Passing Judgment

In 1971 she began writing her sharp, opinionated and hilarious columns in Interview magazine; 40 years later, and now the subject of a Martin Scorsese documentary, Fran Lebowitz is still full of opinions and no less biting in expressing them.

"The title 'Public Speaking' means that I endorse that I speak publicly. It's not a general directive to the public. For a general directive I would really advise public listening. Everybody express themselves. You know, I don't want everybody to express themselves. I do not want everyone to express themselves, because I only want people with talent to express themselves, artistically."


Fran Lebowitz.
Lea Golda Holterman


"Public Speaking" is the title of an 85-minute movie directed by Martin Scorsese, featuring Fran Lebowitz, the acclaimed author of two collections of short essays, highly sought-after speaker, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and fashion icon. She was once described in The New York Times as "looking the essence of cool."

The film, now being shown in select cinemas in the U.S., combines archival footage with scenes of Lebowitz at various public-speaking engagements, including an on-stage interview she conducted with Nobel-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, and all of it framed by Lebowitz sitting at a booth in the West Village restaurant the Waverly Inn.

Haaretz spoke with Lebowitz at Lafayette House in New York City in the days after the documentary's premiere earlier this year. Fiercely independent, what often resonates in the media surrounding Lebowitz are her brilliant one-liners, for example: "The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting." "Being a woman is of special interest to aspiring male transsexuals. To actual women it is simply a good excuse not to play football." "If you are of the opinion that the contemplation of suicide is sufficient evidence of a poetic nature, do not forget that actions speak louder than words." "I do not believe in God. I believe in cashmere." But what becomes clear after speaking with her is that she is far more than her epigrams and witty retorts.

I find that humor is an essential issue in your writing and way of speaking, but I do not find you funny as much as I find you insightful.

Lebowitz: "But that's because it's funny. Because otherwise, they would hate me."

You think?

"I know. Even with the funniness they don't all love me. I think it's something I started doing unconsciously as a child. You know, I believe that the things that I think and say or write, if I said them directly without being funny, I think I would have been in jail years ago. Okay, so I have no interest in being in jail, I'm not the martyr type. Humor is anger. But it's better to express the anger in a way that makes people laugh rather than shoot."

So you are angry.

"To me, any person who is not angry is either sleeping or an idiot."

In the past you've said that you make snap judgments. But there's a certain kind of politeness that is required in America: You call it manners. Why are Americans against making assumptions and judgments?

"I think you should judge people and people should judge other people. Because that's really [what standards are about]. There used to be something in this country called middle-class morality, or respectability, and that's disappeared completely.

"No one here knows how to do anything that wasn't done before. That's what happened to America. The importance of America is based on an idea that was new. Democracy was a new idea. America invented democracy. And yet even the inventors of democracy took a long time to get to the present idea of democracy. Democracy is not just voting. Democracy is also a culture."

'Non-specific surliness'

At 16, Lebowitz was expelled from her New Jersey high school for what she has called "non-specific surliness." At 19, she arrived in the city with $200 in her pocket. She pursued jobs with schedules most conducive to sleeping-in mornings and to being her own boss, ranging from cab-driving, to selling belts and housecleaning. She was soon carrying the values of "natural aristocracy," which is one of the keys to understanding her place as an important figure in today's popular culture (in the movie she says "culture should be made by a natural aristocracy of talent. Okay, by which I mean it doesn't have to do with what race you are, what country you are from, or what religion you are, it should have to do with how good are you at this thing, and that is a natural aristocracy" ).

In 1971, when she was 21, Lebowitz got a job as a columnist at Interview magazine, which had been founded in 1969 by Andy Warhol.

"Interview was a very tiny magazine, but at the time I was writing for an even smaller one [Change], a magazine with a thousand people reading it, in fact, not even that. I just wanted to write, I wanted to get published. I had a friend who worked for Interview and I said, 'Do you think you could get me an appointment to get a job?' And he said yes, and he did, that's how I went to Interview. It had nothing to do with Andy, you know, at all. Andy and I never liked each other."

We couldn't figure out how the two of you could have a normal conversation, given your and his personalities.

"Well, we didn't."

Nevertheless, Warhol gave her a job.

"Very few people went there wanting to write, most people went there wanting to be written about. So the fact that I wanted to write was valuable to the magazine. The editor [Bob Colacello] said, 'What do you want to do?' And I would say, 'I want a whole page.' [He'd say] 'Fine.'

"I wanted the back page every single month, because I knew that the kind of thing that I was doing, or starting to do, would take a long time for people to understand. The type of humor, the type of writing was considered very old-fashioned then. And so, I thought, I have to do it every month so eventually people will understand, after the same thing every month. And he just said, fine, okay, good. Because they had to fill up the pages."

In her last-page column, Lebowitz commented on and criticized culture in her unique style.

Seven years later, in 1978, after a brief stint writing for Mademoiselle, her first book, "Metropolitan Life," about the oddities of New York life, was published, and became an instant best seller, embraced not only by New Yorkers but also by middle America.

That book begins: "12:35 P.M. - The phone rings. I am not amused. This is not my favorite way to wake up. My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast. This occurs rather less often than one might wish."

"Metropolitan Life" is a collection of her columns, on subjects like manners ("The most common error made in matters of appearance is the belief that one should disdain the superficial and let the true beauty of one's soul shine through. If there are places on your body where this is a possibility, you are not attractive - you are leaking" ) and "worldviews" ("Rome is a very loony city in every respect. One needs but spend an hour or two there to realize that Fellini makes documentaries" ).

Three years later, at the age of 31, she published "Social Studies." It too was a collection of essays, "still funny," still dishing out what The New York Times called "sour cream" - but reviewers said she was more mature, more lucid, and wealthier writer. Now it was Lebowitz whose image graced the cover of Interview magazine, and Andy Warhol was throwing her a celebratory party at the famed Studio 54. Yet she did not allow herself to be ruled by fame and fortune, bucking and redefining modern stardom by doing so. ("Success didn't spoil me, I've always been insufferable," she once said.) Her socializing did not have a diluting effect on her views, such as, for example: "Humility is no substitute for a good personality." "Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he's buying." "All God's children are not beautiful. Most of God's children are, in fact, barely presentable."

Did you always want to be famous?

"I wanted to be famous when I was young. But when I was young, being famous was different than how it is now. You know, I want people to listen to me, because I grew up without people listening to me. By which I mean, my parents. And people didn't listen to children then. It wasn't just my parents. No one cared what children thought, no one asked children questions. What used to be called 'answering back' is called now 'public speaking.'"

Thousands of years

What does Jewish identity mean for you?

"I've been an atheist since I was about 7 years old. But I feel completely Jewish because here at least [in the States generally, and in New York specifically], or in the world really, it's also an ethnicity. You know, it shouldn't be really, but it is. So I feel that strongly. No one says, I'm a secular Protestant, or I'm a secular Muslim, or I'm a secular Catholic, people don't say that. But Jews say that all the time. That is because Jews have been identified as a race or ethnicity, and it is not Jews who decided that, it's the gentiles. Something that makes me very angry here is people mixing up categories. You know, here for instance, and in all of the West, from what I'm aware, anti-Muslim feeling is always described as racism, but Islam is not a race, it's a religion."

But Judaism is more than a religion.

"Judaism is more than a religion, I think, because of anti-Semitism. By which I mean 5,000 years of anti-Semitism. Until five minutes ago, people did not willingly identify themselves with a minority, because there was too much oppression, who would want to be that? So the fact that Jews think of themselves as Jews, even if they're atheists, is because of the thousands of years of anti-Semitism, so that it became a kind of tribal quality to being a Jew.

"But what it means to be a Jew in the United States for someone of my age or someone of my parents' age, they all meant different things, they meant much different things. I don't think I had much of a concept of Israel growing up really. But the idea that I would be anything other than American was flabbergasting to me."

Have you ever been to Berlin?

"The only time I was in Berlin was a really long time ago; it was right after the Berlin Wall fell. And that was enough for me to be in Germany, frankly."


"I'm a grudge-holder. So I had most of my life, for like the only 50 years in the history of the world, where there was practically no anti-Semitism in this country. No allowable anti-Semitism. And even in the world there was the lowest amount. And that is because even the worst people in the world were shocked by the Holocaust. And this is how long it took for everyone to forgive themselves for it. Now they've forgiven themselves, and now I've started reading books or reviews of books where Germans [are saying] 'Hey, what about what happened to us during the war?'"

I don't want to sound disrespectful, but you don't analyze yourself much, do you?

"No. I was probably the least self-analytical Jew in the history of the East coast of the United States."

But yet you reflect on others.

"I think about other people more. Yes, I do."

Can people change?

"It's certainly way too late for me to change a character trait. I don't believe people are capable of that anyway, even if they're 12 years old. Character traits, I think, are pretty ingrained. But your habits, what you do, you can always change. Actions you can change, you behavior you can change. How you feel you could never change, I mean emotions.

"I never tried to change. And I knew that at a fairly young age. And also, I don't feel responsible for my emotions. People are not responsible for their emotions, I believe that profoundly. You know I always tell people that - I don't care how you feel, it doesn't matter how you feel. We can't help how we feel. We can only help how we act. People spend a lot more effort trying to control their emotions, which are uncontrollable and not their fault, by which I mean, they're not the agents of their emotions. And [they spend] almost no time trying to correct their behavior, which everyone can correct. And that is one reason people think more about their feelings, because then they're helpless to do anything about it, they don't have to make an effort. But it is at least possible to correct your behavior. It is not possible to correct your emotions, there is no incorrect emotion."

Lebowitz said once about herself "I never took hallucinogenic drugs because I never wanted my consciousness expanded one unnecessary iota."

Do you consider yourself to be a mensch?

"Do I think I'm a mensch? Yes, everyone thinks they are, by the way. That's the bad thing."

How do you define yourself in this culture? Where is your position in this society?

"I think of myself as a floater, by which I mean even in high school I was like this. Because the world is a high school. You know, how there were different cliques of people, which is the first time you really encounter that when you're a child. And I would be friends with this group, and that group but I didn't feel a part of it. And that's how I feel as an adult."