Fran Lebowitz’s trademark is the sneer; she disapproves of virtually everything except sleep, cigarette smoking, and good furniture. Her essays and topical interviews on subjects ranging from the difficulty of finding an acceptable apartment to the art of freeloading at weekend houses have come to be regarded as classics of literary humor and social observation.
Lebowitz was born in 1950 in Morristown, New Jersey, the daughter of furniture store proprietors. While working in the local Carvel ice-cream store, she attended an Episcopalian day school until she was thrown out for “non-specific surliness.” Certain that she would starve to death following this banishment, Lebowitz skipped college and moved to Manhattan, where she pursued such jobs as taxi driving, belt peddling, apartment cleaning (“with a small specialty in Venetian blinds”), and selling advertising space for Changes magazine.
Her first published work, movie and book reviews, appeared in that magazine when she was twenty years old. At twenty-one, she began a column, “I Cover the Waterfront,” for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before moving to Mademoiselle. Lebowitz maintains that she wrote the columns with the intention of building a distinct collection of essays. In placing them in magazines she was merely pursuing her policy of selling a piece of writing as many times as possible. The essays were published in Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981).
In the past ten years, Lebowitz has been a regular guest on the television show Late Night with David Letterman. “I’m not a nervous person. I’m not afraid to be on TV. I’m only afraid when I write. When I’m at my desk I feel like most people would feel if they went on TV.”
Some years ago, Lebowitz sold a proposal of a novel entitled “Exterior Signs of Wealth,” a reference to a French conspicuous-consumption tax figured on the basis of display of wealth. The novel is reputedly about rich people who want to be artists, and artists who want to be rich people. When asked about the long delay in its delivery to her publisher, she explained that she only works on it on the side. “Full-time I’m watching daytime TV.”
The following interview took place one afternoon in an apartment overlooking the East River. Lebowitz discoursed without pause for two hours, chain-smoking all the while. A brief follow-up conversation took place over the phone to Lebowitz, who had decamped to Princeton, New Jersey, where she was renting the house of a noted architect and sometime furniture designer. “There are these prototypes all over the place, mixed in with my own crummy furniture. I’m speaking to you from a priceless, one-of-a-kind chair. I’m afraid I’m sitting beyond my means.”
Young people are often a target for you.
I wouldn’t say that I dislike the young. I’m simply not a fan of naïveté. I mean, unless you have an erotic interest in them, what other interest could you have? What are they going to possibly say that’s of interest? People ask me, Aren’t you interested in what they’re thinking? What could they be thinking? This is not a middle-aged curmudgeonly attitude; I didn’t like people that age even when I was that age.
Well, what age do you prefer?
I always liked people who are older. Of course, every year it gets harder to find them. I like people older than me and children, really little children.
Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom?
No, I’m just intrigued by them, because, to me, they’re like talking animals. Their consciousness is so different from ours that they constitute a different species. They don’t have to be particularly interesting children; just the fact that they are children is sufficient. They don’t know what anything is, so they have to make it up. No matter how dull they are, they still have to figure things out for themselves. They have a fresh approach.
If you were going to have dinner with some of those “older people” you mentioned, say writers, which ones would you pick?
If I had to, I would rather have dinner with James Thurber, than, say James Joyce. I’m not the biggest James Joyce fanatic and I would rather have dinner with someone who was funny. I would have liked to have met Nabokov. When I first came here, meeting writers wasn’t available to me; but now that I have met tons of those people, I wish I hadn’t. I never make the connection between someone’s writing and who they are. In the case of most good writers the writing is better than they are. I mean, knowing James Joyce . . . was he fascinating? No. He was probably grumpy. Meeting James Joyce would be more on the order of sightseeing, like seeing the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial.
There are some great writers who are great talkers, but there are more great writers who are not great talkers. People seem to think there is some connection between talking and writing, but I love to talk and if there were some connection between the two of them I would be the most prolific writer in the history of the world.
What if you dictated a book?
Then you would have a dictated book.
What’s the difference?
That’s not writing. Talking is not writing. To me, it would be even a slower way to write. To me, dictating a book seems impossible. But what would also be impossible, would be to write on one of those word processors. There’s too much distance.
What do you use then?
A Bic pen. I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself. I think if there were no such thing as men, there would be no word processors. Male writers like them because they have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession. This is why you have so much idiotic behavior among male writers. There are more male writers who own guns than any other profession except police officers. They like machines because it makes them seem more masculine. Well, I work on a machine. It’s almost as good as being a mechanic.
I have a real aversion to machines. I write with a pen. Then I read it to someone who writes it onto the computer. What are those computer letters made of anyway? Light? Too insubstantial. Paper, you can feel it. A pen. There’s a connection. A pen goes exactly at your speed, whereas that machine jumps. And then, that machine is waiting for you, just humming “uh-huh, yes?”
It reminds me of when a choreographer I know was creating a ballet. He was stuck, and he asked me to come help.
I said, How could I help you choreograph a ballet?
He said, I’d like you to come and sit there while I’m doing it. You’re so judgmental I would find it helpful.
So I went to his studio several times while he was making the ballet. I saw the only job that was worse than writing. My idea of pure hell. The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.
Plus they are paid by the minute. And a piano player is sitting there as well. Twenty-five people sitting in the room staring at you while you are thinking. I can’t believe anyone has ever made a ballet.
Were you expected to criticize what was going on?