Fran Lebowitz: ‘Pretend It’s a City’

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Fran Lebowitz in the new Netflix limited series “Pretend It’s a City." Photo courtesy of Netflix.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes author and speaker Fran Lebowitz, who is featured in the new Netflix limited series “Pretend It’s a City,” directed by Martin Scorsese. Lebowitz previously appeared in Scorsese’s documentary “Public Speaking,” and her written works include “Metropolitan Life” and “Social Studies.” A fierce lover and resident of New York City for decades, Lebowitz tells The Treatment that she complains about New York because of her affection for it. She talks about what it was like to meet jazz great Charles Mingus at a colleague’s kitchen table in the 1970s, and she says that being a true New Yorker has nothing to do with how long you have lived there.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Image Not Available Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz in the new Netflix limited series “Pretend It’s a City." Photo courtesy of Netflix. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. The last time I was joined by my guest, Fran Lebowitz, she had yet to log in as many hours as she has with Martin Scorsese. She first appeared in the documentary "Public Speaking." She's now in the new Netflix docuseries, "Pretend It's a City." There are so many things I was struck by in the show. As you were talking about the architecture of Grand Central, it just occurred to me that, as an observer, as an audience, as so many things, you really seem to be attracted to things and people with a point of view.

Fran Lebowitz: Yes, of course. Who loves committees?

KCRW: Watching that show, I find myself hungry again, to read your writing. Are people saying that to you, too, now, as they're watching the Netflix series?

Lebowitz: Yes, people are saying that. People started calling me and saying that they were trying to buy "The Fran Lebowitz Reader" and were unable to buy it. So I had a conversation with the publisher, and it turns out that publishing, not just me, is having a terrible problem publishing books because so many printers are not working because they got COVID. Printing plants are understaffed, and it's such a skilled job, that they're having trouble printing books. It is interesting to me, that this is a problem just at the time where more people might be reading more.

KCRW: You would think somehow that there would be people rushed back into printing to get as many books out as possible.

Lebowitz: Another problem, and I bet you didn't know this: I only know this because a friend of mine published a book at the same time when Obama's book was first published. Many other books could not publish enough copies because Obama used all the paper. There was a paper shortage. And I said, that's ridiculous. I mean, the initial order, the first print order on Obama's book was like a million. They knew it was gonna be like a million. The book is like 800 pages. Order the paper.

KCRW: Oh my God, I had no idea publishing had become a guns or butter situation. 

Lebowitz: Obama used all the paper, and then the printers got sick. Not from Obama, in fact, from Trump, but if Obama, instead of writing a book, had been the president, we wouldn't have had the virus, but he was writing a book, something Donald Trump certainly cannot do since he's never read one. And so that's what happened. 

KCRW: I know we've discussed Charles Mingus before, and I'd love to hear you talk about him.

Lebowitz: I only knew him because the woman who owned the magazine-- I was working for a little tiny magazine that was published out of her apartment--she was his girlfriend, which I didn't know. But I came into the office, which was also her apartment, one day, and I looked in the kitchen, and Mingus was sitting in the kitchen. First, I thought that cannot be possible. And I thought, that guy: he looks so much like Charles Mingus. I mean, he really looks a lot like Charles Mingus. Like he looks exactly like Charles Mingus because it was Charles Mingus. But you don't expect to walk into a kitchen and see Charles Mingus sitting at the kitchen table. As I came to know him, you would definitely expect to see him sitting at the kitchen table, so that is how I met him, and that is how I knew him. And of course, obviously before that, I loved his work. I mean, I think he's one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. I loved his work. I just didn't expect to see him sitting at the kitchen table, and I didn't expect that I would know him. 

KCRW: I love the way you talk about things that matter to you. There is such a precision in that. I know people are kind of fixated on your being somewhat upset about some things, but your affection is what I find myself the most interested in, and you have affection for so much. And I think people don't talk about that so often.

Lebowitz: Because not everyone is as smart as you are, Elvis. So people say, you know, Fran hates everything. Fran hates this about New York. She hates that about New York. She's complaining about this. She's complaining about that. And I've said to numerous people, you know, you only care this much about something you love. So my rage at things that are wrong in New York is because this is New York! Don't do this to New York. If you're going to do this horrible stuff, go do it somewhere else. That's how I feel about things that I love, and so it may come off as complaining, and it may in fact be complaining. But it's a different kind of complaining than the people who complain, that I don't like, complain.

KCRW: Does it infuriate you sometimes that people have boxed you up in this way? 

Lebowitz: It doesn't really, I don't really think about it. I mean, I'm aware of it, to some extent. I have less awareness of it than other people might have because I do not have a computer, so I'm not on the internet, so I don't see these things. People very often say to me, you're crazy, you should go on the internet, there are so many great things about you. I say, yeah, and I'm sure there's so many horrible things about me, so I don't want to see either one frankly. Sometimes people can like you, I don't mean in a personal way, but like something you do and misunderstand you. 

Here's the thing: it is impossible to control other people's reactions. I don't even think about them. So you write something or you say something, or you make something, and some people are gonna like it, some people are not gonna like it, and some people who like it, are gonna like it in the wrong way. And there's nothing you can do about it.

KCRW: I'm glad people get a chance through this show to listen to you talk to Marty [Scorsese] about movies just because you have a great take on film. And as you remind, or even inform people who may not have known it, you were writing about movies at one point.

Lebowitz: Yes, but I wrote about movies, not because I was such a person knowledgeable about movies. I wrote about movies because I had been writing about books for this little magazine that I mentioned that Charles Mingus' girlfriend owned. There was another girl who was writing about movies, and then she got an actual job writing an article for The New York Times, which, of course, no one could believe. She got this job, and while she was doing that, I wrote something about movies. The second that was published in this minute magazine, people talked to me about it. Oh, that was hilarious. I realized, more people are interested in movies than books, and it was fun to write about movies. 

So I asked, can I do this? And she said, no, because this girl is coming back from The New York Times. And I said, well, I just want to write about bad movies because I wasn't interested in being a film critic. I was interested in taking a ridiculous bad movie and writing something funny about it, and so she wouldn't let me do that. And so I went to Interview and got a job doing that. I had a column called "The Best of the Worst." It was only about bad movies. Mostly these movies that I reviewed were made by a studio called AIP: American International Pictures. These movies mostly played in drive-ins. The only places they played in New York were in the old, old Times Square. I got myself on a list to go to the screenings, and it would be me and like 12 guys smoking cigars who owned driving movies. That would be the only people in the screening rooms. Unbeknownst to me, one of the movies I reviewed that AIP made Marty made. It was called "Boxcar Bertha."

You know, Marty is a library of movies. Marty has the most densely furnished mind with movies that surely could ever have existed, even though I know a few other people who are somewhat like Marty, but they're not Marty. Once I was telling Marty something, a personal thing, and Marty goes, You know what that's like? That's like--I'm making these numbers up because I don't remember-- you know in the second reel, in the third scene of that Buster Keaton movie where he's standing outside the candy store, trying to decide what box of candy to buy his girlfriend. It's just like that, don't you think? I said, no, I don't know. He was talking about a movie that was made in like 1903. He goes, you don't know it? I said, no. He said, I'm gonna run it for you. And he did. And guess what? The thing that I was telling him about was exactly like the third scene in the second reel. It was exactly like that. Not too many people like that.

KCRW: Well, no. On the other hand, there aren't too many people like my guest. After you finished "Public Speaking," did you think you had another one of these in you?

Lebowitz: Marty suggested it. I thought it was a bad idea, so we didn't do it because even though he's Marty, and I'm not Marty, he still can't do it without me. I'm not sorry that we didn't do it right away. I didn't want to do it for reasons that are right for me. In the intervening 10 years, Marty made a couple movies, very good ones, so I doubt that he felt the lack. It would seem hard for me to believe that Marty would say, why did I waste my time making "Silence," which is one of my favorite of his movies, when I could have done another documentary on Fran? Why did I waste my time doing "Wolf of Wall Street?" I mean, he did plenty of other things.

KCRW: Why was it not the right time for you? What was keeping you from doing this again?

Lebowitz: Because, it just seemed to me like there shouldn't be two movies about the same person. It just didn't seem like, as my mother would say, nice.

Image Not Available Fran Lebowitz in the new Netflix limited series “Pretend It’s a City." Photo courtesy of Netflix. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW: Whenever I hear you talk about New York, I think of that line that "love is never so sweet than when it is new and strange." And just hearing you talk about what New York was like with all of its peculiarities and particular qualities, and how hard it was to get to know, but you just give into it, and eventually, it becomes part of you. 

Lebowitz: Well, I mean, the thing is that, at a certain point in your life, which I am not only at, but probably past, you have what used to be called the long view. You understand certain things about New York, which seems maybe an impenetrable thing to people, but it feels very intimate to me. New York, to me, feels like a little village. It really does. But not with the bad aspects of a little village, where everybody knows you, where everybody interferes with your life. But it feels very homey to me, really homey, and, I feel, very intimate.

I believe that in Manhattan, not in the rest of New York City, you could show me a still photograph of a corner without the street sign, and if it was a big enough view, I could tell you where that corner was because I've walked every single inch of the city a billion times. New York has changed quite a bit. I would say New York has changed more than I have because I'm a person who basically has just pretty much never changed her mind. 

Someone asked me recently, what makes a real New Yorker, and I would say, a real New Yorker is anyone who lives in New York, whether they lived here for two weeks, or two years, or 50 years, but the first time that person says they closed my such and such, or what happened to the…? And that could happen in two weeks. That's how fast someone becomes a New Yorker. That's how fast someone gets angry. 

I remember very vividly the first time this happened to me. I was on the Eighth Avenue bus going uptown, something I did not do frequently, and there used to be on the southeast corner of 42nd and eighth, there had been a bank, and I looked out the bus window, and the bank was gone. It was demolished. And I was incredibly upset. Where's the bank? Not that I'd never been in this bank, and by the way, not that I was ever in any bank, and not that I cared about a bank, and I still don't. But that bank was supposed to be there! Because it was there when I got here, so that bank was supposed to be there because New York is supposed to stay in people's minds the way it was when you got here, and as soon as it changes from that, people start complaining. 

KCRW: I think that particular affinity that you and Marty have about New York comes out, for example, when you're talking with him about his New York set movies and you're talking about what the cab ride was like for you and that you'd been in that same cab that Griffin Dunne had been and had that same kind of experience. 

Lebowitz: I don't know what year that movie was when Griffin was in the cab, but that's when cab drivers changed in New York, the kind of person who drove a cab, the way they drove the cab. So it seemed to people in New York, all the cab drivers were the same. When I first got to New York, all the cab drivers were complaining about [Mayor] Lindsay all the time. No matter what happened, it was Lindsay's fault. They all smoked cigars; they wore these caps. They were mostly these working class Jews. Then, at a certain point, different cab drivers came, and the thing that distinguished them was they drove like maniacs. I mean, maniacs, so that you were used to getting into a cab that drove normally, I mean normally for New York, and all of a sudden you get in the cab and you would be begging, pleading with a cab driver to slow down. But no one had ever noted that in any sort of work of art, or even in any newspaper article. It's just something New Yorkers were living through. They were complaining to each other about it. And then all of a sudden it was in Marty's movie. 

I remember going to the theater to see that movie when it first opened, and the reason I laughed so hard, was because it never occurred to me that someone was going to put that in a movie. And Marty told me that that really happened to him. You know, the same thing with the $20 bill blowing out. But that particular kind of cab ride was happening to everybody, and we didn't know what caused it, and we still don't, now that I think about it. I mean, Marty never explained, where did these crazy cab drivers come from? Why did they all start driving cabs at once? Why did they all drive the cab in the same way? I mean, it was maniacal. They might have come from someplace where you made more money if you drove more crazily, I don't know. It doesn't exist now; that phase didn't last that long.

KCRW: We're talking about Martin Scorsese's 1985 movie "After Hours."  You also end up talking about, in effect, "Taxi Driver," in that great sequence when De Niro's in that 24-hour cafeteria, and you knew that place.

Lebowitz: Yes, because that was a place where cab drivers ate. First of all, now, when you talk to someone young, you have to practically tell them where a cafeteria was. So it's very labor intensive, having a conversation with someone who's young, I've noticed. So cafeterias, they used to have them in New York. In fact, they used to have them all over the country, not just in your school, but as an actual commercial enterprise. 

So this was a cafeteria; it was on Park Avenue in the 20s. It was called the Bellmore Cafeteria. It was open all night, as were many restaurants then, by the way, open all night. But the lure to the cab driver was not only that it was a cafeteria, meaning the food was not expensive, but also, whoever owned that place or managed it had some kind of deal with the cops, because you could leave the cab in front of there. One of the problems of driving a cab is you could never leave the cab because it would get towed away, or you get a ticket, which would wipe out your whole day's or night's work. But you can leave the cab there. And so I was telling Marty that I used to go in there when I drove a cab, and no one would talk to me. I mean, literally, no one would talk to me because I was a girl. I was a young girl, and all the cab drivers were these Jewish guys with the caps and the cigars. And I think that the reason they were so rude to me was because I think that they were scared. Like they were thinking: is this what's gonna happen? These kids, these girls with long hair, there were already a few hippie cab drivers. 

So I remember New York Magazine wrote an article like, is this the best restaurant in New York because all these cab drivers eat here? And I remember thinking at the time, what would make you believe that the greatest judges of food would be cab drivers? When I was young, they used to say this is a great diner; the truck drivers eat here. Like these are the great connoisseurs of food. Usually places that people who drive places eat in, they eat there because you can park, not a great recommendation for a restaurant necessarily.

KCRW: One of the things I didn't know about you was what you talked about in “Pretend It's a City" is walking around New York, barefoot. Now you have incredibly well made shoes, so you walked around New York City barefoot? I thought I actually dreamed it and I wasn't actually hearing it.

Lebowitz: You know, of course many people have asked me about this. And some people asked me: why did I do this? I was really young when I did this, like maybe the first year I was in New York in the summer. And I don't know why I did this because it was idiotic.  It was incredibly stupid to do that and dangerous to some extent, obviously, because New York was filthy at the time. Not that it's pristine at the moment, but I mean filthy. No sane person would walk around without shoes, but I did. I don't know why I did it. I guess I thought it was a great look, and I did it for a while. And by the way, I didn't start a trend. There weren't that many people that crazy. 

You know, when I was young and I lived with my parents, I walked around the house barefoot and sometimes into the yard barefoot. By the way, once I got my first apartment in New York, which was after the barefoot walking, I never walked around my apartment barefoot because of the high density of insect population in that apartment. So I don't know why I did it. I cannot defend it. It was totally idiotic.

KCRW: I've always thought of you as being somebody who has an eye for shoes, because for me, your shoes are selected for both comfort and drama, and your shoes do both, don't they?

Lebowitz: I really have very few pairs of shoes. The shoes I have on right now are cowboy boots, which I had made, in 2008. The guy who made them was so crazy, and it took so long that when I finally got them, I thought I'd better take care of these because I can't go through that again. So I think of these in a certain way as the last boots.



Rebecca Mooney