Like a lot of New Yorkers, I have a Fran Lebowitz story – not a classic one, but it gives a flavour of the woman. It was the early noughties, and I was walking out of a fashion show. Among the celebrities dolled up like birds of paradise, a more pigeonesque figure in a pair of jeans and a blue blazer stood out. “Oh my God, that’s Fran Lebowitz!” I gasped, inwardly and outwardly. As she started to light her cigarette, someone told her to wait until she was outside.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said, and stomped off.
“I just saw Fran Lebowitz!” I later squealed to my colleagues.
“Who’s Fran Lebowitz?” they asked.
It’s not an easy question to answer. “I’m a writer who no longer writes,” she says in Pretend It’s A City, Martin Scorsese’s new series of conversations with her, now on Netflix. Scorsese is a fully paid-up member of the Lebowitz fan club and he acts as the series’ laughtrack, endearingly guffawing at her comments. He cast her as a judge in The Wolf Of Wall Street, a riff on her judgmental persona, and this is his second documentary about her, following his 2010 film, Public Speaking.
I reckon the more recent series format will work better in persuading the as yet uninitiated to join the Lebowitz club, because all she does – in the documentaries, in life – is walk around New York sharing her opinions, and for some this might be more palatable in bite-sized, 30-minute portions. I could feast on Lebowitz’s monologues but have been eking out episodes, one at a time, brightening the lockdown gloom.
So who is Lebowitz? The short answer is, she’s a New York character, a 70-year-old woman who – in her uniform of Brooks Brothers shirts and blazers – goes to all the cool parties and knows all the fun people, and I don’t just mean people like the former Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, and the designer Diane von Furstenberg. In my favourite episode of Pretend It’s A City, she talks about hanging out with Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington.
For Scorsese, Lebowitz represents a connection to a New York that no longer exists, where a high school dropout like her could turn up and instantly become a celebrated writer. Lebowitz knows people see her this way, and revels in her role as a living anachronism; she talks about her refusal to own a mobile phone and is still raging at former mayor Mike Bloomberg for imposing the city’s smoking ban. (The series itself, made before Covid, when New York’s thriving streets were rammed with unmasked people, also feels like a poignant relic.)
The longer answer is more interesting. Lebowitz first made her name writing sharp-tongued reviews for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. She became an overnight sensation when she published her books Metropolitan Life and Social Life, collections of comic essays full of lines such as, “All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are barely presentable.” She was like Nora Ephron’s more acerbic younger sister and, like Ephron, attained a cult celebrity.
Unlike Ephron, she stopped writing. Lebowitz has famously had writer’s block since the 90s, something she puts down to “excessive reverence for the written word”. One of her favourite subjects is that there is too much mediocre writing in the world, and I’m sure she is right; but her furious monologues about it make me a little sad, because they sound suspiciously like the self-defeating voice in her head that stops her from writing.
Whatever frustrations she may feel about that Lebowitz has channelled into public speaking, now saying to audiences what she used to write in books. In Scorsese’s Public Speaking, she riffs: “To me it seems like these are the most confining institutions on the planet: marriage and the military. Why would [the gay rights movement] be banging down the door to be let in? I find it completely shocking. People used to pretend to be gay to get out of going to the army!”
Lebowitz is often compared to Dorothy Parker, but Parker left a lasting literary legacy and Lebowitz will not. It’s a shame, but it has in no way impeded her popularity, and Pretend It’s A City will surely speed her inevitable transition from “slightly fearsome cult hero” to “adorable national treasure”. It’s a well-worn path and Scorsese himself has travelled a similar one, moving over the years from “brilliant cocaine-addicted director of violent movies” to “cute old man chuckling in an armchair”. And that’s OK. I’m glad Lebowitz still gets her due, unlike so many other wits who burn bright and then fade faster.
In many ways, Lebowitz is every writer’s fantasy (public adoration!) and also their worst nightmare (30 years of writers’ block!). A celebrity who is honest about her financial worries; an older gay woman who talks about her romantic difficulties, and who is – to a life-affirming degree – completely and utterly herself, and loved for it. On every level, she breaks the rules, and her late-life mainstream celebrity, attained simply by being – to be frank – a grumpy old lady, is the most glorious example of that. She deserves all the accolades.