Fran Lebowitz’s New York State of Mind

·11 min read
Drew Jarrett for ES Magazine (Drew Jarrett for ES Magazine)
Drew Jarrett for ES Magazine (Drew Jarrett for ES Magazine)

There are few things, or few people, more New York than Fran Lebowitz. For more than 50 years (she moved to the city from Morristown, New Jersey, in 1970), her astute observations and witty repartee, by way of books, public speaking and social commentary, have made her a Big Apple icon. Bullishly stubborn about protecting a city constantly under threat from gentrification and politics, Lebowitz is a believer in a New York that’s now extinct: one where you could smoke wherever you wanted and all restaurants served non-cooking New Yorkers like herself breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Famously since her releases of Metropolitan Life in 1978 and Social Studies in 1981, she has had an extreme form of writer’s block, self-dubbed ‘writer’s blockade’. But during the pandemic, as her beloved city ground to a halt, Lebowitz found a new, dedicated following thanks to her good friend Martin Scorsese casting her in Pretend it’s a City, the seven-part Netflix series that’s part documentary, part hot takes from two titans of New York who loosely follow the themes of money, books (she proudly has 12,000 and counting) and the city’s transit. The series connected her to a generation of young fans, not that she has technically seen the show. ‘I didn’t watch. I don’t have wi-fi connection,’ she says dryly. ‘Marty takes a thousand years to edit anything and there were 5,000 versions of it. He also thinks I have the same attention to detail as him, [asking] “Did you notice, I took two seconds of a ray of sunshine out of this version… NO!”’

Lebowitz is on fine form when the two of us meet on the Manhattan set of ES Magazine’s cover shoot, dressed in her signature navy Anderson & Sheppard blazer and custom Hilditch & Key shirt, brown cowboy boots and true, blue Levi’s 501s, after what can be described only as a day of peaks and valleys. She suffered a fall in the 76th Street subway station and outlines the incident in hilarious detail.

‘So when you wear your mask and your glasses, they get foggy. I was running to make a train and fell, and course, no one offered to help,’ she says, a nod to New Yorkers’ notoriously unaffected demeanour. ‘I was upside-down, my head down on the ground and my legs in the air… and I was saying, “Please help. Please help me!” It happened to be like an off hour. There weren’t a lot of people, right? Finally, I see up at the top of the stairs, two girls, they look down, they talk to each other and they walk away. They don’t even go down the stairs. When I finally got myself up, I was very dizzy. There’s two guys standing right there. They said they thought I was drunk or homeless… [even] if I was drunk, I still fell. I mean, no one is lying there like that out of comfort. Especially not someone so well dressed!’

Post fall, on a sticky early summer’s day at rush hour on Manhattan’s West Side, Lebowitz (who refuses hair and make-up) is less concerned with the photographer’s hope for a shot with the New Yorker sign at the Wyndham Hotel before sundown than making it to dinner on time. ‘I love to eat but I hate to cook,’ (she refuses to reveal her favourite restaurant as it’s ‘crowded enough’). ‘You know, no one loves restaurants more than me. No one’s more dependent. I am telling you there’s no worse food in New York than my apartment. Someone asked me what’s the best food in New York, I said I don’t know the best, but I know the worst.’

 (Drew Jarrett and ES Magazine)
(Drew Jarrett and ES Magazine)

Raised by Jewish parents who owned an upholstery store in the Garden State, Lebowitz admits she was a reckless student. She avidly read and failed algebra and ultimately was kicked out of high school for ‘nonspecific surliness’. She embarked on a series of odd jobs such as taxi driving, belt peddling, pornography writer and apartment cleaning, with a speciality in Venetian blinds. At 20 she moved to an apartment in the West Village with no kitchen, only a bar fridge, a hot plate and no sink. After writing movie and book reviews for Susan Graham Ungaro’s magazine Changes (she the wife of jazz musician Charles Mingus), a certain Andy Warhol tapped Lebowitz to work at his magazine, Interview, where she rapidly became part of the 1970s New York scene, regularly in the company of Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz and John Waters.

‘New York in the Seventies has become this thing for kids today, probably because so many of us aren’t around,’ Lebowitz says, soberly. ‘When we were young, first it was drugs, then Aids. So many people my age died. I don’t mean people just dying of old age — when we were very young. So I’m like the last person around. Maybe not the last, but one of the few last people around…

After penning the books, she quickly became something of a New York City celebrity, famed for her ability to wax lyrical on pretty much any topic. Her aforementioned writers blockade has meant the large advance she received from Random House to write novel Exterior Signs of Wealth in 1985 remains unpaid and she makes the majority of her income through speaking engagements. ‘I’ve always worked from home. On the other hand, here’s the downside of working from home: you don’t get paid every week. Though there does come a time when you can’t do anythingunless you die. And I don’t know when I will die. I have noidea. The people who do know when they’ll die, those are the saddest people.

‘So I’m glad not to know, but right now, I’m making a lot of money doing the speaking dates. On the other hand, right now my lifetime savings is turning to dust in the stock market. So I did a last day with my editor, who also has an MBA from Columbia, and I said, “Oh, here’s how much I lost last month in the stock market.” He said, “It’ll come back.” When? He said, “Well, I don’t know that.” I said, in a year? He said, “No. Two years?” Maybe, but by five years… I’m 71!’

Her speaking tour will see her leave her Chelsea apartment in Manhattan for the Barbican here in July for a run of shows that will shift from the everyday to the downright absurd. Lebowitz has not been to London since 1979. ‘I’m going to tell you the truth. I went to London when Metropolitan Life came out in the English edition or British, whatever you call it. And I had been there once before and I would say every single or almost every review that I got, good or bad, had the word Jewish in the first sentence and I was shocked by this. I was really shocked. I don’t write about my religion. And it didn’t matter whether it was a good review or a bad review. And I said, I’m never coming back here and I never did. And that’s a long time, okay?

‘When this Netflix thing came out, there was a tremendous amount of favourable response from the UK, which really I had to say was startling. Of course, British literature is the best writing. I always say to people, it’s their language. Why are English people such good writers? It’s their language. It is their language. They invented it. They’re the best, no question. It’s really, in lots of ways — I’m sure most people would agree — a different language than American. I know tons of English people, it’s just a lot of them live here.’

With her passion and knowledge of all things New York, I ask if she would ever consider running for office. ‘I would love to be the mayor of New York. But I have a very particular audience. I did two speaking dates in New York a couple weeks ago. And I don’t know how many people that place holds, like 1,800. And I looked out into the crowd and I thought: I couldn’t win this room. And these people paid to come see me!’ she laughs. While we giggle at the thought of her fantasy life as a public servant, things take a more serious turn when we talk about the precarious state of American politics.

With the US Supreme Court recently reversing the decision on Roe v Wade (the landmark ruling that protects a woman’s right to have an abortion in the United States) to devastating effect — particularly for low-income and ethnic minority women — society looks like it is regressing. ‘The angering thing is that it’s not us. It is them. And I know you’re not supposed to say this. I know everyone’s supposed to be united together, but it’s not even a majority of the country. Yeah. Apparently according to the polls — which I know are not perfect, but they’re more perfect than Republicans — something like 67 per cent of the country is for maintaining Roe v Wade. Okay. That is a very large majority. I have many friends who had illegal abortions and it is horrible. Okay. And here’s the other thing, which I’m sure everyone knows but they don’t say often enough: abortion is not about babies. It’s about women. It’s never been about babies. It is not about babies. It is about women. And I mean, the Republicans are becoming the Taliban, you know?

 (Drew Jarrett and ES Magazine)
(Drew Jarrett and ES Magazine)

‘Recently I drove from Cleveland to Cincinnati and then from Cincinnati to Indianapolis. And I saw the abortion billboards one after another. There’s one that says, “Babies are a gift from Jesus.” What about the other babies? Gifts from Buddha? Gifts from Mohammed? And the pictures of babies that they show you! They’re all these blue eyed, blonde babies. So these are the babies apparently they’re very interested in, and there was one that said every abortion stops a human heart. But these are the most heartless people who ever lived!’ Needless to say, she is a ferocious opposer to the Republican Party and goes into great detail about why, when given the chance.

‘They still are mad about the Civil War! They still wish it was 1850! Look at how Covid was handled — we will never be free of it. And it’s not just the United States. It’s also Hungary. It’s also, there’s other countries following this lead. And this drive toward authoritarianism is always in people. And the problem with democracy is it’s unnatural. Democracy is not natural to people. What’s natural to people is monarchy and authoritarianism. And if you just watch a bunch of little kids playing in a playground, especially boys, you see what that is in five seconds. The biggest, strongest, meanest boy is in charge. Okay. And then the little smaller, weaker or more vulnerable boys are afraid of that boy. And that is when I say human nature, that’s men. Okay. And I mean, girls are better, not perfect, but better — but also not in charge.’

Despite her disdain for the current political climate, Lebowitz does see some hope. As we walk towards her car, she pauses for a much-needed cigarette while a girl raises prayer hands in our direction and professes her love for Lebowitz. ‘These really young kids are extremely organised. I know this sounds like I’m making it up but I’m not. I don’t know where I was because I’ve been so many places, but a girl in the audience where I was speaking raised her hand, she said, “I’m 22. Can you recommend a good retirement plan?” And I’m like, is she joking?

‘I said, I don’t have one yet. Otherwise if I did I wouldn’t be standing here.’ After a couple of years in intense flux, there is something incredibly comforting about Lebowitz who has always observed, watched and asked, and always will. ‘Just because the world changes doesn’t mean you do.’ And off to dinner she goes.

Tickets on sale now for Fran Lebowitz’s London shows on April 23 & 24 2023 at the London Palladium,www.fane.co.uk/fran-lebowitz-tour

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