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Fran Lebowitz is a brilliant writer, thinker and talker. A sardonic wit in the vein of Dorothy Parker whose writer’s block has prevented her from producing new written material for the last 40 years, but who regularly churns out gems on the speaker circuit and during TV appearances, she is now, at the age of 70, as associated with the city of New York as just about anyone. She is also the subject of Pretend It’s a City, a new Netflix docuseries directed by Martin Scorsese, which comes 11 years after Public Speaking, a prior Scorsese documentary about her. During a recent episode of THR’s Awards Chatter podcast, the 70-year-old reflected on her life, career and docuseries.
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Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Excerpts lightly edited for clarity and brevity…
Where were you born and raised? And what did your parents do for a living?
I was born and grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, which is a small town. It’s still there, even without me. It’s very different, but not as different as I am. My father owned an upholstery shop and a little furniture store. My mother did various things over my lifetime. Sometimes she worked there, sometimes she worked other places. When I was very small she didn’t work at all.
As a kid, were you already a lot like you are today, which is to say, very opinionated?
Well, obviously I was somewhat different. I was shorter, not that much shorter, but somewhat shorter. On my first day of kindergarten I was four years old — I was very eager to go to school — but my first day of kindergarten ended with me sitting in the corner with a Band-Aid pasted over my mouth, holding up a sign saying, “I am a chatterbox.”
When did writing first become an interest?
I actually wrote a book — when I say a book, I mean it was probably 40 or 50 pages long — when I was eight years old, because that’s around the time that I realized that people wrote books. I thought, “Well, hey, I’m a person. I’m going to write a book.”
When you were growing up, did your parents expect you to go to college and become X, Y, or Z, or were they pretty much saying, “Just do your own thing”?
The thing that my parents stressed to me the most was going to college. That was the most important thing. My mother had gone to college, my father had not; both my parents were first-generation Americans. The assumption was that the other thing I would do would be to get married and have children. That wasn’t stressed because that was just a given. My parents didn’t really discuss my future with me.
You did not follow any of that advice. You were asked to leave high school and did not go to college, to say nothing of journalism school. Instead, in 1970, at age 19, you moved to New York. How much of the city had you experienced prior to then?
I always asked to go to New York on my birthday. “What do you want do on your birthday?” I always had the same birthday wish: “I want to go to the Museum of Modern Art, and I want to go Little Italy to eat.” Those were the two things I did. Those are two of my favorite things to do still, although Little Italy is much smaller now.
So you show up in New York, without much if any parental financial support, and you made it work by driving cabs, cleaning houses and even writing porno books. The big turning point, though, was the first time you were hired to be a writer — well, beyond the porn books — at 21.
I had all these jobs you mentioned, and many other jobs like that, horrible jobs. I worked five or six days a week, but never on Wednesdays because Wednesday was when The Village Voice came out, and The Village Voice is where they had all the wanted ads. I would take Wednesday off and look for another job, because no matter what job I had, I didn’t want that job, I wanted a different job. In looking for one of these bad jobs, I saw a little ad in The Village Voice saying “wanted: advertising director for underground magazine,” so I thought, “It’s a magazine, I’ve never heard of it, but if I got a job there maybe I could write for this magazine.” So I called and went for an interview. There have been very few times in my life I wanted something as much as this job. I got the job, beating out several people who knew how to sell advertising. I did not sell one ad because I never even tried to sell an ad, because I knew hardly anyone read this magazine, so I could not bring myself to say, “You should take an ad in this magazine that no one reads.” And after a while, I kind of talked my way into them letting me write for the magazine. It was the opposite of what most people do: “You can see I’m very bad at the job I have, so give me a better job.”
Pretty soon after that, you were able to essentially upgrade that job to working at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, right?
I had a friend, a wonderful writer named Ed McCormack, who worked for Interview, among other places, and I said, “Ed, can you get me in to see the editor at Interview, because I would like to write some movie reviews for them?” He arranged me the appointment, and that’s how I started writing movie reviews. I have to stress how little these jobs paid. I mean, it’s not like you talked your way into being the chairman at Merrill Lynch, okay?
Over the next few years, while writing for Interview, were you always thinking that you were building up to a book?
What happened was an editor — a woman who was also a writer — started reading my columns. She just called me up one day and said, “I’m Laurie Colwin. I’m an editor at E. P. Dutton. Would you like to write a book?” And I said, “Not yet. I don’t think I’m ready to write a book.” She said, “Well, would you like to have lunch?” “Yes. Yes, I’m always ready to have lunch — even at dinner I’m ready to have lunch.” I was 24 at the time and I wanted to write a book, but I really didn’t think I could write a book. I mean, I really couldn’t have done it without someone, an editor calling me, explaining to me “Yes, you can do it, here’s how you would do it,” because I’m of the age where I really thought of a book as a novel.
Instead, Metropolitan Life was a something rarer: a book of essays.
I thought it was pretentious to call myself an essayist. Now, as you know, every nine-year-old who writes about what they feel says, “This is an essay.” So it was weird to publish a book like that then. I remember that the editor who owned the publishing house, said, “This kind of humorous essay, this kind of comic essay, has not sold in this country since the 1930s.”
You broke the streak. It came out in 1978, when you were 27, was a bestseller, and you were now a ‘name.’ Three years later your second book, Social Studies, came out. And then writing stopped. When did you first realize that writer’s block was going to be a problem?
Well, I don’t know when I first realized it because it was so long ago, but I mean, I’m sure for several years I thought, “Well, I will write again, probably next week…”
How would it actually manifest itself? You would sit down to write—
No, I would not sit down to write. Sitting down to write and having trouble writing? That’s just writing.
Well, you figured out a solution. When did you realize that you could actually make a living just talking?
When my first book came out someone called and asked me, “Oh, come to California and speak at this college. We’ll pay you.” “You’ll pay me for what?” What they wanted me to do then was read from the book and then talk to the audience. So, I started on that, and I thought, “I can’t believe they pay me for this. This is like, nothing. This is zero work.” So I did that for many years with both books, and then after a while I did not want to keep reading these old books. “Why not have someone interview me on the stage?” I really believe I invented the on-stage interview. And that’s what I do now. I do that for half an hour, someone interviews me on stage, and then I answer questions from the audience for one hour, and that is something that I would have to say is my favorite activity.
What is it about the process that makes it your favorite thing?
Because they surprise you, it’s fun. Also, because as a child no one ever asked me a question.
How did you and Scorsese first cross paths?
I really don’t remember where we met. We assume it was at a party, because where else would I have met him? I would say it was in the ’80s that I met Marty. I did notice after a few times that whenever I saw Marty, I would always spend the whole night talking to him. So we enjoyed talking to each other very much, but I never saw Marty by design. I ran into him. That’s the great thing about New York. You run into people all the time.
What does he get about you that not many people do? There definitely seems to be some special connection there, to the point where SNL was having fun about the fact that, in Pretend It’s a City, whatever you say he just eats up.
No one has ever found me as funny as Marty does. It’s just simply his reaction to me. I mean, I can say, “Please pass the bread,” he’ll be laughing. And we just get along very well. I really love being with Marty.
How about the overall reaction to Pretend It’s a City? It’s a hit on Netflix. And Netflix is available in every country in the world except, like, North Korea.
It’s very odd to be my age and have an experience that’s new. It’s nice to have. Most experiences at my age that are new are horrible. The day after it was released, or whatever they call it, the first phone call I got from a friend of mine was from Saigon. That was when I first kind of really understood Netflix — which, of course, I don’t have because I have no Wi-Fi in my house.
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