Fran Lebowitz has tough love for tough COVID-19 times

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In the earliest days of the lockdown, with New York City suddenly quiet, empty and experiencing a kind of terror not known since September 11th, one of our most iconic inhabitants spoke. 

“Fran Lebowitz is Never Leaving New York,” ran the headline in — where else? — The New Yorker. ­Lebowitz, now 70, served up her state of the city — beating Jerry Seinfeld by four months. 

“For at least 20 years, I have been dreaming of the time when there were no tourists in Times Square,” she said. “Now there are no tourists in Times Square, but, of course, there’s no one in Times Square.” (She also spat her contempt for a friend who “fled to Montana.”) 

Nearly one year into quarantine, with New York City emptier and quieter than ever, we have Fran Lebowitz — directed by that other great New Yorker, Martin Scorsese — on Netflix. 

She gripes and opines and truly, it is quite the tonic. Such are the times that hearing this particular New Yorker grouse in the quotidian way only she can is the most comforting and hilarious thing going. (The series title comes from Lebowitz’s common rebuke to tourists ignoring actual New Yorkers trying to get somewhere: “Pretend it’s a city!”) 

We can’t get our promised vaccine shots, our restaurants are dying by the minute, theater is dead and we are governed by two self-regarding incompetents, but Fran Lebowitz is here to distill and articulate the ever-abiding, specific rage of the New Yorker. Or, as she puts it, “The anger is, I have no power but I am filled with opinions.” 

Aren’t we all? 

Lebowitz, a writer famous for not having written in decades, talks to Scorsese prepandemic from a clubby room at The Players Club on Gramercy Park, in conversation with fans and at the Queens Museum, where she walks around a small-scale replica of the city and offers a tossed-off take on Robert Moses: “Best as a miniaturist.” 

Over seven half-hour episodes, Lebowitz indulges in what she calls “the pleasure of observation.” She is a throwback to the 1970s, when charismatic, witty intellectuals and writers were commonplace on TV — daytime and late night — household names on par with athletes and movie stars. 

She has been compared to a modern-day Dorothy Parker, albeit one who started smoking at 12, never graduated high school, had a close friendship with Charles Mingus, and has never turned down a party invite — except that one time she was invited to a very small, intimate dinner party for Leni Riefenstahl. (To the host, in sum and substance: “Are you out of your mind?!”) 

Lebowitz is a self-invention, the kind that could only be born and cultivated here. How does a writer who doesn’t write dress in Savile Row bespoke and live in a reportedly $3 million Chelsea apartment? We don’t know, yet such vagaries add to her mystique. 

Lebowitz is the last of a dying breed, the surly New Yorker so sure she’s the smartest person in the room (she is), filled with contempt for those who don’t agree with her or can’t keep up or have come to New York for all the wrong reasons and want to make it clean, nice, safe. Fran Lebowitz, in the grand tradition of New Yorkers who do not give a f–k, has no time for safe spaces or trigger warnings or political correctness. 

At one point, when Lebowitz casually uses the phrase “pimp culture,” it’s almost shocking. Then you think: Wait, should I be shocked? Aren’t we all too easily shocked and offended these days? 

Fran Lebowitz, in this incredibly fraught and traumatic moment, gives us permission to laugh. She is, as ever, rude, condescending, judgmental and can turn anything and anyone — no sacred cows for her — into a punchline. She doesn’t care if she hurts your feelings. There’s no one you’d rather sit next to at a dinner party. 

On Bloomberg remaking Times Square into a lounge for tourists: “You know what I hate about New York? There’s not enough places to lay down in the middle of Times Square.” 

What she told a friend’s daughter, wary of moving back due to the cost of living here: “Let me tell you something: No one can afford to live in New York. No one can afford to live in New York. Yet 8 million people do. How do we do this? We don’t know.” 

On staying too long in her beautiful yet falling-down Midtown apartment: “[It’s like] an abusive husband — yes, he beats me up, but he’s so handsome.” 

On never leaving: “When people say, ‘Why do you live in New York?’ you really can’t answer them — except you know that you have contempt for people who don’t have the guts to do it.” 

The only foreshadowing — no less poignant for being unintentional — comes as Lebowitz looks down at the tiny replica of New York, missing only one thing: people. Must be nice to see the city so calm, she is asked. 

“The city’s calm ’cause there’s no one in it,” she replies. “New York City this quiet? Something happened.”

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