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Fran Lebowitz is, without a doubt, a quintessential New Yorker. The famed writer, cultural pundit, and friend of filmmaker Martin Scorsese (they recall first meeting at filmmaker John Waters’s birthday party), explores that in the pair’s new Netflix show, Pretend It’s a City, which premiered earlier this month and covers everything Lebowitz loathes and loves about Manhattan, from the subway system to tourists in Times Square and art auctions.
The seven-part series (shot prepandemic) is a deep dive into New York’s cultural oddities, yes. But it’s more of a conversation piece between Lebowitz and Scorsese, as well, which sheds a light onto their quirky friendship.
The Gramercy Park members club, The Players, and the Queens Museum provide the backdrops for the docuseries. It’s combined with footage from their public lectures, documented over the years. Watching Lebowitz’s witticisms is funny, but so is Scorsese’s laugh that follows. Lebowitz argues: Public art in the subway system? Not if the station has to close. Why are there plants in Times Square? They surely don’t belong there. And her friendship with jazz musician Charles Mingus? Legendary.
Lebowitz has been living in Manhattan since 1970. She saw her rise as a columnist for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, then wrote two books: Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), both beacons of cultural criticism. She continued to write at Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair and is now known as a pundit who comments on everything from the art world to Washington. Below, Lebowitz speaks to AD from her home in Chelsea about living with a collection of over 10,000 books, her old furniture, and living in the West Village in the 1970s.
Architectural Digest: Do you remember your first apartment in New York City?
Fran Lebowitz: Oh, yes! Very well. It was a tiny one. I slept on a sofa bed. It was one room, and that’s generous to say even that. When that bed was open, I could touch all the walls of my apartment. It was on West 4th Street in the West Village; the building is still there. It’s a small building that was built as a sailors’ rooming house; it was not far from the river. Tiny rooms, no kitchen. I had a bar fridge and a hot plate. No sink, it was in the bathroom. I lived there from 1970 to 1978. It was horrible! It was a horrible apartment, but it was in the West Village, which was so much safer than the East Village.
What was it like living on West 57th Street?
After I moved out of that place on West 4th Street, I lived on 10th Street, then I moved to the Osborne on 57th Street in 1984. I have a particular love for 19th-century architecture. That building was built before electricity. It has high ceilings, it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in New York. Certainly the lobby is spectacular. I’ve lived in seven New York apartments.
What is your personal experience with New York real estate? You joke in the Netflix show that you’re “buy-high, sell-low Lebowitz.”
I’m horrible. I make unbelievable mistakes, then I have bad luck. I was looking for apartments in 2017; the real estate market was sky-high. I looked at over 100 apartments. The price would go up within a week by $100,000. I finally bought an apartment that costs about three times what I can afford. People kept asking: “When are the prices going to go down?” I kept saying: “Just wait until I buy this apartment.” Now they’re plummeting due to the [COVID-19] pandemic. That’s bad luck. I’m not saying the worst part of the pandemic is that real estate prices are down—it’s the pandemic. But, from a real estate point of view, I couldn’t have predicted the pandemic. I’ve made bad decisions, one after another. I try to learn from my mistakes, but it's something intrinsic in me: I’m going to make bad real estate decisions. There’s no way out of it.
You own 10,000 books. What’s it like to live with them?
Oh, it's delightful. I think I have 12,000 books now. I can think of no better company. The best way to live is by yourself and with 12,000 books. Okay? I don’t have bookshelves. I have roughly 18 or 20 bookcases that I bought over the course of many years. Since I own mostly 19th-century American furniture, I have a vast array of 19th-century bookcases—all my bookcases have glass doors. I would never buy a bookcase without glass doors because this is New York City and dust eats books. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to pay for a dusting staff, which is what you need. If I’m walking down the street and I see a bookcase in someone’s apartment, I think, What a great apartment.
Why is it so difficult for you to throw out books, even when they’re bad?
I have never thrown out a book; to me, a book is very close to a human being. You have no idea how much time I’ve spent thinking about having books I do not want. Many books come to me unbidden by publishers. I’m at a point in my life, where I ask myself: “Do I like this book so much that I want to keep this book?” With some books, I recommend them to my friends and give them the book. Some, when they add up and I don’t want them in my house, and there isn’t a pandemic, and there’s a few hundred of them, I sell them to the Strand, who comes and picks them up. Every time I see books in a trash can, it breaks my heart.
Did you see Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, where he said he wants empty hotels and office buildings to be turned into affordable housing? Do you think it's possible?
I never know what “affordable housing” means anyway. No housing in New York is affordable. During the Bloomberg administration, they built far too many hotels. I was loudly objecting to it. I said every time you build a hotel, there is not an apartment building. It's one of the reasons there is less affordable housing. I hope a lot of these tourists never come back and they can turn these hotels into affordable apartments, I think it’s a very good idea. If he’s talking about Midtown hotels, they will come back, he’s wrong. Andrew Cuomo is wrong a lot, by the way; if he thinks the East 40s are going to become a residential neighborhood, I think he’s incorrect. I think we should build public housing. The city hasn’t built public housing since the 1960s.
What do you think about Andrew Yang running for mayor of New York?
It’s absurd that he would be the mayor of New York. He ran for president—a job he was equally unqualified for. I don’t know what Andrew Yang’s actual profession is, but he should stick to that. All the speeches I’ve seen him give, and during the primary debate during the presidential election, I’d say this guy doesn’t know much at all to do with governance. He’s just a rich guy who is bored. I would suggest he do something else, like buy a sailboat. Leave us alone.
Who should be mayor of New York?
Among all the people who are running for mayor, being mayor of New York is the second hardest job in the country after being president. Let me assure you that we really need someone who knows how to be the mayor of New York. It's going to be an incredibly hard job now. But it has always been hard. We have an incredibly incompetent mayor.
You wouldn’t run for mayor?
I couldn’t win [a vote in] this room—I’m alone. Let’s put it that way.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest