Fran Lebowitz made her name as a columnist on Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before publishing two bestselling volumes of essays (and infamously not much since): Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. A globally sought-after public speaker that’s loved for her sardonic social commentary, she is based in New York City, and does not believe that she would be allowed to live anywhere else.
Interviewed by Otegha Uwagbain in London, an evening with Fran Lebowitz is a balm in an ever changing world of cancel culture, rifts and shifts. Sharing her invariably entertaining take on anything and everything: from growing up in New Jersey and being expelled from high school, to a diverse experience of 70’s New York; throughout her life Fran has offered timely and surprisingly sturdy insights on issues such as gender, race, gay rights, and the media; as well as on her own pet peeves – celebrity culture, tourists, and baby strollers.
Children: rarely in the position to lend one a truly interesting sum of money
Having spent most of her life being told that her opinions were not welcome, it’s no surprise that Fran has made an honest living doing exactly the opposite: “This was the 1950s. 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 unjust 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 that the very thing I was punished for, I would eventually be paid for.”
After being expelled from school for usurping the headmaster with “nonspecific surliness”, Fran earned a Certificate of High School Equivalency and moved to New York in 1969. Her father agreed to pay for her first two months in the city on the condition that she live at the women’s-only Martha Washington Hotel. She then stayed with friends in apartments and college dormitories, surviving by writing papers for students.
At age 20, she rented a West Village apartment and worked an array of odd-jobs in order to support herself, including as a cleaner, chauffeur, taxi driver and pornography writer. Whenever she’d had enough of a bad job, she would look at the listings in the Village Voice and get another. But she drew the line at waitressing. “The job listings were divided by gender, which would obviously be illegal now. All the girls I knew 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.”
Perhaps preferring to scowl at men, she has never shied away from a private hareem of influential male company. Despite having successfully battled many prejudices and challenges over the course of her career, Lebowitz has been called the “opposite of lean-in feminism“. She once explained: “If [feminism] really worked, there wouldn’t be feminism anymore… I didn’t pay much attention to it, largely because it never occurred to me it would work. I was, unfortunately, largely right. Things are better but they’re still horrible.”
However, after the effects of the MeToo movement, she said: “It never occurred to me this would ever change. Being a woman was exactly the same from Eve until about eight months ago. I can tell you that it’s probably one of the most surprising things to happen during my lifetime. The first forty guys who got caught – I knew almost all of them. I think certainly young women would never put up with the stuff that women my age had to put up with. Never. And younger men are so much better than older men. They’re almost like a different gender, you know… But I don’t think feminism will ever really work the way other things might work, because of testosterone! Which is a real thing. I know it’s not supposed to be…”
By 21, she’d found a position at Changes, a small magazine “about radical-chic politics and culture”, founded by the fourth wife of jazz musician Charles Mingus, who’s music she was deeply affected by. “Music affects people so emotionally that if you go to a concert and you look at the fans in the audience, they love the people playing. They love them in a real way. There’s few art forms quite like it.” Despite the reality that “I think most people knew Charles was a very angry guy. And people knew not to glad hand him.”
At Changes, she sold advertising space, before finding her voice writing book and movie reviews. This led her to Warhol’s Interview and a stint at the Women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. Most of her essays from this time, including “Success Without College” and “A Few Words on a Few Words” are republished in her first book Metropolitan Life, which cemented her status as a local celebrity.
Since the mid-1990s, Lebowitz has become known for her decades-long writer’s block. Her last published book was Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994), a children’s book about two pandas named ‘Pandemonium’ and ‘Don’t Panda To Public Taste’. Since then, she has worked on various book projects that have not been completed, including Exterior Signs of Wealth, an unfinished novel purportedly about rich people who want to be artists and artists who want to be rich.
“My editor – who, whenever I introduce him as my editor, always says, ‘easiest job in town’ – thinks the paralysis (writer’s blockade) that I have, is caused by an excessive reverence for the written word, and that’s probably true.” Instead, she has found a life raft in television appearances, documentaries and public speaking engagements: “It’s what I wanted my entire life. People asking me my opinion, and people not allowed to interrupt.” Dipping a toe into acting, she briefly made an appearance in Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, playing a judge – “the only female wearing any clothes.”
In her signature style of men’s suit jackets, cowboy boots, Levi jeans, and tortoiseshell glasses, she has connected with a wide audience by sharing her unfiltered lived experiences of gentrification, art, literature, politics and her treasured pearl-grey 1979 Checker cab car – “the only monogamous relationship I’ve ever had in my life”.
Largely a critic of the gentrification and changing culture of New York City, she explains that the main difference between “Old New York” and “New New York” is the influence and dominance of the culture of money. While New York was always an expensive city, people who were not rich could survive in Manhattan and “you didn’t have to think about money every second of the day… there were a zillion bad jobs. That doesn’t exist any more. I mean, I could wake up one afternoon with zero money to my name and know that by the end of the day, I would have enough.”
Her sentiment towards the high numbers of wealthy people in New York City, stems from the belief that they rarely create anything of real value, and only consume things. “I object to people who are rich in politics. I don’t think they should be allowed to be in politics. It is bad for everybody but rich people, and rich people don’t need any more help. Whenever people say, ‘Oh, he earned his money himself,’ I always say the same thing: no one earns a billion dollars. People earn $10 an hour, people steal a billion dollars.”
She has also cited the rising levels of tourism as a cause of New York’s housing shortage, because the construction of hotels is favoured over apartment buildings, explaining: “you cannot lure these herds of hillbillies into the middle of a city, and not have it affect the place… Any New Yorker who walks down the street in this rich city can’t even hear anything because the money’s making so much noise now. To see people in the street and not feel this is a disgrace to the country – it’s a disgrace to the city.”
In spite of her grievances, Lebowitz was a guest on Questlove’s Quest for Craft in 2022, where she discussed how New York City is important to her craft, and how a sense of place is important to writers in general. “Writing is really hard and I’m really lazy – but talking is easy.” Her live appearances entail half an hour of formal chat, after which she will stand at a lectern taking questions from the floor.
“I’m 72 and I’ve been doing this since I was 27. Obviously, the whole situation’s changed 50,000 times in that period. But two things stay the same. One, human beings, they never improve, we’re a horrible species. And two, when you take questions from the audience, what you’re talking about is what the audience in that particular place wants to talk about. I do this all over the world, so obviously the questions are going to be different in Athens than they are in Newark. But it gives me a sense of the place.”
Since her essays and articles were originally published, Lebowitz has become more political. This is the main difference between her (largely apolitical) writing and (more overtly political) public speaking. On her speaking tours, politics frequently takes centre stage. “There has never been an era where it has not been more correct to be angry. But the US has moved so far to the right I am now one inch from being an anarchist… In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.”
There is no such thing as inner peace; only nervousness and death
Having been an atheist since the age of 7, Lebowitz describes her “Jewish identity [as] ethnic or cultural, or whatever people call it now. But it’s not religious.” Discussing representation in literature, here in the UK, she says her Jewishness “was mentioned in the first sentence of every review [of her first book], whether the review was favourable or not. And I was really flabbergasted by it. The only thing that would let you know that I was Jewish, if you just read the book, was my name. And I said: I’m not coming back here.”
She did not return professionally to the UK for over 40 years. “I was afraid the Coronation would be on while I was there. I’m certain that whenever the Coronation is, London gets shut down. But it turns out it’s not while I’m there. So you’re free to have your Coronation, which might be silly even to English people… I mean, it’s 2023. A King? A Queen? It seems ridiculous… Can you imagine a family where William is the smart one? There are people in Syrian refugee camps who complain less [than Harry].”
It’s probably fitting that the young royal has recently taken up residence in the US. “Not a week goes by that I don’t get a swastika in my mailbox. Growing up, the 1950s was surely the least antisemitic era in the history of the United States, because people were still upset about the Holocaust. And now there’s this rise here in antisemitism, in all kinds of bigotry and racism. Thank you, Donald Trump.”
Lebowitz grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, which “was a nice little town. And 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 also a jitterbug dance champion.
The only time she graduated from anything was junior high-school, where she was given an award for being the class wit. She was too afraid to take it home. 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.” Preferring women, she has made an effort to keep her personal life more low-key than her public persona.
A bibliophile and technophobe, Fran spends most of her time either reading or sleeping, and produces most interviews from her apartment via landline, which is not only her preferred means of communication, but her only one. She refuses to ever give in to a mobile phone or computer, and has no desire for wifi. “Not having these things is a choice. I know they exist. It’s like not having children: it was no accident.”
Talking in staccato sentences that can, on the page, be construed as ill-tempered, they’re more often delivered in a tone of bemused amusement. Lebowitz doesn’t suffer fools but she loves an appreciative audience. “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’… I prefer to go on my own.”
It is her own company that she treasures most of all. Having gone from cleaner, to cult hero, to a bona fide celebrity, it is no wonder Lebowitz appreciates peace and quiet. “When I step out of my apartment, I want a city to be there. But I like to stay in. Just me, alone with my thoughts… My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.”
Thanks to her pastime of browsing bookshops, she owns some 20,000 titles – and knows this because the last time she moved apartment, the movers insisted on counting them. Starved of new literature during the 2020 lockdown, she resorted to using a friend’s Amazon account. To her irritation, she is now saddled with a further 200 books she would never have bought had she been able to pick them up and leaf through them in a physical store.
“That I am totally devoid of sympathy for, or interest in, the world of groups is directly attributable to the fact that my two greatest needs and desires – smoking cigarettes and plotting revenge – are basically solitary pursuits.” A heavy smoker, Lebowitz is an advocate for smokers’ rights, but has not otherwise used drugs or alcohol since she was 19, claiming to have reached her “lifetime supply” of both by then. “Basically everyone I’ve known for the last forty years thinks I’m in a high-risk category. Look, the older you are, the less healthy you are. If you’re asking me if it has made me more pensive, it has not… One thing I’ve absolutely noticed about myself, and which should be true as you get older: it’s not that you want to die, but you are less attached to life.”
“In my lifetime, I’ve read one zillion mysteries. This is not because I care about who did it. I have re-read mysteries numerous times and I don’t even remember who did it. The feeling that’s most important to me when reading is that I’m absorbed. I just want to be taken away. I like being dazzled. I don’t care that much about stories. That may have to do with being older. Tell me a story I don’t know… I have avoided science fiction my entire life, or any kind of fantasy. It’s like adventures, or people who climb mountains or jump out of airplanes; I find real life challenging enough… Without reading, you’re stuck with life.”
Paperback is her preferred medium. When Jimmy Fallon gifted her a Kindle, she gave thanks by immediately disposing of it, explaining: “I know you gave me this because I don’t have one. You know what else I don’t have? A Bentley.” Which is in keeping with her reading philosophy, “if you don’t like a book, stop reading it. If you don’t like a movie, walk out. Life is not a jail sentence… I mainly read for pleasure. Sometimes, I don’t realise how little I care about a book. Sometimes, I start reading a book and then realise I forgot I was reading it. And it disappears under a pile of books… I don’t plan my reading. I’m always surprised.”
On the furore over the recently “sanitised” editions of Roald Dahl, and whether it’s ever acceptable to rewrite an author’s work, she says: “I could not be more opposed to it. Thirty years ago isn’t now, 100 years ago isn’t now. It teaches people to read in the stupidest way imaginable, just idiotic. Writers are, unfortunately, people. And some writers are bad people, and some writers are careless or reckless, and some are people who just lived 60 years ago.”
Where Fran Lebowitz is at her most insightful (and entertaining) is when she turns to language. And much of her humour in both writing and speaking derives from playing with words. Despite the years, her alphabet is still very much in demand. Following the success of Scorsese’s Pretend It’s A City, a new collection of her old essays was released as The Fran Lebowitz Reader. As the essays it contains were written in her twenties and thirties, the question of relevance presents itself. It is a question Lebowitz addresses in her preface, urging the reader (after pointing out the unseemliness of requiring timeliness of a writer ‘when it is no longer even required of timeliness’) to consider the essays “art history in the making.”
“What you don’t see in Pretend It’s a City is how funny Marty (Scorsese) is, because Marty is asking me questions. Marty is himself extremely hilarious. Some people you just meet and you click. You know people accept this in romance, but they don’t accept this in friendship, even though it happens just as much. By the way, in friendship it lasts, unlike in romance. Neither Marty nor I can remember where we met. People often ask us. We just assume it was at a party because where else would I have met Marty? I’ve been to many more parties than Marty has because that’s why Marty’s made many new movies and I’ve written no new books. I did notice after a certain amount of time that whenever I would see Marty at a party, we would always spend the whole night talking. So it was just a natural thing.”
In real life, there is no such thing as algebra
Lebowitz was a poor student overall, particularly in algebra, which she failed numerous times. She called it “the first thing which they presented to me that I absolutely could not understand, and had no interest in understanding”… “Whenever [Trump] uses the word ‘love’, which he does occasionally, I think of the word ‘algebra’. I still don’t know what it means. I know the symbols. And that is what love means to Trump.”
A keen observer of society, and often adopting an exaggeratedly critical perspective, as with all skilled comedians – Fran sheds light on the behaviours and attitudes she finds universal. In the essay People, she makes the assertion that “except in extremely rare instances people are pretty much like everyone else.” Something that she explores further in her “complete and unabridged” transcript of “the general conversation of the general public since time immemorial”.
Amongst Lebowitz’s solutions to make conversation more interesting are the maxims “Spilling your guts is just exactly as charming as it sounds” and “Polite conversation is rarely either.” In keeping with this curt and pithy style, Fran rarely displays time for fanfare, self-importance or pretentiousness. In fact, in her essays it often seems as if her driving purpose is to chip away at them: “Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not possibly have met”, and “An interesting personality is, in an adult, insufferable. In a teenager it is frequently punishable by law.”
“What is culture without gay people? This is America, what is the culture? Not just New York. AIDS completely changed American culture… And with AIDS, a whole generation of gay men died practically all at once, within a couple of years. And especially the ones that I knew. The first people who died of AIDS were artists. They were also the most interesting people… The knowing audience also died and no longer exists in a real way… There’s a huge gap in what people know, and there’s no context for it anymore.”
On the effects of the pandemic on culture, she admits “it depends what you mean. These big New York art galleries, they’re so rich. I’m not worried that they’re going to close, and, if they did, so what? There will be art galleries. There aren’t very many small ones anymore, and that was caused by contagious unfettered capitalism, not an organic virus… the word ‘social’ shouldn’t be in there. The distancing part, ok I’m no good at math, so – six feet? What’s that? A person eight inches taller than you?”
“I have to say that to me the most shocking thing about COVID was the shock of it. By which I mean for a very long time, because of how old I am, almost everything that happened reminded me of something else that happened. The wisdom of old age is simply that: ‘This is kind of like that.’ But a plague is something I had never thought about or experienced. The only people who seem to have thought about it apparently, are the people who read or watch science fiction. But I don’t, so it never occurred to me to plan for one.”
“My first response was, ‘I don’t know how to think about it.’ I don’t mean I didn’t know how to feel about it. I felt like everyone else. But I didn’t know how to think about it. And this is the moment where I most particularly miss Toni Morrison because, although she was 20 years older than me, she’s not old enough to live through the 1921 flu epidemic. But she would’ve known how to think about it. And now I know how to think about it, but it’s too late.”
“…Medicare for All – which used to be called socialised medicine – is something that, of course, can be done. They have it all over Europe. Can it be done quickly in this country? No. But it’s an absurd idea that hospitals should be businesses. People say, ‘If you love your health insurance’ – who is that? Who loves their health insurance? No one really wants health insurance. People want health care. It’s like, no one wants car insurance. They want a car… These nurses and doctors – I never knew there were this many saintly people, because I don’t know them. The same way that at a certain point you thought: Really, there are this many morons? There are this many people who think Trump’s doing a good job?… My post-election reading has looked much like tea leaves, with exactly the success you might imagine.”
When asked if, of all the books she’s read, there’s one about jazz that she’d recommend to everyone, she cites Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog: “I’ve always wondered what that book seems like to someone who didn’t know him, because it’s almost Cubist. It’s not a book about jazz in the way that someone like a critic would write. I always recommend it to people because it’s the closest thing to his music that you could get in writing. There aren’t that many music critics I care about. There are a couple of good ones, but also I don’t understand music in that way. I don’t have that mathematical understanding of it. Even though there’s like a classical music critic I read because I like his writing, when he starts really talking about the music from the point of view of actual technical music, I have no idea what he’s talking about. To me it turns from love into science.”
“I could be wrong, but jazz was never popular the way that rock and roll was. It’s too good. Things that are really good are never that popular. It’s not unpopular. It’s not like no one likes it. It’s not hated. It’s just too good for most people. I know that sounds elitist. I am elitist. But America is not the font of culture. It never was. Jazz is the great American art form. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. You would think that people would have some response to that, and some people do because I don’t know anyone who likes jazz. You either love it or you don’t care about it.”
That the approval of her uncommon sense, personal hatred of work (or hustle culture), and refusal to play by the rules have prevailed for so long – the question that usually arises, posed with not an insignificant amount of awe and jealousy, is how, then, she has managed to sustain such a living. It is linked to another question: why has she become an international sensation, without specific expertise or awards? How is she a source of authority on the biggest issues of the day? Her lightning wit? Uncompromising opinions? Astute judgement? Is it just that undefinable, incalculable, yet undeniable trait we call charisma?
It has been said that contradiction is a hallmark of insanity. It’s also characteristic of humanity; giving some meaningful insight into our species. Whether you’re inclined to receive her wisdom as ‘acerbic, unfiltered, and nearly always right’, or merely ‘misanthropic, cranky, and with besotted views of Manhattan life’, Fran never cared for the returns of catering to your tastes, and has reaped the rewards in more ways than one. “Let me put it this way: when they compile a list of the heroes of this era, I will not be on it.”