Fran Lebowitz

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Fran Lebowitz on the state of cities, Ukraine crisis revelations & kicking the news-junkie habit

“I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone, no matter how much you may think you’ve thought about cities, what would happen if no one ever went to work again. If people do not go to work, what is a city?”

Fran Lebowitz is an author, though she hasn’t been published in decades.

She’s attributed her writer’s block to a paralyzing reverence for the written word, so she’s become renowned for the spoken word, too. In 2010, Martin Scorsese made an HBO documentary about Lebowitz, a longtime friend, called Public Speaking. This small-screen collaboration was followed up in 2021 with the Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, a seven-episode opportunity for the New Jersey-born Lebowitz to opine on the city she’s chosen to live in for over 40 years. She pulls no punches in her criticism of the people who live in (and especially the tourists who occupy) New York City, even as her love of the place is made clear.

In the last week of March, Cult MTL connected with Lebowitz ahead of a public appearance in Montreal on May 6. (For our conversation about Will Smith, Chris Rock and the Oscars, please click here.)

Lorraine Carpenter: How long does it take you to form an opinion of a city?

Fran Lebowitz: One second.

LC: Okay.

FL: …no, I mean it takes me one second, because I make snap judgements, and it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong because I’m leaving the next day. 

I’ve been on the road for several months, and I’ve been in dozens of American cities, but I just came back from 10 or 12 days in Europe and the biggest difference I noticed between American cities and European cities is that Europe, it seems to me, is completely open. In the United States, for some reason that I still don’t understand, employers actually asked their employees if they felt like going back to work, so of course, naturally, people said, “No, we don’t.” In Europe, it appears as though they just told them to go back to work, so they went back to work.

If people do not go to work, what is a city? All these other cities are packed with people, everything is open, there’s actual life because they went to work. In this country, including New York and San Francisco, and all the places I’ve been that are actually cities, they’re pretty much murdered. You look outside and there’s no one in the street, and there’s no one in the street because no one has to be in the street. 

I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone, no matter how much you may think you’ve thought about cities, what would happen if no one ever went to work again. I do actually believe that the people who are now not going to work are living on the residual of people who went to work, including themselves, but eventually this will run out.

LC: What’s your previous experience with Montreal?

FL: I’ve been to Montreal maybe four or five times. It’s a city I really, really like, but at one point, and this was many years ago, I was supposed to speak at a bookstore in Montreal and I was prohibited from doing so because you had to speak French in that bookstore. Like most of my fellow Americans, I’m unilingual. I know that they were having, for many years, a war about French and English there. I don’t know if this war continues but I know that when I go to Montreal, I’m going to be speaking English because I don’t speak anything else. I’d hate to get in the middle of other people’s civil wars, because we have our own here.

LC: I’ve read that you don’t own a smartphone or computer.

FL: I have no modern devices. I don’t have a phone, I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a microwave oven. I have a landline, which we’re speaking on — which is why you can hear me. This really angers other people. People say to me all the time “I can’t reach you!” and I think, “Who am I that I have to be reached 24 hours a day?” Am I an emergency brain surgeon? Frankly, I’m not that essential. There’s many things I don’t have that other people have. I also don’t have a pair of skis, I don’t have any children, I don’t have any dogs. These are just personal preferences, they’re not big political statements.

LC: How about your TV consumption? You mentioned the division in your country, and I was wondering whether you watch the news all the time?

FL: During the five years of Donald Trump — because I include the year of the campaign, which was unbearable enough — I became one of these people who, every time I walked into my apartment, I put on the news. It was a horrible compulsion shared by many people I know — if you were away from any media for an hour, you would think, “Now what has he done?” And I would come home and put on the news thinking, “Anything could’ve happened!” Even if it had been only four hours, we could have been at war with Sweden. 

The second Trump was out, I stopped doing that. Now that we have a sane President — I’m not saying we have the world’s greatest President, but we have a President who is a normal human — I’m not in a constant state of rage, which I was during the Trump administration.

But there’s always plenty of news to worry about — of course Ukraine is paramount now. When I was in Europe, it was very important to me to watch the news. I was in the United States for the first week of the war and it took four days for me to get my first question about Ukraine, but in Europe they were completely obsessed with it. Part of the problem with Americans is they don’t know where anything is — if it’s not down the block from them, they don’t care.

LC: A lot of people were unfamiliar with Zelensky before, especially the fact that he was a comedian who played a guy who accidentally became president, and now he’s at this level of international crisis in real life. What are your feelings about him?

FL: Well, I was aware of him before this, and obviously it seems much better to have a president who used to be a comedian than a president who was a clown while he was president. Everyone, I believe, shares my view that this guy is unbelievably heroic. The reason he’s behaving the way he’s behaving is because what really matters is character, and this guy has a sterling character. I’m sure he had the same character when he was a comedian, it just didn’t have any reason to manifest itself to the entire world. I would bet that the people who were friends with him before would’ve said, “Oh yeah, that guy is fantastic.” He may not have been a fantastic comedian, I have no idea, but he’s certainly a very brave guy. There’s a very high chance he won’t survive this, and I’m sure he knows that.

This would not be me. In general, the behaviour of what seems like a significant majority of the people of Ukraine is something spectacular in itself. I’d be the first person running away from any kind of conflict like this; I don’t have the courage.

It’s also interesting for me to see, in my lifetime — which has been long — the first big refugee situation where the refugees are white. This is the reason for all this compassion. Truthfully, the world is full of refugees and the refugee problem is paramount, as it has been for many years, but I don’t remember hearing so many people saying, “Oh, it’s so horrible! What’s going to happen to the Syrian refugees?” or “Oh, it’s so horrible! What’s going to happen to the refugees from Africa?” Being a refugee is the same, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, and no one is extending all this help (to refugees of colour). I believe, of course, that we should extend this help to Ukraine — we should extend help to all refugees. It’s outrageous to me that they’ve made this distinction, but it’s very clear. You’d have to be, really, almost dead not to notice this. ■

Fran Lebowitz will speak at Eglise St-Jean Baptiste (4237 Henri-Julien), in conversation with Josh Freed for 30 minutes, followed by a 60-minute Q&A with the audience and a book-signing, on Friday, May 6, 8 p.m., $55–$71.50

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