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Wit and wisdom in the city: A conversation with Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz
Brigitte Lacombe
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Fran Lebowitz

Famed author, social commentator, and actor Fran Lebowitz has been putting her spin on life in New York City and beyond since her two critically-acclaimed essay collections, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, were published in 1978 and 1981, respectively. Now she’s enjoying her live performances in which she tells stories and takes questions from audiences in a night of wit and wisecracks. Her next stop is NJPAC in Newark on December 11. Lebowitz recently spoke with me about the tour and her love of jazz.

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Doug Doyle: This performance is described as a night of wit and wisecracks. I get the sense during these live shows, you enjoy feeding off the audience’s questions and reactions.

Fran Lebowitz: It's my favorite activity because the way that I do these things is someone interviews me on the stage for a half an hour and then that person leaves and then I go to the lectern, and I take questions from the audience for an hour. It is endlessly entertaining to me and I hope to the audience, but it's something that I just find fun.

Fun is a word that you love because you've said many times if it's fun, it's worth doing. Hearing unapologetic truth is funny to me. Is that why you think people enjoy seeing you in this live setting?

I'm 72 and I've been doing this since I'm 27. Obviously, the whole situation's changed 50,000 times in that period of time. But two things stay the same. One, human beings, they never improve, we're a horrible species. And two, when you take the questions from the audience, what you're talking about is what the audience in that particular place wants to talk about.

To me that certainly must make it more interesting for the audience. I do this all over the world, so obviously the questions are going to be different in Athens than they are going to be in Newark. But it gives me a sense of the place. It makes the people there familiar with you and what you're saying because you're answering something that they are thinking about.

Is there something special about Newark to you?

Well, I grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, which is not that far from Newark, but I grew up in the 1950s. In the 1950s, Newark wasn't a beautiful city, but it was a very densely populated, thriving city. My father was an upholsterer and he had a shop. Newark is where my father would buy all the fabric stuff for his shop. I didn't go with my father when he was at work, but it was a completely different place than is now. Of course, this is true of every place practically on the planet. But Newark changed so much after the riots. I remember those riots. I remember that my father, who was a kind of standard New Deal liberal Democrat, but he was very conventional, very orderly. I thought my father hated any kind of destruction of property because he grew up during the Depression and he was very careful with things. But when those riots were happening, my father said, and this shocked me, “Those people deserve that.” My father meant the furniture store owners. “They cheat people,” he said. “They sell furniture on time.” My father would never do that, where people buy on credit and pay interest. They sell the people junk. The people never get the thing they're supposed to get. I was really shocked by my father's reaction to it, because as I said, he was such an orderly guy.

The last time I was in Newark, I just drove through Newark on my way to South Orange, which is the next town over and which has a little theater where they have speaking dates. But I haven't been in a long time.

People are anxiously awaiting this one-night performance. In the Emmy-nominated documentary series, Pretend It's a City that premiered on Netflix last year, directed by your friend Martin Scorsese, you said no one is loved like musicians. What was it about legendary bassist Charles Mingus that you loved?

Charles is a bad example of a loved musician because Charles was a very difficult person and he was a very gruff person. He did not like it if people would come up to him to compliment him. What I meant was musicians provide humans with the thing they most love, as far as I could tell. No other art form even if people say I love painting, or I love reading, whatever. And they do love it in a way, but music affects people so emotionally that if you go to a concert and you look at the faces in the audience, they love the people who are playing the music. They love them in a real way. I mean the word love in its most profound way because those musicians are providing them with something that profoundly affects their emotions. There's no other art form that’s like that.

On the subject of Mingus, I know you were young at the time, but as a true observer of human interaction, what did you notice about those who were at the jazz clubs when Mingus was performing?

I think that he had a reputation other than his music. I didn't see that many people try to approach him because he really didn't like it. Charles used to play the Vanguard a lot. Jazz lovers or aficionados are much more like classical music audience than they are, say, like a pop music audience. They have a reverence for the artists. It's different than just being a fan. Because jazz is a much more complicated kind of music than pop music, the more you know about it, the more you appreciate it. He might not agree with me, but I would say that Charles had generally a pretty cultivated audience. That was true for a lot of jazz musicians, I think, because when I was young, there were a lot of these great jazz musicians who were still alive and they played all the time. I always say I probably have seen more great music live than I've listened to as recorded music. I think that people knew that Charles was a very angry guy. And I think that people knew not to glad hand him.

Charles and Sue Mingus
Charles and Sue Mingus

In that documentary you talked about how Mingus was arrogant, loved to eat, and how he deferred to Duke Ellington, totally revering Duke. Who does Fran Lebowitz defer to?

About Duke Ellington, whom I met because of Charles. We had breakfast with him. When I say breakfast, like five in the morning or whatever. There used to be a restaurant, Reubens, which was on Fifth Avenue around 58th Street, I think. And it was open all night. We went to see Duke Ellington perform and then we went out to breakfast with him.

Charles was like a kid with Duke Ellington. I was shocked. That's why I remember it. There were other musicians who Charles respected that he treated in a respectful way. But with Ellington, he was like a kid. For instance, Charles hated to be called Charlie, and Duke Ellington constantly called him Charlie. He never reacted to it. Also, I know that Duke Ellington had fired Charles from a band once. Charles was a very touchy person. The idea that someone fired him and he still behaved that way? Duke Ellington kind of teased him and he just didn't respond in a way…it was like, to me, “Where's Charles? This is not the Charles I know.” And that I ever saw with any other person. There was also age difference between Ellington and Charles. So maybe that was part of it, that he was older than Charles.

When I first met Charles, he was probably in his late forties. He was so young when he died. [Ed. Note: He was 56.] At the time I didn't think he was that young because I was in my twenties. I just couldn't believe this was the same person. Charles was very greedy with food. He could have like a whole pizza in front of him and no one could get a bite of his pizza. One of the famous things this place had was this thing called an apple pancake. It was the size of a giant pizza. Charles ordered it and he fully expected to eat the whole thing. Duke Ellington took a bite of it without asking him. Anyone else would've been murdered who did that and he didn’t say anything. I saw Charles pretty frequently. I worked for his wife [Sue Graham]. She was not his wife at the time, she was his girlfriend. I never saw him behave that way, except that one time with Duke Ellington. He had a very unusual and unique response to Duke Ellington.

Listen to Charles Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”:

Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love

Is there someone that you turn into a kid to when you're around?

I'm way too old for that. Charles never got to be as old as I am. I would say no. On the other hand, I'm not as angry as Charles was. I don't have the other side of my personality either. I think I'm not combative. I'm not as angry. I'm also not a man. Charles had a threat about him. Charles had a gun in a city where people didn't really have guns. Charles once shot himself in the foot.

I heard you tell that story.

His girlfriend broke up with him and he shot himself in the foot and then climbed four flights of stairs with his shot foot to his girlfriend's apartment to show her what she did to him. So that's a different kind of person than me, I would say.

All those books that you have read, is there a book about jazz that you think everybody should read?

Charles wrote a book called Beneath the Underdog, and I've always wondered what that book seems like to someone who didn't know him, because it's almost Cubist. It's not a book about jazz in that way that someone like a critic would write. I always recommend it to people because it's the closest thing to his music that you could get in writing. There aren't that many music critics I really care about. There are a couple of good ones, but also I don't understand music in that way. I don't have that mathematical understanding of music. Even though there's like a classical music critic I read because I like his writing, when he starts really talking about the music from the point of view of actual technical music, I have no idea what he's talking about. To me it turns from love into science.

You listen to WBGO. What is it about this music that really touches you?

Sometimes people say jazz is unpopular, it's losing its popularity. I could be wrong, but jazz was never popular the way that rock and roll was. It's too good. Things that are really good are never that popular. It's not unpopular. It's not like no one likes it. It's not hated. It's just too good for most people. I know that sounds elitist. That's because I'm an elitist. But America is not the font of culture. It never was. Jazz is the great American art form. It's a cliche, but it's a cliche because it's true. You would think that people would have some response to that, and some people do because I don't know anyone who likes jazz. You either love it or you don't care about it.

That's so true. Gary Walker talks about it all the time that you never hear somebody say, “Oh, I love this kind of music,” but jazz, that's where you hear it. And once you're a fan, you're hooked for life. But if you don't like it, then sometimes you just can't be turned on to it.

You don't hate it. You just don't think about it.

Those who have read Metropolitan Life and Social Studies back in 1978 and 1981 and all your essays and your children's book, they know what you stand for. I have to ask you if you get a position, you said you would take it and that would be the Nighttime Mayor of New York City. What would be the first move you would make as Nighttime Mayor of New York City?

I’d fire our present mayor because I don't like him. I don't know him. It's not personal. I didn't vote for him. I'm a lifetime Democrat. I voted for the socialist candidate who I never heard of. I wouldn't recognize her in a crowd of one. I don't remember her name. I didn't want to be even one bone responsible for Eric Adams, who I could see from the very beginning should not be the mayor of New York. Right now Eric Adams is in Athens. And what is the reason for that? Is it because New York is going perfectly? Why don't I go and take a week vacation? You know, New York is in a lot of trouble, not because of Adams, but it's in a lot of trouble because of COVID. And the mayor should be here.

What did you learn about being isolated from the pandemic? What did it teach you about our world and New York City?

I have to say that to me the most shocking thing about COVID was the shock of it. By which I mean for a very long time, because of how old I am, almost everything that happened reminded me of something else that happened. The wisdom of old age is simply that, “This is kind of like that.” But a plague is something I never thought about and I never lived through. And so the only people who actually have thought about it apparently were people who read or watch science fiction, but I don't, so it never occurred to me like, “What would I do if there's a plague?”

My first response was, “I didn't know how to think about it.” I don't mean I didn't know how to feel about it. I felt like everyone else, but I didn't know how to think about it. And this is the moment where I most particularly miss Toni Morrison because, although she was 20 years older than me, she’s not old enough to live through the 1921 flu epidemic. But she would've known how to think about it, and I didn't. And now I know how to think about it, but it's too late. I was shocked like everyone else was. For some reason, I wasn't particularly terrified. I stayed in. Obviously, I didn't want to catch this. I didn't expose myself to other people. I didn't go against the lockdown. I watched what everyone else did, like the thousands of people in the hospitals. It was horrible. I now I know how to think about it because a lot of time has passed.

I did go out every day. I walked around in the city and I was shocked by it. I have to tell you the only other time in my life that I ever could hear my footsteps in New York City was on September 12, 2001, because there was no one on the street to hear. Day after day, just to see the city empty, especially for me, because I had my whole life been complaining that there's too many people. It's too crowded, it's too packed. Go home. Don't come here on a vacation, go somewhere else.

The library being closed was shocking to me. I stood in front of the library on Fifth Avenue and I had never seen that.There are those copper or brass doors that they only close when the library closes. So the only times I'd ever seen those doors close were late at night. Now it is like three in the afternoon and I'm looking at the library and I'm thinking, “Open the doors. What's wrong with you? It should be open to the public.” It was awful the general response that people had. Some people were very afraid. I have friends who are still afraid. I have friends who still will not eat inside of a restaurant, so that's not me. I'm a person who would never eat outside. I used to say to people before COVID, “I'm not eating outside in New York.” It's horrible. Because restaurants will only open outside in the hot weather. It's too hot, it's dirty, it's too noisy. Let's go into the nice air conditioning.

But the second they opened the restaurants outside, I was there because the worst food in New York is in my apartment. I ate dinner outside in blizzards, in rain. I used to stand in front of my closet thinking, “Which is the best coat to eat dinner in?” Something I had never thought about before. Now I wish they'd take these outside restaurants down, but apparently they're not going to do it.

Watch a trailer for Pretend It’s a City:

Martin Scorsese Presents | Pretend It’s A City | Official Trailer | Netflix

I think the two greatest gifts you have given us are the ability to think about things and of course laughter. I love to laugh and you make me laugh. Your wit is really unbelievable. How about your relationship with Martin Scorsese? Why have you been able to maintain this wonderful relationship with this director through the years?

A lot of people mention how much Marty laughs at what I say. What you don't see in Pretend It's a City is how funny Marty is because Marty is asking me questions. Marty is himself extremely hilarious. Some people you just meet them and you click with them. You know people accept this in romance, but they don't accept this in friendship, even though it happens in friendship. By the way, in friendship it lasts, unlike in romance. Neither Marty nor I can remember where we met. People often ask us. We just assume it was at a party because where else would I have met Marty? I’ve been to many more parties than Marty has because that's why Marty's made many new movies and I've written no new books. I did notice after a certain amount of time that whenever I would see Marty at a party, we would always spend the whole night talking. So it was just like a natural thing.

When I first came to New York, I was quite young, and so almost all the people I met were older than me because everyone of my age was in school. I did not go to school because I got expelled. So I always was around older people. I was very good friends with Jerome Robbins. I always liked the ballet, but when I came to know Jerry and I used to go with him to the ballet, my understanding and appreciating the ballet expanded a billion times. I always loved movies. I always went to the movies. But knowing Marty and going to movies with Marty or talking to Marty about movies is such a rich experience, you know? It's so central to Marty. I know this sounds ertainly impossible, if not improbable, but it's my belief that Marty knows every single scene of every movie ever made is in his head.

I was once telling Marty about something personal. He said, “You know what that’s like? That's like the second reel, the fifth scene of second reel of the Buster Keaton movie, you know, where he is standing outside the candy shop trying to decide what box of candy to buy his girlfriend.” And I said, “No, of course, I don't know the fifth scene of the second reel of this movie he made in 1919.” He said, “I'm gonna run this for you.” He has a screening room and he runs some of it for me. And that’s exactly what it was like. This is a mind so densely flourished that you can hardly imagine it.

My appreciation of movies and my understanding of movies…I have no idea how to direct a movie. I don't even know what the director really does. I know more because I've worked with Marty a couple times, but other than that, I don't know. But I can see some esoteric movie that I never heard of, and I'll say to Marty, “Did you ever hear of this movie?” And he knows like every second of this movie. It's a very enriching thing to know someone for whom the world of movies is inside of his head.

You've talked about how you love to be at a party. It's really like a party for you on December 11 at NJPAC in Newark with your live performance. You had said that you love to sing. There's just a brief moment now left on the Earth and there's no audience, so what song would you be singing and why?

I don’t know. I think what I said was that almost all people like to sing. I think it's in humans to sing. The problem is many people cannot sing, and I am certainly to be counted among them. I have such a horrible voice. When I graduated from junior high school, which is the only time I ever graduated from anything, there were 200 kids in my class and we were rehearsing the school song or whatever for the graduation ceremony. And let me assure you, I did not go to a junior high school full of wonderful singers. The music teacher, who was himself obviously not a great music teacher, kept saying, “Something's wrong, something's wrong.” Then he went through all 200 kids to sing like some phrase and afterwards he looked at me and he said, “Lebowitz, mouth it.” That's what a bad singer I am. So I never would sing in public ever, because I have a horrible voice.

If someone shows up in the front row at NJPAC on December 11, that would mean the most to you and that maybe you didn't expect, who would that be?

You mean someone who's alive?

That person does not have to be alive.

The person I would most like to see who is not alive is Toni Morrison. I miss Toni the most of anyone I've ever known. I would most like to see her and if she showed up, I would instantly get off the stage and say, “Toni, let's go eat.”

And where would you go?

You know what? I don't know the restaurants in Newark. I would ask you before we left.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.