Fran Lebowitz: ‘I am really not a contrarian’ | Documentary

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Almost from the moment she set foot in New York more than 50 years ago, Fran Lebowitz has been part of the city’s social firmament. Like it, she has moved inexorably upmarket since she first made her name as a humorist in the 70s with a column in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Back then, she hung out with the likes of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the New York Dolls as well as jazz legends such as Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. These days, she rubs shoulders with fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, while the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was a close friend and confidante.

One person who has remained a constant in her life, though, is the film director Martin Scorsese, who, like her, came of age in a time when the city was tougher, scuzzier and seedier. Until the pandemic put paid to her socialising, Lebowitz would spend every New Year’s Eve with Scorsese and a select few others, watching a classic Hollywood film in his private screening room.

“When we met, there was an instant rapport, which, I think, is really the nature of true friendship,” she tells me, sounding almost wistful. “The kind of connection we have is really as rare as true love and romance. It’s not the same, but there is something chemical about it. It’s something that just happened – there is not really an explanation for it.”

That chemistry underpins Pretend It’s a City, the hit Netflix series that, with the help of Scorsese’s deft direction and understated onscreen presence, has brought Lebowitz to the attention of a whole new audience and become an antidote for many to the constraints of our fearful, fretful times. In Scorsese, who also directed Public Speaking, a 2010 documentary about her, she has found her perfect foil: someone in thrall to her wit, in tune with her temperament and willing to give her all the space her voluble presence demands.

With Andy Warhol at a New York party, 1977. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

Filmed in 2019, before the pandemic rendered Manhattan a kind of ghost town, Pretend It’s a City gives Lebowitz free rein to hold forth on whatever she likes, which is mainly herself, and the myriad things that annoy her. They include tourists, bureaucrats, the smoking ban, the cult of wellness, mobile phones, the death of good manners, the self-obsessed and the young. “Even when I was young,” she quips, “I didn’t hang around with people my age. By the time I was in my early 30s, I had numerous friends who’d died of old age.”

Given the times we are living in, Lebowitz’s comedy of complaint should come across as insufferably petty, but instead viewers have found it diverting and her, in her relentlessly cranky way, charming. She has arrived in all her mouthy, pushy, opinionated way at exactly the right time: a forcefield of comic self-certainty in a world of anxious uncertainty. Much of this is down to her wit, which, to put it mildly, tends towards the acerbic, but also undercuts her grumpiness and cast-iron certitude. When I suggest that she has elevated contrarianism to the level of high art, though, she disagrees.

“First of all, I am really not a contrarian,” she says, sounding almost offended. “It is not my goal, desire or impulse to say or believe something in order to be contrary to what other people say or believe. It turns out, of course, that many of the things I say and believe are contrary to what other people think, but I do not say them for that reason. That is 100% true.”

How, then, would she describe herself? “I know this is not a view that is very widely shared, but I think of myself as a person who is very reasonable. In fact, I consider myself to be the very essence of reason and logic.”

Lebowitz is speaking to me over the phone from New York, where she famously lives a digitally disconnected life in an apartment that also houses around 10,000 books. She may be the only person in Manhattan who has chosen not to own either a laptop or a mobile phone, which means Twitter is missing out on her epigrammatic wit and she may not even be fully aware, or even care that much, that her sartorial style has lit up social media. Her defiantly masculine look – slightly outsize men’s jackets and shirts worn with turned-up Levis and embossed cowboy boots – has led one style blogger to dub her “the Angry Alternative Style Icon We Could All Learn From” and place her top of their list of “most stylish badasses of this century”.

Just how badass you can be while having your cashmere coats and jackets made bespoke by Anderson & Sheppard in Savile Row, whose only previous female client was Marlene Dietrich, is debatable. And, as some critics have pointed out, it’s a bit rich riffing on New York being a prohibitively expensive place to live, having, according to a 2017 report in Variety, “splashed out $3.1m for a one-bedroom and two-bathroom condo at the Chelsea Mercantile, a full-service, celeb-approved building on a busy corner in New York City’s Chelsea neighbourhood”.

With designer Diane von Furstenberg, 1990.
With designer Diane von Furstenberg, 1990. Photograph: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

To a degree, though, Lebowitz has always lived above her means, moving to her own apartment in midtown Manhattan not long after she first arrived there in 1969. “As soon as I could, I got my own place in the West Village,” she tells me. “It was a horrible apartment, but it wasn’t on the Lower East Side, where many of my friends lived, and which was a lot cheaper, but also a lot scarier. It was so dangerous that I would not go there to visit them, even in daylight.”

In Pretend It’s a City, the defining image of her recurs in all seven episodes: a lone figure in a broad-shouldered overcoat pounding the streets of pre-pandemic Manhattan in the manner of a Mafia hitman en route to an assignment. This may be Scorsese’s little in-joke, but it is nevertheless apposite given that Lebowitz is a woman on a mission to target the many absurdities and annoyances of New York life. Her certitude is fuelled by an anger that may be exaggerated for comic effect, but it is nevertheless real and deeply felt. What irks her most is the absence of good manners – “I know you are not even meant to say that word any more” – in public life.

“When I was young,” she says, employing one of her favourite refrains, “there was a very strict idea of the boundary between the public and the private life. So, things that you might do in the privacy of your bedroom, you wouldn’t do on 12th St. That seems to have disappeared entirely and it is not just the young; it’s true even of people my age, who were brought up in a certain way and then forgot about it. It is surprising to me just how unconscious people are of themselves in public, considering how much more acceptable it has become to think about yourself all the time. This has been going on for some time, of course, but I haven’t really gotten used to it. And, yes, it angers me.”

In Pretend It’s a City, her ire is directed at the wilfully inept – city officials who spent $40m installing “lawn chairs” in Times Square – and the wilfully naive, including a young woman who asks her how she would describe her lifestyle – “Well, let me assure you,” she retorts, “I would never use the term ‘lifestyle’.”

One of the ironies of her newfound celebrity is that the young, who she professes to have little time for, have taken her to their hearts. She draws some of her biggest crowds on the American college campus circuit and, before the lockdown, found herself being regularly stopped on the street by youthful admirers.

“I have noticed that it is people in their middle-20s that come up to me the most,” she says, sounding intrigued rather than, as you might expect, irritated by the attention. “I don’t really understand why. I have never paid any particular attention to them. What I can tell you is that many of them seem incredibly fixated on New York in the 70s, which has somehow become very glamorous to them, even though it was anything but.”

Fran Lebowitz photographed in 1974 by Peter Hujar.
Fran Lebowitz photographed in 1974 by Peter Hujar. Photograph: © The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC; courtesy Pace MacGill Gallery

Perhaps, I suggest, it seems somehow more authentic in its grittiness that today’s more homogenised Manhattan. “I think it’s more that glamour is always a distant thing,” she counters. “The further you get away from an era, the more glamorous it becomes. And, if you happened to be around then, the glamour gets attached to you.”

Back in the early 70s, Lebowitz was part of a cool, arty downtown New York scene that was more glam than glamorous and that has since, as she suspects, attained an almost mythic status in popular culture. She moved there in 1969, fleeing a constrictively traditional upbringing in Morristown, New Jersey, where her Jewish parents owned a furniture upholstery business. Their only ambition for her, she has said, was that she become a good wife.

“There is a huge difference between the relationship that young people have with their parents now and the relationship people of my age had with their parents. They don’t hate their parents. Their parents never disapprove of anything they do. There isn’t that divide. Put simply, our parents did not like us that much. I know that is a horrible thing to say. I’m not saying they didn’t love us, but they certainly didn’t like us. And it never entered their minds to be friends with us. My mother used to say to me very frequently, ‘I’m your mother, not your friend’, not that I would have mistaken her for a friend, believe me.”

Rebellious by nature, Lebowitz declared herself an atheist, aged seven, and, as a teenager, was suspended from one school for “unspecific surliness” and another for setting a bad example to her fellow pupils – she once turned up at a fancy dress party as Fidel Castro. In New York, she found work variously as a cleaner, a taxi driver – one of only two female cabbies in the city – and a writer of porn.

In 1970, having published several book reviews for a small underground magazine, she blagged a job at Andy Warhol’s glitzy Interview magazine by informing the editor, Glenn O’Brien, that she wanted to write funny reviews of bad films, would like her own page and did not want to be edited. Her byline granted her access to a hip and notoriously dissolute milieu, whose denizens included the young photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, both of whom made portraits of her, and the louche and outrageously camp rock group the New York Dolls, whose lead singer, David Johansen, invited her to the group’s regular shows at the Mercer Arts Center.

“I got to know the whole band and went to see them a lot,” she tells me, “but, as far as the music went, I cannot think of a person I knew of my age who was less interested in rock’n’roll than me.”

Snapshots of her from that time show her hanging out at nightclubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, looking relaxed, but defiantly out of step in her stylishly preppie clothes. As she attests in Pretend It’s a City, she was much more at home in the company of jazz legends such as Duke Ellington and the mercurial Charles Mingus, with whom she had a tempestuous friendship – he once leapt off stage during a set and chased her through the astonished audience and several blocks down the street.

For me, her stories about those heady times are the highlights of the series, not least because you can sense the freedom she felt then. Raised in a conservative small town, she had found both her milieu and her adopted home as a gay woman in a city that, as she tells Scorsese, drew people like her who did not easily fit in elsewhere.

By the early 80s, Lebowitz had published two books of humorously insightful and well-received essays on New York manners, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), before she succumbed to what she refers to as her prolonged “writer’s blockade”, which continues still. Undaunted, she made the apparently seamless transition from writer to public speaker and the rest, as they say, is history of a particularly unlikely kind.

I ask her if she considers herself a satirist? “In a way, yes, but, American reality has been so extreme of late that satire is almost impossible. Anything you could possible imagine actually happens. It would stump Jonathan Swift.”

Her politics, she tells me, have remained constant throughout her life. “What I really am is a very old-fashioned New Deal liberal democrat, but the problem is that the Democratic party has moved so far to the right. It began when Bill Clinton became president. To me, his ideas were Republican ideas and that’s when it all started to get mixed up in a really bizarre way.”

With Martin Scorsese in Pretend It’s a City.
With Martin Scorsese in Pretend It’s a City. Photograph: Netflix/NETFLIX

Of late, she says, she has found herself “becoming more radical, more left” at a time in her life when she should be becoming more conservative. “It’s only because everyone else moved to the right,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been forced into it. I mean, I didn’t used to hate Republicans, I just disagreed with them.”

At 70, Fran Lebowitz still retains some of that instinctively rebellious spirit that so incensed her school teachers and it is her forthrightness that seems to have struck the deepest chord. Her comedy is essentially cathartic: she lets rip in a way that the rest of us – in particular, older people – don’t, but wish we could. In refusing to shut up or put up, she speaks for every beleaguered city dweller, whose default mode, unlike hers, is stoical silence and suppressed rage. Does it annoy her, I ask, that some people find her annoying?

“No, but it does baffle me. I am always surprised at how angry people get at me, given I don’t have any power. So, you don’t agree with me. So what? It’s not like I can do anything to you. To be honest, I really don’t care that people don’t agree with me, but I wonder why they care so much that I don’t agree with them.” Right now, the world having finally caught up with her wit, I suspect she doesn’t spend much time thinking about that at all.

Pretend It’s a City is on Netflix

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