Fran Lebowitz: ‘If people disagree with me, so what?’

With a hit Netflix series and The Fran Lebowitz Reader now published in the UK, the American wit talks about failing to write, her dislike of Andy Warhol and her best friend Toni Morrison

Fran Lebowitz is a famous writer who famously doesn’t write. “I’m really lazy and writing is really hard and I don’t like to do hard things,” she says, and it’s the rare writer who would not have some sympathy with that. Yet, as all writers also know, writer’s block, which the 70-year-old has suffered from for four decades now, is never really about laziness. Lebowitz’s editor Erroll McDonald (“the man with the easiest job in New York”) has said she suffers from “excessive reverence for the written word”.

Given that Lebowitz has, at last count, more than 11,000 of them in her apartment, there is no question that she loves books. “I would never throw away a book – there are human beings I would rather throw out of the window,” she says. So is this talk of “excessive reverence” a euphemistic way of saying that she has low self-esteem and doesn’t think she can write anything good enough to commit to print?

“I don’t think I suffer from low self-esteem,” cackles Lebowitz. “I know a lot of people object to me because they think I’m too judgmental, although I think there’s no such thing. But as judgmental as I am about others, I am far more so about my own work. I think it’s a paralysing professionalism.”

Lebowitz and I are talking by phone, which means she is on her landline in her New York apartment, because as well as refusing to write, Lebowitz refuses to own a mobile, wifi or even a computer. During lockdown, when all of her beloved bookstores were shut, she had to rely on a friend to order books online for her, and she then sent her friend cheques. When I interviewed her for a public event by Zoom during lockdown, she had to go to David Sedaris’s apartment to use his computer. And yet Lebowitz, 70, has always seemed like such a self-sufficient, independent person. Back in the 1970s when she did write, and wrote hilarious, elegant columns for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine as well as the bestselling books of collected essays, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), she would hold her own on talkshows, against male hosts and guests who demanded to know when she would get married and then offered to impregnate her. Lebowitz, a lesbian, just smiled and smoked her cigarettes.

One of the leitmotifs in Martin Scosese’s second and most recent documentary about her, Pretend It’s a City, are the shots of a solitary Lebowitz strolling around New York in her distinctive uniform of a long overcoat, Levi’s 501s and loafers, observing everything and detached from it all. So doesn’t she resent that her aversion to technology now makes her so dependent on others? “No, I just think, isn’t it lucky I have friends who have these things and can do them for me?” she says, with the smile of one who has arranged her life exactly as she wants it to be.

The collection of Fran Lebowitz’s essays from the 1970s
The collection of Fran Lebowitz’s essays from the 1970s Photograph: PR

Today, Lebowitz has become what is commonly described as a “public speaker” (Scorsese’s first documentary about her is titled Public Speaking). But really she is an extremely successful wit, and certainly the most celebrated American female wit since Dorothy Parker – although, unlike Parker, she doesn’t write (or drink). She makes witty observations, and people pay to hear them. This is very different from being a comedian, because Lebowitz is not a joker, and she certainly doesn’t script her thoughts beforehand. She is an off-the-cuff opinion-haver, and people all over the world – pandemic permitting, she will embark on a massive European tour next year – flock to hear her quick-witted opinions on everything from vacations (“How horrible must your life be if you think: ‘You know what would be fun? Let’s take the kids to the airport, sit there for a few hours and get yelled at’”) to whether it matters if people relate to a book’s protagonist: “A book is not a mirror – it’s a door,” she declares in Pretend It’s a City. So it never bothered her when she was growing up in New Jersey that she didn’t see too many suburban Jewish lesbians in novels? She makes a loud bark of laughter: “I never would have thought about it, not in a million years! I’m not really a revolutionary, I’m more of a dandy. I never thought, ‘How can I change the world?’ I thought, ‘How can I do what I want without going to jail?’”

For a while in the 1980s and 90s, Lebowitz promised that she was working on a novel. “There are about a hundred pages,” she says, when I ask about it. “But whole generations have come and gone since I last looked at it.” When it became clear that waiting for Lebowitz’s novel was as futile as waiting for Godot, her US publishers had the bright idea of combining Metropolitan Life and Social Studies into one book and selling that, titled The Fran Lebowitz Reader. Despite now being over 40 years old, the essays still glitter, every bone-dry sentence pared down and packed with her unmistakeable personality. Starved of any new Lebowitz content, her fans have taken to quoting lines from the Reader like religious texts: “All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable … Generally speaking, I look upon sports as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury.”

It has never gone out of print in the US and, at last, it is now being published in the UK. This is surely a testament to the success of Pretend It’s a City, which was a big lockdown hit for Netflix. “I’m pretty sure I profited from the virus because I think many people watched my series because they weren’t allowed out,” she says. However, it balances out because Lebowitz, who lives on her own, had no income during the pandemic after all her speaking engagements were cancelled: “That was stressful. I became a person standing in the supermarket going: ‘Why are grapes so expensive? What is this, Cartier?’”

Pretend It’s a City, which Lebowitz co-produced, should buy her more than a couple of bunches grapes. Over the course of seven delightful and unexpectedly lyrical episodes, viewers watched her do nothing other than share her acerbic opinions with Scorsese, who chortles away in the background. When Saturday Night Live parodied Pretend It’s a City, comedian Bowen Yang, as Lebowitz, barked out aperçus such as “People ask me: ‘Should I be a writer?’ And I say: ‘No! Be something useful! Be! A piece! Of melon! Wrapped in! A prosciutto!’” Kyle Mooney, as Scorsese, promptly has a heart attack next to her from hysteria.

Fran Lebowitz, right, and Martin Scorsese. ‘I always struck Marty as funny, I don’t know why. But Marty is also really funny.
Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese. ‘I always struck Marty as funny, I don’t know why. But Marty is also really funny. Photograph: Rahav Segev/WireImage

Lebowitz did not see the parody (“I can’t stand to watch myself”) but I ask if Scorsese laughs as much with her off-camera as he does on. “I always struck Marty as funny, I don’t know why. But Marty is also really funny,” she says fondly. (When Scorsese was making The Wolf of Wall Street, he cast the famously judgmental Lebowitz as the judge who sends Leonardo DiCaprio to prison – an in-joke between pals.) Pretend It’s a City is nominated for an Emmy, for outstanding nonfiction series, and Netflix is very keen that its star goes to the event in September. But Lebowitz is not tempted: “The Emmys are in LA,” she says. No elaboration necessary.

With the bouquets, however, come the brickbats. At the height of Pretend It’s a City’s success, the New York Times ran a column headlined “Everybody Loves Fran. But Why?”, in which the writer expressed mystification as to why Lebowitz, with her “misanthropic, cranky, besotted view of Manhattan life”, is so popular with young people. “She determines that wellness must be an idea imported from – and here is the moment to clutch your bagels – ‘California’,” the journalist wrote with an audible eye roll.

I ask Lebowitz if she was hurt by the column. “You expect critics, and this was hardly the first time I got bad press. But I thought that specific thing that you’re referring to was very antisemitic, and that is the last thing you’re still allowed to do. My editor called me and he said: ‘Don’t you think this is antisemitic?’ and he’s not Jewish, so his sensitivity is not as high as mine. But I heard that a lot of people were talking about [the article] online and I’ll tell you what surprises me is how people, who are totally unrelated to whatever’s being written about, will take these huge sides over things,” she says.

I say it feels as if today people see opinions as a statement of who they are, and therefore a disagreement of opinion feels seismic. “I think that’s true. It’s replaced morality. But I never cared what people think of what I think. I’m not saying I don’t care what people think about me, because I’m human. But if people disagree with me, so what? I’ve never understood why [my opinions] anger people. I have no power, I’m not the mayor of New York, I’m not making laws. These are just opinions!”

Lebowitz grew up in New Jersey, the elder daughter of furniture upholsterers. She was bookish but a terrible student, and was repeatedly expelled from school for what she has described as “nonspecific surliness”. I ask her when she knew she was gay. “This is something that’s very hard to explain to young people today. Being gay, it was illegal then. Forget fighting for gay marriage, how about just trying not to go to jail? So you never saw it, it was never talked about, it didn’t exist in the world. So if I had not seen occasional mentions of it in books, I would never have heard of it. I had a friend who grew up in a very blue-collar environment in Wilmington, Delaware, and she thought she was the only [lesbian] in the world, and that was a common thing then. I have a very vivid memory of when I was 12 and in the backyard reading, and I remember having this exact thought: ‘Well, I suppose if there’s such a thing in the world as lesbians then someone has to be them. But why does it have to be me?’ Because I instantly knew that I could not live like that in the world I was living in, and I was pretty happy in that world. Of course, what most people did was they stayed in that world and pretended to be straight, but that never occurred to me.”

Given that homosexuality was a crime then, was she ever scared of being arrested? “It was never scary for me because the police were mostly arresting gay men, because that infuriated them more [than lesbians]. Truthfully, I was more afraid of my parents [finding out].”

Lebowitz mentions her parents and especially her mother in her public talks often, and always very fondly. When did she come out to them? “We never discussed it,” she says. “I mean, they were aware of it, I brought girlfriends home, but we never talked about it. That was because of me, but it was also me knowing they didn’t want to.”

Lebowitz with Andy Warhol In New York, in 1977, when she wrote for his Interview magazine.
Lebowitz with Andy Warhol In New York, in 1977, when she wrote for his Interview magazine. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

What is she like as a girlfriend? “Terrible. Terrible! I loathe domestic life and I’m not the monogamous type. I’m really great for, like, the first three months, and that’s how long it lasts for me.” So is three months her longest relationship? “Well, I’ve been with people for longer, but I wasn’t being a good girlfriend. I’m a terrible girlfriend, but I’m a great friend.”

Pretty much as soon as she arrived in New York, as a teenage high-school dropout determined to be a writer, she was making friends. She was hanging out in Studio 54 and Warhol’s The Factory, but she never felt intimidated. “Social situations don’t frighten me,” she says. Susan Graham Ungaro, the editor of the first magazine where she worked, happened to be going out with (and later married to) the jazz musician Charles Mingus. In Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz describes taking Mingus to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and Mingus taking her out for breakfast with Duke Ellington. While working at Interview, she became friends with the notoriously unfriendly Lou Reed. “I mean, Lou was difficult, no one would ever say he wasn’t difficult. We had a real fight the first time we met. But, you know, we liked each other,” she says.

One person she didn’t especially like was Warhol himself. “I noticed that Andy sought out people who were very fragile psychologically, and he encouraged people to take drugs, so it was not really an atmosphere that I wanted to be around. I saw him every day for years, but we never talked that much.” In her last year of working at Interview, Warhol paid her in paintings. Alas, she liked his paintings about as much as she liked him, and so she sold them cheaply to pay the rent, and two weeks later he died, sending his prices stratospheric. “I will always believe that he did that deliberately,” she says. What, died? “Yes, he knew I’d sold them and he said to himself: ‘This’ll show her!’”

Toni Morrison was one of her best friends for almost 40 years, up to Morrison’s death in 2019. In clips of them talking on stage, Lebowitz looks uncharacteristically awestruck by her, while Morrison giggles delightedly at everything she says. “People don’t know how fun Toni was because she had such an intimidating presence, but she was really fun,” says Lebowitz a little wistfully. Did it take a while to get past that intimidating presence? “No, it was an instantaneous friendship. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was like falling in love, except it lasted.” When Lebowitz spoke at Morrison’s memorial, she said: “For 40 years, Toni was at least two of my four closest friends.”

When Lebowitz was 12 her mother told her, “Don’t be funny around boys. They don’t like it.” That was only one of the many rules she went out and broke. Lebowitz is the opinionated older woman young people love; the lesbian whose sexuality has never been subjected to debate or scrutiny; the high school dropout who washed up in New York and instantly became a famous writer; the writer who doesn’t write. But doesn’t she regret giving up the writing, given she was such a natural? She hesitates a fraction: “Not consciously. Maybe unconsciously, though how would I know?” Then her rhythm picks up as she finds her patter again: “But I really enjoy the speaking engagements. It’s not work, it’s everyone having to listen to my opinions, and that’s all I ever wanted.”

The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz is published by Virago on 2nd September, £18.99. Fran Lebowitz will be on tour in the UK in June 2022.

Contributor

Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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