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Fran Lebowitz in Conversation With Ashley C. Ford

Written by Ashley C. Ford

New York's foremost satirist on quarantine reading, essential workers, and her primary emotion: anger.

Interviewer

Ashley C. Ford

Ashley C. Ford is a writer, host, and educator who lives in Brooklyn by way of Indiana. She is writing a memoir entitled Somebody’s Daughter (Flatiron Books under the imprint ‘An Oprah Book’, 2021).

  • Ashley C. Ford: Fran, thank you so much for taking the time today, I really appreciate it.

    Fran Lebowitz: You're welcome. I'm not exactly busy.

    Ashley C. Ford: First, I just wanted to ask: One of the things that I’ve loved about the film Public Speaking and also reading your work over the years is this relationship that you have with New York, which is probably the longest relationship of your life?

    Fran Lebowitz: Are you kidding? You and I almost have the longest relationship of my life.

    Ashley C. Ford: I've only lived here for six years, but I've watched this city change even in that time. When you look out the window, how is New York changing as far as what you see?

    Fran Lebowitz: Luckily, although it wasn't by accident, I don't see the street when I look out my window. But when I actually leave my apartment, New York is much less empty than it was a month ago.

    Ashley C. Ford: Really?

    Fran Lebowitz: Yes. I've lost track of time like everyone else, but at the height of this, it was completely empty. And I live in Chelsea. I live right in the middle of New York, and I have never seen New York like that. I could walk for 15 blocks and not see another person.

    Ashley C. Ford: Wow.

    Fran Lebowitz: Now, there's an upside to that. But when people say, "Did you ever expect it to be this way?” Of course not. No one did. No one expected this to ever happen. This is not like anything else I've ever seen, and I am 69. So even if you're older than me—and there were some people older than me, though mostly they died of this virus—you'd have to be more than 100 years old to have seen anything like this.

    And I found it incredibly heartbreaking, really. I walked past the library and it was closed, as everything else was. And I stood in front of it, and I was thinking, "Open up the library, what's wrong with you?" 

    Ashley C. Ford: It seems like the last place that should be closed.

    Fran Lebowitz: Here's the thing: you said you've been here for six years and it's changed in six years. I bet if you really thought about it, it changed in six months from the time you came here. New York changes. There is practically not a square inch of New York City that is the same as it was when I came. That is the nature of New York, and I think one of the things that really makes a New Yorker is the first time you go, "What happened to my dry cleaner? Where's my coffee shop?" Most New Yorkers have tables at restaurants. "That's my table." New Yorkers, who probably own the least of any other city residents in the country, feel we own everything. We feel that we own things we don't even rent. To me, it's one of the most indelible signs of a New Yorker. 

    A lot of people are leaving New York. A lot of people left New York in the first second of the virus. The people I know left because they had another place to go. They had a house in the country. Or more than one. 

    Right away, people invited me to go with them. It never occurred to me. I don't like to leave New York—especially when I feel that I have to stay here to guard it—but also, I live by myself, and this is not an accident. With the choice between having to be a good guest in someone else's house or a bad guest in my house—which, believe me, I'm being—I chose this.

    The people who are leaving New York, they'll say, "We decided to move to Scarsdale, and we discovered that if you live outside New York, you can have a backyard." Yes, we knew that. And it's much cheaper. It is cheaper. There's a reason, by the way, that it's cheaper. There's a reason that you get a backyard, but you're in Scarsdale.

    My feeling, basically, is this: New York definitely will change. New York always changes. But here's what will never change: Westchester. Go to the suburbs—be my guest. It only makes New York better. The kind of people who leave New York just because it's nicer outside of New York? It's nicer outside of New York for almost everyone. You'd have to be a zillionaire for New York to be materially nicer. 

    If you say, "What's the point of staying in New York if the theaters are closed? Or if this is closed?" These things aren't going to stay closed forever. And, by the way, when they reopen? Here's where they're going to reopen: New York. Not Scarsdale. 

    So, yes, it's horrible. It's definitely horrible. But to me, what's worse about this is the constant lying by everybody.

    Ashley C. Ford: Can you talk about that a little bit?

    Fran Lebowitz: I'm not even just talking about Donald Trump. As everyone knows, he lies as people breathe. But even certain medical people lie. I mean, a very honest doctor or scientist would say that the honest answer to any question about this virus is "I don't know." That's the honest answer. "We don't know. It's new. We've never seen it before. We don't know." "Is it like this?" "No. It's not like anything." 

    Nothing ever in my life, even as a little kid, enraged me more than lying. To me, that is the most profound kind of betrayal and injustice. I can't stand the lying. That really drives me out of my mind.

    The other thing that I find shocking is the number of people who ask me, "What's going to happen?" How would I know? Just being older than you doesn't make me know this. And that is also a blow to old people, because the one upside of being old is you know everything. But you don't have to be old to notice that people seem to think something has changed. By which I mean, people think, “Well, we stayed in for three months and now it's over, and we can go out and everything is different."

    Ashley C. Ford: Why is that? Do you think they just convince themselves?

    Fran Lebowitz: I think it's because of what I used to say to my mother all the time. “You confuse suffering with effort.”

    Ashley C. Ford: Talk to me about that.

    Fran Lebowitz: Staying in all the time has been horrible. It's awful. I want to go out. It's enough. You hear people say all the time, "It's enough." But the thing is that nothing was actually accomplished by staying in. If everyone stays in and doesn't get near other human beings, the virus won't spread. If you go out, it will spread. Because the virus is the same. That's the problem. People are different, but the virus is the same, and the virus doesn't care.

    Ashley C. Ford: There is actually a quote I love from Public Speaking where you essentially say "happiness is a sensation, not a condition." At the time, as a 21-year-old woman, that was mind-blowing for me. And I'm wondering what sensation you're feeling most these days. What is the thing that you keep coming back to, if anything?

    Fran Lebowitz: Anger. Anger has always been my primary emotion, by the way.

    I'm enraged by this because this didn't have to happen. People are treating this like a natural disaster. "Well, what could we do? The volcano exploded! What could we do? There was an earthquake!"

    But this could've been stopped. If you had a functional federal government? If you had a president whose first act in office wasn't to fire all of the scientists? Obama kept Ebola from coming here. Ebola is a much worse disease than this is. We had plenty of warning about this. Plenty of warning. A real president would also have been talking to what used to be our allies in Western Europe. This wouldn't have gotten to Italy. This wouldn't have gotten here. This would've just stayed in China. I'm not saying it's good that it was in China, I'm saying it's better that it's in one country rather than the whole world.

    Ashley C. Ford: I'm inclined to agree with you.

    Fran Lebowitz: It seems to me that the way in which people are behaving is this: "We are going to go out. We don't care. We're going to get it. We are going to give it to other people. Mostly old people die of this. No one likes old people, including old people. The old people will die, and that's okay. If you're an old person able to keep yourself from getting it? Good. Otherwise, we're not helping." That's what it looks like people are doing.

    Look, here's the thing: old people die. Much more than young people do. That's what "old" means. But let me assure you, if this really took off and five-year-olds were dying? There'd be a completely different reaction. And let me also tell you: if dogs were getting this, people would really take it seriously.

    Ashley C. Ford: I have seen a lot of quotes online or floating around in different articles from your late friend Toni Morrison. What was it like to sit and talk and be interviewed about Toni for The Pieces I Am documentary?

    Fran Lebowitz: I never saw it. I'm in a ton of documentaries. I never watch them. I can't stand to watch myself. I've always been like this. I don't watch myself on TV. I never saw the one about Toni. I remember doing it and I remember when it came out, but I never saw it. I can't comment on it as a movie. 

    But I can tell you that since Toni died, of course, I miss her every day. But since this virus started, I've been going crazy in regard to Toni. Right away, I said to Errol McDonald, who is my and Toni's editor, I said, "Don't you think we need to talk to Toni?" He said, "That's exactly what I was thinking." 

    The biggest lack I feel in regard to responding to this is that I don't know how to think about it. I know that Toni would know how to think about it. I know how to feel about it. I also seem to be one of the few people in the United States who knows the difference between thinking and feeling. But I don't know how to think about it. I know that Toni would know how to think about this. If Toni were alive, she would be of value to the world. She would help people know how to think about this, and she would be right. But I don't know how to think about this. I just don't know. 

    Ashley C. Ford: What do you think is the hindrance to knowing? I struggle with this. I'm 33 years old, and I feel like I have tried to be a good steward of my mind and I have tried to expand it. But there are absolutely times, even now, when I feel like there is nothing that prepares you. You just have to do it. You just have to live the life and learn how to think along the way. There is nothing that you could read or watch or hear that would properly prepare you to feel and think and be able to separate those things.

    Fran Lebowitz: That is right. I'm 69, but it doesn't matter. Someone who is 69 or someone who is 19, we are the same in the sense that we've not experienced anything like this. And that's just a very unusual thing if you are my age. If you are my age, no matter what happens, in some way, it is like something else that happened. And that's why people used to ask for advice from old people. I always did, but most people don't do that anymore.

    A lot of people continue to say that this is like AIDS. It is not like AIDS. It is not like the beginning of AIDS. I remember every single thing about AIDS at the beginning. Much more than many of the people who talk about it because most of the people who were around at the beginning of AIDS are dead. One big difference between this and AIDS is that everybody is paying attention to this. That was not true of AIDS. Only a small group of people were paying attention to it. And once they said, "This is how you get it"—all of the people who were not going to get it because they weren't gay men? They stopped thinking about it. And that part is somewhat like this. I mean, people who think that rich people are not going to get this? Look, rich people get less of everything except money. 

    Ashley C. Ford: Right.

    Fran Lebowitz: One of the best treatments for whatever disease you have is to pour money into it. Rich people have life presented to them as if it's a menu. What would you like? This, that? That's the problem. Also, if these workers are so essential, why are they the lowest paid people?

    Ashley C. Ford: That's the question, right?

    Fran Lebowitz: That's exactly what they always said about teachers. They always say teachers are the most important people. "Teachers! We all need the teachers! Everyone loves teachers! Teachers are so important!" Really? Then pay them. 

    Here's who's not essential: hedge fund guys. Why don't we take the money that hedge fund guys make, the hundreds of millions of dollars, and divide this among the essential people?

    Ashley C. Ford: I want to ask one more question. It's just to round things out. What have you been reading?

    Fran Lebowitz: I've been reading a wide variety of things, but particular to this moment are things where I thought, "I would never have time to read this." 

    This is something I'm certain someone your age would have zero interest in, but a year or so ago, a book came out: The Letters of Cole Porter. You probably don't even know who Cole Porter was, right?

    Ashley C. Ford: Cole Porter is from Peru, Indiana, not far from where I'm from. I'm very familiar with Cole Porter.

    Fran Lebowitz: Well, most people your age are not. About a year ago, a book came out: The Letters of Cole Porter. It's 900 pages. I saw a review and thought it would be interesting, but then I thought, "Fran, you don't have time to read a 900-page book." Well, I've now read it.

    Ashley C. Ford: How was it?

    Fran Lebowitz: Considering what a great lyricist Cole Porter was, the surprising thing is he wasn't the world's greatest letter writer. But to me, it was very interesting. It was very atmospheric. There were whole ways of life that I completely forgot existed that were apparent in this. I'm not saying this is something I highly recommend. I'm saying this is something I did with my time.

    I didn't do anything that other people apparently did, like learn two more languages or learn how to build a log cabin in their bathtub. I didn't do anything incredibly constructive with my time, of that I can assure you. But that is almost always the case.

    Ashley C. Ford: I've got to tell you, Fran, at this point, I think you've given us enough. Don't do one more thing you don't want to do.

    Fran Lebowitz: I have to say, I'm going out to dinner tonight, and I am very much looking forward to it. 

    Ashley C. Ford: I hope you have a fantastic time. I truly do.

    Fran Lebowitz: Well, I have to eat outside, something I hate in New York. But it is better than eating in my house, where the food is really awful.

    Ashley C. Ford: I hope it's amazing.