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New York writer Fran Lebowitz on speaking the truth, Warhol, Scorsese and regrets

It’s also important to her that other people are honest, “but unfortunately that is really a recipe for disaster”.

The contributing editor and occasional columnist for Vanity Fair since 1997 says now there are no consequences for getting caught lying. “People are not embarrassed by it. Truthfully, every time I’ve been caught in a lie, I’ve been mortified,” she says. “I don’t think I’m alone in having that response, but if that’s your response, you try to avoid it – at least getting caught.”

“Even Richard Nixon, hardly a paragon of truth, you know, when those tapes came out, the Republicans who had defended him really up to that second … When they heard those tapes, they went into his office, played them and said, ‘You’ve got to go’,” she says. “Evidence is a meaningless thing now.”

Lebowitz’s author pic from the 1970s.

Lebowitz’s author pic from the 1970s.

Such behaviour has been normalised from the highest levels of government, she says. To her mind, Trump is one of the luckiest men alive. Of the 17 people up on charges in Georgia, she can see 16 going to jail; only one is certain to get off. “He has never had any consequence for anything he’s ever done. He has done the wrong thing practically since birth, over and over again, and people around him go broke, they go to jail, they die, they go bankrupt, they lose their jobs, they lose their house, they lose their wife. But not Trump,” she says.

“I read and hear a lot of people who I think of as very intelligent saying, no, he’s very worried now. But I don’t believe that because he has not ever been worried. You don’t start worrying at 77. Most people worry their whole life.”

Two questions are off limits for our interview: smoking (which she brings up herself) and why she doesn’t write any more. Her first book, Social Studies, was published in 1981, before that Metropolitan Life, released in 1978; they were combined in a hard cover called The Fran Lebowitz Reader in 1994.

She is famously obsessive about words, has had a novel under way for decades – an excerpt was published some years ago but nothing further has been printed since – and her editor says he has “the easiest job in the world”. “I am a psychotic perfectionist when it comes to writing, which makes it very hard,” Lebowitz said last year.

TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO FRAN LEBOWITZ

  1. Worst habit? Other people would say smoking. I would say laziness. I’m incredibly slothful, and that’s a habit. My habit of not working.
  2. Greatest fear? Rodents. Even a tiny mouse, it doesn’t have to be a big rat. Even a minute pet mouse. I would rather have a wolf in my apartment than a mouse.
  3. The line that stayed with you? Nothing springs to mind, not one line.
  4. Biggest regret? In New York city, it’s common that your regrets are about real estate. I have never not made a real estate mistake, never. Every single real estate decision has been a mistake so I have many to choose from. I was recently giving someone real estate advice and he said, “Who would take real estate advice from you?” And I said, “You’re right, forget what I said.”
  5. Favourite room? I am always happy to be in a library or any room that has a lot of books in it. Even if I’m walking down the street and I can see in someone’s apartment that I don’t know and it has a lot of books, I think, “Oh, what a nice apartment”.
  6. The artwork/song you wish was yours? I don’t know because you’re asking me what’s my favourite. It is a good question. I’ve been thinking about this because in an obvious moment of insanity I agreed to film something at the Met, which has 80 trillion objects, OK, where I’m meant to choose and talk about my favourite thing. It’s a ridiculous question. I cannot think of favourites because I’m too old, that’s what I think. You know who has favourites? Little kids and they are very enthusiastic about it, [saying] “That’s my favourite flavour!” because they’ve only had five flavours. I’ve had 5 million flavours.
  7. If you could solve one thing… I know you’re supposed to say the climate, I know it’s the most important thing, how could it not be? But I promise you, I would not be the person to solve it … The most important thing in American politics – which I do think about – is to get rid of the electoral college, which I know will never happen. Because that is the essence of the problem of this country. It enables a minority of people to rule the majority and I mean rule, not govern. Every state in this country has two senators and it’s absurd. Wyoming, which is a giant state, bigger than Europe, has fewer than 700,000 people – there are that many people in my building. My building should have a senator, OK, and Wyoming shouldn’t have two. The state of New York has two senators, Washington has zero. We don’t live in anything like a representative democracy. We have a country that represents acres of land as opposed to humans. In every other country that’s a democracy, the popular vote is called the vote.

    When interviewed on television in the 1970s about her first book, it seemed like she was born to do talk shows. “I never cared what people thought about what I thought, OK. I never, ever have thought, like, I care what you think about what I think. And I don’t understand why people do. People really worry about whether or not people will agree with what they say. I don’t care whether you agree with me or not, it’s of no interest to me and I don’t know why you care. I always say to people, well, who am I? … it’s not like I can change your life: I’m not in the Senate, I’m not on the Supreme Court, I can’t affect these things, so you don’t agree with me, so what? I don’t mean to give the impression I don’t care what people think of me as a person. Of course, the people I know, I do care what they think of me as a person. But there’s no one I care about whether or not they agree with me; I never did. This, of course, got me in trouble when I was young.”

    Her mother, in particular, used to say, “Wipe that look off your face”, even though she often wasn’t aware she had a particular look on her face. “I wasn’t very conscious of it. I’m not very conscious of my expressions,” Lebowitz says. “I know that because people are always saying to me, ‘Why don’t you ever smile?’ Taking a photograph, they go ‘Smile!’ and I think, ‘I am smiling’. Clearly, I am not.”

    Of course, it wasn’t just a look on her face: she used to speak her mind, even then. “What I do for a living, when I was a child, was called talking back.”

    “I’ve never suffered at all from what’s usually called stage fright. If I did, I wouldn’t have done all those things, truthfully. Because I know many people who do suffer tremendously from stage fright – performers, which I don’t understand, frankly. OK, I mean if you suffer from that, there are a million other things you could do with your life. I not only do not have anxiety about speaking in public, I enjoy it almost more than anything.”

    Which is lucky because that’s how she has made a living for most of her adult life, travelling the world and speaking her mind. We’re talking ahead of her Australian tour early next year, during which audiences will be able to ask questions. Young women often wonder what she’d say to her younger self. “It’s an impossible question. No one ever asks it in reverse, what advice would a 20-year-old give to their 73-year-old self.”

    Andy Warhol and Lebowitz at a party in New York in 1977.

    Andy Warhol and Lebowitz at a party in New York in 1977.Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

    On the record is her dislike for Andy Warhol, who, when she was 20, gave her a writing job at Interview magazine; she didn’t think he was very smart. Also in her line of fire are Republicans (“they are stupid and they are cruel”), travelling (“there’s all these people yelling on planes and going nuts on planes, [it’s] because they treat customers terribly, that’s why … fewer people flip out in first class and that’s because the sheets are better”) and tourists.

    The title of Martin Scorsese’s Netflix documentary about her, Pretend It’s a City, was inspired by her infuriation with the latter, constantly blocking New York’s sidewalks while staring at their phones or maps. “Pretend it’s a city,” she shouts at them.

    Fellow New Yorkers, Scorsese and Lebowitz are clearly great mates and he finds her very amusing. Saturday Night Live satirised the friendship, depicting the legendary filmmaker losing his mind at her every utterance.

    Long-time friends Martin Scorsese and Lebowitz collaborated in Pretend It’s a City.

    Long-time friends Martin Scorsese and Lebowitz collaborated in Pretend It’s a City. Credit: Netflix

    In the five years since her last visit to Australia, her work has seen a renaissance, fuelled in part by the doco, as well as a new generation discovering her work. It’s not surprising: living without the tools many of us assume are indispensable, she is a one-off.

    Signing off our phone call, Lebowitz quips: “I’m about to board my flight, should see you in February.”

    Fran Lebowitz is at Sydney Opera House on February 13 and 14; QPAC Brisbane on February 15; and at Arts Centre Melbourne on February 18 and 19, 2024. Perth dates tba.

    Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

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