If New York City was a person, it would probably be Fran Lebowitz.
The ultra-opinionated author of Social Studies and Metropolitan Life moved to NYC at age 19, and has been serving up witty, hilarious and insightful commentary on life ever since. She can be seen these days in Pretend It's a City, a seven-part Netflix series which features Lebowitz doing what she does best: having conversations about NYC, in this case with Director Martin Scorsese.
PAPER caught up with Lebowitz on her landline. She has no cellphone, computer or WiFi, but she has entertaining opinions on everything we had to ask her about, from politics to Dolly Parton.
Have you actually watched Pretend It's a City?
I haven't watched it on Netflix. I've never seen Netflix because you need a Wifi connection in your apartment. Of course, while Marty was making it, I saw it 11 million times.
In Pretend It's a City, you said you have friends who say you like parties as if you should be embarrassed. I'm a big party lover and I'm wondering for you what makes a great party? Can you think of any particularly amazing parties that you remember through the years?
Well, I'm not sure because first of all we're talking about so many years and also, frankly, so many parties. I think people are so surprised, but what's more surprising to me is how most people so often say they hate parties. I always think, compared to what? I mean, where do you spend most of your time? I understand people saying they hate going to work or they hate doing chores or all the other things you have to do in life that are actually not meant to be fun. Parties are meant to be fun!
"What's more surprising to me is how most people so often say they hate parties."
I watched some old David Letterman clips of you on YouTube talking about having come back from Boca Raton where you spoke at the CPAs of Pennsylvania Convention.
I basically make a living speaking and doing speaking engagements. That particular thing I actually remember because I wasn't even hired to speak to the CPAs, all of whom were men of course. I was hired to speak to the wives of the CPAs. I remember it very vividly because it was in Boca Raton in August. I had never been to Florida in August as no sane person would. I walked out of the airport and I swear I thought I was having a heart attack. That's how horrible the weather was. I do a lot of speaking engagements, obviously not this year. I rarely get these kind of corporate things, which I would really like to get because they're very high paying. I don't get them even though I always ask my agent and basically he always says they don't want you.
What I do is someone interviews me on stage for about 30 minutes and then for an hour I take questions from the audience. When you speak at corporate events you have to give a speech, which means you have to write a speech, but if I was writing I wouldn't have to be giving any speeches. You also have to submit that speech to the business because it's happened where someone got in trouble speaking at Goldman Sachs because they hadn't actually seen the speech. So I occasionally bring up to my agent, what about corporate events? And the last time I did, which was probably two years ago, he said, "Well, I actually have an offer here," not for me but for one of his clients from this food company. So I said, "Well, why can't I have that?" He said, "I suggested you, but they don't want you because they're afraid you're going to say something bad about this company." It's a company that makes basically candy as far as I know, so I said, "I have nothing bad to say about them. How about if I promise I won't say anything bad about their candy?" "No, they don't want you." I tried to convince him and he said, "Let me explain something to you. They don't want you." So I am very aware that corporations do not want me and that's why I don't do corporate events.
Since COVID has kept us all at home, what have you been doing to amuse yourself?
Mostly I read. I've also been spending an enormous amount of time on the telephone, primarily with people who for the last 10 years have told me they hate to talk on the telephone. So some of these people who haven't talked on the telephone for 10 years suddenly find that they love to talk on the telephone and these are the people I now can't get off the telephone. I only watch TV in the middle of the night and when I way I watch TV, I mean I literally watch TV. I turn the TV on and I look for something to watch. I start to watch it and the second there's a commercial, I flip so that I basically watch TV in a pretty abstract manner. This is a habit I don't know how long I've had, for maybe 15 years, but I decide I have horrible insomnia so at a certain point I decided you shouldn't read before you go to sleep. It's too stimulating. You should watch television. It's boring, but it doesn't help me sleep so now I'm awake and bored.
Since you don't have a cellphone, you have landline and an answering machine. It made me think… do you know the Long Island Medium, who speaks to the dead? She has big blonde hair. She records all her sessions on a cassette player and everyone is always making fun of her for using such outdated technology, but she loves it and won't change.
Okay, one second. I don't mean to interrupt you, but you're telling me that people who consult a fortune teller are making fun of someone else? I think if you are consulting a fortune teller you really are not in the position to be making fun of people.
"I have never tried to do anything that I knew for a fact that I would be unable to do."
I've seen you say that you have two activities: Smoking and plotting revenge. Have you ever tried to quit smoking?
I've never even tried and that is because it's not that I haven't heard it's bad for you. I know it's bad for you. It's just that I have never tried to do anything that I knew for a fact that I would be unable to do. There is zero chance that I will quit, so I don't want to torture myself trying to do something that I know I will fail at. You know, it's the same reason I never entered the Olympics. There are certain things that are beyond my abilities and that would certainly be one of them.
Do you still like to plot revenge and if so, do you like to plot revenge against the same people you always have or do you find new people to plot revenge against?
You know what, it turns out you don't have to plot. It turns out that very often revenge just appears. It also turns out that if you live, you know, a certain amount of time, many of these people just disappear into what other people think of as the afterlife. I have sometimes engineered vengeful results that have actually worked. But I have to tell you that the few times that I've done that the person never knew that it was me, so that was even more satisfying.
I know you think that Andrew Cuomo is a thug. Are you following politics very closely and do you get worked up about it?
I do think Andrew Cuomo is a thug and I've always thought that. I thought that even when everyone was in love with him. When everyone said, "Oh well, isn't he doing a great job?" at the beginning of COVID. I said, "Well, he's being compared to Trump. Anyone compared to Trump, no matter what you do, you're going to seem like a genius." I follow local politics much more than a lot of my friends. I have friends who follow global politics religiously, but have no idea who is on the city council.
Do you have any favorites in next year's Mayoral race?
At the moment I like Maya Wiley a lot. I would love there to be a woman mayor. That would be nice. I mean, how can New York have never had a woman mayor? It's ridiculous. Scott Stringer is good. He'd be a good mayor. His politics are very good. They're very good, liberal democratic politics, but one of the things that the mayor has to do is get money out of Cuomo, which is ridiculous, and I do feel that Scott Stringer, who is kind of mild, would be much more easily bullied by Cuomo. He would have to treat Maya Wiley more gingerly because even Cuomo has to be aware of the limits of how much he can bully a Black woman.
"I would love there to be a woman mayor. How can New York have never had a woman mayor?"
Theres a lot of talk about Ivanka and Jared being ruined socially in New York. Do you think any of the Trumps will ever come back to New York and what do you think would happen?
Who cares what they do? Most of them should be in prison.
And speaking of prison, I know you used to get a lot of letters from prisoners. Does that still happen?
No, I'm too old. The letters you get from prisoners, believe me are not about politics.
You are not a big fan of tourists coming to New York. I loved your idea of having you standing at the border and letting in only refugees, not tourists. Has the silver lining of COVID been that the tourists aren't here in New York and are you enjoying that aspect of it?
I am. I know you're not allowed to say that. I know that it's brought such natural devastation to so many people, but I also know that right now as we speak, there are guys plotting to get the tourists back and that is because these people have no imagination. It's not like we have no human resources. The best human resources in the country are in New York City. There are many things that can be done with Times Square or any other neighborhood that New Yorkers could actually enjoy.
Years and years ago I saw you at the restaurant Indochine having dinner with Calvin Klein, Sandy Gallin and Dolly Parton. I thought, How legendary for Fran Lebowitz to be eating with Dolly Parton? Dolly has gotten so much great attention lately for being incredible and donating money to develop the COVID vaccine.
Who doesn't love Dolly Parton? I personally am certain that she is the most popular person in the country. People who hate each other love Dolly Parton. I have never heard anyone say they didn't and they don't even like her, they love her.
How did you meet Dolly?
I probably met her through Sandy because Sandy was her manager. I used to see her very often.
She shared an apartment on Fifth Avenue with Sandy for years.
I just haven't I haven't seen her in a long time, but I've not changed my opinion of her.
"People who hate each other love Dolly Parton."
And did you find her to be the same in private as she is in public?
I think the startling thing is she's really smart. It's not that she seems to be not smart, but she doesn't seem to be as smart as she actually is.
I love it.
And she's just an unusual combination of things. For instance, that kind of music is not my favorite kind of music at all. I knew her for a while before I remember even hearing her. I went to see her I think in Carnegie Hall, but I could be wrong. I went backstage afterward. I said, "You have a great voice!" like it was this revelation. So I was much less familiar with her work than probably the rest of the country. She wrote an autobiography that I read, which is terrific.
Wow, I didn't realize that. I'll have to read it.
And it survived many moves. In other words, as I move, I go through my books and I say I'm not going to want this book. I always kept Dolly's book.
Pretend It's a City is available to stream on Netflix now.
Photography: Emily Lipson