Enough time has passed, Fran Lebowitz thinks, to admit she went to a birthday party on 9/11. The party was Downtown, and Fran lived in Midtown then, as she does now. New York was “closed”, as it said above the Holland Tunnel from Jersey to Manhattan: the only people out on the street were the police. So Fran located a senior NYPD detective badge that someone had given her – “highly illegal, I promised I would never wear it” – and put it on the lapel of her jacket. She passed freely through each barricade that night, and down towards the site of the blasts. For the first time in New York, she could hear her own footsteps.
“And then I saw the worst thing,” she recalls. “I heard this rumbling thunder, and coming up Eighth Avenue was a New York City bus. I couldn’t figure out what it was – there were no buses. And they’re lit, so when it’s dark, you really see inside them. And I stopped and looked up at the bus – and it was packed to the ceiling with body bags.”
She’s on the phone from her apartment in the Chelsea Mercantile, a pre-war block on Seventh Avenue above a Whole Foods store. No one sees inside Fran’s flat – not even Martin Scorsese’s film crew – but a phone call is vivid enough: you can hear the cut of her jaw, the nip of her straight little teeth, as the words roll forth, hoarse from cigarettes. Lebowitz’s landline has a resonance in 2021, being the only way that people can get hold of her. She screens your call, waiting till you leave a message before picking up the receiver. She arrives home to a flashing machine, just as she would have done after a night out at Studio 54.
A child of the 1950s with a 1930s sensibility, and a celebrated writer who has not published a new book in decades, Lebowitz was a hero of the pandemic when Scorsese’s Netflix series Pretend it’s a City became cult viewing. The show, which was filmed in 2019 and involved her riffing on the things that annoyed her most about New York, was both escape and eulogy: you watched her moan about tourists when there were none; complain about crowds when the city was boarded up, deserted. Now her publishers are issuing a collected works, owing to popular demand.
[see also: Everyone and no one belongs to New York]
“Anyone’s public image is really a cartoon,” Lebowitz once said. “The media pick out two or three things and they make a character. That image is exploited by oneself for personal gain.” The cigarettes, the jackets, the cowboy boots: a friend who lives near her in Chelsea tells me that if you see Fran strolling the streets, you tell friends you saw Fran, but you don’t tell Fran you saw Fran. It must be odd to be “discovered” when you’ve been there all the time: Lebowitz’s first essay collection, Metropolitan Life, came out in 1978. But to new fans, she is like a Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe unearthed – a new creature found deep at the bottom of the sea.
Illustration by Ryan McAmis
As a public speaker she makes a lucrative living. But who is she, and what does she do in that apartment all day? Lebowitz spends the first ten minutes of our call criticising the real estate situation in New York, the tax breaks for landlords that keep Fifth Avenue stores sitting empty, and that no one real can live in Manhattan. She is a living embodiment of the phenomenon whereby only if you love something enough are you fully qualified to slag it off. Like another famous New Yorker, Carrie Bradshaw, the principal relationship in her life is with Manhattan: she has not had a girlfriend for years; she doesn’t like, she explained, to hear someone else moving about her house.
Lebowitz once said that if she became mayor of New York she would stand on the city’s borders and send away those who arrived with only one suitcase (tourists) and welcome those with more than one (immigrants), as long as they were planning to stay. But she admits that today, young people – the class of society she has often claimed to have the least interest in – are actually able, at least temporarily, to move back from Brooklyn to Manhattan, taking advantage of a drop in rental prices. Lebowitz had been doing her grumpy act for 40 years but suddenly, her stubborn fixity is poignant – because everything is changing.
A president, Lebowitz says, should be in their fifties: “You pretty much know everything you’re going to know. And you’re still in excellent condition, you’re physically and cognitively fine, and you should be less excitable than when you’re in your twenties.”
The problem is that while you cannot be president before you’re 35, “anyone over 35 can be. So, there’s only two qualifications: you have to be over 35 and you have to be born in the United States. There are more qualifications to be a doorman.”
Joe Biden, whom she’s never liked, is not only too old but too old-fashioned, she thinks. “That’s not true of every old person. He really believed that he could get Republicans to cooperate on stuff, because he had in the past. But I – who have not been a senator and a vice-president – knew that that wasn’t going to happen. The Republicans have made very clear they have zero interest in governance. They don’t have things they want to do. They just have things they don’t want to happen. Someone a little less wedded to a bygone time would just say, ‘Forget about the Republicans – what can we do without them?’”
Lebowitz hated Bernie Sanders; she agreed with almost all his policies, but could not bear his shouting. She was a fan of Hillary Clinton – more so than Bill, whom she calls a Republican. And she wanted Elizabeth Warren for president (“zero chance”). Kamala Harris, she thinks, seems “shallow”.
“She always gives the expected answer. I don’t think Biden did her any favours by giving her immigration – obviously she’s doing a very poor job because, by the way, it’s an incredibly hard job. But I’m somewhat concerned about Kamala Harris. She’s very likely to be the candidate next time, because Biden can’t run again. And for sure, she couldn’t win.”
Why not? “Well, being a woman first of all,” Lebowitz says. “Even a dumb woman – which is the preferred woman in this country. The women that are most liked in this country are dead women. So, a live woman who is mixed-race and is a woman, I think she has zero chance.”
Who is the most popular dead woman in the US? “Oh, you know, it varies,” says Lebowitz, “but we’re living in an era where they’re constantly discovering women artists. ‘Oh, why didn’t she get attention?’ Well, because she was alive, and now that she’s safely dead, let’s say, ‘Isn’t she great?’”
Lebowitz’s natural vehicle is not a pen and paper but a rapt audience, 30 minutes of formal chat and an hour of questions from the floor. When you laugh at something she says, it seems to stoke her engine. She tells me the unvaccinated of the US are criminals, and she’s not joking. “We have in this country a huge number of people who are unbelievably stupid. Why don’t we deliver them to Jeff Bezos, let him take them to outer space and drop them off there?” People ask why she doesn’t just talk into a Dictaphone and publish what she speaks in order to make a new book; you talk in paragraphs, they tell her. “And I say, well, compared to some people. But not compared to paragraphs, by the way.”
She thinks 9/11 would never have happened “if we’d had a real president. We had George W Bush, if you recall – if Al Gore had been the president, it wouldn’t have happened. Because when the intelligence people said, ‘Bin Laden’s about to attack,’ he would have read it. So it’s always good to have a president who’s literate. We’ve now had two who can’t read.”
Covid would not have got to the US had Obama been president, she claims, for much the same reason. “Obama would have read the intelligence, ‘There is this virus in China,’ and it would not have come here – the same way he kept Ebola from coming here.” This is clearly bonkers, but Lebowitz is gifted in the art of presenting opinion as a statement of fact.
“People don’t seem to understand,” she concludes. “They say, ‘Oh, I don’t vote, all politicians are the same, it doesn’t matter.’ I say, ‘They’re not all the same. There’s always someone worse. Vote for the one that’s not worse, because it does always matter.’”
In her early twenties, Lebowitz wrote a short essay called “My Day: An Introduction of Sorts”, which set out her regular schedule. Starting at 12.35pm, there is a call from an agent in LA, “audibly tan”, suggesting she fly out at her own expense to discuss opportunities (“the only way I could get to Los Angeles at my own expense is if I were to go by postcard”). Between 12.55 and 1.20pm, there is an effort to get back to sleep. Then there is the reading, from bed, of bills, press releases and invitations to screenings. Three hours of books and smoking, and, at night, dinner out – with models and photographers. Followed by an attempt, at 2.05am, to work, which fails. The schedule, you suspect, has changed very little, but for the fact that Lebowitz no longer tries to write.
She grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, with her parents and sister, sharing a one-bed apartment with steam radiators and a lot of detective novels. Harold and Ruth Lebowitz were second-generation eastern European Jews born in New York City; Harold was an upholsterer, Ruth had been to college. There were music lessons for the two girls – which would never happen in Poland, Lebowitz once said: that was the kind of thing German Jews did.
Did she make her parents laugh? There is a little pause. “I have to say I was very frequently punished as a child for making these kind of remarks,” she says, meaning her wisecracks. “At big family dinners, it was rare that I was still at the table at the end of the meal. ‘Get up, leave the table,’” she barks. “You’re talking to someone who hardly ever had dessert. My father would say, ‘I don’t work hard all day to listen to your theories.’ Most of the things that I’ve got paid for in my adult life, I got punished for as a child.”
When her father died, she found, among his things, school report cards which criticised her constant questioning. At 17 she was expelled from her private girls’ school for reasons that remain vague, and as a punishment was sent to live in Poughkeepsie, upstate, with an aunt and uncle.
“My parents never forgave me,” Lebowitz says. “That was all they cared about, school, and it was the absolute worst thing they could imagine. It didn’t matter what else I did. It still would have been better if I’d gone to college.”
Her first writing job, upon arriving in Manhattan at the age of 18, was providing reviews of bad films for the trendy Changes magazine: she coped with that, because she had material to work with. A regular column for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine she found more difficult because she had to come up with the subjects: “He didn’t like me, I didn’t like him. I’m not the fan type,” she later told the same publication.
Andy Warhol and Fran Lebowitz at a party in New York in 1977. Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
She briefly wrote porn – straight porn, for men – and completed a book called House of Leather, for a company called Midway Press. It paid $500 and was published under the name Robert Paine Cooke, the headmaster who had expelled her from school. But writing porn was an effort, too: so many instructions, a long list of sex acts to cram in.
The sharp, clean satire of her early work has a Swiftian feel at times, with advice on “Breaking the Ice With Poorer People” (“buy them an expensive present”) and an essay called “Children: Pro or Con?”. The latter was dredged up in the moralistic Nineties when Lebowitz published a children’s book, as evidence that she was writing for an audience she disdained. She was not as popular then as she is now, and was criticised for her way of life, she once explained: real writers held academic positions; they didn’t go to catwalk shows and date models.
Her editor at Random House was Joe Fox, one of the most charismatic line-tweakers of his day, but from the outset she would not let anyone touch her copy. There is an obvious example of the unedited Lebowitz in a well-known piece she wrote for the New York Times in 1987, having been asked for her thoughts on the cultural impact of Aids on the artistic community. Lebowitz, who lost a swathe of her closest friends to the disease in her thirties, throws the pitch back at her editors, hammering the phrase out 12 times, as if to force its insensitivity. The writing is rugged with anger:
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that on New Year’s Eve Day a 36-year-old writer takes a 31-year-old photographer to get a chest X-ray and listens to him say with what can only be described as a certain guarded hope, “Maybe I just have lung cancer.’’
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer trying to make plans to go out of town flips through her appointment book and hears herself say, “Well, I have a funeral on Tuesday, lunch with my editor on Wednesday, a memorial service on Thursday, so I guess I could come on Friday, unless, of course, Robert dies.’’
Today, she still prickles at being asked about Aids, saying that young people – she means her interviewer – have no context for it: “They take what happens now, and try to transpose, but that’s not how the world is: it never was and it won’t be.” But she is more absurdist about the “cultural impact of Aids” in 2021, explaining it like this: “Because many of the people who died were artists, it allowed people who weren’t very talented to come to your attention and achieve tremendous success. There are people who’ve had huge careers that you never would have heard of without Aids. It’s as if all the Olympic athletes in the world died, and then they eventually got around to 70-year-old people who are not athletes, and they went to the Olympics instead. ‘Fran, how about you? You know how to swim?’ ‘Yes, I do know how to swim.’ ‘Do you think you could win the Olympics?’ ‘Well, if I’m going to compete against other 70-year-olds, yeah, probably!’ So that’s what happened to the culture, and it made the culture worse.”
Lebowitz is often described as a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe, who photographed her in the 1970s and gave her dozens of his portraits. But if she was his friend, she didn’t honour it after he was gone, explaining that he only plied her with his work to impress the photographer Peter Hujar, with whom she was close.
Hujar, like Mapplethorpe, would die of Aids – was dying, in fact, while she wrote her New York Times piece. Mapplethorpe was “silly” by comparison, she said; when she moved house in 1979 she decided it was time to get rid of his “junk” and threw away so many photos she couldn’t fit them all in the bin.
Although she enjoys making reference to the feverish ire that drives her world-view, there isn’t much in evidence when she’s up there on stage – just as it’s hard to get the measure of Lebowtiz’s neuroses, even though she says she’s full of them. She can’t sleep – never has done. “I have horrible, lifelong insomnia,” she says. “I feel like I’ve never slept my entire life. I just stay up. There’s nothing I can do.”
A while ago, she traced her insomnia back to her parents, who made her go to bed too early as a child, before she was tired. “Once, when I was in my forties, I said to my mother, ‘Why did you make me go to bed at 7.30 when I was 12 years old? I wasn’t tired and this has caused me to associate going to bed with being awake.’ My mother said, ‘Well, to tell you the truth, by 7.30, I just couldn’t listen to you any more.’”
Lebowitz’s childhood memories are heavy with being told to shut up: you sense a philosophical objection to the parenting style of the era. Yet, as is the case with many complicated people, she was also at her happiest as a child, and got rather stuck there, too. She wrote freely in those days, mimicking her favourite Nancy Drew novels (she loved the “lesbian character”, George). And it is in talking about reading, and books, that you get a sense of who Lebowitz really is, and what she does all day.
She has 11,000 books, in an apartment of 200 square metres. One passion is detective fiction, but the intellectual works slip by untrumpeted: she has read Swann’s Way by Proust four times, starting from the age of 12, buying and comparing each new translation.
“Hemingway I dislike,” she told the journal The Private Library a few years back. “Hemingway, to me, is fraudulent. I think that a writer that inspires you to fish instead of to write or read is not a great writer.” She would have been a fun professor, had she got into college.
Instead, Lebowitz is most excited talking about her dictionaries. Thirty years ago, when the second edition of the OED came out priced around $2,500, she knew it was the thing she wanted most in the world. She got it at a trade deal – then picked up the first edition, too, together totalling 30 volumes. She has had the second Webster’s Unabridged on her desk since childhood.
“I use it very frequently,” she adds. You wonder what for.
“The Fran Lebowitz Reader” is published by Virago on 2 September
[see also: Letter from New York: a ghost town comes to life]
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat