Fran Lebowitz is the patron saint of staying at home and doing nothing. She is famously averse to working, and famously resistant to technology; she has no cell phone or computer. She moved to New York City from Morristown, New Jersey, around 1970, the moment she was legally able to do so, and became one of New York’s most distinctive personalities, with her defiant grouchiness, her devotion to cigarettes, her trademark ensemble of cowboy boots and custom-made Anderson & Sheppard suit jackets, and her pearl-gray 1979 Checker car. Soon after arriving, she talked her way into a job writing for Andy Warhol’s Interview, and her incisive commentary on city living was collected in two volumes, “Metropolitan Life” (1978) and “Social Studies” (1981). Since then, she has not been a model of productivity. But her notorious writer’s block—or, as she calls it, “writer’s blockade”—hasn’t stopped her from expounding. She has an opinion about everything, and damn if she’s not going to tell you what it is.
Thanks to *COVID*-19, many of us are now trapped at home, if not nearly as stylishly. So what insights does Lebowitz have on the art of inactivity? And what does she foresee for the city that is now an epicenter of the pandemic, a city that she has all but chained herself to for five decades? I reached Lebowitz by phone—she was on a land line, naturally—at her apartment, where she has been safely sequestered, except for the occasional walk. “For at least twenty years, I have been dreaming of the time there were no tourists in Times Square,” she said glumly. “Now there are no tourists in Times Square, but, of course, there’s no one in Times Square.” She spoke from her living room, which contains much of her collection of eleven thousand books, as well as a Gustav Stickley coffee table (“purchased during a period of abundance, like forty years ago”), drawings her father made, and a sterling-silver cigarette box given to her by John O’Hara’s daughter. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
How have you been spending your time in self-isolation?
It depends how much you count the time you spend sulking. Let me put it this way: when they compile a list of the heroes of this era, I will not be on it. Mostly I’ve been reading. Also, taking phone calls from people who for the last ten years have told me they hate to talk on the phone. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to think about this, because it is a very startling thing to be my age—I’m sixty-nine—and to have something happen that doesn’t remind you of anything else.
Has it forced you to think about growing older, being in a higher-risk category?
I smoke, so basically everyone I’ve known for the last forty years thinks I’m in a high-risk category. Look, the older you are, the less healthy you are. If you’re asking me if it has made me more pensive, it has not. I don’t know whether that’s a bad or a good thing.
One thing I’ve absolutely noticed about myself, and which should be true as you get older: it’s not that you want to die, but you are less attached to life. You’re less panicked. I’m not very panicked by this, and I have friends who are. They’re in a state of terror. But I hope I don’t get this. I hope I don’t get anything. I was a hypochondriac when I was young, and it’s one of the biggest wastes of time, to be a hypochondriac when you’re twenty-five. It’s just stupid.
Before this, how were you about germs? Were you a big hand washer?
Well, as a friend of mine said, before she fled to Montana, “Who washes her hands ninety-five times a day except Fran?” I’ve always washed my hands, I would say, a minimum of a hundred times a day. I won’t share food. If you go to a restaurant with a bunch of people in their twenties, they just order a bunch of food. I won’t do this. I always announce, “I don’t share food.” Everyone thinks this is an incredible eccentricity, but the fact is, if you put your chopsticks in my plate, the plate is yours.
I’m very afraid of germs, which is probably why I’m not sick. Sometimes, being not sick is just luck.
What have you been reading?
In the past few days, I read Tom Stoppard’s new play. Highly recommended. It’s called “Leopoldstadt.” I’m sure I’ve mispronounced it, because German is just one of the millions of languages I don’t speak. I read Ben Katchor’s book “The Dairy Restaurant.” Really good. If I start reading a book and I don’t like it, I don’t finish it, so I don’t consider it “read.” I’m now reading the letters of Cole Porter.
Have you been drawn more to books that give you an escape, versus, say, a book about the 1918 influenza pandemic?
I’ve always read for escape. I’m not going to read any books about this. In fact, until George W. Bush was President, I hardly ever read a nonfiction book, but that got me in the habit of it. I have some books lined up to read, and one of them is called “Overground Railroad.” It’s not about the flu, but it’s nonfiction. It’s by Candacy A. Taylor, and it’s about the Green Book. And I have Cathleen Schine’s new book, “The Grammarians,” which I’m really looking forward to. These are books I expect to finish, because I expect to like them.
You’re proudly averse to technology, but a lot of people who are stuck inside have become more dependent on it. Has this broken down any of your resistance?
No. In fact, the daughter of a friend of mine called me this morning and said, “I can bring an iPhone. I can explain to you how to use it.” And I said, “Not having these things is not an accident.” I know they exist. It’s like not having children: it was no accident.
The only thing that makes this bearable for me, frankly, is at least I’m alone. A couple of people invited me to their houses in the country, houses much more lavish than mine. Some of them have the thing I would love to have, which is a cook, since I don’t know how to cook. And I thought, You know, Fran, you could go away and you could be in a very beautiful place with a cook, but then you’d have to be a good guest. I would much rather stay here and be a bad guest. And, believe me, I am being a bad guest.
There have been a lot of reports of wealthy New Yorkers fleeing to their second homes or renting places in the Hamptons. Would you ever flee New York City?
Never. It didn’t even occur to me. The morning of September 11th, someone called me and said, “We’re going to Connecticut. We can pick you up. Do you want to go?” I was just shocked that anyone would want to leave. I’m not leaving. In fact, I feel that I am like the designated New Yorker. Everyone else can leave. This is beyond saddening for me, to see the town this way.