Talking Coups, New York Mayors and Scorsese with Fran Lebowitz

Rachel Tashjian
·11 min read

Like the Odeon, dim sum in Queens, and the Prospect Park lawn, Fran Lebowitz is a New Yorker’s New York fixture and a cognoscenti touchpoint to a bygone era. Infamously cellphone-free and laptop-less, Lebowitz has nonetheless become more and more of a cult celebrity—in part due to her irascible wit on everything from politics to books to film, and also from her relationship with Martin Scorsese, who canonized Lebowitz in the 2010 documentary Public Speaking.

Today, Scorsese returns to his favorite salty subject with Pretend It’s a City, a seven-part Netflix documentary that sees the director and his good friend visit various nooks and crannies of the city—from Robert Moses’s miniature of the five boroughs to Lebowitz’s least favorite locale, Times Square—to create a love letter to city life that couldn’t come at a better time.

I’ve been an audience to Lebowitz’s vinegar many times over the past several years--she’s intensely private, but impossible to stop talking. She’s often likened to Dorothy Parker—which we discussed when we talked this week—but I’ve always felt the comparison wasn’t quite right. In Scorsese’s pitch-perfect documentary, Fran’s true nature comes through as I haven’t seen it portrayed elsewhere: as a privacy obsessive with a sacred respect for shared metropolitan spaces. She believes certain things should be a certain way, and everything else is none of your business. She indeed has much of Parker’s volubility, but she’s really much more Katharine Hepburn—think of the actor’s impromptu redecoration of Dick Cavett’s set for their 1973 interview. She’s demanding, she’s specific, and she needs everything to happen now and just so—but as soon as the table is in the right place and Cavett starts firing, no one is more fun or inexhaustible.

When I reached Lebowitz on her landline, we spoke about the riots in Washington, D.C., her friendship with Martin Scorsese, and whether she practices all those bon mots she relentlessly lands. Pretend It’s a City hits Netflix on Friday, January 8.

So how about this coup, Fran?

I mean, the upside is that it was a failed coup. The downside is that it was a coup at all. You know, it didn’t work. No one would call me a cock-eyed optimist, but it’s going to be a greater victory for the Democrats than it seems now. Some of these really horrible Republican careers will not rebound from this. I really don’t think so.

That’s what’s in the cards for Ted Cruz, hopefully.

Not just Cruz—I mean, not that that wouldn’t be enough—[but] Ben Sasse I mean, trying to get away with that stuff, it's just unbelievable. Josh Hawley. These people are jaw-dropping, and it shows you, especially since this happened—with their “newfound love for their fellow man,” etcetera—that they are used to talking to people and dealing with people who are incredibly stupid.

One thing that these Republicans have counted on, obviously—the ones that are stupid themselves and the ones that are a little less stupid—is that their constituency is incredibly stupid. Because like, if two seconds later, you’re saying the exact opposite thing that you just said, that doesn’t matter to people who live in a total web of falsehood. But it matters to everybody else: you know what, we do remember what you said four hours ago.

What did you think about the way the rioters were dressed? You had men wearing animal pelts and a number of people wearing hoodies and T-shirts with antisemetic language.

When I was young, people used to say, “Women don’t dress for men—they dress for other women.” Chiefly, people dress for their peers. And this is true whether you are in junior high school or you are a 70-year-old senator. So these people—antisemitic lunatics—dress for their peers. You know, if all your friends are wearing swastikas, then so are you. They’re right on trend! I only saw one guy with horns, so maybe that has not caught on yet. But the rest of them, you know, uh—they would not be in GQ, let’s put it that way. Among the many senses they do not have, you can include clothes sense. They definitely lacked flair, I would say.

And the rest of them just looked like teenage boys. And they all behaved like teenage boys, including the women. Not just average teenage boys—but the worst teenage boys on planet earth.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Netflix</cite>
Courtesy of Netflix

I found it hilarious but unsurprising to read reports that Trump objected to the riots on aesthetic grounds—that he found them to look “low class.”

Really?! Well of course, he’s so elegant, so! Among the things you think every time you see Trump is, “Where do you get those suits? Where do you get those shoes?”

Trump is himself so unrelievedly cheesy that it’s pretty hard to imagine that there’s anyone he could possibly look down on.

This seems like your worst nightmare: a bunch of people break into the Capitol to disrupt the process of democracy, and they just take selfies.

It’s every stupid thing. It certainly has an almost formal quality of consistency, like that photograph that guy took of himself with his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. It was such a petulant, teenage thing. This guy said, “I’m the taxpayer, this is my desk.” I doubt very much you have a desk! I don’t think you’re a desk guy.

And if you thought about it beforehand—which I have to confess, I did not—you would also not have been surprised by the welcome reception they got from the police. I right away saw what I know many people have said: that if these groups of people had been Black, they would have shot everyone. They would have arrested everyone. They would have sprayed that place with bullets.

There’s no question in the mind of any sane person that there would have been thousands of murders. Thousands, by the police. Instead, it looked to me like the police were welcoming them in.

You did a piece on race in 1997 for Vanity Fair that’s still widely circulated and read today, in particular, a passage that describes white privilege way before that became a more common term. You didn’t use that phrase, but it’s exactly what you were talking about. How did you come to educate yourself about race?

This was always apparent: racism in this country was not like some secret activity. It was always apparent to me, even as a child. I learned many things from Toni [Morrison, her longtime friend], but I don’t believe I learned that.

I, by the way, had to fight to get that piece in Vanity Fair. Everyone said, “Are you crazy? Why would you do that? And why would you do that for Vanity Fair?”

I think if there is reason for people to put you “outside” the “hierarchy”—which I was [as a lesbian]—you become more aware. Part of it is just, I’ve always been watching things. It would be impossible not to observe something that is central, central—not peripheral but central to the country. And always has been central to the country. And has always been there for anyone to see, should you care to, I don’t know, wake up! I’ve had in my lifetime many arguments with people about this—especially with white men. Men notice nothing. I’ve always said, people know only what they have to do. White men had to—until five minutes ago—know nothing at all! Any straight white gentile man who was not president of this country has failed. That’s how easy life was for these people.

Speaking of straight white men, do you think de Blasio is the worst mayor in New York history?

No. I have to say no, and the reason is we’ve had so many horrible mayors. De Blasio is a horrible mayor because he’s incompetent and because he’s stupid. He’s too stupid to be the mayor. You can see that he’s slow. You can see him thinking. It’s almost like watching someone read with their lips moving—but his heart was in the right place. No mayor, for decades, paid attention to poor people in this city, even though they’re half of the city.

Bloomberg was a much worse mayor if you ask me, because he was corrupt. People said, “What are you talking about? He’s not corrupt. He’s rich. He doesn’t take money.” He just gave it. But that’s half of corruption!

Giuliani was worse—morally, the worst mayor. Up until Giuliani, I used to say to my friends in LA and Chicago, the New York City police are crooked, they were always broken, but they don’t shoot people like they do in LA or Chicago. But when Giuliani was the mayor, they started shooting people. Koch was also a terrible mayor! We’ve had just one terrible mayor after another.

But you liked David Dinkins.

I love Dinkins. I was always defending Dinkins. He was also the only mayor that I ever really knew as a person. And he was a delightful person.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Netflix</cite>
Courtesy of Netflix

I’m curious: who would you say is the smartest straight, white man you know?

[Long pause.] If I could decide who it was, I would never tell you. Because the other straight white men I know—all of whom think they’re geniuses—would be very insulted.

Could it be Martin Scorsese?

He is certainly incredibly smart. Marty is much smarter than you have to be to be able to be a director, even a great movie director. He has excess intelligence for his profession. You see it of course, in the work, even if you don’t know what it is.

Marty is incredibly well read—I would say much better read than most writers. He went to college—which I did not—but it’s mostly self-education, and endless, endless curiosity.

So the two of you bonded over books as well as films.

That is true—except for one book. I don’t know if you saw the [2016 Scorsese film] Silence. I think it’s a great movie, but it took 20 years to get them to give him the money to make that moment. It was only a few years before he made it, he gave me the book. It’s a very short book, and I have a habit of putting all the books I haven’t read in one book, and when I finish one book I go through the pile and see what I feel like reading. The book went from the top to the bottom of the pile 50 times. One thing Marty and I don’t share is a profound interest in religion and spirituality. I don’t even know what spirituality means.

One thing that’s so striking in conversations with you, and in both of the projects you’ve done with Martin, is that you speak in totally fluid, fully formed thoughts. I wonder if you ever rehearse your thoughts or jokes?

I never practice anything. I’m the laziest person you’re ever going to talk to. I think it’s just like having a trick thumb or something. I’ve known a few people in my life who are incredibly natural athletes—anything they do physically is just informed by something that is totally alien to me. And my, you know, I don’t know what you call it, talking is just like the athletic ability of an athletic person.

You’re often compared to Dorothy Parker. I’ve always wondered what you make of that.

The first time this happened to me was when my first book came out. I was a big Dorothy Parker fan, and I’ve always been very flattered by it, even though it is not an accurate comparison because Dorothy Parker wrote great short stories, by the way, and reviewed books hilariously. I’m just glad people still know who Dorothy Parker is.

Well, not to end on a sour note, but I thought of this recently because I read there’s a Dorothy Parker-themed apartment building opening on the Upper West Side.

You’re kidding.

No, I’m serious.

What does that even mean?

It’s a new building on the site of the house where she lived as a young girl.

I’m going to have to have someone who owns one of these modern devices find this for me because I find this shocking. Also though this proves the thing I’ve been saying forever, which is that it is impossible to be a satirist of this era. You’d have stumped Jonathan Swift. If you made this up, I would say you are wasting your time at GQ.

I’m fairly confident there will be a Fran Lebowitz building in Soho in the next fifty years.

Well, fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon my mood, I will not be here in fifty years. So I leave it to you to keep track of this.

Originally Appeared on GQ