The writer is easy to spot if you spend long enough in New York, but interviews have to be over her landline, as she is permanently offline. She reveals why Andy Warhol wasn’t so smart, and how she learned to love a good party
WHEN Fran Lebowitz was a child, she was told her opinions were not welcome. This was the 1950s, she says, when “children were not supposed to comment on the things adults were saying. It was called talking back, and you were not allowed to do that. Even as a small child, this seemed unfair to me. In school I would get sent out of the classroom even though the other kids made it clear they wanted to hear what I had to say. So it did amuse me, when I got much older, that the thing I got punished for I was now getting paid for.”
At 72, Lebowitz’s opinions – acerbic, unfiltered, nearly always right – have rarely been more in demand. After publishing two bestselling books, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981) early in her career, she developed writer’s block – she prefers to call it “writer’s blockade” – and reinvented herself as a public speaker. In the 2021 Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, directed by her friend Martin Scorsese (it’s his second Lebowitz documentary; the first was 2010’s Public Speaking), you can find her holding forth about her home of New York, from the smoking ban to the subway to the lawn chairs dotted about on Times Square. With its lingering shots of her walking the streets in her signature get-up – Anderson & Sheppard coat, white shirt, jeans, chunky boots – the series cemented Lebowitz’s status as a style icon and introduced her to a new generation of fans, many of whom now accost her on the street. “They say: ‘I came to New York because I thought I’d see you and now I did.’ I say: ‘Well, of course, because it’s a very small place and I walk around a lot. So naturally you saw me.’”
Lebowitz is talking from her apartment via her landline, which is not only her preferred means of communication but her only one. She doesn’t have a mobile phone or a computer, and has no need for wifi. She talks in staccato sentences that can, on the page, be construed as ill-tempered but are usually delivered in a tone of amusement. Lebowitz doesn’t suffer fools but she loves an appreciative audience.
What about her detractors, such as New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante who last year bemoaned her “misanthropic, cranky, besotted view of Manhattan life”? “I don’t care! I never did!” she says. “It’s not that I don’t care what people think of me as a person. But I don’t care how they feel about what I think. So you don’t agree with me – so what? It really surprises me, in general, how angry people get because they don’t agree with someone. What difference does it make?”
It is one of the advantages of not having an internet connection that, were the masses to take umbrage at one of her pronouncements, Lebowitz would be none the wiser. “So I might even be cancelled, but I would never know it. If I’m cancelled, don’t tell me! But I am aware that there are people, especially those who have some sort of public standing, who deliberately provoke other people [online]. I would never do that. I don’t like that kind of situation. The fact that I know people get angry at me is, to me, just unfortunate; like, why are you angry at me? But I’m not thinking: ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re angry so I can get into a gigantic global fight with you.’” The only people whose opinions really matter, she adds, are politicians, “because they have power over your life and in the world, and that can be incredibly dangerous. But if you’re just worrying about the opinions of musicians or entertainers … don’t watch them. Don’t listen to them. It’s simple.”
Lebowitz still calls herself a writer, even though she hasn’t published a new book in years. Buoyed up by the success of Pretend It’s a City, last year her publishers repackaged The Fran Lebowitz Reader, which combined her two books of essays, for British readers. It reveals its then twentysomething author as an astute social observer – Nora Ephron, with added spikes – and a master of pared-back prose. “There is no such thing as inner peace,” she wrote. “There is only nervousness and death.”
Lebowitz says that she hasn’t given up on the idea of returning to writing, though, given the success of her speaking tours, she is not feeling any pressure. She and her editor have this routine when they’re out together: she will introduce him by saying, “This is my editor” and he will quip: “Easiest job in town.” He once told her that she had an “excessive reverence for the printed word”, which she thinks hit the nail on the head. “I am a psychotic perfectionist when it comes to writing, which makes it very hard,” she says. “It’s a combination of that and the fact that if I’m not the laziest person that ever lived, then I’m certainly among them. Writing is really hard and I’m really lazy – and talking is easy for me.”
Lebowitz remains a voracious reader, and spends hours browsing in bookshops. She owns roughly 12,000 books – she knows this because the last time she moved apartment, the movers insisted on counting them. Starved of new books during the 2020 lockdown, she resorted to using a friend’s Amazon account. To her irritation, she is now saddled with 200 books she would never have bought had she been able to pick them up and leaf through them in a store.
Since the end of lockdown, Lebowitz’s schedule of speaking engagements has rarely let up. The travelling part can’t be easy, I suggest. “It’s true I hate travelling,” she says. “I always say to my agent: ‘They’re paying me to get here.’ Travelling is horrible; it has been horrible for 20 years but it’s worse now. If you’ve been to an airport, you know this. And I hate hotels, even really nice ones. I’d rather be home. This is because I don’t want to wait for room service to bring the coffee, I want to go get the coffee myself.”
Given her irascible reputation, it is touching to hear how much she loves the speaking part of her job. Her live appearances entail half an hour of formal chat, after which she will stand at a lectern taking questions from the floor. “Answering questions from the audience is, for me, my favourite recreational activity,” Lebowitz says, warmly. “I like it because it’s surprising. You never know what people are going to ask, and I’m very amused by it. I do think a lot of the pleasure I take in it comes from the fact that, when I was growing up, no one ever asked me a question. You know that feeling when you’re a child and your parents won’t let you have candy, and then when you’re an adult you find out you can eat candy every single day? It’s like that.”
Lebowitz grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, which “was a nice little town. I know this is against the law, but I had a happy childhood.” Her parents were second-generation eastern European Jews born and raised in New York – her father was a furniture upholsterer, and her mother a housewife who, in a former life, was a jitterbug dance champion. As well as telling her daughter to keep her opinions to herself, Lebowitz’s mother would caution her against being funny, especially around boys. “She told me: ‘Boys don’t like funny girls.’ Well, first of all, that turned out not to be true and, second of all, I turned out not to care.” When she graduated from junior high school – “which by the way was the only time I graduated from anything”, she cackles, referring to her expulsion from high school for what she has called “nonspecific surliness” – they had an end-of-year ceremony at which Lebowitz was given an award for being the class wit. She was too afraid to take it home.
It wasn’t just being funny that made her an outsider. From a young age, she knew she was gay, something she understood would never be deemed acceptable in the suburbs. And so she resolved to move to New York when she was old enough. Having visited museums there throughout her childhood, it was, in her mind, the “most exciting place in the world”. When she arrived in 1970, she had $200 in her pocket that her father had given her, though after a few weeks she was broke. But she was instantly happy. “It felt like: ‘This is the right place for me.’ Now, ‘I found this right place’ doesn’t mean, ‘I found some remote mountaintop to meditate on.’” She pauses and lets out a theatrical sigh. “I found this right place which also turns out to be the right place for 9 million other people.”
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Lebowitz took a series of jobs, from cleaning apartments and selling belts on a market stall to bartending and driving a taxi. Whenever she had had enough of a bad job, she would look at the job listings in the Village Voice and get another one. She drew the line at typing and waitressing. “All the job listings were divided by gender, which would obviously be illegal now. All the girls I knew, they all waited tables. They said, ‘Come and work at my restaurant.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to smile at men for money’, because that’s what that job is.”
She began writing film reviews for an underground newspaper, Changes, for which she also sold advertising space. A friend was writing for Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview, so Lebowitz got them to arrange a meeting with the editor. When she went to Warhol’s Factory, which by this time had moved to Union Square, she found a steel door with a piece of paper taped to it that said: ‘Knock loudly and announce yourself.’ “This was after Andy had been shot,” Lebowitz says. “And so I banged on the door and I heard someone say: ‘Who’s there?’, so I said, ‘Valerie Solanas!’ [who shot Warhol]. And then he, Andy, opened the door! So, I knew then that this person was not a genius. If someone shot me, and then banged on my door, I wouldn’t open it.”
In any case, she got the job. Back then, New York was a magnet for would-be artists, musicians and film-makers, though Lebowitz says no one wanted to be a writer. On publishing Metropolitan Life, she got a rave review in the New York Times and became an overnight sensation. She wasn’t a fan of rock’n’roll – she always favoured jazz – but she nonetheless became friends with New York Dolls and Lou Reed. She is fascinated at how young people now romanticise New York in the 1970s – teenagers are forever coming up to her and saying how much they wish they’d lived in the city then. “Now, the 1970s in New York is like the 1920s in Paris. And of course, there are fewer and fewer people alive from that era. I’m getting close to being the last person standing. Truthfully, I don’t know if New York was more fun in the 1970s, but I do know that it’s more fun to be in your 20s than it is to be in your 70s, as I am now.”
When Lebowitz isn’t touring, her days are largely spent reading, running errands and visiting museums and her beloved bookshops. “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go out in the day,” she says. “I like the night. But unfortunately, I have appointments and the dentist won’t see me at midnight.” Contrary to popular opinion, she adds, she is very sociable. “This is the thing that people seem to find the most shocking about me: I like to go to parties. Everyone says: ‘How can you like parties?’ And I always say, ‘How could you not? They’re parties.’ The word itself: party! That’s fun!”
Yet it is her own company that she treasures most of all. Having gone from being a cult hero to a bona fide celebrity, it is no wonder Lebowitz longs for peace and quiet. “When I step out of my apartment, I want there to be a city there. But I also like to stay in. Just me, alone with my thoughts.”
Fran Lebowitz will be on tour in the UK in April 2023. For more details, visit fane.co.uk/fran-lebowitz-tour
Post expires at 10:29pm on Wednesday March 15th, 2023