In the four decades since publishing her wry essay collections Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, Fran Lebowitz has remained famous simply by talking. Of course, one of New York’s most recognizable personalities has a lot of opinions about how New York — and the world beyond it, for that matter — should operate. She tours and appears on late-night shows, and in 2021, she starred in the Netflix docuseries Pretend It’s a City, directed by her friend Martin Scorsese. And on October 21, novelist Marlon James will interview her at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, where she’ll dispense whatever biting cultural observations are on her mind that night.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I called Lebowitz to ask her some etiquette questions. But one does not just call Fran Lebowitz. She lives without Wi-Fi or a cell phone, and the publicist who arranged our interview gave me detailed instructions on how to contact her. I was told to dial her landline at the appointed time and, because she screens her calls, leave a message announcing myself, at which point she would answer. She did, and when I asked how she was doing that day, Lebowitz retorted, “I haven’t decided yet.”
You’ve been doing events like this Kings Theatre interview for a long time. What are the best and worst things an audience can do during a night with Fran Lebowitz?
Generally at my events I do a half-hour interview on the stage and then I go to a podium and answer questions from the audience for an hour. I generally do not allow microphones in the audience, and that is because if you have mics in the audience, you don’t get questions from the audience — you get answers. Basically, I would like the audience not to give speeches.
The worst thing at any public Q&A is when somebody starts with the words, “This is more of a statement than a question.”
I don’t know how old you are, but I’m sure you’re younger than me because everyone is. When I was young — I started doing this in my late 20s — I used to think you had to answer every question a journalist asked you. Now, if someone starts with “I have a statement to make,” which generally they don’t with me, I just say, “No. Next question.”
Is there a question you wish people would stop asking you?
I do wish people would stop asking me about writer’s block: Why do you have it? Because obviously if I knew I wouldn’t have it. To me, it’s not just an annoying question, it’s an absurd question. And the other question people ask me that I find bizarre is, “If you weren’t allowed to live in New York, where would you live?” People live in New York because everyone’s allowed to live in New York. Why would I not be allowed to live in New York? Mainly the reason people live in New York is because they’re not allowed to live where they’re from. So I would say I’m positive that there’s not going to come a time when I am not allowed to live in New York.
People just want to goad you into saying there’s nowhere else worth living.
Well, that is true. I don’t have to go into that. There are other places I like, but obviously, at the moment — and things are getting worse by the second — we are allowed to live wherever we want. I live here because I want to. There’s no place like New York.
If you’re seeing a talk or a performance that you’re not enjoying, do you think it’s okay to walk out?
Have you ever walked out of a show?
I have. This is one of the reasons why I generally do not go to screenings of movies. If you walk out of a screening, it looks like you’re making a big statement. I don’t really want to do that. But a long time ago, I decided life is not a jail sentence. If you don’t like this movie, leave. If you don’t like this book, stop reading it. But I don’t do it in a place where everyone knows everyone. This is why when I do go to the theater, which is as rarely as possible, and they give you what they think is a great ticket, like in the middle of the fifth row, I think, My idea of the best seat is the last-row aisle.
People always walk out on me. When I first started doing this in London, which I do a lot, I asked my tour manager there, “There are always a few people walking out, but I’ve never been in a theater where people walk out and then they come back. Why do they do that?” He said, “They’re just getting a drink,” because London is a city where people cannot go 14 minutes without a drink.
Is it fair to hold a seat for someone in a theater?
I think it’s alright. I think it’s good to lie, though. Sometimes people hold seats because they don’t want anyone to sit next to them. I might say, “He’s here. He’ll be right back,” and hope the person doesn’t notice he never comes back because he was never there to begin with. I think it’s okay.
What’s your No. 1 rule when you’re walking around New York?
There’s so many things wrong with walking around New York. Why did we build these bike lanes — not that I was one of the people building them — if people don’t obey the traffic laws? In Europe, where many more people ride bicycles, when the light turns red, they stop. Now, you are like Linda Blair in The Exorcist — your head is spinning around. You never see bikers getting stopped by cops — not that you see many cops in New York anymore. I yell at these cops sometimes. I say, “What is your job? Is your job just to let them go through?” Also, cops have phones now, so they’re looking at their phones. I’ll also say cops should not look at their phones when they’re working.
What is your rule when meeting other famous people?
It depends on the person. People always say, “I love your work,” and you’re supposed to say it back. I usually say it back. It’s often not true. And often, truthfully, I don’t even know who the person is. I don’t see the internet, and there’s always people who are famous on the internet and I have no idea who they are.
One of your famous friends, obviously, is Martin Scorsese. If Marty made a movie you didn’t like, would you tell him?
I would tell him that, but it hasn’t happened. Marty’s made tons of movies. Obviously, there’s some I prefer to others. I’m certain I have seen all of Marty’s movies, and I would absolutely tell him. He has a movie that just premiered the other night at Lincoln Center, Killers of the Flower Moon. This is not just the best movie Marty ever made — this is one of the best movies anyone ever made. And I told him that because it’s true. But Marty’s made movies that other people don’t like as well as I do. This movie is very long, three and a half hours. At the opening, someone said it’s too long. I said, “No. To me, too long is the point at which I lose interest.”
My general rule, having nothing to do with Marty, is if someone shows me something they’re working on, I always tell the truth. If someone asks my opinion on a manuscript and I think there are things that should be changed, I tell them. If someone shows me a finished book, I never tell them. What’s the point?
What is the key to a successful dinner party?
Being allowed to smoke. If you invite someone — when I say someone, I mean me — to your apartment or your house and you can’t smoke in the house and you live on the 9,000th floor and you don’t have a balcony, inform me beforehand.
Because that means you won’t go?
No, it means that I’ll be prepared. Several times people said to me, “I didn’t know you smoke.” I said, “Really? How is that possible?”
Dinner parties have mostly to do with how much you enjoy talking to people. It also has to do with how good the food is, but truthfully, the worst food in New York is absolutely in my apartment, so no matter where I go, the food is better.
What rules do you have in your own home?
In my own home, there’s no dinner parties. Every time I’ve looked for apartments, I say to real-estate agents, “I need a large amount of space.” They say, “Oh, do you entertain a lot?” Never. Once, I remember, maybe 25 years ago, I had a birthday party for my mother. And I said to a friend of mine, “There’s not enough ashtrays here.” She said, “This is your apartment.” And it was, like, so stunning to me, because, Oh, I’m in charge of this. I’m not the type.
What is your No. 1 rule for sitting courtside at a New York Liberty game?
How did you know? Oh, I guess it was on the internet or something. I’m not a sports fan, but my best friend is a basketball lunatic. They invited me to go to Barclays Center, and she said she wanted to go. I said, “First of all, it’s in Brooklyn.” It was actually fun, and less dangerous. If you sit close in a men’s basketball game, I find it to be terrifying. Giant men can fall on you, right? These girls are quite big, too. At one point the ball went right by my foot and I went into a panic. You would have thought there was a tiger on my foot. I jumped back.
Basketball, I actually understand, basically. There are some sports I can’t even follow, like tennis. I don’t understand the scoring. John McEnroe is a friend of mine. When John was playing, which is 1,000 years ago, I used to go see him play. I’m sure that was the last time I went to a tennis game. At least I understand basketball.
What’s the last gift you gave?
I almost always give books. It’s very rare that I give something other than books, like super rare, including to babies. By the way, I do not understand why somebody having a baby means you have to give the baby a present, but this has been true my whole life. And I always give the baby a book in the hopes that eventually the baby will know how to read. This is becoming less and less likely. The upside to giving a baby a book is that you know they haven’t read it yet.
Do you give a baby book or a book you want them to read once they’re older?
Well, I don’t give them Middlemarch, if that’s what you’re asking. It depends. A friend of mine and his wife had a baby, and they named the baby an unusual name. I happened to know that name was the title of a book, which he didn’t know. This book was published in the ’50s. I found the book and gave the baby that book.
Do you buy off gift registries?
I would never do that. I think it’s outrageous that people do that. I don’t care what you want. Giving gifts to people getting married used to be because the people getting married were, like, 21. They didn’t have anything, and you were supposed to help them out. I do have a very firm rule: You get one wedding present from me. I don’t care if you get married five times. The only way you get a second wedding present is if your spouse dies. If you willingly leave this marriage, you’re on your own.
As a smoker, do you think there should be any smoking etiquette?
Do not start fires. I have been smoking since I’m 12, and I’ve never even burned a little hole in something. It does seem to me that people have the idea now that marijuana smoke is not smoke. If people are allowed to smoke marijuana, they should be allowed to smoke cigarettes. It’s absurd.
I’ll close out with the most Fran question of all: What is your No. 1 fashion rule?
Invest in a mirror. There really seems to me to be a worldwide mirror famine. I see people wearing things, and if they had any sense of what they look like, maybe they wouldn’t have chosen that. Maybe it would be better on someone younger. I know you’re not supposed to say this anymore, but truthfully, there are certain things you shouldn’t wear when you’re older. I don’t care what kind of condition you’re in, how fit you are. Just don’t do it. I would like to see adults dressing like adults. Men dress like little boys: sneakers, shorts, T-shirts. That’s cute if you’re 6.
You think people shouldn’t wear T-shirts?
It depends. A T-shirt is a revealing thing, so maybe that 16-year-old looks great in it, but that 60-year-old guy does not. Are shirts with button-down collars so uncomfortable? I wear them every day. I’m in my house by myself, and I’m wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt. I’m perfectly comfortable. The level of comfort that people seem to feel they need is like a level of comfort that you would have while taking a bubble bath. You don’t need to be that comfortable all the time. Think about the visual comfort of people around you before you think how comfortable you are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.