Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Sep 25, 2023
Fran Lebowitz (still) doesn’t care what you think
The humorist talks about her childhood, Philip Roth, Charles Mingus, NYC mayors, getting old and still having fun
It’s almost a cliche to say it at this point, but it’s hard to come up with a more New York New Yorker than Fran Lebowitz.
The writer and humorist has been enjoying something of a second wave of fame in no small part due to the 2021 Netflix series “Pretend It’s a City,” a collection of interviews with Lebowitz mostly conducted by her friend Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series. Filmed before the pandemic and released during the lockdown, it became something of a love letter to a city we were collectively no longer able to experience — and were a little worried about whether or how it would come back.
Lebowitz started her career writing a column for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, Mademoiselle and others. She published two very funny collections of her essays, “Metropolitan Life” in 1978 and “Social Studies” in 1981. These days she is more of a professional talker more than a writer, a sardonic wit, cut from a similar cloth as Dorothy Parker — minus the whiskey. She is disarmingly aloof, contrarian, at times frustratingly incurious and so quick on her feet.
Let’s be clear, Fran Lebowitz, who joins us on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” this week, is a consummate, unapologetic Manhattanite. But she does have a little Brooklyn in her background — we’ll get to that — and she is going to be appearing on stage here at Kings Theatre on October 21, where she will be interviewed by novelist Marlon James. She also devotes a large portion of the evening to taking questions from the audience, an exercise she tells me is her “favorite thing, practically in the world.”
This conversation goes a little all over the place, from her childhood in Morristown, New Jersey — a childhood she says she loved even though she learned to hate school. We talk about her New Deal Democrat parents, and where her sense of assuredness comes from. We discuss Philip Roth and why she believes he couldn’t exist today. We talk about getting old, and we talk about having fun. Her old friend Charles Mingus comes up and so does her current friend Martin Scorsese. She lets me know what’s in her tour rider, and she thinks that you (yes, you) should run for office if you’re under 50.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity and, to a lesser extent, concision. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
This won’t come out for at least a week. We’re actually speaking on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I know you’re an atheist. But hey, Shana Tova.
One new year is bad, and so we don’t need two.
That’s right. Well, pick your favorite, I guess. We’re talking today because you’re going to be appearing on stage in conversation here in Brooklyn next month. Have you seen Kings Theatre yet? Have you been to the venue?
No, I’m not that old. I know they revived it. I know. I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen photographs of it, it looks quite nice.
It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful space. You are obviously famously associated with New York, but it’s a specific sliver of New York. I wonder, have you spent much time in Brooklyn? I have to ask because this is Brooklyn Magazine. Or do you have any sort of associations with it?
Well, when I was a child, my grandparents lived there. Brighton Beach. Before the Russians, okay. I have to specify that because that grandmother was Hungarian and, although many people don’t don’t know this, especially younger people and especially gentiles, Hungarian Jews do not like Russian Jews. So everyone has to feel superior to someone. I went there a lot when I was a child, and I mean a child, I mean in the 1950s. And my grandmother would be very old, so I continued [to visit her] for many years. And then, of course, as you know, many other people moved to Brooklyn, but not me because I did not have to.
Now I do go to Brooklyn because so many people live there. Although I have to say, I still do not know my way around. I come out of the subway, I stand there, I could be in Atlanta, trying to figure out where to go. And within two seconds someone asks me for directions, that’s invariable. I always think, really? Do I look like I know where I am?
Do you remember Brighton Beach? Have you been back since you were a child?
Well, probably not to Brighton Beach. My grandmother lived to be very old, so my grandmother died in 1984, at which point I was already 34. So I went there until then to see her. But I haven’t been to Brighton Beach since then, no.
I was speaking with your people ahead of our conversation, just asking what the Kings Theatre show was going to be. And they gave me a very short answer and said, “Fran will be in conversation with the to-be-determined host for 30 minutes. Previously she’d been hosted by Martin Scorsese, Frank Rich, Wally Shawn, to explain the kind of person it will be.” [Kings Theatre announced Marlon James as the interviewer after this interview was recorded.] Do you get to choose the person? Do they line it up? Who would your top pick be?
I mean, I do get to choose. In New York or LA, where I know a lot of people, I choose. But lots of times they ask me things like, “You’re going to Fayetteville, Arkansas, who do you want to interview you?” And I am blank, okay, because I don’t know anyone in Fayetteville, Arkansas. And that is true, even though I have already been there. So I don’t know. I love doing it with Marty, obviously. The problem with doing it with Marty is that he films it. He wants to film everything. Other than that, we don’t allow filming. And so when Marty is there filming, it becomes a big deal with thousands of cameramen.
I love doing it with Wally. With Frank, I used to do just political things. They would be only about politics. So I’ve done it with all kinds of people. I mean, it really depends on where I am, because as I said, I’ve been doing this, although not obviously as much, since I was 27. I am 72, been a long time, and I used to always say, “Just give me a local journalist.” Because despite the fact that everyone thinks they’re a journalist, it’s actually a skill. And one of the things they’re skilled at is interviewing people. But now, as you probably know, there’s no such thing, practically, as a local journalist, I’m always really surprised if there’s still a newspaper.
You’ve got Brooklyn Magazine here. We try to keep the flame going.
Well, that’s usually the best interviewer because that’s part of that profession.
It’s funny you say that. I was going to ask what makes for a good interview? You’ve been interviewed so many times. I’ve listened to a bunch of them, I’ve read a few of them in prep for this. You only have so many stories to tell. I would imagine there are times you find yourself in a bit of a Groundhog Day situation. Is that fair or depends on the interviewer? What makes a good interviewer?
Well, it’s inevitable that that happens. And sometimes people interviewing me complain, “You already said this.” And I said, “Here’s the thing, if you ask me the same question, I’m going to give you the same answer. Otherwise, I’d have to lie.” If someone asked me, “How tall are you?” And I say, “5’4.”” And the next person asked me, “How tall are you?” And I say, “5’4.”” I could say, “6’4,”” but it would not be true.
And they say, “Well, you told Terry Gross you were 5’4″. Give me something else.”
Yeah, then ask a different question. There are people who get different answers every time, but they’re basically Republican congressmen.
They have an agenda. You do not have an agenda. Or do you have an agenda?
I do not.
And then you take questions from the audience. So the interview in Kings Theatre is going to be for 30 minutes, and then you open it up. And you do this a lot, which can be a bit of a Russian roulette, I would imagine. I’ve been in audiences where the audience portion can be wonderful or there’s one kind of way off-topic or this is more of a statement than a question. You seem to enjoy the audience portion of it.
It’s my favorite thing, practically in the world, is questions from the audience, because you have no idea what they’re going to ask. And it’s fun for me because it’s surprising. I don’t allow microphones in the audience and people really, especially producers, hate this. But the reason for that is if you have mics in the audience, you don’t get questions from the audience. And they will talk forever, if someone has a microphone. Some people say horrible stuff or some people ask crazy stuff. But luckily I have the only microphone, so I can just move on.
Have you done any interviewing or much interviewing in your day?
Very rarely. I’m really terrible at it. I don’t like doing it. I really think there’s numerous ways in which the world is divided. One is between askers and answerers, and I’m an answerer, no question.
I was reading, like I said, all I could about you in the brief time I had to prep. Google has a feature, that a way to complete your search. One of the things that Google suggested as a search was, “Why is Fran Lebowitz important?” And I’m wondering how you would answer that.
I would say, “To whom?” I mean, that’s a little open-ended. It’s like when someone leaves you a message, “Call me right back. It’s very important.” I always know to whom it’s important: to them. So to me, it’s a little open-ended. I would say that in the list of important people who’ve lived throughout history, I would not put myself on that list.
Not even toward the bottom?
Depends what you mean by important. Generally, world-class important means you either did something incredibly great or, more likely, something incredibly horrible.
But you have delighted and entertained people for generations now, so that’s something.
It’s not nothing, but it’s not, I don’t know, Thomas Edison, who I’m sure has been canceled by now. But at least he’s one of my favorites because he enabled you to read at night.
Well, you had candles.
Anytime I’ve been in a situation where the electricity went off and I tried to read by a candle, I would tell you I love Thomas Edison even more.
Let’s go back a little bit. You mentioned growing up and going to Brighton Beach; you actually grew up in Morristown. I’ve heard you describe your father as a very traditional man, but also a liberal, New Deal Democrat. Do you have a sense of how, or whether he or your mom, for that matter, shaped your politics, your very clear political view and stance?
Well, I would say my mother was much more political than my father. And I would also say that my mother never got over the defeat of Adlai Stevenson. Anyone younger than me, which is now most of [you,] you have to look him up. But Adlai Stevenson ran for president twice. Now, of course you can’t do that. You used to be able to run again even if you lost, but now you can’t unless you’re Donald Trump.
I feel like people do do that.
But Adlai Stevenson ran against Eisenhower right after the Second World War, who was immensely popular because he had been a general. The town was very Republican, and the street, also, where we lived on. And my mother was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson. I don’t remember, I was like 5 years old or 6 years old, whenever Eisenhower ran first. So I was maybe in the first grade, however old we are then. And my mother gave me a Stevenson button, [which] I wore to my friend’s house up the block. And this, by the way, not that this is of general interest, this girl is still one of my closest friends. So we’ve been friends since we’re 4 years old. And she’s still a Republican.
Is she a Trump Republican or a Reagan Republican?
No, no, no. An Eisenhower Republican. So I went up to their house, and her father asked me, “Why are you wearing that button?” And I said, “Because we’re for Stevenson.” And he said, “Don’t you like Eisenhower?” Who, by the way, I loved. Eisenhower’s picture was always on the cover of TIME magazine. He looked like a twinkly grandfather.
And “I like Ike” is an unbeatable slogan.
Right. So he said, “Don’t you like Ike?” I said, “I do.” Truthfully, secretly, I loved Ike. I do. So he gave me an Eisenhower button, which I put on and went home. And my mother went nuts. “Where did you get that?” I said, “Mr. Farrington gave me that.” “No.” I said, “But don’t you like Ike, mom? I like Ike.” She said, “No, we like Stevenson.” And I said, “But he was a general.” And she said, “We don’t want a general to be the president.” I don’t want a general to be the president. My mother definitely shaped my politics. On the other hand, my mother tried to shape many other things which failed.
She wanted you to be a housewife, right?
Yes. My politics are pretty conventional, but conventional from another era. I am a pretty conventional, New Deal, liberal Democrat. But usually, as people get older, they become more conservative, and I become more left. And that is because the world has become so right wing. It changed much more than I did. So for instance, I was certainly raised never to cross a picket line.
We’re seeing that now with Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher both trying to get back to business and break the strike [which reached a tentative resolution hours before publication of this podcast].
And I would never do that. I would never cross a picket line. And I’m always shocked that people will do that. I mean, I don’t know Drew Barrymore, but I know Bill. I’ve known Bill for a long time. One thing about Bill Maher is that people somehow imagine I’m in charge of what he does or thinks. Because in the street all the time people go, “Why did Bill Maher say this?” I have no idea. I like Bill, I’ve known him for a long time, I’ve done his show numerous times. But he’s not a Democrat, by the way; he’s Libertarian, which is very different. There’s many things I don’t agree with Bill about, many. I don’t think people should break this strike, I just don’t.
When was the last time you were in New Jersey?
I would think quite a while. Actually, I was in New Jersey to do a speaking date, but other than that, I would think quite a while.
I was thinking about it. I was reading about your folks and where you grew up and the fact that you’re such a voracious reader, and this is just random connecting of dots in my mind, so forgive me if this is a little bit of a non sequitur. But you grew up near Newark, which shaped Philip Roth. You’re a voracious reader. I thought of him because of your father’s profession in the furniture and upholstery business, makes me think of “American Pastoral” and the glove industry in that book. Maybe a stretch. I wonder what you think of Roth as the sort of prototype of the straight, white, male, Jewish author of his era.
Well, for sure my father’s business was nothing like that big business that he invents in “American Pastoral,” by the way. My father had a little shop and Philip Roth was older than me. Philip Roth is really a generation between me and my parents, kind of middle generation. Philip Roth would never be able to write those books now. There’s no question he wouldn’t. But on the other hand, he wouldn’t. People seem to not be able to keep people in their context. No one could write a book like that now, but no one would. There aren’t people like that anymore.
You don’t think so? That we’re just in a different era? But people are people, there are archetypes everywhere.
I don’t agree. Especially if you take someone like Philip Roth, who no matter what you think of him, certainly wasn’t stupid, okay. Philip Roth was a product of his era like everyone else. And that’s true of everyone, whether you’re an idiot or you’re a genius. Are you asking me if men would like to be able to be like that? Of course they would. They’re just not allowed to anymore. They’re not allowed to. They may be like that in their minds. I realize there are many, I don’t know what you call them, groups or guys who talk about this kind of stuff, or say, “This is the way the world should be now.” But it’s not like this anymore. And that is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.
But I would say that almost no male writers of that generation, not even specifically saying someone like Philip Roth, who did write a great deal about sex and women, things like that. But even if you didn’t, although most of them did, there aren’t men like that anymore. At least not men who write books. Okay, so I will tell you that men in general, the younger they are, the better they are, as simple as that. The young men I know, who are mostly the children of my friends, are much better than their fathers.
What ages are you talking about when you’re talking about younger men?
Even like from the 20s to their 40s, they’re better than their fathers. And that is because of their mothers, who made them be like that.
And society has changed.
Society has changed. I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better. It’s much better. I mean, there’s a lot of things that are worse, no question. Mostly things. In other words, objects are almost all worse. Actual physical things are almost all worse than when I was young. But there’s a lot of things that are better. And the number one thing, as far as I can see, that is better, is a billion times better to be a girl now than when I was a girl. There’s no comparison. It’s still not perfect. It’s not even good, but it’s much better. There’s just no comparison. So probably in certain ways it’s worse to be a boy, but I don’t care.
Who cares? I have two daughters and I have to say, I’m glad I’m raising them now and not when I was growing up. And the difference even in that short span has been huge.
It’s tremendously different. It’s like, people say to me, “Oh, you weren’t allowed to be on a sports team.” First of all, that, to me, was the one upside of being a girl: We didn’t have to play in sports teams. Didn’t even have them. There were no girls teams. There was gym, which was a nightmare. And so that was the upside of being a girl, that I didn’t have to play in a sports team. But other than that, and I know there are a lot of girls apparently do want to play on sports teams. I can’t even describe it, the problem. There’s a million problems. It’s like the Democratic Party. The problem of the Democratic Party is there are two Democratic parties. There is the old one, and then there are the younger one. And they’re so different, they could be two different parties.
I mean, there are probably four or five different Democratic parties at this point, which is their problem because the Republicans managed to toe the line and unify in message even if they don’t all agree. The Dems can’t pull it together.
Well, it’s not so much that. I mean, we do have, at the moment, the Presidency and the Senate, but —
Barely. Yeah, yeah.
Barely better than not. If Mitch McConnell is bad as a minority leader, he’s worse as a majority leader. These are our choices. The younger Democrats are far to the left of the older one. Far to the left, almost to constitute a different party, really. But also, the culture is so far advanced over society that you would think that museums were in charge of the world. In other words, all cultural institutions are incredibly advanced in terms of politics. Not in terms of culture, but in terms of politics. But the culture can’t make up for the society. The society’s incredibly regressive. The appeal of Trump and the appeal of the Republican Party, as far as I can see, is racist, pure and simple. That’s it. They have nothing else. That is not a leap forward.
Well, greed has always been, but that is not a leap forward. When Trump first ran — you’re a New Yorker — I mean, who paid attention to this? It was a complete joke. I hardly even noticed it really. But when I saw that first Trump rally, I was flabbergasted because I was watching and I thought this is a George Wallace rally. George Wallace, for people who are younger than me, was the racist governor of Alabama who ran for president on the third party ticket, which was basically a ticket of segregation. So that’s the Republican Party. And one thing that is very clear is they care nothing for the country.
What do you make of the label that gets assigned to you, I think rather unfairly, of curmudgeon? You seem to be an enthusiast of so many things. Even as we’re talking, you’re talking about progress at the same time as we’re talking about entrenched problems, and the problem with human nature, but you seem to have some hope and enthusiasm. What do you make of this label that gets applied to you, of curmudgeon?
This has been since almost the first second I published a paragraph. I was like 21. I really think it’s because women, especially, are expected to always be positive and optimistic. And to me, that’s just not realistic. The curmudgeon, I know people say, “Fran complains about everything.” And to me, it feels like I’m just observing. Not that I don’t complain, but most of these things are not complaints, they’re simple observations. And basically, it’s not my fault. I’m just trying to get people to see. I know that, especially when I was young, because people would say, “What is this? A young curmudgeon?” When truthfully, a lot of young people complain, so it wasn’t just me.
Well, there’s a difference between complaining and whining too. And it’s interesting that you use the word “observe” because a lot of when you’re speaking and a lot of the things you say, do come from a place of thought and observation. It comes from an outsider perspective to a degree. I’ve heard you say that people only tend to observe if they have to, and that people often conflate feeling with thinking. I wonder if you can unpack that a little bit.
It’s true because the only people who notice things are people who have to notice them. When I was young, the country was completely controlled by this WASP establishment. If you were born into the WASP establishment in the 1950s or ’60s, or probably even ’70s, you would not have to know anything because you were just born into it. It’s not exactly like being born into the royal family in England, but it’s not that far from it. As your life unfolded, people gave you things, so you didn’t really have to notice things.
The more that people are forced to notice things, the more they know. People generally do not know anything they don’t have to know. There used to be something called the gay sensibility, and what this was, was really, people forced to constantly be attentive to their surroundings because you are in a certain kind of danger. That is true of Black people, that is true of women more than men, that is true of anyone who is not in power. And that is all I meant by that. And that is true.
Since your very first essays and articles, you have this deep confidence behind the things that you say, which have been described as unapologetic. Sometimes they go against the social grain or the common perceived wisdom, and delightfully so. Where does this confidence come from? Do you remember a time where you either realized you had this sense of self-assuredness or when this confidence was shaken? Where does it come from?
I don’t know. And I never noticed it until people started asking me about it. The only thing I can say about this, that I know to be true, is that I don’t care and I never have cared what people think about what I think.
But you think for a living though. You speak in front of people for a living.
Yeah, I do now. But I mean even when I was a kid, I don’t care. You don’t agree with me. So what? You don’t like what I say? So what. Some people have kind of translated this to make it seem like I don’t care what people think about me as a person, which of course I do. I care what people I know think about me as a person. But other than that, I don’t care whether you agree with me or not. I am astonished by how often people become enraged by this, by me. And this has always been true since I was a little kid. People get really angry at me. I mean, especially as a little kid, but even now, what difference does it make? Firstly, I have no power to do anything. It’s not like I think this and luckily I happen to be the dictator of the United States, so we’re going to do this. No one does what I say anyway.
It’s interesting you say that. And you have a rare quality. I think as you were mentioning Bill Maher, you don’t agree with him, but you’re friends with him, you engage with him. We’re now in a place in our society where people, if they disagree, you’re the worst person ever and there’s no conversation to be had. That feels like something that got lost that you’ve retained. Is that fair?
It depends. Because now everything is taken as a political issue. It just isn’t truth. For instance, the thing that springs to mind is I did a speaking date at a public high school. Obviously this was a favor, this is generally what I do. And a kid, because the audience were kids, they were in high school, asked me if I liked science fiction. And I said, “Not really.” And the kid went nuts. Stood up, he turned bright red, he was yelling at me, explained to me how much he likes science fiction. And finally I said, “Let me explain something to you. It’s just a preference. I didn’t say, ‘I hate science fiction. It should be illegal. I didn’t say, ‘You can’t read science fiction.’ Some things are just preferences. If you ask me ‘Which do you prefer, chocolate or strawberry?’ And I said, ‘Strawberry,’ would you go and insane?” Probably he would. But this is someone who’s like 15 years old, and his entire life, every single thing in the world seems to him to be a matter of life and death. So it doesn’t really matter. You like it, fine.
I wish more people felt that way about the way other people live their lives all over the place.
I don’t care. And it does surprise me how enraged people get about stuff that actually, in a certain way, is none of their business, by the way. I just don’t care whether you agree with me or not. Naturally, I would prefer you agree with me as just that’s human nature. But if you don’t agree with me, I would like to know why. Some things are moral issues. So of course, obviously I’m not going to strike up a friendship with Matt Gaetz, that I can promise you. I have to say that knowing nothing about him, I mean I wish I didn’t know anything about him.
You were talking about school, you and school did not have a great relationship.
Not at all.
But I have also heard you say that you had a happy childhood, which surprised me. I don’t know why, but it did. Because it sounds like school was rough for you and being told to be a specific way that you were not, is not fun for anyone. Can you delineate that dichotomy, or whatever, but between having a happy childhood but kind of a miserable school experience?
But that wasn’t true of grammar school. When I say childhood, I actually mean childhood, I don’t mean adolescence. I know they’re supposed to be the same thing, but they’re not. I was a very good grammar school student. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I was excellent. I was excellent in school until algebra.
Once there was algebra, my life became a misery. I took Algebra 1, and I still don’t even know what algebra is. And I’m 72, and I’ve yet to be asked an algebra question. I have no idea what they were preparing me for. I don’t even know if they still have it. But I absolutely had no idea what this was, I couldn’t pay attention to it and I failed it. So then I started failing school completely. I guess I was so enraged at the idea of algebra in high school, which I think is when you start algebra. I started doing very badly in school, not socially. Almost everyone has an unhappy adolescence. It is rare if you meet someone and say, “You know what was the best year of my life? 15.”
Yeah, don’t trust those people.
Yeah. [Some parts of] school were fun for me, but I started failing in school. And my parents, I can’t even describe how angry they were. Nothing was more important. I hate to bring them up because everyone always does, but Hunter Biden, the way that Joe Biden more than forgives him, or I don’t even know what you would call it. My parents never forgave me for getting kicked out of high school.
Did they live long enough to see you achieve success? Fame?
My mother only died four years ago. My father died 2008, right after the Obama election.
Were they still mad at you?
Yes. They were still mad at me for getting kicked out of high school, for sure. They were still mad at me and I was still a disappointment to them. I think parents, and I mean these are my parents particularly, but in general, the relationship of being a parent to a child was so different when I was young than it is now. One of the things my mother used to say to me all the time, and it was not original with her, was, “I am not your friend, I’m your mother.” So now parents always bragging, “My son is my best friend.” Or kids say, “My parents are my best friends.” This was unimaginable to me. My parents were not my best friends, they weren’t my friends at all. And they did not want to be my friends, and no one’s parents wanted to be their friends. So this is completely different.
When school was no longer in the picture for you, you moved to New York, you did odd jobs. Well, you got your bearings. I know you’ve told these stories before, but it’s so fascinating and it’s easy to romanticize this aspect of your life from a distance. You cleaned apartments, you were a cab driver, you wrote or co-wrote a pornographic book. Having done a job, any of those jobs, do you find yourself critiquing the way other people do those jobs, whether it’s driving a cab or cleaning or writing porn?
Yes! Yes, I do. Because one thing I notice is almost no one does their job. I don’t care what the job is, I don’t care the way whether you’re a senator or whether you are checking me out at the supermarket. Every time I go to the supermarket, I have to actually say, “Please don’t put the eggs on the bottom. Don’t put the eggs and then put some heavy thing on top of it.” You just think that someone would tell them this, but no one apparently does. Any sentence that begins with, “Do you find yourself critiquing…” the answer is yes.
What have you not critiqued recently? What have you witnessed or read or experienced and just felt satisfied?
Nothing springs to mind.
Well, when we’re done, you can send me a critique of this interview. Being a cab driver, though, sounds like an adventure at that time, in New York. Obviously, like I said, it’s easy to romanticize now. Do you feel any nostalgia for that cabby era of yours in New York?
Truthfully, I didn’t like any of these jobs. And finally, when I had these kinds of jobs, I always worked usually five or six days a week, but I never worked on Wednesdays. Wednesdays was the day Village Voice came. Village Voice had 1 million help wanted ads, ads for jobs. All newspapers had these. That’s how you got a job, unless you knew people, which I didn’t. So there were millions of help wanted ads, and the Voice came out Wednesdays, and Wednesdays, I would get the Voice because I always hated whatever job I had. And I thought, I’m going to get a better bad job.
So one thing, in the ’70s, and the early ’70s especially, there were so many bad jobs in New York, it was very easy to get them. And they paid you in cash, sometimes at the end of the day. And so you could wake up with no money, which I often did, and at the end of the day, you would actually have money. So I was always changing these jobs. And then finally, at a certain point, I just realized, Fran, you don’t like to work. This is true. You don’t like to work. I would’ve been such a good heiress.
Do you consider yourself a lazy person?
Very. I’m very lazy, and I would’ve been an excellent heiress. And the people I know, who are heiresses or heirs, who say things like, “Well, you have to work.” I think, why? People work, usually, because they have to work, meaning they have to earn a living. So yes, I’m very lazy by nature. And being a cab driver, the reason I got that job was because I knew how to drive. I didn’t really have any skills, so I felt like, what can I do? I know how to drive, and that was pretty much it.
Did you know your way around enough? That would seem to me the most daunting part of being a cab driver in New York.
You only had to know your way around Manhattan, which I do. Would I know my way around Brooklyn? I would never go to Brooklyn. And you weren’t asked that often, but I would just say, “I don’t know how to get there.” You weren’t allowed to do that, by the way. It’s against the law. We also had to take a test, which I’m certain they don’t have to do anymore. And being a passenger, I could tell you they have no idea where they are. It wasn’t the famous test, like there was a famous London cab driver’s test, which has like 80 million actual destinations on it. But the New York test, I remember it had a lot of hospitals and it had Bloomingdale’s department store. I know how to get around Manhattan. I don’t have a bad sense of direction, I have zero sense of direction. But luckily Manhattan, as you know, is very easy to find your way around.
It’s a grid.
Outside is not easy, and I would never go there. And it was not frequent that I was asked, I have to tell you. But I know how to drive, so I thought I could be a cab driver. It was a pretty good job then, it’s a much different job now. First of all, there were these big cab garages, fleets of cabs. And some guy would own, I don’t know, like 50 cabs or 100 cabs or whatever. And they ran in eight hour shifts, 24 hours a day. So you could just, at the beginning of any shift, go in and get a cab.
And the owner paid for the gas, they pay for their own gas now. So the owner paid for the gas, and they filled the gas in the garage for you. And you had a clipboard, and that was a law, you had to write down where you pick the person up, what time it was, where you drop them off, what time it was. And so it was the kind of job I could do. I know I didn’t really like it. It was considered very dangerous for a girl to drive a cab. Nothing happened to me. I mean, I was once beaten for a fare, but nothing happened to me.
You were beaten for a fare?
That means that someone didn’t pay me. A guy actually said to me, “Oh, I forgot my wallet. I’m just going to go upstairs and get it. I’ll be right down.” Of course, I waited in front of this building for like 20 minutes before I realized he’s not coming down.
I wonder, because you’re such good friends with Martin Scorsese, if you had thoughts at the time or now about either “Taxi Driver” or, for that matter, “After Hours,” in which taxis play a pivotal role in what is now a sort of bygone era of New York?
I didn’t know Marty when he made “Taxi Driver” and I wasn’t a lunatic, so I can’t say I identified with it. By the time “After Hours” came out, I was already not a cab driver. And I remember the first time I saw it, falling on the floor laughing when Griffin Dunne gets in the cab and the cab driver — that was such an inside New York joke — that was just the moment when cab drivers all became lunatics. So they all of a sudden were all trying to drive 800 miles an hour in a place where, as you know, you rarely can drive more than two miles an hour. And when that cab took off, I fell on the floor laughing. I thought it was so funny.
Another friend of yours, that was famous and I’m a huge fan of, was [jazz bassist and composer] Charles Mingus, who was not an easy man to get along with. You worked for his girlfriend at the time. What do you think about when you think about Mingus today? Or what’s your favorite album of his?
The only reason I met Charles was because I worked for this magazine. It was the first magazine I worked for, a job I found in the Village Voice. This woman, who has recently died actually, her name was Sue Graham and she owned this little — we called them underground newspapers — it was called Changes. It was minute. And I saw an ad in the Village Voice for an advertising salesman. I went to the address, which was actually her apartment, and I beat out, I would say, 10 fully qualified people for this job, and never sold a single ad.
How did you beat them out?
Don’t know, she just chose me. She chose me and I never sold any ads because I knew no one read this thing. And I couldn’t bring myself to say to people, “Why don’t you advertise in this magazine where no one will ever see this ad?” I went there and I was supposed to be making these calls, mostly I would sit around chatting.
And one day I got there and I went into the kitchen and there was Mingus sitting at the kitchen. And I was so shocked, I was flabbergasted. And he was in the kitchen because it was his girlfriend’s apartment and that’s how I met him.
He was a very hard person to get along with. He was very gruff, I mean, gruff is putting it [nicely]. Mostly he didn’t talk very much. He also mumbled. I was very young at the time, I was maybe not even 21, probably like 20. I remember, even then, thinking that it was deliberate. He didn’t want people to understand him and he didn’t really want to engage in conversation. Also, he always kept his head down, which made it harder to understand him. But he played all the time in New York and I would go all the time.
I also saw him record almost an entire album. Columbia Records used to have a recording studio, in the ’50s, that had originally been a church, and he recorded an album there. I also watched him [when] Alvin Ailey made a ballet with Charles’s music, which was very exciting, I have to say. But he was hard to get along with. Eventually, I believe he liked me. He actually asked to come to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.
Because Sue had two kids. They wanted to come to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I said, “Okay.” And then she said, “Well, Charles wants to come.” And I said, “Charles is so volatile.” I was afraid he would start yelling or throwing something. “No, he promises he’ll be very quiet.” He came to Thanksgiving.
My mother had a cousin, her first cousin, a man who was also very fat, like Charles. They bonded over where to get clothes for fat men. Charles had his clothes made. And Charles used to wear these black shirts that had all these pockets in them that you couldn’t see, because he always carried a huge amount of cash. And he was showing my cousin, “Here, you should get a pocket like this.” And then he was saying to my cousin, “And if you want to have a gun, you could put the gun in here.” He really won my mother over by eating so much.
That’s a scene I would love to see. You didn’t take any pictures that day, did you?
You know what? My father didn’t even have a camera, but my mother had a cousin who had a camera, and I don’t know whether she was there. When my parents died, I took tons of things. My mother, afterwards, said “That Charles, what a good eater.” He not only ate 16 portions of dinner, but then he went in the kitchen and finished a turkey. So he was very much liked by my mother for his wonderful eating.
A good Jewish mother. You characterize yourself as lazy, you didn’t really want to work. But you did want to write and you wanted to write at a time when it was not necessarily hip to be a writer. You talked your way into a funny column in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. He was already an icon, which is a word that gets overused today. But for you, this was a gig. Did it feel like a special time and place? Was it a good gig or was it just a gig?
Well, New York itself was really fun, my 20s were really fun. New York in the ’70s has become a kind of world renowned era, like Paris in the ’20s. For the last many, many years, kids in New York stopped me in the street and say, “I wish I lived in New York in the ’70s.” And at first, I found this really surprising. And they would say, “Because it seems like it was so much more fun.” And so I really thought about this and thought, was New York more fun in the ’70s? And the only thing I could come up with was I was in my 20s in the ’70s, so certainly it was fun. However, your 20s should be fun. I always say to the kids, “I don’t know if it’s more fun now because I’m not in my 20s now. What I would advise you to do is have fun, because if you don’t have fun in your 20s, you’re never going to have fun.”
So New York was very fun in [my] 20s. It was so different than now. The world was so different, and it was so different to be gay then. And these worlds that people talk about, like people say, “I can’t believe I see this photograph and there’s all these people in it. How could you all have been together?” And it’s because these worlds were small, these worlds were really small. The entire New York art world fit in one restaurant and it was called the New York art world. Now it’s called the global art market. That’s the big difference.
I guess you sort of answered it, but how would you characterize writing for a place like Interview in the ’70s, compared to say a mainstream Condé Nast publication today?
Well, I never even thought of trying to get into those big magazines. I never thought about it at all.
But you did eventually. I mean, you have written for them.
I did eventually. Well, I worked for Mademoiselle, which doesn’t exist anymore. I got a letter from them asking if I would want to write for them. I was shocked by this. And so for a while I had a column in Mademoiselle. I eventually got fired. And I went up there, you used to have to go to bring your copy, and I went up there twice and then I got a phone call telling me not to come there anymore. Said they would send me a messenger for it.
Did they say why?
I guess I was flirting with the girls at the magazine. They didn’t say. I have to say, one of the most satisfying things in my life is that after my first book came out, I got a letter from the editor of Mademoiselle, apologizing. I don’t even remember her name. I never even dealt with her because she was way too high up for me to deal with. The thing about Interview was that it mostly wasn’t written. There was always a long interview with Andy interviewing some celebrity and always someone would come with him to do that. And it was just really transcribed. And then it was mostly photographs.
Do you still read it? It’s still in publication.
No. I have nothing against it. I know it still exists, but I haven’t seen it in a long time.
I wonder if you can talk about writer’s block, because it’s something that is mentioned in almost every bio of yours. It feels to me maybe not an entirely accurate box to put you in because you do sometimes write essays still. You go on these speaking tours, which require the same kind of thinking that goes into writing. Writing is different obviously. Do you still say you have writer’s block? Because you are, even as a thinker and speaker, pretty prolific.
Well, I don’t ever say it, but people bring it up.
Why is that?
I don’t know. But writing and talking are not the same thing. I have to say, we live in an era where everyone thinks it is, but it’s not. So these speaking days, like the one I’m going to do in Brooklyn, I invented this format. I know no one believes me, but I invented the onstage interview. Because I used to give readings when Metropolitan Life came out, I would give readings all the time. Then Social Studies came out, I gave readings. Then after a while I had nothing new to read.
So I was supposed to do reading at San Francisco and I said, “I can’t read this, it’s too old. I have to do something else.” And the woman running it said, “What could you do?” I said, “Well, maybe someone could just interview me.” And she said, “You mean like on television?” So I said, “Yeah, it doesn’t matter.” And that’s how I invented it. Now everyone does it, even people who actually write books. So the reason that I invented this is because you don’t have to write. It’s why I don’t give speeches, I hate speeches. This way, I can just make it up while I’m standing there. It’s not hard.
You’re 72, you said. I’ve heard you describe yourself as an old person. Do you feel old? We obviously live in a youth-obsessed culture, but I tend to think old age is like 80 and up. Do you feel old?
I do. I guess I could feel older. I don’t know if I will, but I guess I could. Yes. If you never saw another human being who was younger than you, you might not think that. But I do see many other human beings, and there are many of them, most of them, younger than me. So all kinds of stuff that I used to do, I don’t do. In other words, I don’t run across the street when I have one second to get across the street because what if I don’t make it? So there’s certain things I never even thought about doing. For instance, I didn’t even know I had knees till a few years ago.
I would say that all the women I know, that are my age, of all of them, and I know many, there’re exactly three that have not had cosmetic surgery, and I’m one of them. A kid asked me, “Why do people even have plastic surgery?” A kids who’s like 22. I said, “Because otherwise you look like I do.” We were at a dinner table at his house, his parents’ house, and this is a very good-looking kid. So I said to him, “You’re not going to look like this for the rest of your life. You know who used to look just like you? Your father, sitting across the table, and now he doesn’t have hair anymore. So your father used to look just like you with his beautiful, thick, curly hair, but he doesn’t anymore.” So yes, I do.
Did the father hear you say that?
Yes, he was sitting right at this table. Yes, he laughed because it’s true. One of the stupid things people say is age is just a number. No one ever says that about money.
What age would you be again, if you could choose?
You can’t choose. I’ll tell you a question I get, “If you were 22 now, what would you be doing?” If I was 22 now, I’d be a different person. I don’t know.
That is not what I asked. But if you could go back and be an age…
Would I prefer to be younger? Everyone would. It’s better. One of the other words for young is new. Okay, so I would put it to you this way: no one would buy a 72-year-old car, all right, because it wears out.
But if it’s a collector’s item… Maybe you’re a collector’s item of a person.
Maybe, but that’s the best you could hope for. Considering the fact that I’m not what you would call any kind of a health nut, I seem to be okay. But someone asked me a while ago, one morning, “How do you feel?” And I said, “I feel okay.” And then I said, “If I had ever woken up feeling this way when I was 30, I would’ve raced to the emergency.”
Getting old is like what they say about lobsters, although I don’t know how they know this. They say when you put a lobster in a pot of boiling water, the lobster doesn’t realize it’s getting boiled to death. So it happens little by little. At a certain point you do notice it. But nothing can be done about it. I know, especially there are these tech zillionaires, which there shouldn’t be at all, who are devoting their lives, instead of having fun, to trying to live forever. No sane person wants to live forever except tech billionaires because that’s how much money you would need to live forever. Because I will tell you one thing, it is incredibly expensive to be old.
Do you still have fun?
I still have fun. I wouldn’t say it’s the same kind of fun as when I was young. I don’t really think about it except when people ask me about it because it’s just that’s what life is.
What’s your media diet? We’re talking at 2 p.m. on a weekday. What have you read or watched today? Or what’s next? News or fiction or nonfiction. What is a more or less typical reading media, whatever, consumption day for you?
I only read the paper on Sundays. When I say the paper, I mean the New York Times, because that’s how old I am. I get The Sunday Times, half of it comes Saturday and the other half come Sunday. And it takes me several days to read this, so I don’t understand how people read the paper every day. Although when I say the paper, I mean the paper paper. I know that most people read it online, which is why, apparently, I’ll read something in the paper and I’ll say, “Did you see this?” And they go, “Yeah, I saw that Wednesday.” So apparently the newspaper is much older than the news that’s online. I also listen to the radio, which people have to look up what the radio is.
I have it on all day every day.
I listen to WINS news, which was the first news station, and I don’t know if it’s still the case, but their slogan used to be, “Give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.” They give you the same news every 22 minutes, it is relaxing. After the third time you hear it, you think, “Oh, that earthquake?” And it’s not very upsetting. So I listen to that. I flicked on, I think twice today, MSNBC, to see what they were complaining about. And I used to flick on CNN more than I do now. But now every time I flick it on, there’s a Republican congressman on. And I have no tolerance for this. I understand, supposedly the idea is that you should see every point of view, but this is not a point of view.
I know that when you’re on stage, you like to open up to the audience. So I took the liberty of asking the few people who follow me online, on various platforms, what they would ask you if given a chance. So this is our version of opening it up to the audience. First question: What’s in your hospitality rider for speaking gigs?
Well, I have to tell you that I had to put in my rider, about a year ago, that there must be hangers in the dressing room. And I found this astonishing because it’s called a dressing room, so there should be hangers in it. So the other things that are on my rider is there has to be coffee, and lots of coffee. And there has to be fruit and there has to be a sandwich.
And I have been in the U.K. a lot, and the U.K. has 4 million theaters all around the entire country, which you think is a small country until you start driving around it. And every town has a theater. And they have these councils, so the government gives them money. And they restored the theater, so they’re very beautiful. Facade, very beautiful, in the theater. And the backstage hasn’t been touched since they switched from gas to electricity.
So once I started doing those, I told my tour manager in the U.K., “You have to put in my rider, that there has to be plumbing that works. And there has to be heat in the dressing room.” And I was in one of these theaters, and I don’t remember what town it was. And in the dressing room there was a photograph of the facade of this theater, a black and white photograph. And on the marquis it said, “Appearing tonight, Paul Robeson.” And I looked at the photograph and I said, “Boy, this is an old theater.” Then I turned to my right and there was a photograph of Oscar Wilde standing on the stage of that theater.
And I said to the guy, “When Paul Robeson was here, he must’ve seen that photograph of Oscar Wilde and thought, ‘Boy, this is an old theater.'”
[Laughs.] I love that. Most entertaining dinner companion?
I actually know quite a few entertaining people. I would say Marty is incredibly entertaining. Marty is really funny, which I think people don’t realize because generally his movies are not wholly funny. But if you ever see him speak, you can see.
Well, his funny movies are very funny. I recently re-watched “Wolf of Wall Street.” I was like, “This is a comedy. This is hilarious.”
It is a comedy. But I was in that movie for like two seconds. And that movie, I am pretty sure, I hope I’m right, because I’m saying this in a public forum, I believe that movie made more money than all of Marty’s other movies put together. [Ed. note: It did not, but it was indeed his highest grossing film by a lot]
We won’t hold it against you if you’re not correct.
I know it was a huge hit because even though I was in that movie for two seconds, when that movie was out, I could hardly walk on the street. You would’ve thought I was Leonardo DiCaprio.
This was before the second series he did, with the Netflix series.
It was. But “Wolf of Wall Street,” someone said, “You’re in ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ what do you play?” I said, “I’m very easy to find. I’m the only woman in the movie wearing clothes,” which might account for its popularity.
What would you fix in the world if you could snap your fingers and have it be fixed?
The educational system in the United States. It would be so good if you had confidence that elected officials knew how to read.
Do you have anything you want to leave us with? Anything you want to say ahead of Kings Theatre in October?
So if you are listening to this and you are under 50, run for something.
Run for your life?
Run for office.
We do have an exciting city council at the moment, a lot of young local politicians.
Yeah, but we have a horrible mayor.
Who was the last New York mayor you liked? I’ve heard you critical of de Blasio, Bloomberg, Giuliani. Can you remember a New York mayor that you were okay with?
There were only two mayors in 50 years that I liked and one was John Lindsay and one was David Dinkins.
And I know you voted for, you’ve said, “the socialist lady” who you couldn’t pick out of a crowd of one.
I didn’t want to be even 1 billionth responsible for Eric Adams. I kept saying to people, “He is going to make you long for de Blasio.” It’s true. And we thought it’s just like what’s happened with the presidents. We first thought there could never be another president as stupid as Ronald Reagan, and then we had George W. Bush. Then we thought there could never be president as stupid as George W. Bush, then we had Donald Trump. We thought there could never be a mayor worse than… We’ll start with Koch. There could never be a mayor worse than Koch, then we had Giuliani. I mean, it’s a descending order.
All right, everyone listening under 50, you heard her, run for office, do good.
The one thing to know in life is no matter how bad things are, it can definitely get worse.
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