An iconic New Yorker with Morristown roots, Fran Lebowitz will take the stage in the Garden State during two homecoming appearances. The bestselling author, humorist and star of the hit 2021 Netflix series “Pretend It’s a City” begins each show being interviewed by a journalist, delivering a mix of social commentary and bon mots about the foibles of living in the Big Apple. She then takes questions from the audience.
The 72-year-old raconteur will be interviewed by Susan Lisovicz at the Shea Center for Performing Arts at William Paterson University in Wayne, Feb. 22, and by Kerry Nolan at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, March 30.
Lebowitz moved to Manhattan as a teenager after being expelled from a private school in Mountain Lakes. The headmaster claimed she was a bad influence on classmates. She later served up revenge by writing a pornographic book titled “House of Leather” under the headmaster’s name.
She earned a living early on driving a taxi, selling belts and cleaning apartments. She got her big break when Andy Warhol hired her to write a column for Interview magazine. He gave her the gig even though she played a joke on him before she entered the office: She knocked on the door and said her name was Valerie Solanas. (Solanas attempted to assassinate Warhol in 1968).
Lebowitz’s 1978 debut book “Metropolitan Life” was a bestselling collection of magazine essays. She followed up three years later with “Social Studies,” another bestselling compilation of humorous pieces. Manhattan was often her muse, and she portrayed the city as both a hub of creativity and a rat-plagued dystopia. She also penned film reviews, specializing in releases from Roger Corman’s B-movie studio American International Pictures, which produced cult classics such as “Blacula,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “Foxy Brown.”
Lebowitz was a regular at legendary nightspots like Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City and made a fashion statement with tailored menswear, although she does not consider herself an LGBTQ activist. She has struggled with writer’s block for decades but found a niche as a storyteller and pop culture pundit via speaking tours and appearances on late night comedy shows.
Martin Scorsese directed “Pretend It’s a City” as well as a 2010 HBO documentary about her, “Public Speaking.” He also recruited her to play a judge in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
I spent an hour on the phone with her, discussing, among other things, her aversion to technology, militant vegans and, of course, that time Bill de Blasio dropped a groundhog at the Staten Island Zoo as one of his first acts in office. The animal, known as Staten Island Chuck, reportedly died a week later.
Q: This will preview a couple of shows coming up in New Jersey, including at William Paterson University, which is not far from where you grew up.
A: I think the school is in Wayne, is that correct?
Q: Yes. It’s 20 minutes from Morristown.
A: When I was growing up, those highways weren’t there. I-287 wasn’t there. My entire childhood, my living room was filled with women trying to keep I-287 from going through Morristown.
Q: I guess they failed.
A: Let me assure you, in the 1950s, living rooms full of women failed at everything. They tried but they failed.
Q: In one of your documentaries, you were talking about this boy who lived across the street from you in Morristown who ate ice cream for breakfast. And I was wondering if you ever reconnected with him or found out what happened to him?
A: That’s really funny because I have a friend who often brings this kid up.
His family moved to Atlanta. Maybe in the early ’80s, I was being interviewed: I was in Atlanta and I was in a mall — that’s kind of redundant. The guy from the newspaper said, “I have a friend who says he grew up with you.” Then he tells me the name and it’s the boy from across the street. He came over to meet me and he looked pretty much the same. It turns out you can grow up without dropping dead eating ice cream for breakfast. He was in perfect condition. He said he owned a photo studio where you take pictures for graduations and weddings.
Q: He made something of himself.
A: He made it. He managed to survive ice cream for breakfast.
Q: Since “Pretend It’s a City” came out, have you noticed that you’re getting different kinds of questions? And has the audience changed now that you have all this exposure through Netflix?
A: Certainly the number of people has changed. I’ve been doing these speaking dates since 1978. I’ve always done them but I would do maybe eight or 10 a year. Now I do 70 dates. It used to be just the United States and Canada, and now I go all over Europe, all over Scandinavia. That’s Netflix. That has nothing to do with me. Netflix is global.
That’s the biggest difference, how much bigger the audience is. There are a lot of kids in my audience, by which I mean people in their 20s. I never really thought about it that much. When I started this, I was a kid, too.
Q: They were your contemporaries.
A: They were a little younger than me, but yeah. Now, of course, someone in their 20s is thousands of years younger than me. I know how old they are because very frequently, before they ask the question, they tell me how old they are. I don’t know why they do this. They’ll say, “I’m 22” and then they’ll ask a question. No one ever gets up and says, “I’m 42” and then asks the question. Maybe they do it to explain why they’re asking me this particular question. One of them said, “I’m 22. Could you recommend a good retirement plan?”
Q: That’s a big question.
A: I was so startled. Because I always tell the truth, that’s my profession, I said, “I don’t know. I don’t have one. If I had a retirement plan, I wouldn’t be standing here.” Young people in general seem pretty worried. I don’t remember being that worried when I was in my 20s. I was worried about day-to-day things because I had no money. I was like, “Can I pay the rent? Are they gonna shut the phone off? Are they gonna shut the lights off?” Young people now worry about stuff in the future. I think part of this is that they have access to a lot of information.
Q: Well, now you have COVID, you have the environment. There are real problems.
A: There’s always problems. I remember when they invented the polio vaccine when I was a really little kid. People were worried about polio. Now, young people seem to be pretty worried and they’re very free to express their worries. We certainly weren’t in the past.
Q: I just wonder about these questions you’re getting. Why are people asking you about retirement plans? Why do you think they feel that you’re someone who can answer those questions for them?
A: This has happened for a long time, even before Netflix. Kids stop me in the streets. They ask me stuff like that. I think it’s because people that age, their parents pay so much attention to them that they think all old people care what happens to them. I certainly never did this. I would never have thought to do it.
Q: Do people think of you as a role model?
A: I hope not.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a role model?
A: No. Years ago, I mean, hundreds of years ago, the woman who was the editor of Vogue, her husband was a lung surgeon. And she said to me, “I want you to stop smoking on television.” I asked why. She said, “Because people see you smoking on television and then they smoke.” I said, “Let me tell you something. My whole life, I’ve been trying to get people to do what I want. They’ve never done it. No one ever listens to me. They don’t do what I tell them. So I’m not a role model.” This was true 45 years ago and it’s true now.
Q: It’s interesting because in “Pretend It’s a City,” I don’t recall seeing you smoking on camera, but in “Public Speaking” you did.
A: In “Public Speaking,” I did only a little bit outside. There’s a number of reasons for this. Marty Scorsese has terrible asthma. I mean since childhood. He did encourage me in both of those projects to smoke because he, like all people who film or take photographs, they love the way it looks on film. I said I’m not gonna do it because if I do it, all that anyone’s gonna notice is the smoking and they’re gonna write about it. They’re not gonna write about what this thing really is. They’re gonna write about a thing that I think is just a habit and everyone else thinks is the mark of the devil.
Q: There’s actually this website (whenetflix.com) that has a countdown to Season 2 of “Pretend It’s a City.” Supposedly it’s going to premiere in 331 days. Is the info on that website reliable?
A: I don’t see the internet because I don’t have a computer. To me, the phrase “reliable website” is an oxymoron. There’s no plan to do a second season. Marty and I have talked about different things. I wouldn’t really call it a second season. Even if we do something, it would be different. But when this will occur, if it will occur, I don’t know. There’s certainly not any number of days.
Q: So it’s not coming out in 331 days, seven hours, 12 minutes and 13 seconds?
A: Like everything on the internet, it seems completely made up. It’s the Wild West on the internet. Using a name like Netflix, that is something you used to sue people for. Now, you don’t sue unless you’re nuts because you’d be suing people 24 hours a day. You wouldn’t have any time or money left.
Q: It’s interesting you talk about lawsuits. I know you once talked about wanting to be a judge on the Supreme Court. Would you want to join if Joe Biden picked you?
A: This court?
Q: Yeah. Why not? Shake it up.
A: No way. Would you like to go to work every day and see Alito?
Q: Hey, he’s a Jersey guy.
A: You know what, not everyone from New Jersey is delightful. There’s a lot of bad people from New Jersey. There’s a lot of bad people from every state. I would not want to be on this court. I feel sorry for the three people on this court who are actually judges. I feel sorry for them. And I used to envy them.
Q: You do get to wear a robe to work, though.
A: That’s a good side but it seems that half the country wears a robe anyway, because they don’t go to work. The Supreme Court is the last institution that I admired but I stopped admiring it during Bush v. Gore. When Sandra Day O’Connor basically decided the presidential election, that was it for me. I was so shocked by it and I’m not that easily shocked. And then (she later said), “I made a mistake.”
Q: And you can’t take it back. It’s precedent.
A: The opinion basically said, this is for one time use only.
Q: It’s not supposed to be a precedent but people cite Bush v. Gore as a precedent.
A: And the reason she did it, she wanted to retire and she didn’t wanna retire if there was a Democratic president. So basically because one woman wanted to play golf, Western democracy is over.
Q: So I’m just wondering what you think of (New York mayor) Eric Adams. He’s definitely a character. There are questions about whether he’s really a vegan. There are questions about whether he secretly lives in New Jersey. I’ll say he dresses really interestingly. Do you think he’s bringing swagger back to New York?
A: I didn’t vote for Adams in the general election. I voted for the socialist candidate, even though I’m not a socialist. Adams is beyond horrible. And I knew right away that he would be. One thing about Bill de Blasio was that he did bring the city together because everyone hated him. You never argued about de Blasio, especially in the second term, because he was universally hated. Rich people and poor people, black people, white people, young people, old people, men, women. He was just hated by everyone.
Q: He was a unifying figure, for sure.
A: Adams was in office like two months before I heard people say, “De Blasio wasn’t that bad.” Adams is a Trumpy guy. He is very thin-skinned. He is whiny. Nothing’s ever his fault. He surely is dishonest. The clothes, for instance, they’re made for him. They’re very expensive. How does he pay for them? He’s not paying for this stuff with money he earns as mayor. There was an initial question: Did he live in New York? Which is, by the way, a requirement for being mayor. You are free to live in New Jersey, but you can’t be mayor of New York City. So some reporters went into what he said was his apartment, which in fact, I believe, was his son’s apartment.
Q: Yeah, and they found meat in his refrigerator.
A: All the stuff about eating, I just find silly. I don’t care what you eat.
Q: But Adams makes a lot of noise about being a vegan.
A: Yeah, a lot. A friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn and is very involved in Brooklyn politics told me at the beginning, “He’s gonna win because of the vegan community.” I said, “What’s the vegan community?” I’m so sorry that I live in a world where there’s such a thing. Like really, it’s so important that you only can know people who also don’t eat whatever vegans don’t eat? Which is, as far as I can tell, almost everything.
Q: I will say that Adams hasn’t killed any groundhogs like de Blasio. I was an eyewitness to that: I actually witnessed that whole tragic sequence at the Staten Island Zoo.
A: I hate to tell you this, I’m not even sure what a groundhog is. It’s a kind of squirrel? But I do remember when it happened.
Q: Of course, everyone remembers where they were when they learned Bill de Blasio killed a groundhog.
A: When it comes to animals, Adams seems more interested in rats. He seems to be uniquely stupid in not understanding why there’s all these rats in New York. There’s always been rats in New York. The extreme number of rats which are visible now is because of these restaurants in the street. From COVID, when you couldn’t eat inside restaurants, they built all those restaurants in the street and there’s still tons of these restaurants. And the restaurant owners love it because they’re getting tons of tables to make a profit on public property. I said to a friend of mine, the rats in New York City must be calling rats all over the country saying, “You can’t believe what’s going on here. They bring you the food. They tell you the specials.” And so Adams is looking for someone who he refers to as a Rat Czar.
Q: That’s such a cool name.
A: It’s an available job. Perhaps you’d like to apply.
Q: I’m very disturbed when I see the rats walking around the E Train tracks but you get these great viral videos like the pizza rat. You probably haven’t seen this but there’s a video of a hawk that dove into a garbage can and got a rat. I guess the hawk saw the rat from above and hunted it down in the garbage can. You actually see the hawk carry the dead rat out of the trash.
A: You know what, the hawk should be the Mayor.
Q: I just wanted to get back real quick to New Jersey. Obviously, it’s a huge topic about how New York has shaped you as a writer and a humorist. Has New Jersey influenced you as well?
A: I left home when I was like 18 or 19. I was a child in the 1950s, which, when you say this to people, you might as well say the 1850s. I actually enjoyed my childhood. I had a happy childhood. I know this is against the law, especially for writers. People look at you like, “You’re supposed to tell us about your horrible childhood.” I had a happy childhood because, first of all, I was very suited to be a child. I am very suited to have no responsibility. Morristown was a really pretty town when I was a kid. I-287 wasn’t through yet. The town had a very nice library, and that was really important to me.
I have very happy memories of New Jersey as a child. As a teenager, I did not have happy memories, but I don’t think being a teenager is that happy for anyone. I got suspended from Morristown High School two or three times because I got caught skipping pep rally. Pep was mandatory.
Q: How would they take attendance at a pep rally?
A: They would see you leaving the school. Are you kidding? The town was full of tattletales. Today, you cannot say a single thing about someone else’s child. You could see that child holding up a bank. You can’t say a word. “That child’s delightful.” When I was a kid, if you did something wrong or that you weren’t supposed to do and someone saw you, that person would call your mother even if she didn’t know you or your mother and she would tell your mother what you did. And your mother would thank this woman for telling her what a horrible child she had. And when you got home, you got punished.
Q: Is it true you once dressed in a Fidel Castro costume as a kid?
A: This was at a private school. I went to Morristown High and I was failing everything. The guidance counselor told my parents, “There’s no way she’s gonna get into college. She has to go to private school.” My parents didn’t have any money. So at great financial sacrifice, which I heard about hourly, I went to private school. There were two girls’ schools close to Morristown but neither took Jews. The nearest school was like 20 miles away in Mountain Lakes and it was a deservedly unknown school.
I went to a Halloween party there. I had a friend from Morristown who had this Fidel Castro mask. It was fantastic. I wasn’t really thinking that it was something that was gonna cause a problem. I wore the mask, khaki pants and an army shirt. I took a cigar and I went to the Halloween party. I got suspended.
Q: What was the final incident that got you expelled?
A: People think I did something really showy but there was no incident. Right after my father paid the tuition, a letter came from the headmaster saying he was expelling me. The letter said she is a bad influence on the other girls and she’s usurping my power.
Q: How were you a bad influence?
A: To me, I was not a bad influence. This was a little Episcopalian girl school. Obviously, I was not the right person there. Back then, they didn’t have to give you reasons. Now, if you get in trouble in school, the parents sue the school. The parents go on the side of the kid. But then, you got punished in school and then you got home, you got punished again. That wasn’t just me. This was pretty much everyone. I don’t think my mother or my father demanded an explanation.
Now, I think you can go to college without having finished high school, but you couldn’t then. I did apply to Bard, which at that time was considered a kind of a hippie school and I thought maybe they would take me and I was rejected. Six or seven years ago, I did one of my speaking dates at Bard and I said this onstage. A week later, I got accepted to Bard.
Q: Did you sign up?
A: I did not sign up. I got this thick thing from Bard. I thought, “What’s this?” And it was my acceptance and all the stuff they put in when you’re going to be going to college.
Q: Weren’t you Class Wit in junior high school?
A: That’s correct. The only school I ever graduated from was Morris Township Junior High School. After the graduation, they had a ceremony where they gave out these awards and I wasn’t expecting to be getting any awards. I was already a pretty bad student. And I got this award: It was called the Class Wit Award. Truthfully, I was afraid to bring it home because when I was about 12 or 13, my mother started telling me, “Don’t be funny around boys. Boys don’t like funny girls.” First of all, she turned out to be wrong. And second, it turned out I didn’t care.
Q: I read that your mother was once a jitterbug dance champ. Did she in some way have aspirations of becoming a professional dancer and feel unsatisfied with the suburban life that she had chosen?
A: My mother wanted to be a dancer, for sure. She wanted to be the partner of Fred Astaire. Those movies were huge when she was young and when I was young, those movies were on television. I watched them with her and she would always be lamenting, “I’m a better dancer than Ginger Rogers.” She wanted to be a dancer and she announced it to her parents and her grandparents. Her grandmother said, “Dancers are bums.”
Q: Dancers are bums?
A: What she meant by that was show business was not respectable. My parents were first generation Americans and for first generation American Jews, respectability was No. 1 on the list. So, my mother was very stymied by that. No question. Probably the majority of women in my mother’s generation were stymied because it was the heyday of, “A woman’s place is in the home.” It was right after the second World War. During the war, women took all these jobs because there were no men but my mother wasn’t old enough. She was still in school. When the men came home, they just said to all the women, “Go home.” This is the whole generation. I’m not saying everyone wanted to be Fred Astaire’s dance partner, but probably a lot of people did. I think my mother was very frustrated by that.
Q: Did you come to a point with your parents where they saw that you made it? It sounds like you felt like you were a disappointment to them when you were in school but did you get to a point where they appreciated what you did as a writer and saw that you are smart? Just because you’re smart, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna do well at school.
A: No. I would say that largely they never forgave me for getting kicked out of school.
Q: What did they want you to do?
A: They wanted me to go to college. My mother wanted me to go to Radcliffe, which I’m not sure exists anymore. Harvard was a boys’ school then. Radcliffe was the girls’ school of Harvard. My mother wanted to go to Radcliffe when she was that age. And Radcliffe and all those schools — those Seven Sisters schools and the Ivy League schools — had famously small Jewish quotas. So any Jewish girl who went to Radcliffe in my mother’s generation was a genius. My mother wasn’t a genius. She didn’t get in and she never got over that. So she wanted me to go to Radcliffe, which I never could have gotten in, not in a million years because my grades were so horrible. And they never really forgave me for that.
People often say, “Did your parents want you to be a writer?” They did not. “Did they object to you being a writer?” They did not. They didn’t care what I said because I was a girl. They didn’t say you can’t be a writer. They just didn’t pay attention.
Q: That sounds so painful.
A: This was every girl. I think it was probably painful but it wasn’t as painful as it would sound to someone younger, because it was just every girl at that time. What they wanted me to be and expected me to be was a wife.
Q: But you had to go to college to be a wife?
A: No. Those were the two things. The college was a separate thing. The only thing I ever remember my mother saying to me about my future was, “You should marry a college professor. You like to read so much that if you married a professor, you’d always live in a place with a lot of books.” So, I actually live in a place with a lot of books, but it’s my apartment.
Q: When you moved to New York, did you have to take the bus to the Port Authority? Or did your parents at least drive you into the city?
A: New York was really dangerous in 1970. Not just, your parents would think it was dangerous. It was really dangerous. My father talked to some cousin and found out there were these hotels for women. There was a famous one, The Barbizon, but that was very expensive. There were other smaller ones and they were considered safe because men weren’t allowed. My father found this place called the Martha Washington Hotel and it was expensive. It was, like, $200 a month. He said, “I’ll pay for this for a few months.” So I lived there at first and it was horrible. Then for a long time, I didn’t have an apartment. I just slept at other people’s apartments.
The first apartment I had was $112 a month. It was in the West Village. When I tell this to people, they go, “That’s impossible.” If you mention the price of something from 50 years ago, it sounds really cheap, but if you think of what people made then, it’s really not cheap. New York was very dangerous and going bankrupt but it was still the most expensive place to live in the country. I lived in that apartment because it was in the West Village as opposed to the East Village, which was so dangerous I wouldn’t live there.
Q: Yeah, I lived on Avenue A in the 1990s. This was a few years after there was a riot at Tompkins Square Park.
A: The ’90s was more dangerous than now, but during the ’70s, everyone got broken into tons of times. People used to carry money — like $10, $20 — to give muggers so you wouldn’t get hurt. Maybe not all but the majority of girls I knew in East Village in the ’70s were raped in their apartments. So this is something I really wanted to avoid. And it was worth the extra money.
Q: I have always struggled with writer’s block but, to me, getting onstage and telling my story in front of an audience seems way more intimidating than sitting in the comfort of my own home, putting my thoughts on paper.
A: I generally think writing’s very hard, period, and talking is very easy. The speaking dates are very easy for me. I enjoy them. The traveling is horrible. I always say to my agent when he books dates for me, “They pay me to get there because the thing I do onstage, I really enjoy it. I find it very pleasurable.” They’ll say, “What do you hate about traveling?” Traveling is what I hate about traveling. One thing that shocks me in airports and on planes is the number of people drinking coffee. I always think, “How aware do you want to be of this experience?”
Q: I have to say though, when I fly Delta they give you these cookies that are so delicious and they say Delta on them. I cling to that. For all of the trouble with the security and waiting and sitting close to people who sometimes don’t smell good, the cookies make it worth it.
A: Well, truthfully, I’ve never eaten anything that would make flying Delta worth it.
Q: Have you had the cookies?
A: No, I haven’t had the cookies.
Q: Have the cookies.
A: One of the things my agent knows is no Delta unless there’s no other airline. I don’t care what they have. The end of Delta for me was the day I got on a Delta flight in Dallas to go to New York and ended up in Pittsburgh.
Q: I heard you say you like going to restaurants on Super Bowl Sunday. Did you go?
A: I have two friends who happen to be what I would call restaurant lunatics. They’re always like, we have to try this restaurant, that restaurant. I’ve traveled with them and I’ve done work with the guy and no matter where you are, he’s on his phone picking restaurants. At some point, we noticed it was Super Bowl Sunday and we thought, “This is a great time to go to restaurants because everyone else in the country is watching the Super Bowl.” But then a lot of restaurants started closing on Super Bowl Sunday because they didn’t have enough customers. So we haven’t done it in a long time.
I think the Super Bowl was last week, right? I did not watch the Super Bowl. I know that’s against the law. They could be playing the Super Bowl in my living room. I wouldn’t walk down the hall. I watched the Rihanna concert because I like Rihanna. A lot of my friends in New York didn’t want the Philadelphia team to win. And I thought, “We don’t like Philadelphia?”
Q: Oh yeah. When they lit up the Empire State Building green and white, there was a meltdown.
A: I know about Boston because Spike Lee once told me the most important thing a father can do for his children is to teach them to hate Boston teams. I didn’t know that we were supposed to hate Philadelphia, too, because as a town, I like Philadelphia.
Q: I come from a very sports-oriented family. They venerate athletes. To them, the greatest people in the world are the quarterbacks. I don’t get it.
A: This is a male thing that is now spread to women because I know a lot of women who are into sports.
Q: My mom never used to be interested in sports. But she retired a couple of years ago and now she’s a crazy football fan.
A: I remember that I was once in a restaurant in Chicago and Michael Jordan came in. It was a super fancy restaurant, so all the guys in there were really rich guys, and Jordan walked in and all these rich guys went nuts when they saw him. The guy who had taken me to this dinner, his eyes were, like, probably the way my mother looked when Frank Sinatra was singing in 1940. It was an electric moment for these men.
Q: My family likes the Jets, the Mets, the Knicks and the Islanders so they are constantly in a rage, year round.
A: I think it’s probably less stressful to care about sports teams than to care about politics. Because even the most crazy sports fan must know it doesn’t matter. The athletes are not controlling their life the way politicians are. They’re not making policies. And so it must be some sort of relief, I guess.”
Q: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the next couple of years but at least I can look forward to “Pretend It’s a City,” Season 2, in 331 days.
A: If I were you, I’d make some auxiliary plans.
For more on Lebowitz, visit franlebowitz.com.
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