by Terry Gross
Iconoclastic humorist Fran Lebowitz used to be known as a writer. Back in the late 1970s and ’80s she released two popular collections of essays featuring her cutting observations and opinions about life. But that part of her career was cut short by a decades long case of writer’s block — now she’s known for talking.
The Netflix series, Pretend It’s a City, features Lebowitz in conversation with Martin Scorsese — who directed both the new series and the 2010 HBO documentary about Lebowitz, Public Speaking. Lebowitz has known Scorsese for so long she’s no longer certain of how they met — though she thinks it was probably at a party.
“Whenever I saw Marty at a party, I would spend most of the evening talking to Marty,” she says.
In the new series, Lebowitz talks about why she cleaned apartments in her 20s when her friends were making more money waitressing, working as a New York City cab driver in the 1970s, getting kicked out of high school in New Jersey, and her collection of 10,000 books. Many of her stories center on Manhattan — a place both she and Scorsese feel deeply connected to.
“We both have such a strong connection to New York that, in fact, when I made my deal with Marty for Public Speaking … Marty said, ‘OK, here’s the deal. We don’t leave Manhattan,’ ” Lebowitz says. “In Pretend It’s A City, we did go to Queens [and it was] something Marty talked about as if we were going to Afghanistan.”
On living alone during the COVID-19 pandemic
Well, it still seems to me to be by far the best choice. I cannot understand how people who do not live alone have stood this last 10 months, because the only upside of having to stay in my apartment is at least there was no one else there. I would find that unbearable, I mean, truly unbearable. … At the very beginning [of the pandemic], this guy I know, this friend of mine sent me, like, one million dollars worth of orchids saying, “These are to keep you company.” And I thought, really? I mean, thank you. They’re beautiful, but I keep myself company. So I don’t feel that living alone is a drawback during this. I think it’s an asset. …
Truthfully, I really never get lonely. I mean, I certainly can say that there are people that I miss, specific people that I’ve missed in my life numerous times, some very grievously. But a kind of abstract loneliness? No.
On being comfortable as herself and not being envious of others
I’m always surprised that people, adults, look to other people — even for things like haircuts. I just never thought about it. I don’t know why. But that was true even when I was a little kid. I don’t have a habit of comparing myself to other people. … The few times in my life I felt deeply envious, the feeling was so repellent to me that I thought, “God, this must be what it’s like to be these people who are constantly envious of other people.” … It’s less surprising that, say, teenagers feel that way. But I know a lot of adults who feel that way, and I think it is just ridiculous.
On being a lifelong germaphobe
I’ve always been very careful about touching things. … I’ve never touched a single thing in the New York City subway system — ever. Usually I’m by myself on the subway, but a few times I remember … [I was] with someone, and he said to me, when we got out, he said, “You didn’t touch anything.” And I said, “No.” And the truth is, if I dropped the Hope Diamond on the floor of a subway car, I’d leave it there. I’d say, “Well, you know, it’s just the Hope Diamond.”
But I’ve, of course, seen people pick things up from the floor. I, at least once, was sitting across from a woman with a baby, and the pacifier fell out of the baby’s mouth. The woman picked it up, wiped it off on her shirt and put it back in the baby’s mouth. I really thought one of two things going to happen to that baby: Either he’s going to drop dead right now or he’ll live to be a million years old, because he’s just been exposed to every germ and virus on the planet Earth.
On getting elected class president of her all-girls school and then shortly thereafter being expelled
Well, the difference is that the kids elected to be president and the headmaster threw me out. … The official reason he threw me out was he said, “I was a terrible influence on the other girls and I was usurping his power.” Whatever that meant, I have no idea. …
I always felt that I was punished for things unfairly. In other words, when I got thrown out of school for years afterward, people say, what did you do? And I know I was expected to say, “I started a revolution.” “I set fire to the gym.” But I really didn’t do anything. And I really think that what I got expelled for was what my mother used to call “that look on your face.”
On driving a taxi cab in New York in her early 20s in the ’70s
I drove a taxi because I don’t have any skills. I didn’t know how to do anything else. … I also didn’t want to do the job that most of my friends did, which was wait tables, because I didn’t want to have to be nice to men to get tips or to sleep with the manager of my shift, which was a common requirement then for being a waitress in New York. So I didn’t want to have a boss, which you don’t in either one of those jobs. Cab driving as a profession was completely different than it is now, because there were these garages with big fleets. Someone would own, like, 40 cabs or maybe more. So you could pick up a cab any shift, you could always make money so that if you woke up in your apartment with no money — a frequent occurrence in my life — I could go pick up a cab. At the end of eight hours, I had money. So that to me was a great thing.
On working for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and not getting along with Warhol
I would say that Andy didn’t like me and that I did not like Andy. I noticed right away how many people around him died. … There was a tremendous amount of encouragement of people already teetering on the brink of sanity. … And Andy would feed these fantasies they had of themselves, because it amused him and it was also lucrative for him. And I just didn’t want to be really around that. I think that Andy realized that, or maybe I just wasn’t his cup of tea, but I didn’t have arguments with Andy, because I never had much conversation with Andy.
On her longtime friendship with Toni Morrison
So if you didn’t know Toni personally, you would not know how much fun Toni was. Toni was really fun. … Most of the time we were laughing. She was really fun. In fact, when I first knew Toni, she was still working at Random House as an editor, and … at that point, my publisher, and my editor called me and said … “[The President of Random House called] me and you have to stop hanging around in Toni Morrison’s office because [the president] was complaining because you’re hanging around in there and the two of you are laughing all the time and she’s not getting her work done.” …
I even once, not that long ago, met a man who taught at Princeton and Toni taught at Princeton much after this, and he said, “I used to have the office next to Toni Morrison. And you and Toni Morrison really annoyed me with all your laughing.” So apparently, the fact that we are laughing is what really annoys people. Of course, men always don’t like to hear women laughing together, because they think you’re laughing about them. But I would say that’s probably the thing we had in common was liking to laugh.
Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.