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Fran Lebowitz's 'Pretend It's A City' Is The NYC Trip You Can't Take Right Now

Iconoclastic humorist Fran Lebowitz used to be known as a writer. Back in the late 1970s and '80s, she released two popular collections of essays featuring her cutting observations and opinions about life. But that part of her career was cut short by a decades-long case of writer's block — now she's known for talking. The Netflix series Pretend It's a City features Lebowitz in conversation with Martin Scorsese — who directed both the new series and the 2010 HBO documentary about Lebowitz, Public Speaking.


Other segments from the episode on January 11, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 11, 2021: Interview with Fran Lebowitz; Review of 'The Liars Dictionary.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Fran Lebowitz, has turned talking into her art form and her profession. In a way, she's like a brilliant comic who's very funny but doesn't tell jokes. Her style comes from being a writer who can no longer write. After writing columns for Andy Warhol's magazine Interview and two very popular collections of humorous essays, "Metropolitan Life" in 1978 and "Social Studies" in 1981, she developed a now famous case of writer's block. That's a loss for readers, but a win for people who get to see her onstage in conversation.

Now you can see her in conversation in a new Netflix documentary series called "Pretend It's A City." It's a series of interviews with her mostly conducted by her friend Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series. In 2010, he directed an HBO documentary about Lebowitz that also featured her in a conversation called "Public Speaking." In the new series, Lebowitz talks about many subjects, including growing up in New Jersey with parents who raised her to be a wife and mother, what's happened to New York City since she moved there after dropping out of high school in the late '60s, working as a New York City cab driver when she was in her 20s, writing for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine in her 20s, why she owns over 10,000 books and why she still doesn't own a cellphone or computer.

As the series' editor David Tedeschi put it, the new series, "Pretended It's A City," is about what Fran has to say. But it's also about how she says it. It's about her timing, her cadence, her pace.

Fran Lebowitz, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to talk with you again.

FRAN LEBOWITZ: Thank you. Nice to speak to you.

GROSS: The series was shot before COVID, so you don't get to talk about the pandemic in the series. But I'm interested in hearing - how's your fear level about contagion? And how vigilant have you been about not getting COVID?

LEBOWITZ: I think I've been excellent at not getting COVID because I have not gotten it.


LEBOWITZ: So I think that's the proof that I've been vigilant. I've been, like, really careful. But I kind of was astonished that I didn't get it before we knew about it because up until, like, March - I think New York shut down on March 13. March 12, I did an event at the Strand with Ben Katchor. So nobody was in more swarms of people than I was before it happened - millions of people on the subway, in the street, in restaurants, in museums.

So - but since then, I've had to have a few tests to do certain things. And I have to say, I wasn't very worried that I had it. I don't know why. But, I mean, every time someone called to tell me I was negative - I mean, the first time, actually, the line producer of "Pretend It's A City" called. And he said, I got your test results. You're negative. I said, I knew that, Josh (ph). And he said, how did you know that? And I said, because my entire life, people have been saying to me, Fran, you're so negative.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: So I was aware that I would be negative. I am still negative.

GROSS: Are you predisposed to worrying about health and infection?

LEBOWITZ: You know, I've always been very - I don't know what the word is - very careful about touching things. For instance, I can and have thousands of times - I've never touched a single thing in the New York City subway system ever. And usually, I'm by myself on the subway. But a few times - I remember many years ago going in the subway with someone. And he said to me when we got out, he said, you didn't touch anything. And I said, no. And the truth is, if I drop the Hope Diamond on the floor of a subway car...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: ...I'd leave it there. I'd say, well, you know, it's just the Hope Diamond. But I have seen - I mean, I, of course, seen people pick things up from this floor. I, at least once, was sitting across from a woman with a baby. And I forget what you call - the pacifier fell out of the baby's mouth. The woman picked it up, wiped it off on her shirt and put it back in the baby's mouth. I really thought one of two things are going to happen to that baby. Either he's going to drop dead right now, or he'll live to be a million years old because he's just been exposed to every...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: ...Germ and virus on the planet Earth.

GROSS: So you know, the shortages of, like, toilet paper and paper towels early on and the continuing shortage of disinfecting wipes, the food lines, the unemployment, the people losing their homes because of the pandemic - it really has gotten me thinking, among other things, about my parents who came of age during the Depression and what they went through and how that imprinted itself on them. And I feel like there's things about them now that I understand that I didn't before, why they always thought that something like that could happen any second, do you know what I mean? Your parents are probably the same generation as my parents. Have you been thinking about that, too?

LEBOWITZ: Yes. Actually, my parents are not alive, are yours?

GROSS: No. No, they're not. So I can't talk to them about this.

LEBOWITZ: No. My parents were - grew up during the Depression. My father's family was extremely poor. And so I actually have - I have many habits of someone who grew up during the Depression, because someone once said to me, why do you shut the light out every time you walk out of the room?

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: And I said, because my father made us do that...


LEBOWITZ: ...You know? And so I retained these habits. But my parents didn't grow up during a plague, so I don't have that to fall back on.

GROSS: You've always lived alone by choice. How is living alone feeling during the pandemic when everybody's feeling kind of isolated?

LEBOWITZ: Well, it's still, you know, seems to me to be by far the best choice. I mean, I cannot understand how people who do not live alone have stood this last 10 months, you know, because the only upside of, you know, being - you know, having to stay in my apartment is at least there was no one else there. I mean, I would find that unbearable, I mean, truly unbearable. So there are people that I know at the very beginning - this guy I know, this friend of mine, sent me, you know, like $1 million worth of orchids saying, these are to keep you company. And I thought, really? I mean, thank you. They're beautiful. But I keep myself company.

GROSS: Do you ever get lonely?

LEBOWITZ: You know, truthfully, I really never get lonely. I mean, I certainly can say that there are specific people that I've missed in my life numerous times, you know, some very grievously. But a kind of abstract loneliness? No.

GROSS: This new series is the second time Scorsese has documented you as a public speaker. You're friends. How did you become friends with Scorsese?

LEBOWITZ: You know, I don't - neither Marty nor I really know. I always say that, you know, I must have met Marty at a party because I can't think where else I would have met him, and also because I spent, you know, so much of my life going to parties. And Marty has gone to fewer parties, hence Marty has made more movies than Fran has written books. But...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: You know, I feel like I did notice at some point that whenever I saw Marty at a party, I would spend most of the evening talking to Marty. We both have such a strong connection to New York that, in fact, when I made my deal with Marty for "Public Speaking," we had the meeting. When the meeting was over, Marty said, OK, here's the deal. We don't leave Manhattan. And we shook hands. And that was the deal. We never had any kind of contract or anything. So in "Pretend It's A City," we did go to Queens, something Marty talked about as if we were going to Afghanistan.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: I remember, we have to go to Queens, Fran - Queens. You know where this place is? And even though, of course, Marty has made movies all over the world, you know, he doesn't take to that kindly, having to leave New York. And for instance, like, I happen not to have left New York for maybe a month before the shutdown, so I actually have not left New York for almost a year.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fran Lebowitz. She's featured in conversation in the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, who interviews her in the series. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fran Lebowitz. She first became famous as a writer, but now she's famous as a public speaker. In the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City," she's interviewed by her friend Martin Scorsese, who directed the series.

You strike me as someone who is resolutely yourself. You know who you are. You don't worry about changing yourself to be more popular or to please other people. You've been described as an iconoclast. Are you always comfortable within yourself?

LEBOWITZ: Yes. I'm always surprised that people - adults - you know, look to other people even for things like haircuts, you know? I mean, I just never thought about it. I don't know why. I mean, but that was true even when I was a little kid, you know? I just - I don't have a habit of comparing myself to other people, you know? So there is an upside to that, you know, which is that - I would say that the luckiest thing for me about being me is how relatively - and I stress the word relatively - free of envy I am because to envy someone, you have to compare yourself to them. And so I really don't do that. And so the few times in my life I felt, you know, deeply envious, the feeling was so repellent to me that I thought, God, this must be what it's like to be these people who are constantly envious of other people.

And whenever people express that to me - oh, I wish I, you know, had that thing that guy had, or I wish - I always say, if you are thinking - if you compare yourself to another person like that, like, I wish I had that house, you have to understand you have to be that person. You have to have everything else they have, you know, so that, you know - do you want to be that other person? So then I just never have felt that.

GROSS: You grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, and you say that you were raised by your parents to be a wife. That did not work out that way (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: It did not work out for them. It worked out great for me.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you looked around you and you looked at the adults in your neighborhood when you were growing up, and particularly when you looked at the women, what did you see?

LEBOWITZ: Well, you know, truthfully, I just felt in general - you know, I was born in 1950, so - I have to stress the end of 1950, so I'm younger than you think. So this was kind of the heyday of this kind of thing. I also had a mother who was pretty comfortable with that for herself, you know? I mean, so that - it wasn't - you know, some people that I know that are my age had mothers who were, like, visibly bristling at that. But that was not my mother.

So, you know, I - it isn't that I didn't believe my parents or believe the world I was in. I just, for some reason, managed to internally separate myself from it so that I was able to have, by the way, truly a pretty happy childhood. I really enjoyed my childhood. Partially, that's because I'm very suited to being a child, you know? I mean, I'm really suited to being a child, you know? I mean, a lot of the problems that I have in my life now, I wouldn't have if I was 8, I think. Eight-year-olds don't have to pay property taxes. Why do I?

So, you know, the being taught to cook and, you have to do, I mean, this; you have to do that - my parents were both profoundly conventional people. So that - I remember once saying, you know, when - I have a sister, and that's the whole family - my mother, my father, me and my sister. So I remember once saying when I was about 10 years old or something, why doesn't Daddy have to help with the dishes? And my father said, if I wanted to do dishes, I wouldn't have had two daughters.

GROSS: Whoa. He wasn't joking?

LEBOWITZ: No, not at all. And I remember that, and this is, you know, something like 60 years ago. But I don't remember feeling surprised to hear him say that or angry that he said that. That was just the way the world that I lived in was. You know, I was not, as a child, like, rebellious against that, you know, like, why can't I do that? I mean, a little girl in the 1950s like I was was told all the time that was the reason you couldn't do things. Why can't I do this? You're a girl. Oh. That was the answer.

GROSS: What did you want to do that your parents said you couldn't do because you were a girl?

LEBOWITZ: You know, I don't even remember. I just remember hearing it all the time, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

LEBOWITZ: I mean, it wasn't like a lot of girls - like, for instance, you know, a lot of girls - women my age, you know, remember not being able to play sports and stuff like that. Believe me; that was the upside for me. The upside was that I was not expected, you know, to play, you know, sports. So I never thought, like, why can't I join Little League, OK? Like, thank goodness I don't have to join Little League. So that - so in that way, I would say, like, well, I don't remember exactly what I couldn't do, but there were a lot of things I couldn't do, and that was the reason you couldn't do it.

And, for instance, when I was young, girls took home ec in school starting in, like, the fourth or fifth grade. Boys took shop. Now, I am not saying I want to take shop. I didn't, but I didn't want to take home ec, either. We had to sew. We had to cook. These are both things I still can't do, and I don't want to do them. So I got in trouble because we had to make - in home ec, we had to make an apron. There might be girls who don't even know what an apron is, and congratulations. My mother had an apron wardrobe.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: You know, my mother had dozens of aprons. So that - we had to make an apron, which was a garment we'd be wearing in the kitchen when we cooked for our husbands. And it's a pretty simple sowing job. But it was beyond me. So I taped mine together with Scotch tape and then got caught doing that, because, of course, when the teacher picked it up, the tape fell off. So that - you know, I didn't want to do these things. And I either didn't do them and got in trouble or did them poorly and got in trouble. But I didn't think, let me lead a movement against this. You know, I was never that kind of person. I'm still not.

You know, I've never been a political activist. I'm too lazy to be an activist. You know, I'm not the kind of person who did that. Very often, now, people who are young thank me for my former activism, which - you know, thank you for fighting for gay marriage. And I always say, I didn't fight for gay marriage. I never even thought about gay marriage. Gay marriage is not even a combination of words that came into my mind until people started talking about it. I didn't fight for it. Don't thank me. Thank someone else.

GROSS: So you were kind of different as a kid. When you were growing up, you wanted to go your own way. You had your own thoughts. You've always been yourself. And yourself is often oppositional (laughter) and unique. Did that bother you ever as a kid, that you didn't - I mean, you're such a paradox. Like, on the one hand, you always go your own way. You ended up being president of one of your high school classes. That struck me as so odd because I can't imagine you being interested in student government, even though I know you follow politics now. But that's different than student government. And so like, you're the president of your - of one of your classes. And then you're expelled from the school (laughter). It's like one paradox after another. Explain.

LEBOWITZ: Well, I mean, the difference is that the kids elected me president, and the headmaster threw me out.

GROSS: Got it. Yes. That's a good explanation (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: I mean, this class I was the president of had, literally, 12 people in it, OK? So I still - I believe I could be the president of the United States if there are only 12 people in the United States. So that - I wasn't interested in student government. I don't - this is a private girl school that I went to for, like, 15 minutes before they threw me out. So that's where I was elected president. And then the headmaster of that school threw me out. The official reason he threw me out was, he said, I was a terrible influence on the other girls. And I was usurping his power.

Whatever that meant, I have no idea. But - and I don't know what kind of power - I mean, it's kind of a sad thing that the headmaster of a girl's school thinks he has a lot of power. But - and that's what happened. So I always felt that I was punished for things unfairly. In other words, like, I didn't do - in other words, when I got thrown out of school, for years afterward, people say, what did you do? And I know I was expected to say, you know, I started a revolution, you know? I set fire to the gym. But I really didn't do anything. And I really think that what I got expelled for was what my mother used to call that look on your face.

GROSS: (Laughter).


GROSS: As in wipe that look off of your face (laughter)?

LEBOWITZ: Yes, wipe that look off your face. So I think - and, by the way, I was unaware of this look on my face. So that, you know, it's - like, people very often say to me, you never smile in photographs. Why don't you smile? And I always say, I think I am smiling. Why are you sneering? I think I'm smiling. So that - there is some kind of disconnect between, apparently, the way I look and the way I think I feel. So you know, yes, there's this paradox. But, you know, I've never had the experience of being so in the control of other people once I got out of school.

GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fran Lebowitz. She's featured in conversation in the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, who interviews her in the series. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of my interview with Fran Lebowitz. She became famous in the late '70s and early '80s for her collections of humorous essays, "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies." After developing a bad case of writer's block, which has lasted for decades with brief interruptions of writing, she became famous as a public speaker with interesting, funny opinions and observations on nearly everything. You can see her in action in the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City."

When you came to New York when you were in your teens, you wanted to be a writer. And you became a writer. But before you had, like, a best-selling book, you had jobs like driving a taxi and cleaning houses - well, cleaning apartments, maybe (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: Yeah, apartments.

GROSS: Yeah. I want to hear about driving a taxi 'cause you were how old - still in your teens?

LEBOWITZ: I would say - you know, I don't remember exactly. I could have been 20, 21, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: And this is in the '70s, at a time when there were very few women driving a taxi. And there still are a few women driving a taxi, but it was fewer then. And you were very young. Were you ever, like, in physical danger?

LEBOWITZ: Well, I mean, New York was a very dangerous period then, you know? They say it was, like, 1970 or '71 - I don't remember - you know, it was dangerous to walk down the street. There was a tremendous amount of crime. So it was considered dangerous.

I drove a taxi because I don't have any skills. You know, I didn't know how to do anything else. I knew how to drive because I was from New Jersey, so I know how to drive. I knew how to clean a house because my mother trained me to clean houses. That was pretty much it skill-wise. So I also didn't want to do the job that most of my friends did, which was wait tables because, you know, I didn't want to have to be nice to men to get tips or to sleep with the manager of my shift, which was a common requirement then for being a waitress in New York. So I didn't want to have a boss, which you don't in either one of those jobs.

I - cab driving, as a profession, was completely different than it is now because there were these garages with big fleets. There would be, like - someone would own, like, you know, 40 cabs or maybe more. So you could pick up a cab any shift. You could always make money. So that if you woke up in your apartment with no money - a frequent occurrence in my life - I could go pick up a cab. At the end of eight hours, I had money. So that, to me, was a great thing.

It was dangerous. Nothing ever happened to me in the cab. I mean, I was - never had any type of, you know, attack on me or anything like that. I was pretty careful, you know, who I picked up. By which I mean - it's still something I would do if I have to drive a cab again - not impossible.

You know, I would never - I would pick up any man - he could be holding an assault weapon if he was with a woman. I would not pick up a bunch of guys together. The same way that I will cross the street my whole life to avoid a bunch of young guys walking around together. It's not a good job for a woman. It's not, by the way, a good job. So if you're a young person listening to this, think of something else.

GROSS: Is it true that you also wrote porn after you came to Manhattan?

LEBOWITZ: It is true. I'm talking about books, all right? You know, someone told me about this, and someone told me they were doing this. And I don't remember anymore, but if you wrote a book for this company, you got, like, something like $500, which was probably, at that point, about a third of the amount of money I would make in a year. So this seemed like, what? This is unbelievable.

And this guy who told me about it had a contract. And then he - I also remember seeing this - there was a piece of paper that he got from this company that told you what had to be in the book, what couldn't be in the book, what had to be in the book, how often it had to be in the book. And so this guy - like, what happened was that he just felt he couldn't do it. So he kind of farmed it out and ended up with, like, six of us writing this book together and really wasn't writing. I mean, I didn't write. We just sat around, like - we thought it was hilarious, by the way.

GROSS: I can imagine. Yeah.

LEBOWITZ: One of the things you couldn't have was any kind of sex between men, but you had to have sex between women. These books were...

GROSS: To turn on men.


GROSS: Right. Yes. Right (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: These books were meant for straight men, OK? This whole company, I think, was meant for this. And so I just remember sitting around. Most of the people I was with were stoned. One person I remember typing on a typewriter. Not me, because I didn't know how to do that. And then we had to split up the money. I think I ended up getting, like, $40 or something like that. And - but the thing that I did do that I achieved was everyone used a pseudonym. No one used their real names on these books. And I got them to use the name of the headmaster who threw me out of school.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: (Laughter) That is in fact, to this day...

GROSS: Oh, that's - talk about revenge (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: ...One of my greatest accomplishments.

GROSS: The scenes with sex between women must have been very authentic when you were writing them (laughter).

LEBOWITZ: Well, these - you know, these books were meant, you know, purely for straight men. So, you know...

GROSS: Right - not for lesbians. Yeah.

LEBOWITZ: Yes. Not for women. Not for anyone else. But, you know, almost all cultural production at the time was also produced for straight men.

GROSS: (Laughter) Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Fran Lebowitz. She's featured in conversation in the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, who interviews her in the series. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fran Lebowitz. She first became famous as a writer. Now, she's famous as a public speaker. She kind of stopped writing due to a now-famous case of writer's block. In the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City," she's interviewed by her friend Martin Scorsese.

You worked at Andy Warhol's magazine, Interview. I think you got that job when you were 21. Did Andy Warhol, like, interview you for the position?

LEBOWITZ: No. So the first time I went to Interview - and I went up in the elevator. And when the elevator door opened, there was a metal door that was closed that had a piece of paper taped to it that said, knock loudly and announce yourself. This was after Andy had been shot. So I heard someone say, who was it? And I said, Valerie Solanas.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: And Andy opened the door.

GROSS: Oh, God.

LEBOWITZ: So in case you were thinking, Andy Warhol, he was a genius - all right, so first of all, I was shocked that he opened the door. I don't know. For some reason, I never actually expected him to be there even though it was called Andy Warhol's Interview. I just never - I didn't want to be there because of Andy. I wanted to be there because it was a magazine. So he opened the door. And he didn't comment on what I said. And I said, I had an appointment with the editor. And he said, what do you do? I said, I'm a writer. Now, nobody that I know my age wanted to be a writer - nobody. And so this was very helpful to me, you know? But almost everyone I knew wanted to be or was a musician or a filmmaker. Writing was, like, not, you know, the thing people are gravitating towards.

So they were having trouble getting writers. So he said, you know, oh, great. And I went in. And I told - now, I told the editor, I don't - I want to write movie reviews. He said, OK. I said, but I want my own column. OK. I want the back page. OK. I only want to review bad movies. I only want to review bad movie because I just want to be funny. I don't - I'm not a film critic. OK. So I had a column called The Best of the Worst, where I just reviewed bad movies. And that's how I started in Interview.

GROSS: That's great. When you worked at Andy Warhol's magazine Interview, it sounds like you had some - like, a lot of disagreements with Andy Warhol. What would you disagree about?

LEBOWITZ: I didn't have a lot of disagreements with Andy because I didn't work at the Factory. In other words, I didn't go there, you know, every day. There were people who worked there, you know. I mean...

GROSS: Right.

LEBOWITZ: ...The Interview was on one side. And the Factory, as we called it, was on the other side. But there were people who went to work there every day. At Interview, there were the editor. There was a receptionist. But I never had a job there. I never had a job. So I didn't go there every day. I wouldn't say that I had disagreements with Andy. I would say that Andy didn't like me and that I did not like Andy. I don't...

GROSS: Why didn't you like him?

LEBOWITZ: Well, I noticed right away how many people around him died. I know you're not supposed to say this, you know? But, I mean, kids, I mean, you know? There was a tremendous amount of, you know, encouragement of people already teetering on the brink of sanity. I mean, a lot of the people around Andy in those days were - I don't know what's the thing you're supposed to say now. I guess - I'm certain you're not supposed to say crazy.

But whatever you want - let's say, not the most stable people on the planet Earth. And Andy would feed these fantasies they had of themselves because it amused him. And it was also lucrative for him. And I just didn't want to be, really, around that. And, you know, I think that Andy realized that. Or maybe I just wasn't his cup of tea. But I didn't have arguments with Andy because I never had much conversation with Andy.

GROSS: So are you referring to, like, drug overdoses and suicides?

LEBOWITZ: Yeah, drug overdoses. Or there were a couple of actual suicides. You know, I mean, these people - no one was dying of old age. These people were really young (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEBOWITZ: So - and this was way before AIDS. So this was, yeah, mostly drugs.

GROSS: Being a part even if it was on the periphery, of Andy Warhol's Factory, you probably knew a lot of people who were then known as drag queens. Do you wonder what life would have been like for them if they were alive now, with the LGBTQ movement and with people being very out as being trans?

LEBOWITZ: You know, it's impossible. You know, I mean, I was, I would say, friends with Candy and Jackie, less Holly, who I think is still alive. You can't take someone out of their era. It's impossible. So you know, if Candy was alive now, she wouldn't be the person I knew at all, you know? You just - it's impossible to do that. I mean, it's impossible to do that and have it be accurate. So I mean, if you're asking me, would they prefer it? I don't know, perhaps not. But it was a illegal - illegal, by which I mean there was laws against a man dressing like a woman. It was illegal. People were arrested for this. They went to jail for this. They were beaten up by the cops for this. So I would, lots of times, go places. And Candy would be there. And I would always say, how did you get here? How did you get here?

GROSS: Like, without being arrested.

LEBOWITZ: Yeah, without being arrested.

GROSS: You know so many people, including a lot of famous people. Did you know Donald Trump in the '80s through nightlife?

LEBOWITZ: Of course not (laughter). I mean, you would...

GROSS: Different circles (laughter)?

LEBOWITZ: Yeah, I would say. I mean, of course, I heard of him. You know, people in New York heard of him. I mean, Donald Trump was a joke in New York. I mean, Donald Trump was not even taken seriously as a real estate developer by real estate developers. In other words, there was no segment of the population of New York that did not look down on Donald Trump, OK? So that - I was just one of the many people who looked down on Donald Trump. So I mean, it's possible, probably, I did see him some places. But I certainly didn't know him. I certainly - I mean, I can't think of too many places that I've ever been in my life, you know, from - starting from when I first came to New York until now - other than totally public places, by which I mean a sidewalk - where I would've been any place where Donald Trump would've been welcome. And that was before he destroyed the Western world. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEBOWITZ: No, I didn't know him.

GROSS: You were close friends with Toni Morrison, and you've written about that friendship and how much you miss her now. And I think you met at a reading that you were both doing. A lot of people think that you were an odd combination because her writing sometimes had this kind of magic realism, and you're this kind of cynical, skeptical, you know, opinionated humorist. But obviously you had a lot of things in common. What were some of the things that you shared?

LEBOWITZ: Well, Toni loved parties, OK? So if you didn't know Toni personally, you would not know how much fun Toni was. Toni was really fun. Most of the time I spent with Toni, which was zillions of hours - I mean, I met Toni in 1978. So most of the time we were laughing, OK? I mean, she was really fun.

Yes, I - in fact, when I first knew Toni, she was still working at Random House as an editor. And they were - at that point, my publisher and my editor called me and said - now, I can't remember who was the president of Random House at the time, but he said, so-and-so called me. And you have to stop hanging around in Toni Morrison's office because the people - so-and-so, whatever his name was - was complaining because you're you're hanging around in there, and the two of you are laughing all the time. And she's not getting her work done. So I made Toni not getting her work done, you know, and it's just a ridiculous idea.

So I even once not that long ago met a man who taught at Princeton, and Toni taught at Princeton much after this. And he said, I used to have the office next to Toni Morrison, and you and Toni Morrison really annoyed me with all your laughing. So I would say that's probably the thing we had in common - was liking to laugh.

GROSS: So, finally, I know that you've had insomnia for years. What do you do when you can't sleep?

LEBOWITZ: But I've never slept. So that - apparently, my mother used to say that she never read so much as when I was an infant because I was screaming all night, crying all night. And even when I was a little kid, I would say, well, I was crying because I didn't know how to read because I was up anyway. But if you're, like, two months old, you just cry, you know, because you can't read.

But I didn't sleep when I was a child. The only time my life I've ever really been able to sleep was when I was a teenager, and there was a period of a few years when I was a teenager where I couldn't stay awake. So I was constantly sleeping. But other than that, I just expect not to sleep, by which I mean, you know, I don't sleep more than maybe two hours consecutively, and that has almost always been true. So that - I don't think - I think it's just some sort of biological thing to me because there doesn't seem to be any difference.

GROSS: Do you get up and read a book in the middle of the night?

LEBOWITZ: I used to. And they always say, don't walk around. You know, play music. But that's for - you know, all those, like, tips for insomnia are if something is temporary, like, you know, you have insomnia because something happened and - you know? But, I mean, I have insomnia because I'm alive, so that - nothing really works.

GROSS: You don't have a cellphone. You don't have a computer. Do you think you will never have one?

LEBOWITZ: I don't know. I mean, I'm always worried that they might stop making regular phones or stop, like, fixing them or whatever. By regular phones, I mean landline.

GROSS: Yeah.

LEBOWITZ: I mean, I worry about things like, are they going to stop making paper? So I - like, I hoard paper. Are they going to stop making pencils or pens, you know, because sometimes at a party, like, I'll want to write something down. I've had this happen to me more than once where I say to someone I'm talking to - a young person - do you have a pen? And they say, what do you mean? What do I mean? Like, when this first was asked of me, I thought, do they not know what a pen is? No, they know what it is, but they don't know why they would have one. To them, it's like I'm asking, you know, do you have a frying pan? Yes, but not on me because why would I need a frying pan at a party? So I worry about all the things that I never thought would disappear might disappear.

GROSS: Fran Lebowitz, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back on our show.

LEBOWITZ: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: You can see Fran Lebowitz interviewed by Martin Scorsese and by Spike Lee in the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City," which was directed by Scorsese. Coming up, John Powers reviews a new novel about language and love. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. "The Liar's Dictionary" is the first novel by the Prize-Winning British writer Eley Williams. It tells the story of two lexicographers who are obsessed with words and love. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a book bursting with cleverness yet also filled with heart.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I recently learned a great word - Mountweazel. You may already know it, but if you don't, a Mountweazel is a made-up word or name that publishers deliberately put in a reference book to catch those who steal their work without attribution. If they find this fake word or name in another dictionary or encyclopedia, they can prove they've been ripped off. You'll meet a frolicking heard of Mountweazels in "The Liar's Dictionary," the wonderful first novel by British writer Eley Williams. This book takes the most unpromising of heroes - two lexicographers - and then sets them loose in an effervescent romp about language, love and life. If you like puns, crosswords, Scrabble, the Urban Dictionary or simply enjoy witty writing, this sweet, slyly structured, unexpectedly touching book will go down like a hot fudge sundae.

"The Liar's Dictionary" interweaves the tales of two word-man characters who work for the same dictionary publisher, Swansby's, 120 years apart. In 1899, we meet Peter Winceworth, a poor, nervous, sensitive loner who dreams of moving to a seaside cottage. It's typical of his life that - having faked a lisp to win sympathy - Winceworth gets assigned to work on the letter S - or F, he must call it. Meanwhile, in present day London, Mallory is a chipperly, angsty 20-something intern who spends her days answering the same threatening phone caller. Her official task is to find all the fake entries that some disaffected lexicographer secretly put in Swansby's dictionary without telling the editors.

Both have romantic troubles. Mallory adores her action-oriented girlfriend, Pip, and feels cowardly because she can't muster the courage to be out. To her shame, she calls Pip her flatmate. For his part, Winceworth becomes smitten with a smart, beautiful Russian named Sophia Slivkovna. Trouble is, she's the fiancee of his most hated co-worker, a man who is everything Winceworth is not - rich, handsome, thoughtless and cruel.

You'll find yourself rooting for both Winceworth and Mallory. But their stories aren't the most immediately enjoyable feature of "The Liar's Dictionary." We first noticed the novel's exuberant love of language. Structured like a dictionary, as the title suggests, the book unfolds in 26 chapters - from A is for artful to Z is for zugzwang.

Every page is intoxicated with words. Williams laces her book with so many enjoyable ones that I kept my own dictionary at the ready. Many of the words she spotlights are real, like glabella, which I learned is the bit of skin between the eyebrows and above the nose. Others are cooked up by Mallory or Winceworth, who keep dreaming up words that should exist to identify a familiar feeling of reality. My favorite is cassiculation, which is defined is the sensation of walking into a spiderweb.

Even as Williams revels in the power of words to help us capture experience, she makes clear the many ways they also deceive and imprison us. Words make us believe we can pin down meanings just so in a world too fluid ever to be pinned down. That's the case with the threatening caller, who's furious that Swansby's dictionary has changed the definition of marriage so it no longer refers exclusively to a union between a man and a woman. For her part, Mallory riffs on the word queer rather than tell the world of her queerness.

Both she and Winceworth need a jolt to start fully living. And they get them - Mallory from a life-threatening crisis at the office, Winceworth from his encounters with Sophia, which offers dialogue more sparkling than any romantic comedy I've seen in ages. There's a scene with them and a pelican in St. James Park that had me laughing out loud.

Now, "The Liar's Dictionary" isn't perfect. Like so many clever novels, it occasionally tries a bit too hard to dazzle. Nabokov had the same problem. And some may find its ending more satisfying conceptually than emotionally. It is never less than a delight and a wise one at that. Rudyard Kipling once said that words are the most powerful drug. And by the end of the novel, Mallory and Winceworth come to see this. They learn to start seeking the future, not inside the dictionary, but outward in the big, wide world.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "The Liar's Dictionary" by Eley Williams.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the Senate filibuster became a tool of obstruction. It dates back to the Jim Crow era, when Southern senators wanted to preserve white supremacy. That's according to Adam Jentleson, who will be my guest. He's the author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." He knows the Senate rules. He used to be Harry Reid's deputy chief of staff. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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