"I think I could be elected by a dinner party; not the Democratic Party," says Fran Lebowitz in a new interview ahead of her appearance with Frank Rich in 'A State of the Union Conversation' at Sanders Theater, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 10 at 8 p.m.
Note: the following interview with Fran Lebowitz first appeared in the September/October issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
By Loren King
At a time when anyone with a Twitter account has an opinion and canít wait to share it, Fran Lebowitz is among the few whoíve mastered the lost art of conversation. Even Martin Scorsese knew enough to simply turn a camera on the writer and let her hold forth (mostly from her regular table at the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village) for his 2011 HBO documentary about her, Public Speaking.
Area audiences will get the opportunity to hear Lebowitz, author of the seminal essay collections Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, in a conversation with Frank Rich, writer-at-large for New York Magazine, on October 10 at 8 p.m. at Sanders Theater, Harvard Square, Cambridge. Part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, ďFrank Rich & Fran Lebowitz - A State of the Union ConversationĒ will be a lively exchange between these two erudite cultural commentators about the 2012 presidential election.
But, as she did in her last Boston appearance at the Coolidge Corner Theater when Public Speaking premiered, Lebowitz will take audience questions, which will allow her to riff on a variety of topics.
Boston Spirit arts writer Loren King spoke with Lebowitz, 61, over the phone from her apartment in New York City. Her rapid fire, off the cuff responses, marked by deadpan humor and punctuated by the sound of her lighting cigarettes (with what sounds like a heavy old Zippo) are reproduced nearly verbatim here. When Fran Lebowitz talks, you let her talk.
Boston Spirit: You moved recently to the Village. Do you live alone?
Fran Lebowitz: I moved to this apartment a little over two years ago. I have lived by myself since I was 18. And as you well know, that, for a lesbian, is an accomplishment. I loathe domestic life. I donít want to hear footsteps unless I open the door. Every cent Iíve ever made I spent to have space because in my apartment I have about 9,500 books in alphabetical order. When I was looking for apartments, realtors would say, ĎWhy do you need so much space? You live alone. Do you entertain a lot?í No, I do not. I have all these books and they are coming with me. Friends will say, ĎGet rid of them, put them in storageí and I say, ĎYou have three children. Why donít you put them in storage and then you could have a smaller apartment.í I suppose to most people I live by myself. To me, I live with my books.
BS: They are your friends.
FL: Oh, theyíre much better than friends. Far superior to friends, to lovers, to relatives. Thereís no companion like a book, which you are completely in charge of. It doesnít talk to you until you open it up. Theyíre also very neat.
BS: It will be October when you appear in Boston, just weeks before the election. We might all be more depressed by then. Why do you think so many people in this county are voting against their self-interests?
FL: No one says, at least publicly, that this particular hatred is racism and nothing else. You donít have to delve deeply into the psyche of these people. Thatís what it is. It has been intolerable to them that a black man is president of the United States. Intolerable. The rest is just explanations for them; itís about nothing else. Obama canít say this for some reason because this is the sensibility of Democrats. We live in a country where it is now considered a worse thing to call someone a racist than to be one. Ö When you say self-interest, people generally mean economic self-interest but people have other interests and chief among these is their idea of themselves. The whole country is in a giant delusion and thatís incredibly dangerous. I donít know what is going to happen; if I knew, Iíd be speaking to you from my villa in Tuscany. But hereís what I think about the election: I would bet you $100 dollars that Obama wins but not $1,000. The thing that Romney does that makes sane people crazy is he makes statements like the one he made in London. One of the jobs of the president is to go around and deal with other countries and what a fool he makes of himself and what dangerous remarks he makes ó THAT should have been enough to torpedo his campaign. And by the way, Iím not sure that was a mistake. It might be what his constituents want to hear. Thatís why they like him. Frankly if he were not a hedge fund zillionaire, he doesnít have much popular appeal.
BS: People say Ďhe ran a business so he can run the country.í
FL: We have that here [in New York]. Bloomberg should never, ever have been the mayor and he would not have been the mayor if it werenít for September 11. I never thought I would have the chance to vote against Bloomberg three times. He believes absolutely and states this, that the city is a business. The county believes this. No one tells the truth of what a business is. A business is a very simple thing ó everyone thinks itís complicated because theyíve been led to believe that by businessmen. Frankly a business is one thing only: an entity meant to make a profit. Thereís nothing wrong with that unless youíre a Communist, which Iím not; Iím way too old. But thereís nothing wrong with that if itís a business. Thereís everything wrong with that if itís a school system. A hospital. A prison. A library. But everyone thinks this is the perfect model for everything when, in fact, as we know, businesses really profit quite a bit from public money. If I were president, which is my lifelong dream, I would privatize the private sector. That would be my first goal.
BS: Youíve been critical of Bloombergís handling of, among many things, the closing of St. Vincentís Hospital in Greenwich Village.
FL: When the Catholic Church gave up its hospitals, [St. Vincentís] became, like all other hospitals, a quasi-business. And as a business it did not do very well because hospitals should not be businesses. It seems to me a four-year-old would know this. It was in a neighborhood that had become incredibly expensive and desirable for rich people to live in. Doctors, nurses, people who worked there, who lived in the neighborhood, picketed [the closing]. And not one word from our health conscious mayor. A mayor who actually goes out of his way to ban soda; not a word! Itís a significant amount of very valuable property that is now owned by Billy Rudin, a close friend of the mayor, and now soon to be very expensive apartments. Most people think you become rich by being very smart, but that is not how you become rich. Of course you canít be stupid and become a billionaire, that is true; but you become rich by being very ruthless, by caring about money to the exclusion of everything else. Any person of average intelligence is smart enough to be rich. But you have to be of above-average focus ó that has to be the center of your life. Now, is that a person we want in public office? No, we donít. Michael Bloomberg is so rich that he doesnít even live in Gracie mansion. Itís too small for him. In a city where they sell and rent property by the square foot. I find it grotesque. How could he be a good mayor? How could he be? Fran should be the mayor.
BS: You say that in jest but why donít you?
FL: No, I donít say it in jest. I say it with the utmost longing and envy. I just donít do it because I know no one would vote for me. Ö at least, there are not enough, otherwise I would run for mayor. Or president. Iíve watched the State of the Union addresses my whole life filled with envy. Let me be the president for one term. If you came into it saying you would be a one-term president, you could fix so many things because you wouldnít care that people werenít going to vote for you. People have been mad at me my whole life. I mean, I assume that people generally are mad at me. Ö Alec Baldwin I think really wanted to run for mayor. I think he put his toe in and saw what it was like; he found a place more rapacious than show business. You canít believe what these people are like. Russell Simmons tried to change the drug laws we have here in New York State. Russell Simmons, who did not come from what you would call an easy environment, and he was shocked by the politics upstate. I think I could be elected by a dinner party; not the Democratic Party.
BS: Youíve famously said that not getting married and not going into the military used to be the good things about being gay. Youíve said you support gay marriage Ö
FL: I didnít say I support it; I said if it were put to a vote, I would vote for it because I know people want it. But why they want it is a mystery to me. To me, these are the things I ran away from. I cannot think of anything more suffocating than family life. I cannot think of anything to be avoided more assiduously than family life. You want it, go ahead, have it. I would not take it from anyone. But to me itís pretty surprising.
Hereís what I think: there was probably always a fair percentage of gay people in the population. When I was young, only a very small percentage lived as gay. You could not live in most places in this country and be gay in a life that would be satisfactory to you. Thatís why people came to New York. Now you can be gay anywhere. Ninety-five percent of gay people are average people. The freedom of gay people now has enabled most gay people to be average. So if you donít like average life, then you find it surprising. But itís also different if youíre young because youíve lived in an entirely different world. I mean as different as if it were Pluto. These younger gay people are entirely different. To me they seem like straight people: they get married, they have children, they bang into you with their strollers, they irritate you. But mostly I just think, why do you live here? Please move to Westchester; youíre taking up all the places we want to be. But Iím not surprised ó most straight people want to get married. There was a period when no one wanted to get married. Thatís also what someone my age remembers: when I was young, straight people didnít want to get married. This is to me more like the Ď50s than any era that I lived through. The Ď50s were incredibly oppressive in most ways. The only good thing about the Ď50s was the cars, which, unfortunately, they have not brought back. But they brought back all these stultifying, middle class ideas.
BS: What else about the generation of people in their 20s surprises you?
FL: The relationship of young people now to their parents. That is one of the big changes in the culture. My friends who have children, which arenít many, but their relationship with their children is nothing like our relationship with our parents. My friends or people my age treat their children ó first of all, they actually seem to like them. It may be a good thing, it may not be a good thing, but it certainly is a different thing. So [kids] donít leave and I donít blame them; I wouldnít leave either. If you can afford to support your kids and grandchildren for the rest of their lives, fine, but that is not most people. You look at these kids and think, they are going to control and be in charge of things when Iím old and infirm? And then I think, ĎYou smoke two packs a day; you wonít be here.í The vast majority of Americans I know who smoke are in their 20s. All my friendsí kids smoke. Itís not like they donít know itís bad for you. I didnít when I started at 12 but [they smoke] because itís the only thing their parents object to Ö itís their only form of rebellion. People left home because parents wouldnít let you do anything. It was a prison. I grew up in a small town; a small town was a prison. I think itís probably less so now because people are less connected in personal ways ó people donít even know who their next-door neighbor is. That was not a possibility when I was growing up. The flight to the city was a flight to freedom ó any kind of freedom, it didnít matter what it was. People feel pretty free to do what they want, no matter where they are. Some things are very good for society and bad for the culture. The culture is generally made by people who are outside because you are forced to be an observer instead of a participant. Human desire is to be a participant. All children want to be in the middle of life; they donít want to be outside. If you have something of value and are forced to be outside, then you start noticing whatís going on inside. If youíre inside, you donít notice. So thatís why I think thereís been a degradation of the culture: because more people are freer. Thatís a good thing for humans but a bad thing if you like to read.† [x]
Frank Rich & Fran Lebowitz ó A State of the Union Conversation
For tickets and information, go to www.celebrityseries.org.
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