The Voice: Fran Lebowitz
The way the admissions director of Harvard decides who goes to Harvard, I’d like to decide who comes here. I’d like to be admissions director of New York. And you know what we have enough of? Bankers. I’m sorry, we’re full up. FRAN LEBOWITZ
All-around cultural oracle Fran Lebowitz really began her ascent to that pulpit here at Interview, in 1972, writing a wonderful column about terrible movies, and then covering the waterfront, as she called it: opining on sundry topics, giving advice, ranting, reflecting, and hooking the reading world (such as it is) on that voice—that saucy, salty, intrepid, enchanting, and hilarious voice. In person, that voice pours out in great glittering riffs (on politics and personal space, on AIDS, the ’80s, New York, and everything in between) that set Lebowitz atop our list of dream dinner-party guests and probably put her in the running for greatest talkers ever. In conversation with Interview pal Francesco Clemente, Lebowitz here lays out her tongue-in-cheek platform for a mayoral run, declares the Donald’s run done, and explains why New York is the greatest place in the world.
FRANCESCO CLEMENTE: After a certain age, in the early hours of the morning, the pressure drops, which is the reason why—
FRAN LEBOWITZ: The blood pressure or the air pressure?
CLEMENTE: The blood pressure will drop. And that’s the reason why a person of a certain age wakes up early morning with a slight sense of anxiety.
LEBOWITZ: This has happened to me my whole life. But, of course, I’ve always been old at heart.
CLEMENTE: But if you drink a little bit of coffee before you go to sleep, this doesn’t happen.
LEBOWITZ: But what about the caffeine? No effect?
CLEMENTE: No, I can sleep. Since we are on the pages of Interview magazine, should we go back to your beginnings at Interview? You published Metropolitan Life in installments in Interview. Correct?
LEBOWITZ: That’s kind of backwards. I started writing for Interview in 1971 or ’72, and eventually some of my columns became Metropolitan Life. The first thing I did was a movie review column, just bad movies, called “Best of the Worst.” There used to be a company called AIP, American International Pictures—they mostly made movies for drive-ins; some of them would come to Times Square. So I would go to these AIP screenings. Me and, like, five of what I then thought of as old men—they were probably 40—smoking cigars, watching these movies. And I reviewed those. I did that for a couple of years.
CLEMENTE: And the illustrations were by Marc Balet?
LEBOWITZ: That was later, for my next column, “I Cover the Waterfront.” That was after I met Marc. I met Marc in . . . I would say maybe ’74, ’75. And he did those illustrations. We would think of them together, and then he would execute them.
CLEMENTE: What were his illustrations like? I never saw those issues.
LEBOWITZ: It really depended. At one point, I don’t know why I had this idea, but it was probably after Andy did those big Maos—I had this idea to do this wallpaper of Mao, and we made this fake wallpaper. That was one. Karl Lagerfeld did this, I don’t know what you’d call it, this project, where he and his publishing company made this crate. This must be about 15 years ago. They were these huge hardcover books that were different aspects of Interview. One of them was my columns. And that is the only place I have those columns, because when I moved from my first horrible apartment, I had every Interview, ever. Even ones that preceded me. But since that apartment was infested with roaches, I decided not to bring them to my nice, new apartment.
CLEMENTE: Since we are New Yorkers, we should talk real estate. Why was your first apartment so horrible, apart from the roaches?
LEBOWITZ: I mean, because I had no money. See, then, if you had no money, you had a horrible apartment. Now, even if you have money, you can have a horrible apartment. It was on West Fourth Street, between Jane and 12th. Now you’d have to have a zillion dollars to live there. It was one room, but that makes it sound grander than it was. It was minute. The building is still there. It was originally built as a sailor’s rooming house, because it’s very close to the river. And a rooming house is different than a boarding house because there were no kitchens. So I didn’t have a kitchen.
CLEMENTE: You didn’t have a kitchen, but I doubt that you cook.
LEBOWITZ: I don’t cook. But when I say no kitchen, I mean no sink. Okay? There was a sink in the bathroom. But I moved into that apartment in 1970 or ’69; there was no ceiling in the bathroom. I saw the super once, just when I moved in, and I pointed out to him there was no ceiling in the bathroom. He said they’d fix it. When I moved out nine years later, there was no ceiling in the bathroom. There may, in fact, still be no ceiling in the bathroom.
CLEMENTE: And when you wrote these columns, how did you go about that? Did you write it at the last minute?
LEBOWITZ: Yes, the night before. Every single one. This is why I have problems with books, because you cannot do that the night before. For the movie review columns, I always knew exactly what I was going to write about—the movies. But for “I Cover the Waterfront,” ordinarily I would go out to dinner with Marc the night before—and when I say dinner, I mean some hamburger place or something—and I would think of ideas, and then I would go home. I never would start writing before midnight and I would finish at, like, seven in the morning. And then I would go out, get Marc coffee and a Danish, bring it to his apartment, and he would type it for me, because I never had a typewriter.
CLEMENTE: So everything that you write is written by hand?
LEBOWITZ: Yes. Everyone I know says, “Fran is a Luddite, she doesn’t have a computer.” But I never had a typewriter. I never had any machines. I didn’t know how to type, Marc knew how to type. I don’t know how—because when I was young, boys didn’t type. I would read it to him, because you can’t read my writing. And he would type it. And then I would go to the Factory and turn it in. I did every single one like that. Once I got the contract for Metropolitan Life, I started writing longer things, because the editor said, “You can’t write these little, tiny things.” I have the exact opposite problem of every writer I’ve ever met: Every writer I’ve ever met writes things that are too long, and they have to edit them down.
CLEMENTE: One of my favorite things that you ever published was something that came out at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when the amount of nonsensical, prejudiced, ridiculous things being said was really extraordinary, and you came up with a few paragraphs that really nailed the situation.
Holding a grudge is the modern equivalent of having standards. Because if people don’t hold grudges, it means they just don’t care what people do.FRAN LEBOWITZ
LEBOWITZ: It was for The New York Times. I remember what year that was. It was ’87. I remember it because when I started publishing, I got offers to write for big magazines. Interview, at the time, six people read it, believe me. But I would always say, “Well, it’s not that I don’t want to write for these big magazines, but you can’t edit it.” And they would always say, “What are you talking about?” And then they would name thousands of geniuses who willingly submitted to being edited. And I said, “Well, I don’t really care. You can’t do it.” So I remember I said, “Look, if you don’t like it, give it back to me. You don’t have to pay me.” She said, “It is out of the question that this is going to come in without needing editing.” And when I gave it in, she called to apologize. But a lot of people didn’t like that piece and were angry at me. People were pretty angry in general then. I don’t think I was still writing for Interview, but once you go outside your natural audience, there are tons of people that don’t like you. The New York Times, especially at that time, was gigantic. I remember it because they gave me the topic: What was the effect of AIDS on the culture? Which, in my opinion, was: What is culture without gay people? This is America, what is the culture? Not just New York. AIDS completely changed American culture. People always say “pop culture.” As if we have some high culture to distinguish it from. The effect of AIDS was like a war in a minute country. Like, in World War I, a whole generation of Englishmen died all at once. 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. I know I’ve said this before, but the audience for the arts—whether it was for writing or films …
CLEMENTE: Or ballet.
LEBOWITZ: Or ballet. The knowing audience also died and no longer exists in a real way. So all the judgment left at the same time that all this creativity left. And it allowed people who would be fifth-rate artists to come to the front of the line. It decimated not just artists but knowledge. Knowledge of a culture. There’s a huge gap in what people know, and there’s no context for it anymore.
CLEMENTE: What aspect of New York do you think has really fundamentally changed?
LEBOWITZ: Money. And it’s not just New York; it’s the whole world. I know this sounds insane, but I just hate it. I hate money. It is boring and it is arithmetic. The two things I hate the most.
CLEMENTE: You were not good at math in school?
LEBOWITZ: No. Not just in school; I count on my fingers still. But, I mean, no one talked about money. No one I knew talked about money. It’s not an area of interest. And, of course, New York was always more expensive than any other place in the United States, but you could live in New York—and by New York, I mean Manhattan. Okay? Brooklyn was the borough of grandparents. We didn’t live well. We lived in these horrible places. But you could live in New York. And you didn’t have to think about money every second. First of all, there were a zillion bad jobs. That doesn’t exist any more. I mean, I could wake up one afternoon with zero money—I don’t just mean in the house, I mean to my name—and know that by the end of the day, I would have money. There were just tons of these … and I never waited tables.
CLEMENTE: Didn’t you drive a taxi?
LEBOWITZ: I drove a cab. But all the girls I knew when I was young who had to work—there were rich girls—but the ones who had to work were waitresses. Because you could always get shifts in a restaurant. And you would have cash at the end of the day. Everyone was paid in cash. But I just can’t smile at people for money.
CLEMENTE: Did you talk with the clients of your cab? Did you find subject matter in your taxi rides?
LEBOWITZ: I would talk to them, but luckily when you drive a cab there are two things: You don’t have a boss in the cab with you, and you are not facing the people that you are making money from. So they would talk to me. Especially because I was the only girl. I was really young. The thing that would irk me the most—aside from driving the cab; as you know, I’m very lazy, I hate to work—people would say, “Was that a good job?” I hate all jobs, okay? I’ve never had a job I liked. But because I was young, I had this long hair, and people used to try to tip me with joints. And I would always give it back. For two reasons: First of all, I stopped taking drugs when I was 19, and who wants to drive a cab around New York with drugs in their car? But, third of all, I used to say, “I just can’t go into a deli and order a roast beef sandwich and give them this.”
CLEMENTE: Did you take drugs before you were 19?
LEBOWITZ: I drank my lifetime supply of alcohol and I took my lifetime supply of drugs between the ages of 15 and 19. I believe that at birth everyone gets the capacity for a certain amount of drugs and alcohol, everyone the same, you can do it all between 15 and 19 like I did, or you can stretch it out over 70 years. But at a certain point, you hit your limit, and that’s it. I hit my limit at 19, and I haven’t had any since. Which is why I remember things. No one else remembers things from this whole period, but I wasn’t high. Everybody else was.
CLEMENTE: I think in your life you’ve said no more than yes. Why is that?
LEBOWITZ: It may just be the offers I’ve had, but generally, I think there’s just more to say no to. That’s really interesting. No one has ever said it that way. I mean, there are fewer good things than bad things.
CLEMENTE: Do you think you’re the manifestation of integrity?
LEBOWITZ: I think one manifestation of integrity is holding a grudge. Saying no is a little different. Holding a grudge is the modern equivalent of having standards. Because if people don’t hold grudges, it means they just don’t care what people do.
CLEMENTE: I know you follow politics, and I always thought you would make an excellent mayor of New York.
LEBOWITZ: I have thought that, too.
CLEMENTE: If you were going to run for office in New York, what would be your program, and what kind of qualifications would you declare you have?
LEBOWITZ: The first thing I would do is say, “I don’t care if New York avoided bankruptcy by substituting tourism for the garment business,” which is what happened. These four guys figured out how to lift New York out of this dire financial condition with the campaign “I Love NY.” I hated this thing. They used the big Big Apple sign to lure these people who hate New York—because everyone hated New York then—to New York. And in order to do that, you have to change it so they like it. Obviously, I was opposed to this, and I still am. The other day I read that last year 58 million tourists came to New York … where a puny eight million people are trying to live. Unless they own a hotel chain, I don’t think a single one of these eight million people are happy about this. Without these tourists, New York would be fantastic. I don’t want them to come. Stay home! I have a double policy, which would also solve immigration: I would stand at the border of New York City and I would say, “You can come here to live, but you can’t come here to visit.” If you’re coming here, you better be immigrating. Immigrants are good, tourists are bad. I would stand at the border and say, “You’re coming here to live, really? With one suitcase? No, you’re not. Go back.” I think that would solve both problems. And just think how fantastic New York would be. The housing problem would be solved completely. Bloomberg was always bragging how many hotels were being built—I remember seeing him on the news, saying, “And this is the nine millionth hotel in Queens.” Queens! Because it’s everyone’s dream: “Someday I’m going to go to New York and go to Queens.” Every place there’s a hotel, there’s one less apartment building. So just think, if there were, say, only 10 percent of the hotels that exist now, there would be all these apartments for people who live in New York, as opposed to people visiting New York. And then all this junk in the theater, we would no longer need the kind of stuff that tourists like. People say, “Well, what would you do with Times Square?” And I always think, “Gee, I don’t know. There could be butchers and bookstores.” Like a city. Things that New Yorkers need. There’s no reason why it has to be the way it is. People say, “Oh, did you like New York better when it was filthy and dangerous?” No. But why do these things have to be either/or? Couldn’t it be clean, or cleaner. I mean, New York’s not exactly antiseptic. It could be clean and less dangerous, and not horrible, not under a tidal wave of tourists.
I’m the world’s greatest daughter. I’m a great relative. I believe I’m a great friend. I’m a horrible girlfriend. I always was.FRAN LEBOWITZ
CLEMENTE: You failed to describe your qualifications to be mayor of the city.
LEBOWITZ: Here are my qualifications: I am a New Yorker. I like New York. And I like cities. And it’s not my desire to make New York more suburban. I would personally just like to vet each person. The way the admissions director of Harvard decides who goes to Harvard, I’d like to decide who comes here. I’d like to be the admissions director of New York. And you know what we have enough of? Bankers. I’m sorry, we’re full up. No, no, no. You have an idea for an app? Go to California.
CLEMENTE: You’re a New Yorker, but you were raised in New Jersey, no?
LEBOWITZ: Yes, I was born in New Jersey and I lived in New Jersey until I was 18. Then I moved here.
CLEMENTE: Is there any aspect of New Jersey that you miss?
LEBOWITZ: No. [Clemente laughs] I mean, the great thing about New Jersey is that it’s close to New York.
CLEMENTE: One of my favorite quotes of yours is when you said that you’ve never been in a relationship for longer than six months, because you didn’t want to switch from boredom to contempt.
LEBOWITZ: I never remember saying that, but I would have to abridge that. Because I could not possibly be in a relationship now for more than six days. When I was younger, I might have said six months, although I think the longest relationship I was ever in was three years. But what I can’t be is monogamous. That tends to upset people. I just don’t like domestic life. That’s the problem. When I was young, I liked romance. But to me, romance is the opposite of domestic life. I just don’t want anyone in the apartment, not for longer than a few hours. Three or four hours, okay, fine. I just don’t want to hear someone else walking around. I am alternately very gregarious—very sociable—and then very solitary.
CLEMENTE: But don’t you love being in someone else’s apartment, possibly someone you don’t know well or know at all?
LEBOWITZ: I used to. The good thing about being in someone else’s apartment is it’s so much easier to leave than it is to get someone out. There are certain relationships I think I’m great at: I’m the world’s greatest daughter. I’m a great relative. I believe I’m a great friend. I’m a horrible girlfriend. I always was. I’m great at the beginning, because I can be very romantic. But, I mean, years ago I had a girlfriend who summed me up perfectly. She said, “You know what it’s like being with you? At the beginning, every day, you asked me a hundred questions about myself. Then 50 questions, then 20 questions, then, finally, you said, ‘Can you see I’m trying to read?’ ”
CLEMENTE: [laughs] Let’s talk about your twenty thousand books.
CLEMENTE: Ten thousand books.
LEBOWITZ: I only know how many there are because for the last several years I’ve moved every five minutes, so they’re counted. I get rid of the ones that I can bear to give up or never wanted to begin with. I have about ten thousand. And people are constantly telling me, whether they are friends who feel sorry for me, because I can’t find a place to live, or real estate agents, “You can’t afford an apartment the size you need with this many books. Why don’t you just put some of your books in storage?” And I always say the same thing: “What if I told you I had four children? Would you say, ‘You just can’t afford to house four children. Why don’t you just put two of them in storage?'” That’s how I feel.
CLEMENTE: How do you keep ten thousand books in order, do you have a personal librarian?
LEBOWITZ: When I move, I do. He packs them, and then every time you move, they have to be put in different ways. I have a number of bookcases, big wooden bookcases with glass doors; most of them are 19th century. So every time I move, they have to be moved around, and I always fight with this guy when we do this, because he is a private librarian, which means, generally, he works for very rich people who never read their books. So we always have this fight, because I have a biography section, and he doesn’t like that, because it’s so inelegant to have a biography section. What you’re supposed to have is, say, all Henry James’s novels and the letters, which is more elegant. But you need more room to do that. So should I win the lottery, I will have that type of library. But so far I have not. So they’re in alphabetical order, within each section. I can put my hand on any book in the whole house; I know where they are. And I read them. I use them frequently. I’m very vilified for this, I have to say. It’s the thing that I’m most criticized for. At least to my face. Things that people will say to me, mostly, is that you shouldn’t have all these books. It’s too expensive.
CLEMENTE: Have you been following the presidential campaign?
LEBOWITZ: I’m following it, but in a way, I also feel the way I feel about the Kardashians: I feel like it’s following me. I’ve never seen the Kardashians; I’m not sure who they are. But I know a lot about them because it’s impossible not to. And I feel this way more and more about the Republican candidates, certainly. If I lived in another country, like a country that was, say, an enemy of the United States, I would be more amused than I am. I mean, it is pretty shocking. On the other hand, in the last few weeks, a couple of times I had dinner with people where I was the only American at the table, and I was yelled at for Donald Trump, like he was my fault. Donald Trump is not my fault. You can blame certain things on me, but not Donald Trump. Like everyone else, I never imagined Donald Trump would get this far. As a Democrat, I’d quite like him to be the candidate. He’s not going to be president. I firmly believe that. They also deserve him as candidate, all these so-called mainstream Republicans—I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. They’re all right-wing nuts. They’re acting as if the other people are Abraham Lincoln. New Yorkers, we’ve seen Donald Trump for, like, 30 years; we know who he is. So he wasn’t a surprise to me. But all the rest of them were, including Jeb Bush. I had an ingrained hatred of Jeb before I ever saw him. For numerous reasons. One of which is that I strongly object to having more than one generation of a family being president. I mean, that is why we had that little war with England. I had always heard that Jeb Bush was the smart one. He was the one that was supposed to be president. Like there is an American family where someone’s supposed to be president. No one’s supposed to be the president. This is not England. And it’s not just the Bush family, all families designate each child as having some particular trait. Like, this is the smart one, this is the pretty one. And the truth is that most families have no smart ones and no pretty ones. Most families are a bunch of unattractive dopes. And it turns out that the Bush family, like most families, has no smart ones. I was not surprised to see this.
CLEMENTE: There was a brilliant article by Régis Debray—he was a guerrilla guy with Che Guevara—saying that, since the election of the American president has an effect on the life of every citizen of the planet, all citizens of the planet should vote.
LEBOWITZ: Well, you know, so few Americans vote that we may not even notice it. It’s very important who the president of the United States is. America is a great idea, so that’s why it’s a great country. China is not a great idea: capitalism and a dictator. It’s like the two worst possible things you could imagine together. It’s a very bad idea. And it’s also not a modern idea; dictators are an old-fashioned idea. Capitalism, pretty old-fashioned, too. But it’s important who the president is. And even when America is not working that well, it still works better than other places. For instance, I, unfortunately, take the subway a lot. It’s not my preference, but it is my lot in life. You sit or stand in the subway, and you look around—I do, because I don’t have a phone so I’m not playing a game—and you see people. You see a young girl wearing a headscarf, and standing next to her is a Hasid. And if you asked them, “Do you like that Jew?” She would say, “No, I hate him.” “Do you like that girl in the head scarf?” “No, I hate her.” But here’s the great thing about New York: They leave each other alone. So in New York we have zillions of different kinds of people, many of them hate each other, but violence based on that hatred is really uncommon here. This idea that people have to love and understand each other is absurd. It’s not human nature. But this idea that people cannot kill each other? It actually works here. More than it works in any other place. We have something here that you don’t hear about anymore; we have tolerance. Tolerance is really a better thing than understanding. Because it doesn’t agitate against human nature. Like love does. Or acceptance or understanding. Not only don’t they not understand people different from them, they hardly understand themselves. It’s placing too great a burden on the average intelligence. So forcing people into a situation where they’re supposed to adore each other is probably bad. But letting people get on and off the 6 train without stabbing each other, that’s good.
FRANCESCO CLEMENTE’S LARGE-SCALE INSTALLATION, ENCAMPMENT, WILL TRAVEL TO EVELEIGH, AUSTRALIA, THIS SUMMER.