In 1981, Fran Lebowitz was the author of two bestselling collections of uproariously funny, observant essays, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. Now, three decades later, she’s the author of those two volumes, an illustrated childen’s book, and not much else. Writer’s block—or, as she calls it, “writer’s blockade”—has kept her bibliography short, but Martin Scorsese’s documentary portrait Public Speaking reveals that Lebowitz’s wit is as keen as ever. Placing her in a lineage that goes back to Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, the movie is essentially an essay film disguised as a profile, revealing little about Lebowitz’s personal life, but serving as an outlet for a great outpouring of thought. Although Lebowitz rarely collects her thoughts on paper, her mind still runs at top speed, as it did during a phone call to The A.V. Club where she talked Tea Party racism, the suburbanization of New York City, and why not writing is harder than writing.
The A.V. Club: You seem comfortable in front of a camera. You’ve been on TV and spoken in front of large audiences. How is it different to make yourself the subject of a documentary, where you’re no longer in control of how your words will be edited?
Fran Lebowitz: Well, that’s what doing a print interview is like. [Laughs.] When someone’s interviewing you on television, say a show like Conan, they can edit it if they do it a few hours earlier, but they generally don’t, because it’s too expensive. Those kinds of shows are taped to time. So television or radio, especially live radio, usually you’re in control of what you say, to the extent that that is true of human beings. In a print interview, as you may or may not know, they can do whatever they want. And they do. This is why most people are more hesitant to do print, because they can change it, and they do change it. They even change things that are in quotation marks, which is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve said to numerous reporters, “Would you read me back my direct quotes?” And they always say no. They always say that’s against the policy of, for instance, The New York Times. This, I don’t understand. Really. Because anyone who doesn’t do interviews—which used to be almost everyone, now it’s just a small percent of the population—they think what’s in direct quotes is exactly what you said. I subscribe to that theory. That’s what should be in direct quotes. Obviously, as I’ve said this to many reporters, “You can precede it with whatever you want. You can say ‘Bank robber Fran Lebowitz.’ If you can prove it, you can say it.” These sort of standards do not exist anymore. So for me, being on television, I feel it’s most likely that whatever I say is going to be what’s used.
Of course, Marty was in charge of the movie. Having Marty Scorsese in charge of what you say is a lot more relaxing than having the average person, whether they work on television or not. I have total trust in Marty, not in the sense that Marty would never do anything that I wouldn’t like, but he certainly is not an assassin. He may make good decisions that I wouldn’t make. I’m sure he made many of them. Luckily for Marty, I didn’t remember anything I said. What I said in the movie was a total revelation to me. I didn’t say, “Marty, I didn’t say that”—of course you can’t say that if you’re on film. Marty has final cut. I had nothing to do with the movie in that way, and I didn’t make any suggestions. If he had included something that I wished I hadn’t said, in some extreme way as opposed to the usual way that you wish you had been better, I’m guessing that if I had waged a big campaign, he might have taken it out, but it didn’t come up.
AVC: Scorsese juxtaposes you with archival footage of James Baldwin, Truman Capote, and Serge Gainsbourg, among others. Were they important to you, or were those his choices?
FL: They were all his choices. When I saw the movie the first time, I didn’t know he was using any archival material, so not only did I have no say in it, I had no knowledge of it at all. I was surprised by it. Obviously, I talked a lot about James Baldwin, so it was not that surprising to me that he chose him. I never asked Marty why he did anything. I still have not. I’m guessing that, and I could be completely wrong, because that’s what guessing means, he might’ve thought, and not without some reason, that many people do not recall James Baldwin. This is true of people who are young, who don’t seem to recall anything. The Serge Gainsbourg thing is one of the two things in the movie that was my idea. By which I mean a friend of mine, whose name is Lisa Robinson—she’s a music editor at Vanity Fair—several years ago was doing a big piece about Serge Gainsbourg. And she showed me, while she was writing the piece, this—I can never remember what this is called—but I remember these things here when I was really young, by which I mean a child, they didn’t catch on here. They were like music videos. They weren’t jukeboxes. There’s a word for them.
FL: Yes, I think that’s the word. And I remember seeing them once in a while when I was a young kid. They were not successful here. Apparently, they were very popular in France. So Gainsbourg made a lot of these. This was one of them.
Lisa showed it to me, and the second I saw it, I said, “I want to use this in my movie.” I thought it was perfect for the movie because it has the names of all these buildings in New York; some of those buildings are not here anymore, and some of them are not named that anymore. So that was something I did suggest to him. I didn’t suggest he use it in that way. As far as the other people, I don’t remember where Truman Capote’s in it. I don’t know why he’s in it. I don’t think I mentioned him. Maybe I did. I don’t recall. That might have been some connection Marty was trying to make. Oscar Levant, I think I did talk about. It may not be in the movie, because obviously I talked a lot more—about a billion times more than the stuff that’s in the movie. So Marty probably used these people either to illustrate a point, a connection that he saw, or to maybe explain to people, though it’s not really that kind of movie. It’s not meant to be an educational film. So I don’t exactly know. You’d have to ask Marty. I have never asked him any of these questions.
AVC: Is that out of lack of interest?
FL: No. I never asked him because I’m more practical than that. Why would I ask him if there’s nothing I can do about it? At first, a lot of people asked me what it was like collaborating with Martin Scorsese. That’s not what happened. And I never thought it would happen. I happen to be, if not the only, one of the only people in my generation who didn’t want to be a movie director. So I didn’t really make those kinds of suggestions to him, or think about it, really. I didn’t look at the movie in that way. In other words, I didn’t feel I was making a movie. I felt I was in a movie. Not a regular movie, obviously. I’m not an actor. But I didn’t feel like I was collaborating with him in that way at all.
Most of that movie, as I’m sure is true of most movies like this, it’s really so much about editing. That’s what involves the time. It took them forever to edit it. And I think that’s generally true about Marty’s movies, even the ones that are not documentaries. That seems to me, as far as I can tell, to be a very large part of movie-making, as it is, I believe, a very large part of writing. To me, writing is editing, unless you have nothing to say to begin with. [Laughs.] Almost every form—I hesitate to use the word “art” in these times—but every form, that’s true of. It is selection. In movies, obviously, it’s much different, because it’s so literal. You have so much, which you don’t have in writing. Pictures make such a big difference, especially since people like them so much.
AVC: As a writer, you’ve always been insistent about editing on your own, and not being edited by—
FL: By someone else that didn’t write it. I don’t understand this. I have friends, some of whom are spectacularly good writers, who really want someone to edit them. I don’t register that impulse. It’s like the impulse for wanting a dog. There are certain impulses that are obviously prevalent in the population, but I do not connect to them. I don’t understand. My feeling is, “Really? If you’re better at writing this, then write it.” I do, and have, asked punctuation questions. Copyediting, I’m very much in favor of. That seems to have disappeared entirely off the face of the earth. But editing, I’m sure you would find this to be true from being a writer, from talking to writers, most writers write too much. I have the exact opposite problem. I feel I could write almost anything in a paragraph. I have a natural ability to condense, and so I often think, “Are you kidding me? Five thousand words? How am I gonna make 5,000 words out of that?” So that might be the reason. Or simply, maybe, ego. Which is not that simple.
AVC: There are interviews with you as far back as 1981 where you talk about the novel you’re writing, which hasn’t been finished yet. What sort of—
FL: You mean why can I not write? I don’t know. The answer to that question is, “If I knew, I would be writing.” If the question is how much of the novel is done, is that what you’re asking?
AVC: Are you spending time every day trying to get something down on paper?
FL: [Laughs.] Clearly not. I believe if I was actually trying every day, I would have produced quite a bit more. I’m not trying to avoid the subject, because I’ve done such a good job of avoiding the actual thing. You’re talking to someone so practiced that you’re just never going to win this conversation. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know. As far as the novel, I have about a hundred pages of it, which I believe I’ve had since the late 19th century. I only know about how much I have of it because I moved last year, and I found it in a box. I really don’t know how to respond to this question. It’s not that I’m lying to you, I just really don’t know. I wish it wasn’t the case, believe me. I really do. There are many people, not you, who think it’s such a deliberate thing. I don’t know why someone would do such a thing. But it’s not deliberate. I’m hoping, and I use the word “hope” in its true meaning, which is really now closer to wishing, that this does not last forever. It seems to most people like it has. It seems more that way to me, let me assure you.
AVC: There’s the popular conception that artists must be bursting with the desire to create, but most writers would say there’s nothing so easy as not writing.
FL: There’s nothing. I have to tell you something. After the first hundred years, there are definitely times where I believe that it’s hard not to write. I believe the fact that I’ve chosen not to write, if you want to use the word “choose,” shows how industrious I am. Because at some point, it really is hard. Let me put it this way. It’s at least incredibly burdensome, if not actually rigorous.
AVC: In the film, you’re particularly incisive on the subject of race during your onstage conversation with Toni Morrison. It would be great to have some of your thoughts on the subject down on the page. So few people can talk intelligently about it.
FL: I find it really shocking. I really think people either don’t think about it, which maybe is because most people don’t think about anything, or there is some kind of idea that this is something in the past. Like butter churns. In other words, this was a problem, but it was solved. And of course, since the election of Barack Obama, that’s proven to people. It’s not really mystifying, because one thing that characterizes our era is a slovenliness of thought. It’s pretty much unparalleled. There’s much less excuse for it now, because people are supposedly filled with information. It’s a topic that people avoid. Some people avoid it because they’re afraid of it. Or, I’m sure you’ve seen this if you follow the news at all—in my case, the news follows me. I don’t make much effort to find it. Whenever someone accuses someone of being a racist—which is rare, you have to admit, considering how much racism there is—there is an incredible outrage. I realized that we live in an environment that it seems to be worse to call someone a racist than to be one.
When people write about the Tea Party: “What is this? This new thing, we’ve never heard of it before.” I mean, really? This birth-certificate thing with Barack Obama. Really? This is racism, pure and simple. They’re lucky, the Tea Party people or whoever they are, that he has this incredibly foreign-sounding name, no question about it. The truth is, and I believe this absolutely, that if Barack Obama was named George Washington and if he came from five generations of Americans, they would have found something else. This is not about whether he was born in a foreign country. It’s that he’s black. This is something, apparently, truly intolerable to people. Truly. That’s what all this is about. These people really don’t seem to care if they destroy their country, practically, in the pursuit of this. It’s an immense distraction. You would think that there’s nothing wrong in the world, that people can spend time on this. It’s really pretty shocking.
I did a few things for Vanity Fair, and I did one on race. I kind of had to fight for that piece, because everyone said, “No one wants to read this. This isn’t right for Vanity Fair.” So I made a big effort to make that very short. That piece is the shortest of those kinds of things that I’ve ever done. And in fact, people did want to read it. I’m sure not everybody. But it did get a lot of response. I think it’s because this is the unmentionable thing. When Barack Obama gave that speech on race before the election, I thought it was good that he was doing it, but I thought if he was white, he would never think to do this. Congress should do this. It’s their job. That is their job. Their job isn’t just to get rich. I mean, that is their job. This is a big problem in this country. It has been a big problem in this country forever, and it is a big problem around the world. It’s not confined. It used to be considered confined in this country, especially when the world was divided between the United States and Europe. [Laughs.] Only the United States had this problem. That is because they used to have these very homogeneous societies in Europe. Now, everyone travels all over the world, and they call it 11 million different things because no one will call it this. And I don’t even remember what you asked, and there’s your answer.
One of the big mistakes they made in Europe, in my opinion—not that they asked, but I’m happy to—is that the circumstances in which you most frequently read or hear the word “race” or “racism” in Europe applies to Muslims. Which is not a race. This drives me out of my mind, I have to tell you. Nothing drives me out of my mind more than this use of language. It is not a race. It is a religion. You can convert to this. You cannot convert your race. I could become a Muslim. I could not become a Chinese person or a black person. So they constantly use that in Europe. I don’t know why. I think it’s probably because, historically, most of the Muslims in Europe have been North African, as opposed to Arabs. But the truth is that it is not a race, and it’s a tremendous misuse of the word. And when you misuse language, you can never solve a problem. You can never be honest, either. It’s dishonest. As far as whether they deal with it better, there is absolutely less mobility in Europe than there is here. And that is still true. If you’re talking about economic mobility or social mobility, that is still true. They don’t have as recent a legacy of slavery as we have, but they have a much more recent legacy of colonialism, which we don’t have. I can’t say that anyone deals with this that well. And no one will if they don’t ever talk about it in an honest way.
AVC: You do see those sorts of issues reflected in European popular culture, or at least in art films, even if those don’t reach a wide audience.
FL: Oh, in films. Yeah. That’s at least partially a function of economics. Even in New York—which, if it’s not going to be here, it’s not going to be anywhere in the country—there are very few places to see movies that you cannot see at any mall. That wasn’t always true. That’s the way the movie business decided to support itself. Everyone acts like this is some natural thing, like an earthquake. But the truth is, they didn’t have to do this. It’s the way studios do things. They didn’t have to cave to the idea of the hundred-zillion-dollar movie. It really just seems like an easier way to make a lot of money fast if you’re a movie company. But in the end, I bet you that movies 40 years ago were more profitable, dollar for dollar, than they are now. That is certainly true of publishing companies.
AVC: It’s harder to calculate what’s profit now that the movie studios are all part of major conglomerates. Do you count the revenue from DVDs, or from action figures, or ringtones?
FL: It’s also the way they do the accounting. And movie-business accounting has spread to everything. Including the federal government. There used to be more choice of movies in New York. There were tons of revival houses. There was a movie theater here called the Elgin, now the Joyce Theater, which has been the Joyce Theater for so many years that, the other day, when I said, “Where is that? Is that near the Elgin?” someone said to me, “Fran. It’s been the Joyce Theater for 25 years.” But when it was the Elgin, which was this falling-apart movie house, they showed movies that I’m sure didn’t make any money. It cost like, $2 to get into the Elgin. The theater itself was falling apart. And we didn’t care. The other part of it is people’s expectations of their physical environment. If you got through a whole movie at the Elgin without being stabbed by this naked metal thing next to you that had once been covered in fabric, you did well.
They invented midnight movies there. I mean, that’s the first time I ever saw a midnight movie. Unfortunately, it was El Topo, but you can’t have everything. [Laughs.] You could do that kind of thing. You can do that when every square inch of real estate doesn’t cost $11 billion and where every single person doesn’t believe they need to be a zillionaire. Whoever owned the Elgin, I’m sure they didn’t lose money. On the other hand, I’m sure they didn’t become a millionaire. But that wasn’t everybody’s central interest. There were competing values in our culture. But there also was no other way to see a movie. People can watch them at home now. I myself don’t have these devices, but I know you can watch them on your microwave oven or whatever. I know that people don’t care that the screen is 2 inches square. I love movies, but I really am always disappointed when the screen is not the size of the screen in the Ziegfeld, which is almost every theater.
AVC: Those big single-screen movie theaters almost don’t exist anymore.
FL: No, they don’t exist. You wonder what happens if the Ziegfeld goes. Every second you walk past there, you think you’re going to see it being torn down to make condominiums or something. The other thing is, movie theaters are not pitch black anymore. They keep lights on. That drives me out of my mind. You know, magic was associated with movies. One of the reasons is, it was a magical experience to sit and watch this giant image float. That image could kind of take you in a way that these tiny images don’t take me, at any rate. I’m sure if you never saw one of those, then you don’t miss it. But the state of being able to see lots of kinds of movies is economic, don’t you think? I don’t think that’s cultural.
AVC: There’s a larger trend in the culture where people are resistant to submitting themselves to art. They want to interact with it, rather than being humbled by it.
FL: I said this in the movie: There’s too much democracy in the culture, not enough in the society. Let me assure you, they do not turn the lights down at Carnegie Hall. I mean, Carnegie Hall! The lights are on at Carnegie Hall. The lights are on at the Philharmonic. At the New York City Ballet. To me, this is enraging beyond belief. I don’t want to be aware of my surroundings. I want to be taken by the thing; that’s why I go. I’m not a movie-maker. I’m not Beethoven. I go because I appreciate these things. I don’t want my appreciation interfered with by you, the person sitting in front of me. If I was interested in you, the person sitting in front of me, I would pay to go see you.
This is a false equality. It’s not true. I mean, it’s a lie. It’s a lie that your opinion is as important as the thing you’re watching. If it is, make the thing. It’s just a lie. It must come from the way they raise children now. I’m just guessing at this, because luckily, I have none. Well, it wasn’t luck, it wasn’t an accident. But I mean, people ask people things they couldn’t possibly know. They’re always inquiring. People ask their children things. They ask their 7-year-old child, “Where would you like to go to school?” A 7-year-old child is no more capable of making the correct judgment for that than the person sitting next to you in the movie theater in the dark. There is this big lie in the culture that has been disastrous. It’s disastrous. Especially when it goes into politics. I give you Sarah Palin. [Laughs.]
I have a friend who, many, many years ago, her best friend died. She mentioned to me a few months ago that this is the 30th or 40th or whatever anniversary of this woman’s death. And I said, “If she came back to life, what do you think of all the things that have happened since 1972, or whenever this was, what would be the most shocking thing to her?” This was a very interesting girl, she was a journalist. And this friend of mine said, without hesitation, “That Ronald Reagan was the president.” There are very few people who would have given that answer because of all the other things that have happened. But truly, I think she was right. You’re too young to remember this, but to someone my age, it was shocking that Ronald Reagan would be the president of the United States. Why not Dana Andrews, who was a better actor? Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States. Anything that follows that is understandable. People who are younger than me, which is now almost everyone, and people who don’t remember the Reagan presidency, and who don’t remember life before something like the Reagan presidency, and who grew up in an environment where they land at Ronald Reagan Airport, or maybe went to Ronald Reagan Grammar School or something—for them, he’s in the same stature as any other president.
AVC: Reagan is the great icon of the Republican Party now.
FL: Even if people aren’t Republicans, it doesn’t seem shocking to them that Ronald Reagan was the president. Well of course, because Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor! This is not only a bar too low, this is no bar at all. This is out of the question. This shows a tremendous contempt for your own society, because everybody knows, I don’t care who you are, you know 20 people smarter than Ronald Reagan. You know 20 people who would be a better president than Ronald Reagan. I’m looking outside my window at a construction site. There’s not a guy drilling my street who wouldn’t make a better president than Ronald Reagan. I know that for a fact.
AVC: What was more disturbing than the fact that Reagan was a mediocre actor was that he was a paid shill for General Electric before going into politics.
FL: Yes. Yes. That’s really important. It’s really important, because now those interests run the thing completely. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind. That is one of the reasons that people who didn’t look more carefully at Obama are shocked by his presidency. From the point of view of his economic policies, I’m not that surprised by them, because I always thought he was to the right of me on economic policies. Which is why, and I do not say this proudly, I was a supporter of John Edwards. I didn’t, of course, know about his private life, but he seemed to me like a much more liberal Democrat from the economic point of view. He was more of a New Deal Democrat. Who knows what would have happened if he had been elected, if he hadn’t had this other incredibly sordid life?
This may even be a thing of age. I don’t know how old John Edwards is, but he’s older than Barack Obama. Barack Obama is 49 or something. I’m 60. To me, that is a really huge divide. It’s a significant period of time, but at a certain juncture it becomes very significant, because I believe that people 10 years younger than me, or maybe even less, they’re people who never lived in an environment where there was the slightest idea that there could be anything wrong with money. There’s no such thing as dirty money to these people. With someone my age, there’s almost no such thing as clean money. Let me assure you that I am correct, and if anyone would think about it for five seconds, they would know that I am correct. I’m not a Communist. I’m an American. I’m a capitalist. I mean, I’m not a very good capitalist, myself. I’m not very good at it, but it’s not that I’m not for capitalism. But people who believe in things like corporate citizenship, it’s idiotic. I mean, it shows you’re an idiot. What can that possibly mean?
AVC: The whole idea of corporate personhood has got to be one of the Supreme Court’s most pernicious rulings.
FL: Yes. That comes from a railroad case, by the way, in the 19th century. That’s the original. How do I know this? Because about 10 years ago, I was going to write something about it. Way before it got to this point. Because I’m a prophet. But luckily, because I never get anything written, by the time it might come out, people will know what you’re talking about. It’s an absurd notion. It’s not an idea at all. It was a thing they tried, and it worked. It’s as simple as that. It’s like a guy who goes into a bar and asks out a hundred women. If you ask a hundred women, one will say yes. [Laughs.] That’s what it’s like. They tried it, it worked! It’s a simple as that. But you need a population that believes in the cleanness of money, and believes in things like the word “earn” in front of $100 million. I always say to people, “No one earns $100 million. You steal $100 million.” People earn $10 an hour. People earn $40,000 a year. “Earn” means work. Okay? It doesn’t mean steal, which with these vast amounts of money, of course you steal them. There’s also the idea in this country, it’s not wholly new, but it’s new in its kind of purity, in that you have to be really smart to be really rich. I always say to people, the reason people believe this is a) they’ve never met a really smart person, and b) they’ve never met a really rich person. I have met both, and I cannot see the crossover. You do not have to be a genius to get rich. You have to be ruthless to get rich.
I used to rent a house in Princeton, New Jersey, and whenever people came to visit me, I would drive them past Albert Einstein’s house, which is the most ordinary house in Princeton—a house, let me assure you, that now a salesman wouldn’t live in. I’d always say, “That was Albert Einstein’s house.” And they’d say, “What do you mean? Why would Albert Einstein live in a little house like that?” And I’d always say to people, “Because he didn’t care!” Albert Einstein didn’t care where he lived. Albert Einstein was a genius. Albert Einstein wasn’t getting lost in the master bedroom, he was lost in thought. Now I’m not expecting people to be Albert Einstein, or in fact, anyone to be Albert Einstein, apparently, other than Albert Einstein, but it just wasn’t the society we had. He just didn’t care. And no one asked him about it. When he was alive, I don’t think there was a lot of discussion about, “Well, Albert Einstein doesn’t live in a big enough house. Maybe some rich person should give him a big house.” I mean, he had a house, I guess that was all he cared about. That kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore. So what is it that people believe now? Do they believe that Bill Gates is smarter than Albert Einstein? Or the guy from Facebook, was he smarter than Albert Einstein? It’s an absurd idea.
AVC: There’s that line from Citizen Kane. “It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.”
FL: You have to be willing to do what it takes to do it. Now, of course, we live in a culture where everyone is perfectly willing to do this, and they’re just looking for the opportunity. Obviously, a person who is really dumb is not gonna make a zillion dollars. But for a person who is really smart, really smart, it’s a boring pursuit. It’s not endlessly fascinating.
AVC: One of the things Scorsese does with Public Speaking is that he uses things you say as a springboard to reflect on a Manhattan that no longer exists. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when the city was so run-down and rents were so cheap that artists and musicians could live there en masse.
FL: It’s close to inconceivable now. Well, what I think about this is, yes, New York, at this moment, is breathtakingly suburban. That’s the only word I think is accurate. However, because I am my age, I know it won’t stay like this. And how do I know that? Because nothing stays like this. Nothing stays the same. So even though things have definitely gotten worse in my lifetime, they’re simply not going to stay like this. At a certain point, every single hick in the world will have already sat in a lawn chair in Times Square and will not want to come back. One of the things about artists being, in a way, displaced from Manhattan to, obviously, Brooklyn, which is all anyone talks about—the reason that that is not as good is because it’s not as dense. In other words, Brooklyn is bigger, physically. It’s the biggest borough, I believe. There’s definitely something to be said of density of population. Brooklyn is much more spread-out. When things get spread out like that, there’s less of an intensity.
But also, many of the so-called arts have become professions. When I was young, no one’s parents wanted them to be an artist, especially parents of boys. Boys were expected to earn an living; girls were not, really, when I was young. So they wanted them to be, I don’t know, a dentist. Now, for the same idea, I give you writing school. There’s all these writing schools and filmmaking schools, because parents do want their children to have these jobs. That’s, obviously, going to give you a very conventional kind of landscape, and that’s what you have now. I just know it’s not going to last. I know it’s not going to last, because nothing lasts. So it’s my belief, yes, I know a lot of the things that we liked didn’t last, but maybe things we don’t like, they’re also not going to last. There has been progress in my lifetime. There are certainly things that are better than when I was young, and there are things that are worse. New York City, it’s worse. There’s no question.
Now, people have always thought this kind of way, and I think I said this in the movie—I always make a big effort to make a distinction between what is actually worse or what is just worse about not being 21. Of course, it’s much worse not to be 21. This is a given. But there are things that are worse. I know this to be true because I’m not relying on my own memory. I know this because I don’t walk out my door without kids stopping me in the street. And one reason they want to talk to you is, “What was New York like in the ’70s?” These are people who are young. When I was young, believe me, I didn’t care what someone my age thought. I didn’t. Maybe an individual person that I might meet. But I didn’t walk around thinking, “What was New York like 30 years ago?” I didn’t think that. I think I must be at least partially right in thinking it was better in that sense. A different kind of person was here. Everyone talks about the ’70s being a horrible time in New York, because New York was bankrupt and there was a lot of crime. There was a lot of crime, there’s no question about it, and I have all the habits of someone who lived in New York then. If I’m holding a pencil on the subway, I clench it, because I know someone’s going to try to steal this from me. I lock my doors, the 50 locks on the door, and I have a doorman. [Laughs.]
So yes, there was a lot more crime, and yes, it was dirtier—although it’s becoming quite filthy, I have to say. And there’s becoming, also, more crime, though no one is saying this. But as a young person, I didn’t notice these things. I didn’t care. I didn’t come here because I heard it was so quaint. Most of the people I knew, we didn’t have a high expectation of our physical environment. New York was always more expensive than the other places, even when it was going bankrupt. In other words, in 1971, New York was expensive for someone with no money. For anyone. But we all lived in horrible apartments. Really horrible! My apartment then was unbelievably horrible. We just didn’t think about it. If someone said to you, “Do you want a nicer apartment?” “Yes! Are you going to give it to me?” That wasn’t central to us. It’s the same as the college dormitories. I live in the middle of NYU-istan. College dormitories now are apparently like the Hotel du Cap, because everybody of a certain class thinks that no matter what their stage in life, they should live in a very nice, sensible environment. I think that caring about those things at a young age is ridiculous. It’s like food. I mean, all these kids are interested in food. They write about food and they go to restaurants 16 times a week. To me, these are the pleasures of middle age. You’re jumping the gun. If you’re so interested in food when you’re 22, what are you going to do when you’re 52? It’s like we have these old young people, or they have these tastes of an old person, or the desires of an old person. These things like delicious food or beautiful apartments, they’re all very nice things to have. They’re much more important when you’re old. I think they’re kind of squandering their youth.
AVC: You grew in in Morristown, New Jersey. Do you remember what you were looking for when you moved to New York?
FL: I just wanted to get out of this little town. I had a very enjoyable childhood. It was really a small town, not a commuting town. It was a very beautiful town. I was a child in the ’50s, which was a very nice time to be a child, because in lots of ways, it was a childish decade. I don’t think I would have enjoyed so much being an adult in the ’50s, or a teenager. Once I became a teenager, small-town life is suffocating. It’s oppressive. It’s filled with what used to be called small-town values, which now we have here. These same things that drove me out of my little town, we have here. This kind of disapproval of a certain way of life. The fact that there’s a billion children per square inch here. That is a middle-class life, even though, sure, it takes a zillion dollars to achieve that. These are values that Sinclair Lewis wrote about, and no one knows who he is anymore, I suppose, but this is about disapproval. This is about nosy neighbors. This is stuff that you thought didn’t use to be here. That is for sure. That is one of the reasons people came here. So now, here, what you have is this very densely populated, expensive suburban environment. That is why I left. That is why people leave places like that, I believe. Or at least, it used to be why people left places like that.
AVC: Everyone who used to live in Manhattan seems to live in Brooklyn now.
FL: Yeah, and they moved to Brooklyn originally because it was cheaper. I’m sure, generally, it was cheaper, because I don’t know what isn’t cheaper than Manhattan. But it’s also very spread out. I have noticed this because I also know many people who live in Brooklyn, is that because people get older. So first they go there and they lead a young life, and then they get married, which is really prevalent among young people, and I don’t know why. This is something I thought was ending. [Laughs.] Okay? So they get married. They have children. And then they start complaining. “There’s a bar on the corner! People are out there all night!” And then the other people who are younger who didn’t get married say, “Why did you bringing your children into a bar?” Isn’t that true?
And also, they’re very self-conscious. That is a difference, I would say. That’s a real difference. There’s a kind of self-consciousness as a way of life that we didn’t really have, because there wasn’t so much outside interest in us. Now, everyone is so hyper-aware. And there’s a million professions that only have to do with noticing these things and trying, in some way, to make money from them or make a name from them. I think this is very inhibiting of actually getting anything done of interest. It seems to me that in Brooklyn, neighborhoods are kind of like lifestyle versions of old ethnic neighborhoods. It used to be, “This is an Italian neighborhood, then this is an Irish neighborhood.” In Brooklyn, you have “This is an artist neighborhood, this is a…”
I mean, movie stars live in Brooklyn. If my friend’s friend came back to life, I would say, after a movie star having been president, movie stars living in Brooklyn—movie stars used to come from Brooklyn. They didn’t go there. But of course, now parts of Brooklyn are very expensive. That is true. And there are certainly parts of Brooklyn that are more expensive than parts of Manhattan. In general, I’m sure Manhattan is more expensive. Basically, all these places are too expensive for anyone. I’m not changing this, unfortunately. But real estate is all people in New York think about. Except now we also think about bedbugs. So here we have really expensive real estate—with bedbugs! That didn’t even exist. I never even heard of it. It was like something from the 19th century. Who could have predicted the return of bedbugs? So perhaps there will be a return of movie theaters like the Elgin.