Fran Lebowitz loves to talk — so much so that when Martin Scorsese made a documentary about her he called it Public Speaking. But before she was one of the world's greatest talkers, she made her name as a writer; first at Andy Warhol's Interview and then with two collections of acerbic essays, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies.
While a long-running writer's block limited her to an occasional magazine piece and two children's books, it liberated her voice to keep talking and developing into the type of personality that could only exist in New York City, specifically Manhattan, the only place she will consider living. An original gangster by any standard, she's completely self-invented and did it her way — sardonic, entertaining, insightful — inspiring a generation of humorists who followed.
Even though Lebowitz is back to writing again (working on a novel she's been incubating), that doesn't mean she's stopped talking. On a recent summer day she sounded off on everything from Lena Dunham to gay marriage, and we did the only thing you really can do when Fran starts talking — we listened
New York, Mike Bloomberg and Rich People In Politics
I would say that the changes in New York that I most object to came under Michael Bloomberg, and I would have objected to these if I was 20 or if I was 12. The second that Bloomberg appeared on the political scene, I objected to him. Most people didn't know who he was so they didn't object to him, but I did know who he was, and I did object to him. I object to people who are rich in politics. I don't think they should be allowed to be in politics. It is bad that rich people are in politics, it is bad for everybody but rich people, and rich people don't need any more help. Whenever people say, "Oh he earned his money himself," I always say the same thing: "No one earns a billion dollars. People earn $10 an hour, people steal a billion dollars."
Tourism as a number-one industry is a terrible, terrible idea for any city, especially New York. If you were going to turn a city, which is a place where people live, into a tourist attraction, you're going to have to make it a place that people who don't live here, like. So I object to living in a place for people who don't live here. As it became more and more intense, it became more and more a place where the actual citizens are pushed out to the edges. A friend of mine always says this: "I don't care what kind of aesthetic people have; the second they have a kid, their house becomes horrible." The second you have a kid, whether you think it's going to or not, your house becomes full of plastic junk. So this is the same with tourists. The city will sink to that level of having a house of three-year-old children, so they like certain things, they don't like certain things. And they like things that you don't like, or that I don't like. I do object to it. And I would like to see fewer and fewer tourists and I'm tired of hearing about how much money they bring to the city because the kind of jobs the tourists bring to the city are the worst jobs. They're hotel maid jobs, they're jobs that have no future to them.
Everywhere that they put up a hotel, they did not put up an apartment building. Hence the housing shortage. Hotels are like anti-housing. To me, they're not only the opposite of housing; they are opposed to housing. They displace housing, and no one ever says this. Block after block, hotel after hotel after hotel. I remember Bloomberg, in one of his last acts that I recall as mayor, announcing at some opening of some hotel in Queens: "Who would've thought there'd be one million hotels in Queens?" No one, and you know what? There shouldn't be any.
Airbnb and Migrants
I object to Airbnb. I don't want these people to come here; I frankly do not care where they are staying. Stay home. Sometimes I walk around and go, "Go home." Doesn't anyone have a home? I think that at the same moment the country is at one of its high points of concern about migration, it is at a very low concern about tourists, and I would do the opposite. I would like to stand at the border — I would volunteer — and say, "You can come here, but you have to live here. If you're coming here for four days, you can't come. Sorry, let me give you a list of other boring places to go that you might enjoy."
Moving With 10,000 Books
I have made one bad real estate decision after another my entire life. Knowing this, I made a lot of effort to consult people who I believe to be intelligent in real estate. It made no difference. I made the worst decision of my life. Even if you're moving to an apartment that turns out being OK, like last time, which was only four years ago, if you have 10,000 books, it's a difficult undertaking. The more that you mention this to people, even if people know about it, the more you are criticized for having 10,000 books. I finally said to somebody the other day, "You know what? They are books. It's not like I am running an opium den for children. There's nothing wrong with that — you may not want to have that, you may think that's crazy, but you cannot have a moral objection to this." Even real estate agents would say to me, "If you got rid of the books, you wouldn't need such a big apartment." And I would say, "Yes that's true, but what if I had four children? Would you say, 'Why don't you put them in storage, because you can't really afford an apartment for them?'" Basically my whole life, I've paid for these books. Buying them is nothing, but housing them is hard because they need a giant apartment. People say, "Why do you need such a big apartment — do you throw a lot of parties?" No. It's for the books. I believe books to be the perfect companion. They're very good-looking, they're there when you need them, but it's not just the books. It's where they live, which is in bookcases with glass doors. I only put them in cases with glass doors because dust is very bad for books.
Moving to Brooklyn
I would never. Even though of course every time I have to hear, "You should move to Brooklyn." There are townhouses and brownstones in Brooklyn that cost millions of dollars, which is shocking, but that same house in a similar neighborhood in Manhattan — twice the price. Why? Because it's closer. To where? New York. To where? Manhattan. Even though now, of course, I find myself in Brooklyn frequently because many people have moved to Brooklyn, still I come out of these places and I'm like, "Where am I? Is this east, is this west?" For someone such as myself with no sense of direction, I need New York.
The East Village
There are parts of the East Village that have something peculiarly New York: they've gotten expensive, but not safe. For this much money, I don't want to feel this unsafe. For this much money, I want to relax a little bit. This winter, I was walking over in the East Village one night in a snowstorm, and twice during my walk I was offered heroin by drug dealers. I thought, "Really? Are you blind?" Because at a certain age, drug dealers don't stop you on the street, just how construction workers don't whistle at you at a certain age anymore. The drug dealers hang on a bit longer than the construction workers do. So you forget about it, you don't think about it. And I thought, "Wow, there must really be some sort of recession among drug dealers."
Technology and Email
Everyone thinks I hate modern technology, and that is not true. I don't like machines, even older machines. I didn't have a typewriter. I never had any machines you didn't absolutely have to have, because I don't have any sympathy with them. I have a television, but I was forced to buy one of these new ones. I had a big television that was the size of a refrigerator, and no one could move it. They told me I had to buy one of those new flat-screen TVs. I told them I didn't want to, but I lost the fight. Then I was stunned because no one would take this perfectly fine, working TV, including the people who worked in my building.
Lena Dunham and TV
No, I don't watch Girls, but I went to the opening where they showed the first three episodes. I think [Lena Dunham] is talented. I'm for her, which means I'm for Girls in general. I don't know Lena Dunham. I always defend her when people say she's not that great. I tell them, "I don't know, I don't care, but let me assure you: the world is full of mediocre men who are stunning successes." She may well not be the most brilliant person that ever lived — let's say she's not — but these rejections are misogynistic, pure and simple. When I was that age, I did not watch television. We had sex. We were so promiscuous, we didn't have time to watch television. We didn't think of any consequences; we actually thought it was good for you. We thought drugs were good for you.
I don't sleep, so at four in the morning, I flip around on the TV. That's how I watch television. I used to always read before bed, but I couldn't sleep. It's too stimulating, so I thought I would watch TV since it's boring. I'm not knowledgeable about these shows; they're not on at three in the morning.
People don't like to go to the movies anymore, including me. I don't like to go to the movie theater because I cannot bear my fellow man. It's not that movies are bad; there are some great movies. I just can't stand the way people behave at the movies: they act like they're at home. I don't want them eating three-course meals, or talking. People used to be quiet at the movies. To me, the experience of being at the movies was that there was a giant screen.
I really go to very few screenings because you can't leave. If you do leave, people are so insulted. I don't want to sit there to avoid insulting someone. Even if you think you're slithering out the back, someone will see you. They will think you're criticizing the movie, which of course you are, if you're leaving. A long time ago, I decided: if you don't like the movie, leave. This is not a jail sentence.
The idea that those words are together is so hilarious to me. As I've said numerous times, I know that people wanted it, now they can do it in New York. I say "they" not because I'm not gay, but because I'm not getting married. In a million years I never would have thought of this. People always say, "You were always fighting for this, right?" No, I wasn't. I wasn't that kind of political activist. I never even imagined that anyone was even thinking about this, which I don't think they were in 1971. To me, this goes more along with the other ways in which this culture is how it was in the 1950s. For me, if you want to get married, get married, I don't care. I frankly don't understand why people get married. When I was young, nobody did. It seems to me so confined.
Legalization of Marijuana
I don't take any drugs, and I haven't taken any since I was 19; from 15 to 19 I took my lifetime supply. Everyone has an amount of time that they can consume drugs and alcohol, and you can either do it over 60 years or in a span of four years, which is what I did. I'm for the legalization of all drugs, not because they're all good for you, because they certainly give you the impression now that marijuana is good for you, like whole wheat. I don't really think they're good for you. I don't see them having a good effect on anyone I know and they didn't have one on me, although they work. They absolutely make people feel happier. My reason for them being legal is to take the crime out of it and to control it. I certainly know people who have been smoking the marijuana plant nonstop since the late '60s, and let me assure you, it definitely has an effect on your mind. These are not the sharpest people. It definitely has a softening effect on your mind. I'm even in favor of the legalization of heroin, which I know is a very destructive drug, mainly because I think people can do what they want.
This is an era of immense originality and innovation in machinery. Which is very sad to a person like me, because I don't care. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but it's not interesting to me. These things weren't imaginable when I was young. It's almost as if all of humanity is concentrated on this, and we're being used for the transmission of these things; that's what bothers me. You're 25. Do something that angers me, or surprises me. Don't keep rediscovering things. Now the culture is made of old things, it's a collage. Art made out of art is not art. You're supposed to make art out of life. You go into studios and you see these mood boards or whatever? You think you saw that at Saint Laurent's studio? It's other people's art. I call that stealing.
Photography: Rodolfo Martinez