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“You know what, I’m 72 – I’m nothing but regrets. People who tell you they don’t have regrets are lying.” Fran Lebowitz, speaking on the landline from her New York apartment, lives up to her reputation as a straight-shooter. The commentator, satirist and writer who has suffered from writer’s block for decades is renowned for telling it like it is.
Fran Lebowitz lives up to her reputation as a straight-shooter.Credit: Daniel Boud
I’m relieved to find she’s in great form, especially as I stood her up last time we were meant to chat. It wasn’t deliberate, of course, rather a tech hitch that could only happen with someone like … Fran Lebowitz.
She doesn’t have a computer or a mobile phone, choosing instead a landline and an answering machine. Her PR tells me to start leaving a message, so she can screen the call, and then she’ll pick up. That was the plan, except I hadn’t made an international call on my new mobile and to my dismay it wouldn’t connect.
With almost anyone else, alternatives might have worked: What’s App, Messenger, Skype or Google hangout. Instead, we lose the allotted time and reschedule a new date. I get global roaming turned on, phone the New York State Library to check I can connect a call overseas – it seems fitting – and we speak the following week.
Despite knowing I could probably never do it, I have a pang of envy for her offline reality. Has she ever rethought her approach to technology? “No. It’s like having children, I have not heard or read one thing that makes me regret my decision [to not have them].”
Routinely described in the media as grumpy and curmudgeonly, Lebowitz is quite the contrary – in fine form, chatty and expansive. Asked why telling the truth is such a fixation, she’s not sure, “but it’s centrally important”.
“When I was a little kid, I was talking to a friend – I don’t remember what the topic was, it couldn’t have been very interesting because I was only five – but my mother heard me say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it, I promise’.
“And my mother said, ‘You don’t ever have to say you promise, everything you say is a promise’. I have to say here, this was not true of my mother, by the way. And I would not say it’s wholly true of me either, it’s not possible, but it was a long time ago and I always remember that my mother said that and it made an impression on me. I must have believed her.”
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.
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
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.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. 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.
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