Private Speaking With Fran Lebowitz
Fran Lebowitz at the Ridgefield Playhouse 2/22/14
If you want to delve into New York City’s true cultural heart, before tourists in shorts and Disney sanitized Times Square, then look no farther than Fran Lebowitz. A longtime NYC urbanist, commentator, satirist and contradictory cocktail of sartorial sharpness, wit and social skewering, Lebowitz thrives on vintage books, good tobacco, and, probably, above all, trenchant writing and speech. She's been in the business since being discovered, famously, by Andy Warhol more than four decades ago.
She has enjoyed a TV role on Law & Order, been the subject of Public Speaking, an HBO documentary by another iconic New Yorker, Martin Scorsese, and authored two works of wry essays, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. Lebowitz’s future work, the product of several years of writing (and writer’s block[ade], as it were), Progress, is—reportedly—due out next year.
So, er, moving forward, so to speak, ilovefc decided to get personal with Lebowitz about her current likes, dislikes and gut feelings about, oh, well, anything and everything in contemporary culture prior to her visit to the Ridgefield Playhouse on February 22nd.
“I’m always reading far much more than I’m writing,” Lebowitz says, speaking by telephone from her home. “In fact, if you got paid for reading, I’d be speaking with you from my villa in Tuscany.”
In private speech with Lebowitz, one notices how words are chosen, emphasized and italicized, in mid-air, as it were, by her diction and delivery. Books were a recurrent theme when we spoke, not surprisingly; as she was nose-deep in a couple of them (a new thing—she didn’t read more than one book at a time in the past, she notes). Both of them she recommends, though the first is an as-yet-unpublished galley of essays that she’s savoring, and another, a staple by a favored author.
“Yes, I’m reading Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur,” she says, “It’s a first edition, which I had received for Christmas. I highly recommend it; it’s from 1962. …I myself live in a used bookshop: I still have 10,000 books, and I had more before I moved.”
Thus, “bibliophile” is a bit of a misnomer for her, and “Luddite” isn’t quite applicable either, as Lebowitz is extraordinarily proud to be bound up in the printed word, and very very attached to her tomes. What’s most striking is the fact that while most people would become hamstrung without electronic means of communication, Lebowitz seems to thrive upon their absence, viewing them as the encumbrance.
However, there is a generational difference in New York, she’s lately observed, with regard to public reading.
“I don’t have any kind of contemporary computer,” she says. “I don’t have a cell phone, I do not have a microwave, and I’ve owned the same car since 1978; I never even had a typewriter. I’ve no objection to the thing (an e-reader, such as a Kindle), as long as people are reading: I really don’t care. I’m not really interested in what other people do. I do see people reading on Kindles, I see them on the subway, and reading books on the subway; in fact, I see more people reading in their 40s on the iPads and devices, and ironically, more people in their 20s reading books while riding.”
It was interesting, she says, when she appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, upon learning she did not have an e-reader, the host gave her a Kindle on the air. (Which did not ensure its use, naturally.) However, she responded, on-air, in kind.
Another well-known, unavoidable constant with Lebowitz is smoke. Indeed, the author does indulge, as she has for years, in tobacco.
“Yes,” she says, “I do still smoke. Most people I know my age have stopped smoking. To me: A) Smoking is an addiction; B) And it’s a habit. It’s not a moral flaw; and it’s none of anyone’s business. Clearly, I’m not that much of a gladiator to stop. People complain about secondhand smoke, and I don’t object to that, but what I do object to is secondhand drinking, which kills many more people.”
This, in reference to drunk driving, is a rather astute observation, especially from someone who has owned the same vintage car for 30-odd years. But indulgence in alcohol was dispensed with, in Lebowitz’s case, early. She believes that each person in his/her time has “a lifetime supply” that they will consume and reach; once reached, that’s it, as it were: no more. In her case, this was achieved some time ago, though the notion of a “guilty pleasure,” for her, does not exist.
“I do drink coffee,” she says. “But I believe that between the ages of 15 and 19, I drank my lifetime’s supply (of alcohol). So, no, I don’t drink. And, I do not feel guilty about my pleasures. If Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t feel guilty about his pleasures, then I should not.”
One pleasure she does engage in is bespoke suits: English tailoring, made, measured, fitted and cut by hand by Anderson & Sheppard, a Savile Row establishment in fine fettle since 1906, which pays a visit twice annually to New York, to (literally) suit her. Due in part to this, The Huffington Post often pegs her in its “Best Dressed” list.
“The reason I pay so much for these very expensive clothes is that they last generations,” Lebowitz notes. “I will be able to leave them in my will. And luckily, they (her bespoke tailors) come to New York, which is good, because I would have to go to London, which I would never do.”
Leaving the city is, one could say, a bit of wrench for her. But Lebowitz’s favorite place to be isn’t necessarily New York per se, but rather, her home, specifically—as in, her apartment. That is, she feels, the ultimate “weekend escape,” mingled with the Sunday edition of The New York Times, which she reads differently from most of her peers.
“My favorite thing about the weekend is, after I walk into my apartment on Friday, the next time I go out is Monday,” she says. “The upside of not having a job is never having to leave your home if you don’t want to. … I get the Sunday Times: It takes me days to read this newspaper. Other people flip through it. I do something incredibly regressive and read it.”
Leibowitz doesn’t watch TV at home (“It is surprising how many people are obsessed with television. I don’t watch anything you have to watch more than once…”); she won’t reveal her favorite spot in the city (“I would never tell that to a reporter: that instantly turns it into other people’s escape…”); and, interestingly, her news source isn’t the Internet, but rather radio, specifically 1010 WINS—New York’s all-news AM staple—and through word-of-mouth: “I turn on WINS on and off in my house—it is fantastic because they give you the same news every 10 minutes—they have everything first, because they have a traffic helicopter in the air. And, of course, people tell you the news whether you want them to or not.”
Regarding her greatest joy in life, Lebowitz is positive, saying, “Truthfully, hoping that this is my future.” She also makes a very crucial point regarding the past, what is trendy, and considered “good” and its connection to notions of “popularity.” Oh, and what annoys her about this.
“What am I most annoyed by…” she lets the question float into a statement. “We don’t have time. We don’t have enough time, I mean, in life, to answer that, but, I think people now, generations younger than me seem to imagine that what is popular is good—that has never been the case. …And, in the past, people think that there are more things that are great then than now. Well, there are more great things in the past merely because in the past there has been more time for there to be great things.”
That said, while New York is one of those great things to her, Lebowitz has ventured to the ’burbs before, and finds it nice up here in the wilds of Fairfield County.
“I have been to Ridgefield,” she says. “The reason is that I have friends who lived there. It’s very fetching. It is pretty.”
This she says without a trace of irony in her voice, as it falls upon the word “fetching.”
Fran Lebowitz will talk, satirize and offer her unique social observations at the Ridgefield Playhouse at 7:30 p.m., on February 22nd, as part of the The Moffly Media Entertaining Conversations Series, co-sponsored by the Ridgefield Library and WSHU. Tickets cost $47.50. Visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org/event/fran-lebowitz for more information or to attend this and later events in the series. For further entertainment, attendees might also try The Fran Lebowitz Reader.