‘Hello.” The landline creaks a bit, but the voice is unmistakable: Fran Lebowitz (1950), unpaid honorary citizen of New York, walking grouch and the most famous example of writer’s block since Truman Capote. Lebowitz owns some 10,000 books and is a great literary connoisseur, but writing his own is a struggle: the most recent piece from the anthology The Fran Lebowitz Reader dates from 1994.
Instead, she talks. Liberal, metropolitan America has been listening for decades to Lebowitz’s idiosyncratic vision of her city, politics and people in general, constructed with iron logic; thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Netflix series Pretend It’s A City (2021) now also a large audience outside the US knows who she is. Saturday she will talk in Carré with her Dutch fans.
How are you? And with New York? Has much changed since the pandemic?
“New York would have changed in two years anyway, the city changes almost every day. But what I see – and nobody else sees it, because everyone looks at their phones all day long – is that people are no longer going to work.
“What they’ve done here is ask people if they want to go back to the office. Almost everyone said no. Rockefeller Center is an office building that is sometimes forgotten – I’ve always avoided the subway station because it was so packed. Last month I was there again: almost all shops on the ground floor were closed. How does this continue? I don’t know. Luckily I’ve never worked in an office.
“The catering industry is full again. I think I single-handedly saved the New York restaurant industry. I hate cooking. At home it is: an apple, and that’s it. So as soon as the restaurants opened, I was there. I have eaten outside in snow storms, in wind, rain…
“What I’ve learned about myself, if you can call it that, is that all kinds of wishes came true, but not in the way I intended. All my life I wanted to stay home and read all day, but not during a terrible human tragedy. I always wanted the tourists to leave the city, but not because of a plague. But that’s how it goes. When one problem is solved, the next one arises. Life doesn’t solve you.
“I hardly think about myself. I’m always surprised at how much people like to think about themselves. I rarely change my mind. How long will something like this remain interesting?”
You are known for your refusal to use the Internet. Are people still trying to persuade you?
“Every day. But it’s not a statement, although it gradually comes across as that. I don’t hate the internet, I don’t hate technology. I do not give a hoot. I’ve never owned a typewriter, so I don’t need a machine to type faster. When my machine breaks down, I slap it and start praying. Please don’t break!”
And the nightlife? You couldn’t be beaten for years.
“I was young then. If I were 22 now I would do it again, but I’m not 22. I don’t understand grown people who are afraid of missing out – I associate that feeling with high school. When friends whose judgment I trust recommend a movie or something else, I do go and watch it sometimes. There is a big difference between what is good and what is popular.”
Your Netflix series was a hit. Was that Scorsese’s idea?
“Marty made a documentary about me years ago (Public Speaking, 2010, ed.). When we were done he said let’s do that again. No, I said. But he kept bringing it up, and when he closed his deal with Netflix for The Irishman he demanded that he could also make something with me. That was beyond me. I’ve met some of those Netflix people, but I have nothing to do with them.
“Marty and I have known each other since the 1980s. The dynamic between us is always the same: when we see each other, we are in conversation all evening. He’s funny and incredibly well-read, especially for a film director. He often casually mentions a book title I haven’t read, or even heard of. And I truly believe that every second of every scene from every movie ever made is in his head. I once told him about a private situation, and then he said: this is exactly like the fourth scene in the second reel of… I didn’t know what he was talking about, it was a movie from 1919 I believe, so then he got the movie for me. And it was exactly the same.”