When Fran Lebowitz calls me at the office on a weekday afternoon in late October, I thank her, as is customary, for setting aside time to chat. “Well,” she says, huskily and sardonically—as is customary for the 60-year-old writer and humorist—“everyone else refused.” Lebowitz’s dry wit and deadpan humor is celebrated in the new documentary, Public Speaking, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, produced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and will premiere on HBO later this month. Instead of providing a look into the private life of one of New York’s most reclusive personalities, the film unreels like a compendium of Lebowitz quotables, of which there has never been a shortage. In the film, while seated at her regular table inside The Waverly Inn, she talks about everything from the success of Andy Warhol’s Factory (“This is what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply”) and gender politics (“It’s very hampering to women, that they have babies—or that they want to have babies”), to racism in the age of Obama (“It’s not as bad as it was before”). Our conversation sunk decidedly lowbrow, segueing in the same breath from The Paris Review to “Page Six.” Here she is on Marty, Mayor Bloomberg, and something called a Kardashian.
I watched Public Speaking the other night. Are you pleased with how it all turned out? I feel like Marty’s coming along quite nicely.
He’s really coming into his own, yes. [Laughter] Finally.
You’re such a private woman. To be honest, I was kind of surprised you agreed to be filmed. Why did you want this? I didn’t, at least initially. For many years I refused to do it because the documentaries that people wanted to make were so conventional. They were meant to be about my life, and their intent was to express my innermost thoughts, which I don’t care to do. Actually, Public Speaking was Graydon Carter’s idea, and when he first proposed it to me, six or seven years ago, I said no. The BBC did a documentary about me hundreds of years ago, and by the time they were done no one I knew was speaking to each other. It was horrible. This time, I said I’d rather do something like the shorts Robert Benchley made. Do you know who he was?
Of course. Don’t say, “Of course.” You cannot imagine the number of people who don’t know him. So that became the initial idea, but I ended up doing this because of Marty. In a way, this movie has nothing to do with me, in the sense that he didn’t consult me and I didn’t know what he was doing. I made some suggestions to him, only two of which he took. He wasn’t highly interested in my suggestions, I have to say, but he pretended to be.
You once said in an interview with The Paris Review that you’ve never allowed your writing to be edited. In this case, it’s not your writing but your comments that get truncated and spliced together and moved out of chronology. That’s putting it mildly. But I am the last person on the planet who makes extreme distinctions between writing and talking. I knew that Marty was going to edit the movie, but then again, it was his movie to edit—not mine.
It’s conspicuously lacking in any personal revelations about your private life. My life is all about boundaries and distinctions. I’m not interested in other people so I don’t expect people to be interested in me, and if they are, too bad.
In this film, you say that the “nosy neighbor” is not an urban figure, but I can’t help but disagree. The difference is, perhaps, that the nosy neighbor in New York is “Page Six” or the gossip blogs. But the stuff that you see in gossip columns or on the internet, that’s not someone’s real life—especially now that people are aware that their so-called private lives are public. The people who appear in gossip columns are generally performers. Open one of those magazines and you’ll see some movie star taking their children to Starbucks or to the park, which is absurd. These people own hundreds of acres of property, and they actually rouse their children out of the ocean they own to take them to a public park? That’s a performance. Do you really think photographers just happen upon Angelina Jolie playing with her children at a park? It’s a performance. If I’m aware of my actual neighbors it’s because they annoy me in some way, not because they fascinate me.
For someone so fiercely protective of her personal life, you seem to really revel in the spotlight. When people say personal life, they usually mean sex life. I don’t mean that. I mean my actual life. If you make a distinction between public and private, which no one seems to do anymore, and you have an actual public life, then that is the thing you’re choosing to make public. I don’t understand why you’re not allowed that choice. A writer, even one with a public life, isn’t a movie star, at least not perks-wise. When people say, “Well, that’s the price of fame,” I respond, Why is that the price? Why isn’t the price of fame a movie ticket or a book? Now we have this whole demographic of people who are famous, but who don’t actually do anything. They haven’t made movies for you to see, or books for you to read—you’re just aware of them because they make themselves known.
Was fame something to which you aspired? Yes, absolutely. If I didn’t want people to read my writing then I wouldn’t publish it. I want people to know what I think. That’s what I’ve always wanted. Actually, I have a disposition much better suited to a dictator. Mainly, I want people to do what I say.
Do they? No, they don’t, despite the fact that I’ve been trying to influence people my entire life. I’ve had very limited success with that.
In what ways has the definition of celebrity changed in your time? Well, there are more of them now—a billion times more, literally. I’m always shocked that people get more upset about how many immigrants there are than how many celebrities there are. Celebrities didn’t build this country, okay? It used to be, in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, that people were famous for being debutantes, society girls, and polo players. The society pages in the newspaper used to chronicle the comings and goings of rich people at parties. Now there are all of those reality shows and people on the internet, the stuff that most people talk about. It’s a kind of celebrity, sure, but I don’t think it’s a very lasting one.
You’ve held court at Waverly Inn for years. It must be jarring to see, say, Kim Kardashian walk in for a bite, no? I have never met any of those people. Let me promise you that I have not. I certainly, absolutely couldn’t tell one Kardashian from the next—that is true. But I am aware that there are these people called Kardashians, even if I have never seen one. If I came into actual contact with that sort of person, I know I would not be very interested. It won’t last. I don’t mean they won’t last as celebrities—that’s for sure—but this particular phenomenon won’t last. And how do I know that? Because nothing lasts. Things may not change for the better—although it’s almost impossible to imagine things changing for the worse—but they will change. In the same way that technology has altered how we perceive celebrity, it’s also changed how we make art and literature and music. Is this inherently a bad thing? This is a period of tremendous revolution, historically speaking. No one seems to be aware of it because they’re always trying to predict the next thing. With all of the destruction that we now have—destruction of industry, destruction of communication—people, especially those in charge of the soon-to-be destroyed establishments, are naturally apprehensive. The first things to go will be newspapers.
What about magazines? Magazines will last longer because kids love them. A newspaper isn’t an object in the way magazines are objects. Books will last longer than both of these things. The total disappearance of books is the furthest out, and it’s certainly not going to happen in my lifetime, so I’m not that worried about it. I’m a bookworm. I own 8,500 books—
Is that a real number? I recently moved and now, three months into organizing my books, I know how many I own.
It’s hard to imagine that the next generation will be attached to their iPads in the same way that we were attached to our books. It’s hard for book-bound people to understand, but it seems absolutely possible to me. I suppose if I was 4 years old and I was just learning to read, I probably wouldn’t care about books, but I’m not four years old.
I didn’t realize you had moved. Are you still up near Times Square? No, no, no. That is the single worst environment in the history of man, period.
I get the impression from hearing you speak that you get off on confrontation. I don’t, actually. I’m not a contrarian, I just know I’m right—there’s a difference. People have always thought that I write for effect, but I don’t. I write things because I believe them, and I say things because I believe them. I believe I am right and I would prefer everyone agree with me because then the world would be more to my liking. I’m never trying to provoke, I assure you.
I actually think there is merit inherent in argument. I suppose, but only if the person with an opposing point of view has something interesting to say. When that happens, I’ll let you know. Sometimes you live through eras that are completely counter to your tastes and that is happening to me right now, although I can’t really recall an era in which I’ve felt in concert with my fellow man. One of the things these new methods of communication does is highlight very extreme positions on everything, so that people start talking about them all the time. It wasn’t that we didn’t always have nuts but they didn’t used to get right into the middle of things—people didn’t pay attention to them. Now the nuts are right in the center of everything. The beginning of the end was when Minnesota, the state that every New Yorker thinks is the core of common sense, had some wrestler as their governor.
Jesse Ventura wasn’t even an Olympic wrestler. He was a professional wrestler. I would have preferred a boxer! Believe me, I’m not one of those people who thinks things always used to be better—millions of things were once worse than they are now—but the idea that you would hire an idiot to govern your state, well, it didn’t exist before. It wasn’t that people like Carl Paladino didn’t exist; they just weren’t possibly going to be governor of New York.
You said in the film that the culture should be made up of a natural aristocracy of talent, which seems apt but also slightly elitist in that the members of that aristocracy need a certain amount of money or social standing in order to be recognized in the first place. I don’t agree with you. That’s a young idea. How old are you?
I’m 27. When I was 27, which is how old I was when my first book came out, New Yorkers didn’t think, “Can we afford to do this?” We lived really, really badly. I don’t want to give you the impression I was some kind of communist, because I wasn’t, but I just didn’t think about the kind of things that people think they now need. Lots of times kids will ask me what restaurants I ate at when I was younger. I don’t even remember eating. Eating in restaurants was something that old people did. The idea that today’s kids are so interested in food and restaurants, well, I find that kind of funny. When we were younger, all we thought about was sex. I can absolutely promise you that I don’t remember any conversations about food when I was young. If you talk about that when you’re 20, what are you going to talk about when you’re 40 or 50? This is not the time to be thinking about restaurants. I lived in a horrible apartment with no kitchen and no ceiling in the bathroom, but it didn’t matter because I never stayed in my apartment. We lived our lives in public places. We hung around in bars. When Mayor Bloomberg first made this smoking law, for instance, I saw him somewhere and I said to him, Do you understand what sitting around in bars, talking and drinking and smoking, is called? It’s called the history of art.”
I’m broke and terribly malnourished, but I’ll pay good money to go to Hudson Bar & Books, where I can enjoy a glass of wine and a cigarette inside. But it’s expensive and that’s the point. They are making this city for tourists. Let me assure you that Bloomberg would be just as happy if all of the citizens of the city just left and sent him our tax money.
How did he respond when you confronted him about the smoking ban? I guess he always thinks I’m kidding, but I’m not sure. Believe me, there’s nothing I could be less interested in than what Michael Bloomberg thinks.