WHO CARES IF FRAN LEBOWITZ ISN’T WRITING, AS LONG AS SHE KEEPS TALKING?
Fran Lebowitz has been hilariously deconstructing the American landscape for decades with a signature sneer that peppers her essays, interviews and Public Speaking, a documentary made by Martin Scorsese.
Born in 1950, Lebowitz decamped from Morristown, N.J., after being thrown out of high school for insubordination. She pursued a variety of jobs, including driving a taxi, cleaning houses and selling ads for a magazine, all the while observing the iconic world of 1970s New York. By the age of 21 she was penning a column called “I Cover the Waterfront” for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Her biting tone and rapier wit won her a dedicated following and her essays were collected in two volumes, 1978’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies.
Since then, she has scowled and prognosticated on subjects as diverse as children, travel, insomnia, politics, her love for her 1979 pearl gray Checker Marathon automobile, and the state of the world. In 2007 Vanity Fair named Lebowitz one of the year’s most stylish women (she has her tailored suits and jackets made by Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard). But there have been no new books. Decades ago, Lebowitz sold a book proposal for a novel called Exterior Signs of Wealth. In theory, it is about artists who want to be rich and their obverse, the fabulously wealthy who yearn to be artists. In her usually self-deprecating way, Lebowitz describes her failure to write not as writer’s block but rather “writer’s blockade.”
On a rainy day at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, Lebowitz talked to Watch!, between cigarette breaks, about … well, everything.
Watch!: I checked out The Fran Lebowitz Reader from the New York University library and brought it with me, thinking it would be a fun act of insubordination for you to sign the book; like vandalism in reverse. A first edition, now signed and worth more.
Fran Lebowitz: I am not a library fanatic, but I’m glad they have a library at NYU. A library is a repository for books, and soon we may not have books. A library without books is a restaurant, and it seems to be the goal of every single institution to just be a restaurant.
Watch!: I heard a debate on National Public Radio about whether the foodie fad had replaced the love of music.
Lebowitz: I am quite gluttonous; I like to eat. But I do not think it is an art form. The reason people are so interested in food is because it is so easy to know about. Even at a high level it is still not learning Anglo-Saxon; it’s not that complicated. I don’t mean cooking, I mean eating. When people say, “Do you want to try this place? It got great reviews,” I say, “In the end, it’s dinner.” Usually cultures that are this decadent have reached a higher peak of civilization first. We didn’t. We went right from primitivism to decadence without having a culture in between.
Watch!: Rereading your work, it was interesting to think about the people who criticize it as dated, with the reference to discos and poppers.
Lebowitz: This is true about novels, too. I am not comparing myself to Jane Austen, but no one ever says that she is too much writing about her time. Even if you don’t think you are writing about your time, you are. To me what profoundly dates work is wrong ideas. Of course, all details date. But when people respond they do so, and either they ignore the details or they are interested in them. What never progresses is human nature. People still like Shakespeare, and that is not because of the details, not because people are kings, but because people’s emotions and their responses to things are unhappily never changing.
Watch!: Is it the place of the cultural observer to merely comment, or to help people make changes?
Lebowitz: I don’t think I am setting about to help people. People who actually help people are doctors. I have always wished that people would listen to me and do what I say … but they never have. So whenever people criticize me and say, “You shouldn’t do that, because you are a role model,” I say, “Are you kidding? I have been trying to get people to do what I want for my entire life and they never do.”
Watch!: You were widely seen playing a judge on Law and Order. Now that it’s over, is there some-thing else you want to be on?
Lebowitz: I’d like to be on the actual Supreme Court. You don’t have to be a lawyer to be on the Supreme Court. I think it has probably been ages since that happened, but I feel I am qualified. I am very focused on the Supreme Court in general, probably out of envy for not having that job. It is always surprising to me when it takes them a long time to decide on something. Because I think, “Are you kidding me?” That is actually the easiest judging job, to say, “Is it constitutional or not?”
Watch!: Is it true you don’t carry a cellphone?
Lebowitz: No cellphone, no microwave oven, no computer. The reason I have no computer is that I never learned to type. When they first invented computers I thought it was a fast way to type. I thought, “I don’t need this, I don’t know how to type.” I didn’t know the whole world was going to go on this machine. I have a vacuum cleaner, but luckily I don’t use it. I don’t have a very sympathetic relationship with machinery. I am the kind of person where if something breaks, I hit it.
Watch!: But you have a wonderful car?
Lebowitz: I have had the same car since 1979, a Checker Marathon. When I first got it, I was young and I used to drive it around town; I am too old now. I would have lots of cars if I won the lottery. I have only one photograph displayed in my house, and it’s of my car.
Watch!: In the documentary Public Speaking, you say that genius comes around only once in a lifetime. Who would you consider the geniuses in your lifetime?
Lebowitz: The three greatest geniuses of the 20th century were Picasso, Balanchine and Stravinsky. We weren’t contemporaries, however.
Watch!: How about contemporaries?
Lebowitz: There may be people at that level of genius, but I’m not aware of them. One thing that seems extremely unlikely now is the undiscovered genius. Every season there is a new genius in every field, and that was never the case. It is a very rare thing to be a genius. It is so rare that Albert Einstein is still the example of genius. Until fairly recently, people didn’t get called geniuses if they got rich. I am sure Mark Zuckerberg is very smart at business, but it is my understanding that he didn’t invent anything. He reconfigured something. So did Martha Stewart, but she didn’t say, “I invented setting the table!”
Watch!: In the same documentary, you said that AIDS wiped away the most critical voices in the arts.
Lebowitz: What I was saying was there was a general acknowledgment that many very good artists died, but I also said that the audience died too, and there is no acknowledgment of that. And the level of artists dropped in some way. If Charles Ludlam had lived, the other lesser directors may not have risen up. In a dark way, it is very helpful if people better than you die. That was my point. If all the people more talented than you die, then the culture comes around to you. So many people died and that is an unusual thing, except in a war.
Watch!: What do you think Andy Warhol would have thought of the cultural shift where there are no longer powerful critics, but the power of millions of critics on the Internet?
Lebowitz: I don’t know what Andy would have thought, but I imagine he would be flabbergasted at the place he holds as an artist, which is ridiculous. But of course, he would not be holding the place he does if he had lived. And I know this from bitter personal experience, because I sold all my Warhols for nothing two weeks before he died. Prices were that low. Now they will never go down because there is so much institutional and personal financial investment in keeping those prices high.
Watch!: What do you think of the Kardashians ?
Lebowitz: Here’s what I think … and this is such a prevalent thing, that I who have never seen the Kardashians have an opinion and know who they are. I don’t know one from the other, but I know there are many of them. I do think that obviously many people in this country deserve the Kardashians, but I am not one of them. I feel the same way about them as I did about George Bush. Many people deserved him to be the president, but I am not one of them. The Kardashians deserve George Bush as the president. I am sure they will be replaced by some other group of morons. It is interesting how long this has lasted. It shows that even the very bottom of the culture is slow in changing.
Watch!: What is your idea of a perfect weekend?
Lebowitz: I make a deliberate effort to not go out of my apartment between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. The perfect weekend is one where I am alone, reading on my sofa, which is the perfect sofa. Designed by me to be read on. You lie with your head against the arm without a pillow. It is leather, which is the perfect fabric for a sofa because it doesn’t eat you. There are no pillows; it is comfortably firm, but doesn’t envelop you. The perfect sofa is like the perfect companion; you’re not aware of it. Furniture is one of my primary interests in life. My father and grandfather were upholsterers. So I grew up in a sea of upholstery samples. Certainly one of my favorite activities is looking through a Sotheby’s furniture catalog, which is almost wholly a fantasy.
Watch!: What is a trait you admire most in other artists?
Lebowitz: Productivity or a lack of sloth. I think that most people admire what they don’t have. I always admire writers who are highly productive and good, because many are productive and bad. But if they are productive and good then I admire and resent them.
Watch!: What’s on your bedside table?
Lebowitz: A telephone, two pairs of eyeglasses, a crystal cigarette box that was a gift from the San Francisco Public Library that is engraved to me, and a television remote control. But not books, because I do not read in bed. I gave up reading in bed because I can never sleep and I thought reading is too stimulating. Nothing can put me to sleep. If I were shot in the head I would still be awake. The only time I have no trouble sleeping is in the afternoon. I like to nap.
Watch!: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Lebowitz: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I feel guilt when I do something wrong. I feel constantly guilty for not writing, but that is so constant and long term, it is just a part of being awake. But I think pleasure is good. How can pleasure be bad, unless you are a psychopath and your pleasure is being a serial killer? I don’t feel guilty for smoking. I am addicted to smoking and I do not feel equal to giving up this addiction. It is a habit, not a character trait. You are not a good person because you are a vegetarian and you are not a bad person because you eat a hamburger.
Watch!: What do you fear most?
Lebowitz: Blank paper. Writing is very difficult and I am very lazy. Writing is not the only difficult thing that I don’t like to do, but it is the only difficult thing I am supposed to be doing. And now, I’m going outside to smoke.