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Fran Lebowitz’s withering view of humankind is kvetched in stone

Fran LebowitzBill Hayes

When New Yorkers recognize Fran Lebowitz on the streets these days, they often greet her with four enthusiastic words: “Pretend it’s a city!”

That’s the name of the Netflix documentary series, directed by Martin Scorsese, that rolled out in early 2021. The program reintroduced Lebowitz, professional gadfly and occasional essayist, to a new generation of social critics. The name comes from something she’ll bark at obstructionist pedestrians who don’t know their Manhattan sidewalk etiquette.

“People say it to me as a form of greeting,” says Lebowitz, 72, ahead of her appearance March 9 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, where she’ll be in conversation with GBH’s Jared Bowen. “Whereas I use it as a form of prosecution.”


Speaking on the phone from her apartment on Seventh Avenue, Lebowitz holds court with the same raspy, rat-a-tat delivery that animates her many speaking engagements, where people pay good money to hear her kvetch.

She knows she has fans who are far too young to have experienced the New York of the decaying 1970s and the decadent 1980s, the era that formed her own worldview. Some were drawn into her orbit by the HBO documentary “Public Speaking” (2010, also directed by her friend Scorsese), others by “Pretend It’s a City.”

Not that she knows many young people these days.

“As old as I am, people who are 19, they look almost embryonic,” Lebowitz half-shouts.

When she was 19, she often spent weeks on end with friends in Boston, she says.

“My friends were all in college, and half of them were in Boston, at least,” says Lebowitz. She grew up in Morristown, N.J., one of two daughters born to Harold and Ruth Lebowitz, who owned a furniture store. Thrown out of a private girls’ high school for “unspecific surliness,” she ended her education there.


“I didn’t have my own apartment, so I was sleeping on other people’s floors,” she recalls. “Sometimes I would just go to Boston and sleep in a dormitory, for several weeks at a time. I had a sleeping bag. I made money by writing people’s papers for them.” She fed herself by borrowing friends’ meal cards.

“I was living off the fat of someone else’s land.”

By the early 1970s, Lebowitz was writing book and movie reviews for a “radical chic” magazine published by the fourth wife of the jazz bandleader Charles Mingus. She was hired next to write for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Her first book of dry-witted essays, “Metropolitan Life,” came out in 1978.

Fran Lebowitz, shown in the Netflix docuseries "Pretend It's a City."NETFLIX

With biting satire, Lebowitz’s writing was like a time-traveling Jonathan Swift, whisked behind the velvet rope at Studio 54.

“All God’s children are not beautiful,” she wrote in a piece called “Manners.” “Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

She’s well aware that her misanthropic — some might say elitist — sense of humor can seem a bit brazen today. When “Metropolitan Life” was packaged with her second book, “Social Studies,” as “The Fran Lebowitz Reader” in 1994, after the debate about political correctness had settled in, she says “my British publisher took half the book out. I spent what seemed to be a year on the phone with this woman. I objected to every single one [of the edits], even though I could see they were objectionable.


“By the way, some of these things were objectionable even then.”

But the culture was a lot more free-wheeling 40 years ago, she notes.

“It’s so easy to make people incensed now,” she says. “Everyone is on the edge of murderous rage 24 hours a day.”

She began wearing her signature cowboy boots — not exactly a familiar site in New York City — in the early 1980s, when she was diagnosed with bone spurs. The doctor told her she could get “some extremely painful injections that don’t work, or have an operation that doesn’t work.” Or she could simply take some weight off her heels. So she set aside her penny loafers.

After decades of relief, the pain came back a few years ago. It hurts like hell, she says.

“But if I had been a boy, that would not have kept me out of the Army.”

When she was first approached about shooting “Public Speaking” with Scorsese, she believed he was the wrong person for the job. At the time, she knew him but not all that well.

“I thought he was too butch, too masculine for me,” Lebowitz says. “He thought that was hilarious. I could not have been more wrong.”

After “Pretend It’s a City” debuted, “Saturday Night Live” ran a comical segment that featured Bowen Yang playing Lebowitz. Kyle Mooney portrayed Scorsese, who does nothing but laugh hysterically at every one of Fran’s utterances.

Her phone — a landline; she’s a well-known Luddite — rang off the hook with friends dying to tell her how funny the sketch was. But Lebowitz claims she’s never watched it.


“Starting at age 27, there were caricatures of me,” she explains. “A lot of people said I would have loved it, but those people are 100 percent wrong.”

It’s a different world than the one she grew up in. The material world is crumbling; things aren’t made as well as they used to be, she says.

“Everything is falling apart physically.”

But despite all the backsliding of recent years, social norms have come a long way in her lifetime. For instance, she says, it is “about a billion times better to be a girl now than when I was a girl. Even though it’s still bad.”

The discourse, however, has withered. Lebowitz grew up in an era when people talked at length on TV about social issues. She has often recalled being “mesmerized” by watching James Baldwin on “The David Susskind Show” (which, she jokes, “if you’re five minutes younger than me, nobody remembers”).

Is she one of the last of a dying breed — the public intellectual?

“There’s not a national idea of that at all anymore,” she says. “At this point, there’s almost no national idea of anything.

“I was never really a radical,” she concludes. “I was never looking to overthrow the world. I was just trying to get around it.”


Hosted by Jared Bowen. At Emerson Colonial Theatre. March 9 at 7:30 p.m. $35.75-$65.75. www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.