Fran Lebowitz | Interview outtakes
Of course there are outtakes from my recent interview with Fran Lebowitz. The subject (did I mention?) was Fran Lebowitz. The loquacious New York intellectual appears tonight at the Harris Theater in a conversation moderated by Steppenwolf’s Martha Lavey. Here’s what didn’t fit in print.
Have you ever found yourself not having an opinion about something?
No. Well, yes—in medical matters. I do not presume to know more than a doctor. Matters of science and things like that, math, by which I include even the most rudimentary arithmetic. I’m always asking people, “How much should this tip be?”
Have you ever looked back at an opinion of yours and thought, I actually wasn’t right about that?
More in my personal life. I made more mistakes in my personal life than I have in my public life.
What were those mistakes?
That’s what personal means. [Laughs] Of course I made a million mistakes in my life, like everyone else. But the kind of opinions that people ask me about publicly, like politics or the culture—yes, I suppose I’ve been wrong. Of course I must’ve been wrong. Well, okay, I can think of one glaring, fairly recent one: I was a John Edwards supporter. I was a pretty vocal John Edwards supporter. So clearly, I was wrong. But I still think I was right about the reasons I supported him. Of course I didn’t know that he was this monumental jerk. How would I know that? And I defended him to every—I had no friends who agreed with me, by the way. My friends were 90 percent Obama supporters, 10 percent Hillary Clinton supporters. I have a couple Republican friends because I was once a child and I have a best friend I grew up with. [Laughs] But John Edwards, I supported him because of his domestic economic policies, which I still support. He apparently did not, but I do. And he talks about the other America, he talks about poor people, he talks about fairness. He maybe didn’t believe it, but I do.
In the Martin Scorsese documentary about you, Public Speaking, you say you don’t get why gays are clamoring to get into the oppressive institutions of marriage and the military. Do you think gay culture has been subsumed by the mainstream?
Oh, of course—not subsumed. I mean, here’s the thing: That is the goal of liberation movements. The goal of liberation movements is to erase the differences, especially when the differences are huge disadvantages. And that’s absolutely what happened. And by the way, I, unlike, it seems, everyone else on the planet, do not equate all these things. The gay-rights movement was not like the civil-rights movement. If I was black, I’d be furious about that.
Because slavery never happened to homosexuals. I would think that’s enough of a distinction. But if that isn’t enough for you, there were no cops with fire hoses, and the fact that you could hide your homosexuality was an advantage. It’s like I always say: A Jew who pretends not to be Jewish to get into a country club? I have nothing but contempt. A Jew who pretends not to be Jewish to escape Hitler? Good for you! It depends what the reason is. But being black is something you can’t hide!
Do you come by your sense of certainty from your family? I’m just trying to imagine, growing up, did your parents hold forth around your dinner table?
What was it like around the dinner table of the Lebowitz home?
It was pretty much, I believe, like any other small-town middle-class dinner table, which was that almost all remarks addressed to children were instructions: Keep your elbows off the table, don’t chew with your mouth full, say please, say thank you. No one asked my opinion or what I was interested in.
So what happened to you? How did—
You know, I’m telling you something: It would be as if I told you my entire family was seven feet tall and I was three feet tall. I just was—I don’t know what the word is—a freak in the family. But in general, the way that children are treated now is vastly different than the way that children were treated when I was a child. It wasn’t just Fran that wasn’t asked questions. No one asked questions of children.
Do you have siblings?
I have a younger sister. A younger, taller sister.
Where is she now?
She lives in New Jersey, where she is largely helping me take care of my mother.
You’ve been critical of this notion we have today that children should always be coddled and encouraged, told they’re the best at whatever they do. Have you seen that approach gaining currency over your lifetime?
Oh, it isn’t a question of gaining currency. It seemed to come out of nowhere. It didn’t seem to me like a gradual thing. Now I would not be in the best position to judge that because when this happened I only was a child. I never had a child. And most of my friends who are my contemporaries did not have children. So mostly I observed that in my family, with my cousins, and I grew up with my mother’s sister’s children; we all kind of grew up together. They were all girls, four girls, and we had two girls in my family. My mother and her sister are different in lots of ways, but not in child-raising. I heard my cousin ask her daughter where she wanted to go to school, having a discussion about it, and I said to my cousin, “Where did you learn that?” ’Cause I grew up with her. And she said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Because in your day how would that conversation have gone?
“Here’s where you’re going to school. Here’s what you’re wearing. Here’s what you’re eating.”
And was that better than what we have now?
I think that there must be somewhere a middle ground. I think that we were treated, not harshly, but dismissively, no question. I don’t think that’s good. On the other hand, “Where do you want to go to school?” is a question that should not be asked of a child. If you were young enough to be going to school, you couldn’t possibly know where you should go to school. So big questions to ask children is absurd, and it’s a dereliction of responsibility.
A couple of years ago, when The New York Times reviewed the Scorsese documentary, it wrote of you as a “professional wit.” It said, “She has made a living out of talking, primarily lecturing on college campuses, where she presents herself as an emissary from the world of urbanity, telling the young how it is now, and how much better it was then.” Do you think that’s fair, that you traffic in nostalgia?
I don’t think that’s accurate. [Laughs] People think The New York Times is always accurate, but it is not. I don’t think it is accurate that I traffic in nostalgia. And by the way, it’s been a very long time since most of my lectures were on college campuses, so that’s just factually incorrect. And I don’t believe I present myself as an urban wit. I am an urban wit. Okay? If I am not, who is? But mostly what you see me doing, especially in the movie that Marty made, I always take questions from the audience, so the people asking me the questions, this is what they want to know. I take questions from the audience because then you’re talking about what the audience wants to hear. I am not Stephen Hawking; I don’t have any big truth to deliver to them. So I will talk about with them what they’re interested in. The truth is that kids, by which I mean people in their twenties, are obsessed with the ’70s, much more than I am, let me assure you. And they keep saying, “It was better then, right? It was better then.” If a kid who grew up here saw the change in the city, even if they didn’t apprehend it wholly, what they saw is a lessening of city-like life; it became more suburban here. And not just here. This is in every city. But here obviously it was more marked because it was more urban to begin with. So I do not believe I traffic in nostalgia. That is something that offends me because it’s not true. The longing that I have for the ’70s is the longing for my own youth, which everyone has.
So you’re not advocating a return to—
I am old enough to know things do not return, but I am also old enough to know that the way that things seem now, like irrevocable: “Well, New York used to be like that and now it’s like this.” And I always say to people, “And then it won’t be like this.” And they say, “How do you know that?” “’Cause it didn’t stay like it was!”
That presentist notion we have that the way things are now is the way things will be.
And also one thing about people my age or even people younger than me but not young: If I see a book, the title of which begins The End of, I know that person’s at least 40. The End of This, The End of That. Here’s the really bad news: This doesn’t end. [Laughs] What people mean always—I don’t care what they say—it means the end of their youth, no matter what the next word is. There’ve been numerous books: The End of This, The End of That, The End of History—they’re always wrong. You can never be right if you call a book The End of. So I do not have nostalgia. By the way, when I published my first book when I was 27, I was constantly accused of being a curmudgeon: Why is this young person complaining? So the complaining or the anger, this is just Fran. This is not part of Fran being old.
I understand you had to do this interview today or tomorrow because you were going to be out of reach for a few weeks. Where are you headed?
This is something I have to do for my mother, who’s an old, not-well woman. It was a family matter. You’re a young man. You don’t have old parents. But when you do, it’s a life’s work.