what I like.

It makes me feel good that using the Cost Per Wear paradigm (which I do), they are amortizing the prices of my splurges.  

It makes me feel generous — a whole batch of my old clothes = a whole batch of their new clothes.

It makes me feel closer to them.  (I remember when I wore that dress.  Since exhibits are always taking pictures of themselves that’s twice the visual memories.)

It’s intimate.  Let me zip you up.  Wear my clothes.  Choose my scent.  

And let’s face it.  I want their approval.  Out of the blue a few months ago, Exhibit C looked at the beret I was wearing and announced — nicely — that if I didn’t remove it from my head that instant she would take it and burn it.  I did as she suggested.  I’d worn that beret for five or six years, and never thought it looked terrible.  Her comment to me suggested that she was actually looking at me, and caring.   Last seen it was in a carton at Housing Works Thrift Shop.   

I wonder if this post resonates with any of you.  Maybe it’s just the musings of a mother whose exhibits are almost out of the house, who’s trying to hold on to them as long as she can, even if it’s by means of a Malo sweater or a Vera Wang cocktail dress.  

February 5, 2014.

ppinkk asked: I want to major in business, and am really interested in SMU. If I don't get in I need more options. Aside from these two, what are some other schools I should look in to? (I'm also thinking about Elon and Furman)

You mention SMU but said “these two.”  I gather from your interest in Elon and Furman that you want to stay within the South.  There are so many good southern schools that have undergraduate business departments.  Everything from Emory, to Washington & Lee, SMU, Wake Forest, and the ones you mentioned.  You can’t go wrong at any of them.



How I Spent My Christmas Vacation


Unfortunately, no.

Not even.

Over the holidays I was decking the halls with all the scraps of paper on which I’d scribbled the various toll free numbers for all the insurers who are listed on the Affordable Health Care webpage.  I  had a list — and I checked it twice.  And then a third time, when the answers I got from New York State helpline (average wait time for me:  1 hour and 12 minutes) didn’t parse with the answers from United HealthCare or Republic of Health or my doctor or the billing office at the hospital.  “We are experiencing higher-than-usual call volumes.  Please stay on the line, as your call is important to us.

The thoughts that usually speckle my brain at this time of year run the gamut from “Did I spend enough on Patsy’s present?” and “I wonder if someone will buy me a cashmere sweater” to “Does anyone really drink eggnog?”   Not this year.  Yuletide 2013 was full of fears about my future illnesses:  “Will I fall?  Will I need crutches?  Will they be covered?   Which is the good cholesterol again?”  As the health exchange bosses might say, it’s a trade-off.

I’m neither that old by actuarial measure, nor infirm, but the struggle to be covered by December 23rd  sort of did me in.   Excuse me, did you say something?  “Your call is important to us.”   In my weeks of attempting to speak to actual people, known as “representatives,” I had heard this fake validation so frequently that I  began to hear it in my dreams. 

The question of the metals is just plain clumsy.  What metal am I interested in?  One can choose from amongst bronze, silver, gold, and platinum.  There has to be a better way to think about whether you want spend more on your monthly premium or have a higher deductible.  (Warning:  repetition of the word deductible can change my body’s PH balance.)

And is the gold or silver conflict-free? Is it recycled?  Sustainable and renewable?

Not to mention the fact that one’s “metal” has nothing to do with quality.  For that you go to the ranking of “stars” only to discover that in the list of 1-5 stars, no plan has earned more than 3.  And that 3 star plan doesn’t seem to appeal to any of my doctors. 

And a word about the doctors:  If I were practicing medicine in this country in this city in this moment in time I too would try to keep as far away from the insurance and billing questions as possible.   But the Affordable Health Care Act has elicited more under-the-breath grumblings about Obama in these last few months than ever before.  My doctors are pissed off.  Weren’t these the same people who voted for Obama?  Who lauded national health care?  Who wanted to help the uninsured and uninsurable?

This quest is the first time I’ve talked to expert after expert on the subject – representatives of the doctors,, doctors, and insurance brokers — and learned nothing.  “You’re preaching to the choir,” they tell me.  “Your call is important to us.”  As one of my doctors advised, “best not to get sick in the first quarter of 2014.”



peavers5711 asked: My best friend is the ultimate fan of your book "The Preppy Handbook" but I can't find it in hard back in good condition. Any suggestions?

The hardback gift edition of The Official Preppy Handbook is sometimes available online through,, and/or  There was only one printing of it (I don’t know how big that was — it was 1981) and it’s somewhat expensive.  If you’re going to spend the money, try to get one that still has its slipcovered box intact.


The President’s Selfie

I tried to ignore this picture when it first started trickling in from South Africa.  Then I thought, “Oh they’re not posing for a selfie; they are looking at something on that lady’s phone. Who would be posing for a selfie at a funeral?  That’s not dignified.”

Then it turns out the the lady is the Prime Minister of Denmark.  Phew;  I was fearing that she was a stewardess from Lufthansa or someone’s simultaneous interpreter.  And yes, that’s Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom getting into the fun.  He’s not a good influence on our Barack Obama.

It’s a selfie, alright.  Look at Michelle Obama’s unamused facial expression (now the source of wild speculation over the interwebs).  Yet, we weren’t there; we don’t know if this picture was snapped during the long wait before the ceremony began.  For all we know, Cameron insisted on it, and it was a diplomatic “must” for Obama.  There is really no way that these 3 giggling world leaders were posing during the speeches themselves. 

And just maybe, Cameron insisted on it because “Selfie” was the one new slangy word that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) admitted into its pages for 2013.

Selfies have taken over our planet.  

Not every single moment needs to be memorialized.  You could put down your phone and actually live in the moment.  Will you actually spend time looking at your pictures once you’ve taken them?

Selfies are mirrors with long memories.  Most people I know do not want to be caught checking themselves out in the mirror in public, but selfies are worse.  All they seem to do is get people in a lot of unnecessary trouble.  (See:  Anthony Weiner.)

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the vainest one of all?

"Sometimes a Bookcase is Just A Bookcase" *

As those of you who read my thread on Facebook already know, I was simply trying to sell a bookcase.  On craigslist, where I thought one did that.  (I had also listed it on a site called Apartment Therapy, where it did not get offers.)  

USING THE SAME LANGUAGE as I’d used on Apartment Therapy, “Groovy Green Bookcase”, I started to receive offers, but to my grave disappointment,  they were not interested in buying my piece of furniture.  These were of a different nature, complete with sexed up pictures of women (most likely not actual pictures of the real women since two different women sent in the very same photo of themselves) who wanted to make sure that I was “legit.”  Yes, you read that right.  

So why am I repeating this?  Just to say that though this blog page now looks different (and less distinctive), it is the same blog.  The charming vintage typewriter we all loved is gone.

Our crack tech team discovered that the typewriter template was causing the breakdown which made the text disappear.  I am sorry, but I must be practical.

So bye bye, manual typewriter. But it’s the same blog, written by me.  Sometimes a blog is just a blog.

And now, the best part, is I can resume blogging, knowing that you’ll actually read it.

(*  Thanks to Jon Maas, who posted that fine sentence.)



Pre Halloween Jitters

As someone who spent a Halloween dressed as a slutty slut (high school is my only excuse), I have grown to loathe Halloween.  If you are a fan of Halloween, you might as well stop reading now.


How clever we thought we were!  What chances we took!  

Not really.  No, not then, not now.

Not good.  At 15 I never thought about growing old and becoming a mother and having daughters and watching tv specials about sex trafficking.  

But overall, the prostitute costume is just a giant lack of imagination and creativity.  I own up to it when I was tapped out creatively (but mostly wanting to feel what it felt like to dress sexily, when my usual costume was baggy jeans, a sweater and Blucher moccasins).


I stopped liking Halloween about a dozen years ago, when there was elevator trouble in our building.  In other words, people held the doors for their crew, and kept the rest of us from enjoying the sugar surge when we wanted it.  (This is practically actionable in apartment buildings on Halloween.)

Then, after the candy has been collected and counted and consumed, their are frequent tears, accidents of all kinds, and headaches.  It’s not fun when one is in charge of many children, especially if most of them belong to you.

As for adults playing dress up, it usually seems so forced.  Besides the costume faces du jour:  the president and first lady — whomever they are, the devil (in a tuxedo or as a slut), the M & Ms, and so forth — I feel sad for everyone.  It’s all the awkward anticipation of New Year’s Eve plus candy corn. (And slutty nurses.)



[I have to admit the last time I was invited to a Halloween party, (at Henry and Peggy’s) we had a lot of laughs, especially with the Capt. Sully Sullenberger costume festooned with goose feathers.  I came as Kate, the unpleasant reality mother with too many kids, so I again, was kind of a whore, but one with a very funny and recognizable wig.]

Nevertheless, when my college student daughter, Exhibit B, called for our weekly conversation, she disappointedly reported on the Halloween Fail that happened at her dorm.  Costumes ran the gamut from Slutty nurses,to  a slutty skeleton, slutty preppies, slutty dancers, all the way to slutty prostitutes.

She urged me to remind readers that there are plenty of great costumes that don’t require exposed bras and miniskirts.  These include:  Mummy, Architect, Admissions Officer, Tennis Pro, and when every other idea is exhausted:  a ghost, preferably like the one that’s been living in your barn for the last 30 years.

And while I’m not a killjoy, (I swear), I will be attending a theater performance on Thursday night, dressed, most likely, as a writer.

Good evening.


lapetitemangue asked: Hi Lisa. Thanks for writing your books. I love them. I wasn't born until a few years after the official preppy handbook was published but was able to purchase my copy as a teenager in connecticut from a rare bookshop. i paid almost $80 for a first printing. When I found out you were writing true prep, I pre-ordered it. Just wanted to say hello and thank you from a fan! you're brilliant.

Merci beaucoup and thank you for writing.  I am pleased you liked The Preppy Handbook and hope you’ll like True Prep too.

I love hearing from my readers.  

A bientôt,


Hello, Can You Hear Me?

I’m just going to write something here and assume that you will be able to read it.  (I do not know whether Tumblr is working yet.)

It feels like I’ve been in a kind of bubble/witness protection program for the last week.  Why?  We moved downtown to a neighborhood where I don’t know anyone.  And, we have decamped from an apartment building for our own brownstone, so we can feel isolated if we want.  Or very private.  There’s no one to interact with on the elevator, because there is no elevator.  The gym is now our staircase.  

My last neighborhood (in which I’ve dwelled most of my life) is Uptown, as in apartment buildings, lots of doormen, building staff, and yummy mummies pushing strollers.  That’s Park Avenue.

As I was making my first excursions around the neighborhood, in quest of a new dry cleaner, supermarket, pharmacy, etc.  I was following a woman pushing a stroller alright, but she was an elderly tattooed woman pushing her groceries in a baby carriage.  Not quite the same.

My boxes are sprouting new boxes.  With each box I empty and cut open, a new one appears in its place.  They’re like bamboo.  Or kudzu, the plant that invades and keeps on spreading.  (This was once a house.)

I’m no longer in walking distance of school (the Exhibits’ school, that is), the doctor, my mother, or my friends who lunch.  Some of them might visit me downtown.  They’re invited.

In the meantime, I may try to meet the neighbors.

Lisa x