Wielding a sharp pen in one hand and cigarette in another, Fran Lebowitz wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine beginning in 1968; published two classic collections of tart, humorous essays — Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981) — and has ever since remained a fixture of the Manhattan social scene as a sort of critic without portfolio.
Underneath the cool public persona, biting opinions, and famously large glasses, she is, technically speaking, a Jersey girl — Morristown, to be exact.
NJJN: You made it onto the late David Bowie’s 100 favorite reads, or at least Metropolitan Life did. What’s that like?
Lebowitz: I’ve known David since like 1971. I was working at Interview magazine, which was owned by Andy Warhol, and he used to come to see Andy — he didn’t come to see me…. But, um, I don’t have a computer so I only know about this because a lot of people have told me.
NJJN: You don’t have a computer?
Lebowitz: It sounds now like much more of a choice than it originally was. It kind of happened by accident. When they first invented computers — I mean the kind that people have in their house — they were called — God, what were they called? — word processors. I felt, well, this is just a very fast kind of typewriter. I didn’t type. So I just didn’t get one. I still don’t know how to type. I write with a pen. (And you know when they invented cell phones, I didn’t want one and I still don’t, because I don’t have to be in constant communication with people.) I never imagined the entire world would go into this machine. But that’s what happened. So it looks like some incredible stance, but it was actually just kind of an accident.
NJJN: You got kicked out of the Wilson School, an Episcopalian high school in Mountain Lakes, at 17. What exactly happened?
Lebowitz: There was no official charge. When people ask me about this, they usually think, what do you have to do to get expelled from school? Now, you have to burn the school down or something. I just wasn’t the headmaster’s cup of tea.
Now when kids get in trouble, the parents go on the side of the kid. But when I was a kid, if you got in trouble with anyone — a teacher, another parent, anyone — your parents instantly went on the side of the other adult. Now parents argue with schools when they do things like that. Sometimes they sue them. But my parents didn’t do that. I got kicked out of school. That was it. It could never happen now.
NJJN: Can you speak about growing up in Morristown?
Lebowitz: I had a really happy childhood. But I was born in 1950 — so it’s like asking what it’s like to grow up on Pluto. All the things that people worry about now with their children — we never heard of these things. As soon as you got a bicycle, like around when you were nine or 10 years old, you could go wherever you wanted. There were maybe some streets you couldn’t go down, because they were considered too dangerous, you know, because there were more than five cars on them. But other than that, we just roamed around and we did whatever we wanted.
We had a lot of freedom — that does not exist anymore, is not even possible, I guess. People were not constantly telling us about the dangers. The things that happen to children now — they didn’t even exist in horror movies, you know?
My mother didn’t work when I was a child. Most women didn’t work. They spent enough time with you; you know, they didn’t feel guilty. Not only did our parents not stay on top of us, we weren’t even allowed to stay in the house. So if you sat at the lunch table for more than one second after you finished eating, my mother would look at me like, “Have you lost your mind? Get out of the house!”
Morristown was a very beautiful town. It was before 287 went through. I remember a large part of my childhood, women in my living room with my mother, trying to stop 287 — which of course they did not succeed at. They thought it would ruin the town, which of course it did.
NJJN: You attended Hebrew school and your family attended a synagogue, right?
Lebowitz: We belonged to the Morristown Jewish Center. [Now the Conservative MJC Beit Yisrael, at that time it housed three congregations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform]. The smallest was the Orthodox shul. It was tiny. And it was all old people. They would have been people the age of my grandparents, say. The largest was the Conservative part, which is what we belonged to.
I remember asking my father when my older cousins starting getting bat mitzva’d, “Am I going to have a bat mitzva?” He never even looked up from his newspaper. He said, “For girls? Ridiculous.” So I didn’t have a bat mitzva. I was glad because I didn’t want to go to Hebrew school. I didn’t want to go to school three days a week after school, which is what it was then. So I went to Sunday school until I was 15. And then had a confirmation.
NJJN: What do think about that now? Are you sorry when you look back?
Lebowitz: If you’re asking me was there any time in my life I wanted to go to school more, I would have to say no. No, I do not regret not having had to go to school more.
NJJN: So I have the sense that outward observances and rituals are not the core of your Jewish identity.
Lebowitz: No. Not at all. I got in trouble in Sunday school when I was 12 or 13, because I told the Sunday school teacher I don’t believe in God. I have not changed my mind on that. So, no. My Jewish identity is ethnic or cultural or whatever people call it now. But it’s not religious.
NJJN: Can you describe what you mean by “ethnic or cultural”? Is it bagels on Sunday or something deeper than that?
Lebowitz: Oh, I think it’s much deeper than that. I don’t really know how to describe it, the idea of people thinking of themselves as Jews, calling themselves Jews, feeling Jewish their entire lives, without once believing in God or going to synagogue or practicing any part of the religion. I can’t think of another religion of which that is true.
You know if people stop believing in Catholicism, they usually stop seeing themselves as Catholics. I think it’s because of the history of Jews. It was not Jews who were constantly saying, “You know, we’re different from you.” It was Gentiles saying it. And it stuck.
I think it’s strong in me in the sense that I feel like a Jew. I think of myself as a Jew. But I am well aware there are many Jews who do not think of me as a Jew — you know, Jews who practice the religion, especially Orthodox Jews or hasids. But that’s what they think.
NJJN: What’s it like for you to come back to appear in New Jersey?
Lebowitz: I think it’s like it is for anyone to go back to a place they grew up in. But I did not grow up in South Orange, so it’s not the same as going back to Morristown. Once, probably 20 years ago, I did [a benefit for the Morristown Public Library] at St. Peter’s Church in Morristown, which is across the street from the library. That had a lot of resonance for me because I spent my childhood in that library.
South Orange, to me, was Gruning’s [Ice Cream Parlor]. That was like one of the biggest treats of childhood. And there were two of them: Grunings on Top, and one called Grunings on the Bottom! I don’t know if it still exists. Grunings on the bottom was in the town, and the other was at the top of what I think is called South Mountain. [Gruning’s Ice Cream Parlor was founded in 1910. The “bottom” location on South Orange Avenue opened in 1929. The second, “top,” location in the Newstead area was open by the late 1940s. The brand was sold in 1983. Neither store still exists.]
NJJN: Is there still a little New Jersey in you, or are you New Yorker through and through?
Lebowitz: I’ve lived in New York since I was 18, but I think our childhoods are always in us. Your childhood is much more formative than anything that happens to you as an adult. But as I tried to explain before, I don’t care where you lived, the place you grew up in your childhood — that place doesn’t exist anymore, for anyone, because everything changes so much.
So the New Jersey that’s in me doesn’t exist anymore. It’s — not a fantasy; it’s an embroidered memory.
NJJN: What are you chiefly thinking about these days?
Lebowitz: Are you kidding? I always say to people I can’t imagine a more riveting era in which to live. Every single thing in the world is changing profoundly at the same time. So it’s incredibly interesting, which usually means not that pleasurable — certainly it’s not that serene. But I was talking to someone the other night, someone who wrote a novel set 50 years ago. I said, “Why would anyone write about something set in the past when you have such a rich present?” There is no inch of the world, no aspect of the culture that is not in some way imploding or exploding. I can’t think of a single thing that’s calm. But it’s certainly not boring. If you are bored in this era, you are dead!