There seems to be a big misunderstanding. “Many people, especially young women, have an idea of me that’s just incorrect,” Fran Lebowitz said. “I was not an activist, a feminist, you know, [yet] people thank me for this. And I hate to turn down any gratitude that I might possibly inspire in someone, but I always say, ‘I wasn’t that person. I was never an activist.’ I was never an activist in anything. I never thought it would work.”
“If [feminism] really worked, there wouldn’t be feminism anymore,” she said. But “there’s a couple of things that have changed so much for the better, and the life of a girl is a billion times better than when I was a girl. There’s no comparison. It’s so much better, and yet it’s still horrible. That will tell you what it was like, okay?”
So how did a woman who didn’t think feminism would work end up becoming an icon for millennials? “You’re the opposite of lean-in feminism,” I told her.
“Well, mostly, I’ve found myself to be almost the opposite of everything,” she said.
How do we love Fran Lebowitz? Let me count the ways. There are her books — two slim volumes, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981). Both were published at the beginning of her career, when she basked in the Warholian light that turned artists and writers into rock stars —Warhol hosted one of her book parties at Studio 54. Fran, now 68, started writing the kind of mannerist, comedic essays that now, people do to get gigs writing for TV or a deal for a novel (she was offered opportunities to do both, but she just didn’t feel like it).
There is her mystique. She had a seemingly unexceptionable childhood — she was born and raised in New Jersey — but then she dropped out of high school and moved to Manhattan, where Warhol brought her into his fold. After her two runaway hits, she stopped publishing books.
There is her posse, which reads like a dream dinner party guestlist: the designer Diane Von Furstenberg, the political columnist Frank Rich, former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and the celebrated Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (not to mention the dearly departed members, such as Warhol and the photographer Peter Hujar). And there is her style — her uniform of Levi’s jeans, Anderson & Sheppard blazers, tortoiseshell glasses, and cowboy boots, which are made by who-the-hell-knows-but-Fran-is-definitely-not-telling-you.
But mostly, there’s Fran. She is precise. She is direct. She is demanding. She loves privacy. She loves manners. She is always smoking. She will make you feel totally uncomfortable and like an absolute idiot. You will love her for it.
Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial? But I think I spent the first hour of Fran Lebowitz’s photo shoot wondering if she liked me? And I guess it showed, because then she said — bluntly, brusquely, in the middle of extemporizing about her love of talking — “Have you ever noticed how all the young people end their sentences with a question mark?”
Fran is very good at speaking. She is constantly aghast at the absurdity of modern life — of people using their phones, posing for photographs, politics, feminism, social media, ugly chairs — and yet once she makes her demands known, she gamely poses for the photographs, answers any question you ask her, and talks your ear off, delivering witticisms with the grace of a compliment. It’s almost like she thinks of her talent as a speaker as an expression of etiquette.
“A person can ask you anything and you have something to say, whatever subject that is,” I told her.
“Whether I know about it or not,” she said.
Though feminism has its pitfalls, “Life is better now for more people.
Life is worse for certain people — and good. Oh really? Life is not as perfect for you as it used to be, for gentile straight white men? Oh, I’m so sorry. But it’s better for everyone else.”
She is flabbergasted by the #MeToo movement. “It never occurred to me this would ever change. Being a woman was exactly the same from Eve ‘til eight months ago. So it never occurred to me that it would change. Ever. I can tell you that it’s probably one of the most surprising things in my life. The first forty guys who got caught — I knew almost all of them.”
She’d known Harvey Weinstein, known he was a jerk, but had never heard that he’d raped women. “I believe it. I believe every single woman. Prove to me she’s lying. I believe it because I was a girl. And men, even the best men, the most well intended men, the smartest men, by which I mean the men I have carefully selected to be my friends?” She said. “They do not understand it. Men cannot understand this. I always say, ‘Just agree with me. That’s all. Because you don’t understand this. You do not understand what people are talking about.’”
It’s not about sex, she said. “That’s not what we’re talking about.
The easiest way to explain this to men in a blunt way that just about encompasses everything is: look at it this way, it’s about work. How’s that? Because when I was young, most of my friends who were girls who had to work were waitresses. And I would never be a waitress. I cleaned houses, I drove a cab, and they would say, ‘Why do you do these jobs? House cleaning’s a horrible job. Waiting tables is not a great job, but it’s a nicer job than cleaning houses. You make about the same money, maybe make a little more, being a waitress.’ And I would say, ‘No — manager.’ Because you couldn’t get a shift as a waitress without sleeping with the manager. That was every single restaurant in New York. That was every single girl. That was every single girl! That was the price of the job, [and] that was every job.”
So what if the accused guys — many of whom she knows — lost their jobs? “It showed that most of these guys are totally replaceable. They’re gone, and so what? There’s still movies, there’s still television shows, there’s still comedians.”
Fran doesn’t have a phone. Or a computer. Or Twitter or Facebook or email or any of that stuff. Is she prescient, or so old-school that she’s lived through the full cycle of trends? At one point, she looked up at three people at the photoshoot, including me, all of whom were glancing at our phones. “What are all of you doing right now?” she asked. She made each of us answer. She insisted that nothing we were doing was important, except for the one person who was writing a work email. “But young people work too much. This is the problem.” She hates the way we talk — and yet she’ll admit, perhaps even before we do, that we are a generation overworked.
Her technophobia (or maybe it’s more accurate to just call it a cleanly articulated lack of interest in technology) doesn’t mean she’s immune to Trump’s tweets or the internet-bred pace of contemporary political combat. “Here’s what it’s like to get off a plane anywhere in the world now. You get off the plane, the guy sitting next to you turns his phone on, and goes, ‘Oh my god!’ Then the guy standing behind you goes, ‘What’d he do now?’ And no one has to ask, ‘Who are you talking about?’”
But the more you stay logged on, the more Fran can stay logged off.
Isn’t that the dreamiest way you’ve ever heard of following the news? “You think it was bad when you got on this flight in L.A.? When you get off in New York, the world has become even worse than you could’ve imagined. And that is, like, every five minutes. And that is new. That’s new. That is newer than anything I can think of. People are very obsessed with what’s new. This is new, and this is bad. Not every new thing is good, and this is really bad,” she said.
People talk too much about their political leader, Fran said, “in countries where people are afraid of the leader.” And in fact, “I think this era is too interesting. It’s way too interesting. I don’t want to be this interested in this. I have other things I’d rather think about.” It must be even worse to be young. “When they’re young especially, this is the world. You know, when you’re young you think the world is how you find it. You know? This is the world. Well, I’m assuming it will not stay this way, and I know that because nothing stays any way. I imagine it will, in some way, get better. Because eventually Donald Trump will, in some way, disappear.” And furthermore: “This idea that people are thinking about someone who has never had a single thought in his life is also very irritating.”
A few years ago, Fran told Vanity Fair that Donald Trump was “a poor person’s idea of a rich person.” “You do not know anyone as stupid as Donald Trump,” she said. I asked her about the pivot from her early work, which focused more on cinema and books and the people who made those worlds dazzle, to political commentary. “That’s because you’re forced to know about politics now,” she said. “During the Vietnam War, I was very involved in politics and interested in politics. I’d march and that kind of stuff. Then there was an endless period where I barely paid attention to it” (such as in the ’70s and ’80s — though, she noted, “I’m an excellent voter”). But “now, it isn’t a question of interest. It’s an obsession. Not just with me. The country is being destroyed. There is a major disaster occurring. So if this is not capturing your attention, what would?”
Fran really likes stuff, but she believes stuff has gotten worse: furniture, clothes, fabrics, objects. “There are no competing values in the culture anymore; everything is just money,” she said. “So things were better [in the past], but life was worse.”
I asked her if she feels things are overdesigned. “It depends on what you’re talking about. What’s really kind of interesting is how many people are conscious of things like that. They didn’t used to be.” In the past, it was just a small group of people who were into stuff, she said. “Fashion shows when I was young—they were in the showrooms of designers. There were 40 people, 50 people. Every single person there cared about clothes, knew about clothes. Fashion shows now are 100 billion people, like going to a hockey game — and some of the same people who should be at hockey games. The second straight men started showing up at fashion shows, who were not involved in the business, that was it. That was it.”
Fran hates to shop, but she loves Anderson and Sheppard, the Savile Row tailor whose customers have included Fred Astaire, Prince Charles, and Tom Ford. At first, they wouldn’t make clothing for women. “It was Graydon [Carter] who got them to do it. And whoever Graydon spoke to said, ‘We only make clothes for one woman, [and] that was Marlene Dietrich.’ And Graydon told me this, and I said, ‘Well, she’s dead. So now I can take her place.’”
The one thing she likes to shop for is books. Fran said she can read for nine hours straight. She used to read mostly fiction; now she’s reading more non-fiction. “I am like a slut of literature; I’ll read anything,” she said. She also likes the AARP magazine. “It’s not really a good magazine,” she said. Everyone else she knows throws it away. “But I would never throw away anything that had some good print on it.”
“It’s really an addiction,” she said, of reading. “That and smoking are your two addictions” I said, my voice accidentally ticking up at the end (dammit!). “Those are my two addictions,” she said. At least reading isn’t bad for you, I said. “Reading is not good for me, because I’ve spent my life doing that instead of writing. It’s absolutely a fact that I’ve never, ever been reading without feeling guilty.”
But if she is a bookworm, she is not an introvert, really. Or maybe she is? “I am really two people. On one hand, I am incredibly sociable, gregarious. I’m a lounge lizard, I love parties. And on the other hand, I am a hermit. I have lived alone my entire life. I would never consider living with another person.” She had a party at her house once. “I complained to a friend of mine. I said, ‘There aren’t enough ashtrays here.’ She said, ‘It’s your house.’”
Fran is very close with Toni Morrison. “She’s one of my best friends, and she is the only wise person I’ve ever known. I know lots of very smart people, but I only know one wise person,” she said. She and Toni talk on the phone every day. “She’s very important to me because there are very few people’s advice I’m interested in,” Fran said. “I’ve not always taken Toni’s advice, but I’m always interested. Toni is so unlike me. When I was young, my mother used to say, ‘Can’t you be the bigger person?’ And I would say no. I am by nature the smaller person, but the bigger person is Toni.”
“Toni’s the biggest person I’ve ever known, by far. She has the greatest generosity of anyone I’ve ever known. So it’s not only her intelligence, which is extreme… I truthfully know other people as smart as Toni, but I do not know anyone who is so large in generosity. And her talent is fantastic, but I know other very talented people. She is unique. I feel like I’ve met a zillion people, so I don’t think she’s unique in my life — she is unique on the planet.”
Fran mentioned something about Toni critiquing something Fran was writing. “[Toni] called me and she said, ‘I have just one suggestion — would you like to hear it?’ And I thought, ‘Not really,’ so I said yes. And she said, ‘Look, here’s a sentence where you say you—you should say we.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because it invites the reader in.’ So I said, ‘I don’t want to invite the reader in. I’m not a hostess. I’m the prosecutor.’ And this is probably the biggest difference between me and Toni, as a human.”
I asked if she could tell me what she was working on. “I cannot. I mean, I can, but I will not.” I asked if we would see another Fran book. “Well, possibly. I think it’s more likely than not. I can’t guarantee it. It probably depends on how old you are, you know? So you’re young; now it’s a point of how old I am.”
We had gone way past sundown (though, admittedly, it was the depths of December), so I wrapped up by asking Fran if she had big plans that night. “I would not categorize them as big,” she said. Was she going out to dinner? “I’m going out to dinner,” she confirmed.
“I’m not going to ask you where,” I said.
“That’s good, because I wouldn’t tell you.”
“I know. I’m going to stop recording. But that doesn’t mean you have to tell me.”
I walked her to her car. I called her driver (when you don’t have a phone, I realized, perhaps you’re not helpless but rather always being served).
I tried to shake her hand, and she hesitated, saying she’d have to take her gloves off if she did. But I kind of made her do it anyway. It was the polite thing to do.
And you know, I think it made her hate me a little. But I can live with that.