Fran Lebowitz’s droll staccato crackles down the telephone line. The writer and satirist is in her New York apartment, finishing a day of publicity for a spate of upcoming speaking engagements. In other words, she is talking about talking. Answering journalists’ questions regarding her town hall-style appearances, where she’ll answer more questions. Lebowitz can fire off bons mots like electric shocks, but Q-ing and A-ing on Q&As is a closed circuit. The problem being, as she notes, “that nothing takes you away from the world more than talking about the world”.
Lebowitz would prefer not to do anything work-related after 6pm, but she’s had to field calls from people in inconvenient time zones ever since her old friend, Martin Scorsese, went and made the 2021 Netflix documentary Pretend It’s a City.
The seven-episode series captures Lebowitz as the great flâneur and chronicler of Manhattan. Dressed in her signature crisp white shirt, suit jacket, jeans and boots – for ease of walking – she wanders the streets where she first arrived as a gay high school dropout in 1969, while kvetching about the overpriced island upon which she now finds herself, having become a New York institution.
With this late-life upswing in fame, Lebowitz, 73, has continued doing what she’s done for four decades. “But I now do it all over the world. I may be wrong, or certainly people won’t believe me, but I believe I invented the onstage interview.” In the mid-1980s, when asked to do a reading, Lebowitz demurred. Having not written anything new in a while – “which is still the case” – she asked if instead she could be interviewed.
“Yes, I’m very lazy,” she declares matter-of-factly. “One of the things that is hard for me about writing is how hard it is. And lazy people don’t like to do hard things. It’s very enjoyable for me to talk. Talking is effortless and I love effortless.”
To be honest, it feels less effortless interviewing someone who week-in, week-out is being quizzed. Is there a question Lebowitz has not been asked? The publicist, hovering on the line like a celebrity security detail, must wonder the same thing.
But Lebowitz talks the way she walks. There’s a brisk politeness. She’s fast and she knows the terrain but is unafraid of diversions. She’ll make swift turns, then suddenly stop and consider a memory afresh. She’ll head down a piquant byway before stepping off quickly again, rerouting to her preferred path.
Also, as she speaks, the Q&A format takes over. She did, after all, practically invent the genre.
How do you feel being cast into a sage-like role onstage?
That’s fine. It’s not really true. Being old and being wise are not the same thing. You know more about life, but no one would trade. If you said to me, “Would you rather be 20 and not know so much?” “Yes.” But you don’t get that choice. I would not generally say that I consider myself to be filled with wisdom. And truthfully, I’ve really only known one wise person in my whole life.
Who was that?
I know lots of smart people but the only wise person I ever knew was [the Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning writer] Toni Morrison. She was really wise. And the difference between being just very brilliant and wise is the size of your humanity. Because you have to have a gigantic humanity to be wise and I do not have that. When I was a kid, my mother used to say, “Can’t you be the bigger person?” And truthfully, No, it turns out I’m the smaller person. I also like to point out – not that it matters – that my mother [Ruth Lebowitz, who owned a New Jersey furniture upholstery business and wanted only for her daughter to become a good wife] was also not the bigger person. But Toni was not just the bigger person, she was the biggest person. You didn’t have to know her to know this. If you read her, you see that even the really villainous are human. She didn’t make people in her life, or her work, cartoon characters. She really had an empathy for people that I certainly don’t have, and hence a bigger understanding of people.
Okay, so it turns out that after Lebowitz arrived in New York, making ends meet by working as everything from taxi driver to pornography writer, she more or less met anyone in the city who was worth meeting. Jazz virtuoso Charles Mingus once chased her 20 blocks down South Avenue, before they both collapsed exhausted, forgetting their grievance. Andy Warhol hired her to write for his magazine, Interview, and although she didn’t much like him, for years they were at the same parties every night. A young Robert Mapplethorpe gave her his early photographs, many of which she threw away. And at a reading in 1978, she met Morrison, who became her close friend – and who I keep asking more about.
Do flashes of Toni Morrison’s wisdom come to you in day-to-day life?
I’ve known many people who’ve died. And I miss some of them. Not all, I have to say. But I’ve never missed anyone the way I miss Toni, because, first of all, I talked to her at least five times a week and saw her very frequently because we were in the same city. But, also, because I really wanted to know, “What do you think, Toni?” Toni actually thought about things which very few people do. People all the time, here anyway, they say, “I think this, I think that”, and they think nothing. What they mean is they feel this, or they feel that ... I try to think, “What would Toni think about this?”, but first I have to think, like, “What do you think about it?” And now, imagine that you’re giving people the benefit of the doubt, which I never do.
Lebowitz’s 1978 essay collection, Metropolitan Life, which skewered the mores of New Yorkers, received rave reviews in The New York Times and made her an overnight success. Social Studies (1981) reinforced her reputation. In the proceeding decades, however, Lebowitz has famously been unable to finish a novel, suffering from what she’s referred to as “writer’s blockade”. “How do you know if your child is a writer?” goes one of her jokes on this affliction. “Your obstetrician holds his stethoscope to your abdomen and only hears excuses.” Lebowitz has nevertheless frequented New York’s best parties, acted in television and films, contributed to Vanity Fair and been the subject of two Scorsese documentary projects.
Great success has come to you, but perhaps not in the form you imagined it. Does not-finishing your book still feel as painful?
Yes, it does. It does. It still does. I have two books I haven’t finished. I don’t want you to think just one.
My editor always refers to my excessive reverence for the written word. I do have that. There’s no question.
Time has passed, you’ve flown around the world speaking to adoring audiences. That doesn’t mitigate the pain?
No. (A pause.) There are worse problems. I know.
I don’t mean to be cruel, but I wonder if the Nobel laureate for literature might have given some advice.
Did Toni read the book?
I do remember that she read something and then she said to me, “It’s great. There’s just one thing I would like to say to you, Fran. Where you say ‘you’, you should say ‘we’. It invites the reader in.” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m not a hostess, Toni. I’m a prosecutor.”
In the midst of war, climate change, AI, what should writers write about?
There’s really nothing much in the history of the United States that shows you “this was changed by a book”, you know? “This was changed by a song, or a painting.” So I think that people believe they can have an effect on things that they can’t have by themselves. There are a lot of kids in my audiences. And they often ask me what they should do. And I always tell them the same thing. Run for something. Look at our congress. If I was in congress, I wouldn’t even be close to the oldest person. It is ridiculous! If you want to change things, run for something.
It’s an amazing transformation: Lebowitz, who was expelled from high school for being a bad influence on the other girls, is now the most urbane influencer on the circuit. Perhaps the absurdities of modern life can only be decoded by a satirist, even if the advice she dispenses is deadly serious.
Her appeal to a multigenerational audience means she travels frequently for work. She claims not to live extravagantly. What she makes goes not towards, say, “buying racehorses” but, given overheads in New York, on “just trying to stay living inside”.
Do you have to block out the white noise of fame?
I don’t have to block it out. I’m just unaware of it. I have a phone but not an iPhone. People will be like, “Do you want to see this thing?” No, I don’t want to see it. I don’t care about it. It doesn’t have meaning for me. One of the things I don’t like about this era – there are many – is the way in which it reminds me of junior high school, which was for me – and I’m sure, for most people – not the best time of life. Really, why care what this person thinks about you? You don’t even know the person. Who cares what they think?
The publicist is on the line, a silent presence, acting as an alarm clock. My 45 minutes is nearly up.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I’m reading. It’s my favourite activity. It always has been. In my apartment I have literally thousands and thousands of books. And they are in wooden bookcases with glass doors. And sometimes I realise, Fran, you live in a forest. I am very fearful of fire. I smoke. I’ve been smoking since I was 12 years old. I’ve never burned even a tiny hole in a sweater. On the other hand, I live in an apartment building with a million other people. And I’m always thinking, I hope you’re being careful.
Outside the building, in the wilds beyond New York City, it’s hard to find much to laugh about. For all her life, if Lebowitz saw Donald Trump – someone she considered “a joke at best” – at a party, she knew she was at the wrong party. Now he’s close to being re-elected president. “Close to half the country are basically people who would very much love to see the end of American democracy,” Lebowitz says. “And they are succeeding. And they have no idea what they’re doing. Zero.” Internationally, affairs feel even worse. We are speaking in mid-October and the news from the Middle East daily yields more horror.
In the midst of despair is reading a solace?
Oh, absolutely. Actually, the best way I can describe it is like this – it’s my experience that when people say they love to write, they’re bad writers. The only person I ever knew who was not just a good writer but a great writer, who loved to write, was Toni. And I was so astonished by this, I once asked her, “Why do you love to write?” And she said, “Because otherwise you’re stuck with life.” I realised that’s what reading does – because otherwise you’re stuck with life.
I don’t ask another question.
Fran Lebowitz will be touring nationally in February 2024.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Queen of the city".
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