Fran Lebowitz on the Capitol siege, Times Square and Timothée Chalamet

Martin Scorsese’s documentary series Pretend It's a City is chock-full of the trademark acerbic wit of Lebowitz and, over a recent phone call, the writer and New York icon sounds off on Trump voters and her unwitting boy actor lookalike.

Fran Lebowitz won’t be making a bid to run in New York’s upcoming mayoral election, despite how good a fit she might be for the position. The key difference between her and any of the politicians currently holding office is that she has never owned a computer (nor a mobile phone) and so would never be caught dead embarrassing herself online.

During a recent conversation using her landline (of course), I spoke with the writer, humourist and subject of Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix series Pretend It’s a City two days after the attempted coup on the nation’s Capitol (in contrast to President-elect Joe Biden’s This is not America” rebuttal, Lebowitz offered: I have bad news for my fellow Americans: this is America”).

For decades now, Lebowitz has inflicted her singular wit and sardonic observations upon her fellow humans. She speaks reasonable politics and has contempt for politicians. She advocates for the arts and is a surveyor of the decline of American taste in art. Her takes are so surprising not because they’re out of touch, but because they’re so prescient and succinct that they can seem revelatory. It’s a minor miracle she’s still so well regarded in society, since she may be the only living writer who hasn’t published a book since the last millennium.

Raised in a Jewish household in New Jersey, at 18 Lebowitz left her hometown for Manhattan. My ambition was to move to New York,” she told me. She began her career writing movie reviews. First, at a small magazine called Changes, and then, with (or, if you ask her, against) Andy Warhol at Interview. She published two collections of comedic essays – Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, for which she was praised as the new Dorothy Parker” – in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has been leisurely at work on her debut novel ever since.

In 1974, Lebowitz was covering The New York Film Festival for Interview when she saw Italianamerican, a short documentary Martin Scorsese made about his parents, a couple of years before he helmed Taxi Driver.

I remember I was laughing so hard I could hardly breathe – and I was 24, so I could still breathe then,” said the famously heavy smoker.

Lebowitz and Scorsese later struck up a friendship. In 2010, they collaborated on the HBO documentary Public Speaking, in which Lebowitz is interviewed amongst clips from her public speaking engagements, from which she makes her living.

If Public Speaking reminded us that Lebowitz was still around, Pretend It’s a City, the pair’s follow-up series for Netflix, proves why her voice remains essential. Spread across seven episodes, Lebowitz and Scorsese muse on the long-gone glory days of the 1970s New York they came of age in. Though Lebowitz is quick to dispel much of this era as fodder for the nostalgia industrial complex, it’s clear that New York isn’t what it used to be; or, more regretfully, isn’t what it could be. The show works like a sedative. B‑roll of Lebowitz roaming around the city is spliced with footage from live audience Q&As (so, it’s a period piece), during which Scorsese poses topics for his subject to chew over, including public transit, smokers’ rights” and the wellness industry. About one-third of people in the street of New York have a yoga mat,” she says in an episode titled Department of Sports & Health. Carrying around a little, rolled-up rug? Really, New York used to be much more fashionable than that.”

It’s easy to take Lebowitz for granted, as she is omnipresent in the cobwebbed corners of pop culture. She’s a perennial talking head figure in documentaries, spanning such subjects as the New York City Ballet and the writer Toni Morrison, with whom she spoke on the phone every week until her death in 2018. She’s an occasional actress, having made cameos as a judge over the course of a decade in the Law & Order franchise (as well as in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street).

As a celebrity, Lebowitz contradicts the notion. Her stature within the zeitgeist is startling when pondered. To begin, she’s a writer who hasn’t published a book since before many of her new fans were even born – that is, the 1980s – aside from one children’s book in 1994. And aside from the two Scorsese documentaries, she’s never cashed in on her name for projects she didn’t believe in (and there have been many offers), and thus, is hardly ever promoting something when she does appear somewhere. She’s also not accessible, unless you have her number. Though, if you live in New York and you’re looking for Fran, she’s not particularly hard to find, perhaps in some alcove around Midtown, puffing into the final stretch of a Marlboro Light in the same bespoke Anderson & Sheppard blazer she’s worn since she got here. That is to say, she doesn’t particularly effuse warmth.

Thank God for Lebowitz (and if, like the writer herself, you’ve been an atheist since the age of seven, thank Scorsese then).

What do you make of the coup attempt on the Capitol and the threats of impeachment for Trump?

Well, like everyone else, I’m glad the coup failed. Unlike everyone else, I am not a person who is saying over and over again, This is not America.” I have bad news for my fellow Americans: this is America. This isn’t what America used to be, it’s not what we want America to be, but in fact, when something takes place in the capital of Washington, DC, what can be more American than that?

So are you thinking that Trump will or should resign?

Trump is not going to resign. Should [he] resign? I know that people think he’s crazy… [but] I have never thought he was crazy. People who think he’s crazy do not understand how stupid he is. Anything that could be wrong with a human being is wrong with Donald Trump. [There is] no aspect of humanity that he does not model the absolute worst of. The most dangerous thing about Donald Trump is and has always been how unbelievably stupid he is. And the reason that people who I know don’t seem to agree with me is that they just don’t know anyone this stupid.

And the people who follow him or support him? Equally stupid. Truthfully, you could take every single person who voted for Donald Trump and put them together and you would have the approximate IQ of one Democrat.

The relatively warm welcome that the [domestic terrorists] received by the police was disgusting. A friend of mine said that if that was Black Lives Matter, they would have arrested everyone. I said, No way.” The Capitol would have been littered with bodies. They would have shot everyone and they would’ve said, They’re breaking into the Capitol! They were menacing us! Self-defense.” And they would’ve gotten away with it, too.

What convinced you to participate in a follow-up to 2010’s Public Speaking?

If you may or may not have noticed, it was 10 years between these two things. So, Marty wanted to make another movie right away, and I did not want to do that because I thought, if someone made two documentaries in a row about a person, and that person wasn’t George Washington, I’d be rolling my eyes. I don’t want to ever do things that would make me roll my eyes at myself. Through the years we’ve talked about a lot of different things, and I don’t remember at which point Marty said, Well, what about this series?” And so I agreed to do it.

What’s your favourite Scorsese film?

I’m not a big person for favourites. I’m too old… but I’d say, among my favourite movies of Marty’s is The King of Comedy. I really love it. I love Casino. Silence is one of the greatest movies ever made, I think.

I loved your tirade against the gentrification of Times Square in Pretend It’s a City and I’m wondering, instead of reverting to the Panic in Needle Park 70s vibe, where you see Times Square going, if it could change by this point?

I mean, do I think it’ll go back to what it was before gentrification?

Sure.

No, I don’t think it will. But it certainly doesn’t have to go back to what it was before the virus. I know that right now there’s more than one room full of men plotting to make that happen. And I say men because I have no doubt that it’s men. I happen – and I know this is against the law – to not be a particular theatre fan.

There is no reason on earth why the theatre has to go back to what it was before the virus, why they can’t have good plays in Times Square. Plays that New Yorkers would like to see, like they used to go see them.

People say you can’t do that because you have to make it so expensive to put on a Broadway show, but it’s only so expensive to put on a Broadway show if you’re going to turn it into some idiotic spectacle. Then, yes, you have to charge $200 for a ticket, and lure these people who don’t even really like the theatre or even really like New York to come to plays made just for them to see this junk.

I’m certain that the people who could make that happen don’t want to. Because people can never think of anything new. The good thing about New York right now is that it’s gotten much less expensive. This will not last, so I would really urge everyone who would have liked to come to New York in the last 20 years, or the last year before the virus, to come. Because now you can come. And fix stuff up for us, please.

You mentioned in the series that you used to walk around the streets of New York barefoot, and I want to know how abnormal this would have been considered at the time and what made you stop.

I have to stress how young I was. I was 20 or 21. Not that that’s an excuse for being idiotic, but it was probably why I lived through it, because if you think New York is dirty now, you should’ve seen it then. I used to walk around barefoot a lot when I was a kid, in a very clean house, with a lawn that wasn’t a filthy city street, and I guess I just thought, Why not continue it?” I have no excuse for it. I really can’t remember why I did it, but it strikes me as being monumentally idiotic.

Were you an ambitious young person?

I was probably not [ambitious] in the way people mean it now. First of all, when I was young, people weren’t encouraged, period. My ambition was to live in New York. So I felt I had achieved my ambition just by living in New York. I always wanted to be a writer from the time I learned how to read, and so my ambition was, I’m going to live in New York and I’m going to be a writer.” And neither of these things were encouraged by my parents. They weren’t discouraged, they didn’t really pay attention. They just expected me to be a wife.

I guess I was ambitious, but not in the way people are now. And certainly, there was no such thing as interns. The intern was a doctor. So when they first invented interns, I remember a photographer friend of mine saying to me, There’s this thing they have where a student will come and work for you for free.” And I remember saying, Why would they do that? Are you kidding?” Yes. I have this kid, she works for me for free. Do you want one?” I said, No. Does that sound to you like slavery?” And I can assure you, I would not have been able to do that when I was young, because I didn’t go to college… I had to support myself. I think it’s a horrible thing, by the way.

Internships?

Yeah, I mean, it’s stupid for the people who are interns. It’s great for the people so-called employing them, because they don’t have to pay them.

Are you still working on your third book?

Uh, not at the moment. I mean, I’d have to say, to be honest, no. Do I still believe that I will, eventually? Yes. Is this belief based on actual fact? No.

Just hope.

That’s why it’s a belief.

In the series, you mentioned that you read new writers and I’m curious if you could share any that you’ve enjoyed.

I wish I could. Because, although I read them, I can’t recommend them. People are always telling me, You have to read this. This girl, she’s a genius.” And I’m always eager to do so because I love to read and I would be delighted if the world [was] filled with all these fantastic new writers, but it is not.

What brand of cigarettes do you smoke?

I smoke Marlboro Lights. You couldn’t tell, probably, because I don’t think there’s much of me smoking in the series, because I know that if I smoke in a film or photograph, that no one will pay attention to anyone else.

What’s your least favourite brand?

Well, menthol cigarettes I hate. I hate them. To me, it’s the wrong thing. If it’s sweet, there’s something wrong. However, if the choice is between the menthol cigarette and no cigarette, the menthol cigarette is fine.

In the series, you said that you have the worst real estate luck, and I’m wondering what advice you would give to buyers or renters in NYC.

Well, even though I’ve made horrible real estate decisions, that doesn’t mean that I cannot tell you what to do and be right. Basically, what I’d tell you to do is: don’t do what I do. Anything you see me do, don’t do that.

Yesterday, I asked [a girl] if she liked her apartment. She said, I kinda like it.” I said, You should move.” She said, Why?” I said, Because you can get a better apartment now for whatever you’re paying.” If you can afford to buy an apartment right now, buy one, and if you can afford to rent a better apartment right now, move. Because this is not going to last. I said to this girl, Here’s what I know: I know you can’t afford the apartment you’re in.” She said, Why would you say that?” I said, Because no one can afford their apartment in New York.” No one, except for a few zillionaires, can afford their apartment. So if you’re already paying for an apartment you can’t afford, pay for one that’s better!

You mentioned that you didn’t get along with Andy Warhol while you were at Interview, and I’m wondering if it came from a specific incident or a clash of personality.

Yeah, I would say there was no specific incident. I never had an argument with him. I doubt anyone ever had an argument with Andy. But, you know, I didn’t want to work at Interview because of Andy. I wanted to work at Interview because it was a magazine that I could publish in, as opposed to the big and important magazines that I’d have no chance of getting into. I didn’t have a good interest in hanging around with Andy, but I did notice that there was a very high rate of death of young people hanging around Andy. I don’t mean that he personally killed people, but I’m not an acolyte. I’m hardly even a fan of anyone, so a bunch of kids trailing after Andy, that was never me. He didn’t like me, that’s for sure. I’m not saying this was a one-way street. He didn’t like me at all and I didn’t like him, but I didn’t fight with Andy. I didn’t have any hostile issue with him at all.

If you’re not going to make your bid to run as mayor of NYC this year, I’m wondering who you’re planning to vote for.

There are a thousand people running for mayor, many of whom can be dismissed out of hand. I’m certain that I don’t know all of the people who’re running for mayor. It’s very important that the mayor is smart. I, of course, would love for it to be a woman, which we’ve never had. That would be great. I think that it would be very beneficial to New York to have a Black mayor, [as] we’ve had only one [David Dinkins], which is astonishing, considering the population of New York city. Eleanor Roosevelt would be very good to be the mayor. Or Thurgood Marshall. So I would like either one of them to be the mayor, but I do not expect them to be running.

Your thoughts on the culture that was lost due to the AIDS epidemic in Public Speaking were revelatory for me. You say that the arbiters of culture, the connoisseurship”, died with the AIDS epidemic, and that the second and third and fourth tiers of connoisseurs then rose to become the arbiters of taste. Do you think that effect has remained on the culture? How do we reverse it?

It had a definite effect on the culture. The effect on the culture is not repairable. Of course, for the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve been living in this tenth-grade culture”, made by the people who didn’t die of AIDS. The audience for any art form is collaborative with the artist. And if you know that the people reading you or watching your play or movie or whatever are very knowledgeable, that increases your ability to perform.

Also, the culture changed as it would have anyway, but certain ways in which the culture changed was because of AIDS. In other words, I never heard the phrase gay marriage” until there was AIDS. Who’d have thought of such a thing? Very often, people who are young thank me. Thank you, Fran! I know you fought so hard for gay marriage.” Not only did I not fight for gay marriage, it never crossed my mind. Who wants to get married?

The terror that existed at the height of the original AIDS epidemic scared people to death. If you didn’t die or didn’t get sick, you thought, Well, maybe I shouldn’t live like this. Maybe if I’d live like the straight people live, in this delightful prison of marriage, maybe that would help me.”

I always have to point out to people who are young that it was illegal to be gay when I was young. If you take out the legality, you have not just the disapproval but the hatred of straight people, which was freely offered. So, probably, [gay marriage] was a way to deal with that. No, no, I’m not this horrible person that you think I am. I’m just like you.” And of, course, we weren’t just like them, and now we are. [But] not me.

There’ve been a few photos of you circulating on Twitter recently. In one, you’re sitting on a bench amongst a group of young girls, and the caption reads, I literally thought this was Timothée Chalamet”, referring to you. Do you know who that is, and have you gotten that before?

No one ever told me this before. I know who it is, mainly because I met him once in a restaurant. It never would have occurred to me [that] I look like him. When I was younger, people used to say I looked like Marc Jacobs. So no, I had no knowledge of this. This is one of the great advantages of not having the Internet.

Pretend It’s A City is now streaming on Netflix.


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