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- American author and public speaker
- American artist and film director and producer (1928-1987)
If Fran Lebowitz didn’t exist, we’d have to invent her. The queen of discourse, a virtuoso of acerbic humour and a champion of the witty retort, Lebowitz has an opinion on everything and, remarkably, it’s often right. Listening to her hold forth in Pretend It’s a City – the Netflix docu-series directed by her old friend Martin Scorsese, which became a sleeper hit over lockdown last spring – is a rare pleasure, full of laugh-out-loud moments as she walks the streets of New York, the city she calls home.
When we speak, the phone connection is bad. She kindly asks me to talk louder, her voice deep and slightly raspy from the decades of cigarettes. Lebowitz has no laptop or computer in her apartment, she never sends emails or even uses a typewriter. She famously makes all her phone calls on a landline. ‘I had to ask my friends if they had Netflix,’ she says. ‘They acted like I’d asked them if they had electricity!’
Perhaps part of her hard-to-place appeal is just how comfortable she is in her own skin. This lesbian Jewish intellectual, cultural commentator, author of three books, outspoken Democrat and occasional actor has been a cult figure since the 1970s. Her confidence makes everyone around her seem like a pale imitation of themselves. ‘Some people hate me, and some people love me,’ she explains in her inimitable polite-yet-grumpy tone. ‘But I really don’t care whether anyone agrees with me or not. My gut feeling is that if you don’t agree with me, you are wrong.’
Lebowitz once declared: ‘Success didn’t give me a big head, I’ve always been unbearable,’ and Pretend It’s a City gave her ample opportunity to unleash her sometimes controversial and always deeply-felt opinions. ‘Whatever my initial emotion may be, whether that’s despair, fear or sadness, I always turn it into anger,’ she says. ‘I love public speaking – and people are always asking me for my opinion.’ Lebowitz regales us with her thoughts on everything from pastry chefs who consider themselves artists (‘If you can eat it, I’m sorry, but that’s not art. It’s a snack’) to the art market’s auction culture (‘We live in a world where everyone is getting excited about the price, not the Picasso’) and the pleasure principle (‘I have no guilty pleasures, because pleasure never makes me feel guilty’).
In many ways, Lebowitz embodies the idea of the dirty, dangerous and infamous New York of the 1970s: the city of Andy Warhol, the New York Dolls and Studio 54. But she was born in the quiet suburb of Morristown, New Jersey. Her father, Harold, ran a furniture store and her mother, Ruth, was a housewife and former jitterbug dance champion, who ‘danced better than Ginger Rogers’, according to Lebowitz. Married in 1948, they had two daughters: Fran, born in 1950, and her sister Ellen, four years later. From a young age, Fran adored sweets (‘I had a cavity on each tooth’) and reading, often being punished for choosing fiction over doing her homework. It was a happy childhood, albeit one that left her feeling desperate to escape the stifling domesticity that was her mother’s life, which was the assumed path for a girl growing up in the suburbs in 1950s America.
At the age of seven, her caustic spirit was already making waves. She declared that she no longer believed in God and proclaimed herself an atheist. ‘I realised that it was all just one big fairy tale,’ she explains. Then, at 17, she was expelled from The High School of the Episcopal Church, for what was essentially ‘an attitude problem’. ‘It wouldn’t happen today, but the principal hit me hard and then expelled me. At the time, parents didn’t discuss this kind of decision and just sided with the principal. For me, it was disastrous being expelled. It felt like a huge failure. And my parents never forgave me,’ she says.
Lebowitz left home and moved to New York after the expulsion. To pay the rent, she took a series of jobs, including as a taxi driver, a housekeeper, a door-to-door salesperson selling belts and an editor of pornographic fiction. (‘My pseudonym was the name of the principal who’d kicked me out of school, one of my most beautiful acts of revenge.’)
At 20, the girl who’d always dreamt of becoming a poet started writing reviews and selling advertising space for an underground magazine, founded by jazz musician Charlie Mingus’ wife, Susan Graham Ungaro. Lebowitz had a friend who was working for Interview, the hugely influential, zeitgeist-defining magazine edited by Andy Warhol, and she asked him to arrange a meeting. ‘The first time I went to the Interview offices, I went up in the elevator and the doors opened.
There was a metal door behind the elevator doors and on it was a piece of paper from a legal pad that said “Knock Loudly and Announce Yourself”. So I banged on the door. I heard someone say, “Who is it?” and I said, “Valerie Solanas” [who’d tried to kill Warhol in 1968] and Warhol opened the door.’ Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the relationship between the artist and Lebowitz always remained more or less strained after that introduction. ‘He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him,’ she says. ‘I found that a lot of young people were dropping like flies at his Factory and that only added to his reputation.’
But Lebowitz was focused on becoming a writer. She quickly made a name for herself at Interview with a tongue-in-cheek film column that focused on the worst films of the month. A pro at being in just the right place at the right time, she became a witness to a celebrated era – crossing paths with the artists, musicians and intellectuals who made up the heart of bohemian New York, and made lifelong friends, such as with the writer Toni Morrison.
Lebowitz claims to have been suffering from writer’s block since the mid-1990s, but her audacious humour and notoriously no-filter views have meant that she has become almost better known as an icon than a writer; a verbal wit who’s the perfect – sometimes controversial – guest for a talk-show host, an entertaining ‘big personality’ and a consummate interviewee.
Named one of the ‘Best Dressed Women in the World’ by Vanity Fair, she is famous for her love of masculine tailoring and her modern dandy styling. Think a bespoke Anderson & Sheppard jacket, tailored in London, thrown over a neat white Hilditch & Key shirt and Levi’s 501s, plus a cashmere scarf, custom-made cowboy boots and vintage designer tortoiseshell glasses that cost, according to Lebowitz, the price of a small car.
Her thoughts on fashion? The woman who famously declared war on athleisure believes that nowadays, ‘People are more about trends than style. They’ve forgotten how to dress and will never know who they really are, because they never learnt to take care of their clothes. When I get home, the first thing I do is hang my jacket on a hanger. I put my cufflinks in a box. I wax my shoes once a week. And I always go to the most expensive dry cleaner in town.’
Lebowitz also takes enormous care of the 10,000 books in her celebrated library. Has she read them all? ‘For the most part,’ she says. ‘Before, I felt compelled to read every book I received or bought. Now, if I don’t like the book, I stop reading it. I let it go. The same goes for films or plays. As soon as I walk into a theatre, I plan my exit.’
Every New Year’s Eve, her good friend Martin Scorsese invites her and some film-buff friends to share an Italian meal and watch two 35mm classics. In 2010, they worked together when he directed her in the documentary Public Speaking and, in the process, also gave her a small role as a judge in The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese sometimes accompanies her to public talks, where he listens to her regale swathes of mesmerised millennials.
It’s true that Fran Lebowitz may not be interested in young people (‘I’m not a fan of naivety. Unless you have some erotic ulterior motive, really, what’s the point in talking to young people?’) but young people love listening to her hold forth on just about every subject, from money and social media to politics, New York City, religion and families. No subject is off limits – except, maybe, love.
‘It’s true that I don’t particularly like to talk about love,’ she admits. ‘Mostly because I am discreet about my private life and because I am not really an expert on the subject. I cannot speak of motherly love, since I did not have children. As for romantic love – this kind of mental illness that poisons a lot of people and makes them do all kinds of things – I must be a little immune since I’ve been such a terrible girlfriend.’ I wait for the punchline. ‘The only monogamous relationship I’ve had in my life was with a car.’
This interview appeared in the December/January issue of ELLE UK.
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