Owen Moogan interviewed Fran Lebowitz on September 30, 2014 in Studio 8H of Rockefeller Center. The producers of the 2015 documentary feature film Live From New York! invited Ms. Lebowitz to participate as a cultural expert on New York City.
OWEN MOOGAN: What were some of the silver linings of New York City in the mid-70s?
FRAN LEBOWITZ: To me, it was always an expensive place. People always say now about the ’70s, “Oh, it was so cheap.” It was always more expensive than anyplace else, even when everyone hated New York. It was still more expensive. It was dangerous. It was filthy. But it was really fun, really fun. Now, sometimes, when people ask me this question (you might be surprised you’re not the first person to have asked me this), I make a real effort to decide—was New York much more fun in the ’70s because it was much more fun in the ’70s? Or was it because I was in my 20s? So there’s no question that it is much more fun to be in your 20s than it is to be in your 60s. However, I think that it was more fun because people who are now in their 20s are always saying to me, “Fran, I wish I lived in New York in the ’70s. It sounds like so much fun.” So, it was really fun. It was dangerous, there’s no question. And I still have all the habits of a New Yorker from the ’70s. In other words, I see people on the subway putting a package next to them and leaving it there. I mean, no matter what I have in my hand, it could be a stub of a pencil, I have a death grip on it. You will not get this pencil away from me. I have all those habits. I have sixteen locks on my door and a doorman. I’m always looking behind me. I am prepared for it to revert to that level of crime, which I expect it probably won’t.
OM: Can you describe how an environment that is perceived as dangerous can be a stunning place for creativity and art to thrive?
FL: There were numerous reasons for it. One is because no one cared. No one paid attention to you. There wasn’t this constant attention on waiting for the next thing from some sort of central agency of media. All these scenes, by the way, were very discrete. And some of these things—you know, one of the things that people forget is that being gay was illegal. Illegal, not just different than it is now, but against the law, and prosecuted. All gay scenes, of which there were numerous ones, were covert. Not because we thought it was more interesting, but because it was illegal.
So those scenes were very different from some of the other things you’d imagine. Disco, which started out basically as a gay thing—and which was very much, by the way, hated by straight people, especially by straight men—was a very separate thing. And all those original clubs were private. You couldn’t get in. Most people didn’t know about them. They were illegal because they were private. They mostly didn’t have alcohol, which is something no one ever mentions because that was an extra illegal thing that you really couldn’t get out of. There were, of course, a tremendous number of drugs. Creativity is best, and even encouraged by a lack of interest. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who you may or may not recall, the greatest, in my opinion, the smartest public official certainly in my lifetime, once said that during the Cold War, someone asked him, “How do we encourage the arts?” and he said, “Forbid them.” The arts weren’t forbidden then, but you know, people didn’t really care.
OM: Can you contextualize that against the movie and music scene of New York around ’75?
FL: Well, to me, ’75 already seems late. I know that seems early to most people, or in fact, incredibly early, ancient, but to me, I would say there are certain music scenes that I had no interest in. Punk is one of them. Although I knew about it, that was just knowledge thrust upon me by my circumstances because I wasn’t interested in it. I really can’t say that I have ever in my life had any interest in popular music made by white people. I’m just not interested in it. So rock and roll, I knew tons of these people because I knew them from around, but I didn’t really care about it. Um, ’75, I mean, to me, maybe it’s already starting to be like downhill because there was more commercial interest in things.
You know, generally, it’s—it may be good for certain artists—but it’s really the art, actual art, by which people used to mean painting. The art world in New York City used to fit in one restaurant, literally fit in one restaurant, and there was one restaurant, where it fit into. All of these things were small then. They were much smaller, and widespread interest in something is never good for it. These things are good for democracy, but they’re bad for the culture. This society should be more democratic, in my opinion, but the culture should be less democratic, because the truth is, you probably are not going to write a good book. I don’t want to read it.
Talent is a rare thing. It is not a common thing. It is not a thing you can learn. It is not a thing you can pay to go to graduate school for. We’d all be better off if you worked a little harder and went to medical school. We need doctors. There are certain things we need in the culture— more writers? No. More artists? No. We don’t need more. We need fewer.
OM: What did New York City lose or gain during the Giuliani era? The only thing I miss about the Giuliani years was being able to smoke inside. For that, he was fantastic. Truthfully, the last mayor that I really, really liked was Lindsay. I also liked David Dinkins, who everyone forgot was the mayor, but I also liked him.
My history of commenting on mayors would be how I could never ever hate a mayor more than Ed Koch; then we had Giuliani. I could never hate a mayor more than Giuliani; then we had Bloomberg. What I learned from this is you can always hate a mayor more than you think you can. This is not confined to mayors, by the way.
OM: Going back to the city in the early 80s, what are your earliest recollections of when AIDS began to creep into our lives?
FL: I remember it very much from the beginning. I remember it when it was called GRID, Gay Related Immunodeficiency, where they didn’t know what it was from.
In the first years of AIDS, people died in five minutes. I mean, in five minutes. People were in a state of terror. To no one that I knew, including myself, did it ever occur that it was from sex. Why? Because we thought sex was good for you. Just the way we thought drugs were good for you before we saw everyone die. We thought drugs were good for you. What could be better for you than drugs? What could be better than having sex with one million people? We actually thought these things were healthful. I know this is impossible to imagine, but we thought it was really good for you, like orange juice or something, which now probably people think is not good for you. But it never occurred to us that it was from sex. At first, people didn’t really know what it was. People were terrified. It was very terrifying. I would say that probably no single thing changed the culture of not just New York, but actually of the world more than AIDS, because it killed off an entire generation of artists in five seconds. And it allowed the second, third or fourth tier of artists to come to the fore, and these are the people you now think are great.
OM: When was this city, warts and all, at its best in terms of your own personal life?
FL: Well, the city was the best of my life. I have to say, I had more fun when I was 21 than I do now. I believe that probably most people have more fun when they are 21 than when they are my age. I think New York was more fun. However, here’s something I do think, and no one would accuse me of being a cockeyed optimist, but New York is not going to stay like this. Tons of kids come up to me all the time and say, “New York, it used to be so fun, you know, now it’s like this.” And I always say, “Yes, now it’s like this, but it won’t stay like this.” And they always go, “It’s going to go back?” “No, it’s not going to go back, but it’s not going to stay like this.” And then, “How do you know?” “Because it didn’t stay like that.”
It’s not going to stay like this. It is going to change. It may change for the worse, although it is hard to imagine, but it’s possible. In fact, truthfully, a lot of these things had been so long, these awful things, like these millions of tourists, you know, that probably is getting close to changing. When? I do not know.
There is an immense difference from being 20 now and being 20 in the ’70s. Here’s the biggest difference. When I was 20, I didn’t think I was a kid. When I was 20, I had been completely supporting myself for two years, so that the big difference is that now there are people who are 40 who think they’re kids. So, there is an immense difference.
You can be a lot, lot younger than me and still not be young. That’s the bad news. Just because someone’s a lot younger than you, if they’re 60 or in their 60s, it doesn’t mean they’re young. Twenty is certainly young but it is not immensely young, to be a writer. It is not immensely young to be a performer. It would be incredibly young to be a Supreme Court Justice. There are professions where, at 30, you’re out.
OM: Why do the people back then seem to be more socially aware than the kids now?
FL: I don’t really know because I’m not a kid. But in fact, it is not confined to kids. The problem now is not just that kids don’t pay attention to this, no one does. It’s an astonishing thing. We just went to war, and by we, I mean him, you know?
We just went to war with no discussion at all, no discussion, like it was his decision like, you know, where to eat dinner. There was no outcry inside Congress, not in session, because Congress is never in session. And people don’t seem to care. I don’t know whether they don’t care or whether they are frustrated, but here is the truth: This is still, generally speaking, a democracy. If everything is horrible, it is your fault. It is your fault. I happen to be—I don’t want to brag—probably the single best voter in the United States of America. I vote in every election, every midterm, every school board election. And when I went to vote for the presidential election, for Obama, for the first term there were huge lines, as there always are in presidential elections, tons and tons of kids. They could not be more pleased with themselves. You think they’d invented the electric light bulb.
Two years later, I went to vote in the midterms. The neighborhood I lived in at the time was around NYU. I was one of the oldest people in the neighborhood. I went to vote in the midterms, I was the youngest person there. Guess what? That is not something you do once and feel fabulous about. And voting is not just what you—you know, voting’s not sufficient, so that if people, a democracy is a thing that is very hard. It’s also a thing that is unnatural. Democracy is not a natural form of government. A natural form of government is a dictatorship or a monarchy. Look at a playground. That’s what is natural to people. Democracy you have to learn, which means you have to teach it, which means you have to do it. You have to teach it every year to every new group of five-year- olds or six-year-olds. And if you don’t do that like that, you lose it. And that’s what happened.
So it’s actually something you have to work at, and it’s actually something that you have to teach. It’s something that can be stolen and, actually, it has been stolen. Saturday Night Live’s early years were a thrilling mix of dangerous comedy, pointed dissent and bold, brazen music that promised a new platform for a generation which had seen too much war and experienced too much disillusion. The show changed along with the society it reflected, keeping pace with and often challenging the zeitgeist, influenced by radical media shifts and the evolving morals of the nation, given a new voice by the Internet and the uncharted waters of a terrorist attack on the US. As SNL turns 40, the documentary feature film Live From New York! explores how this American institution reveals who we are today. The film opened the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, with a North American theatrical release in Summer 2015.
The film is directed by Bao Nguyen and produced by NeueHouse member JL Pomeroy.
Photography: Peter Hujar