Dirt: Pretend it's a living

On Fran Lebowitz and power in media.

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Watch: Pretend It’s a City (Netflix). A review by Daisy Alioto on New York bohemianism, money, and chasing your own narrative.

Through no fault of her own, I will always associate Fran Lebowitz with being laid off from the New York Review of Books in the middle of a pandemic. 

In February 2020, one month into my job at the review (as they call it), I attended my first and last company event, a panel about power in the arts co-hosted by the David Zwirner gallery. Mid-way through the panel Fran Lebowitz turned to fellow panelist Jeremy O. Harris and said, “I keep hearing you use the term late capitalism. I don’t think this is late capitalism, it can get much later than this.”

Who is Fran Lebowitz? Well, she is the sole subject of Martin Scorsese’s documentary series Pretend It’s a City, now streaming on Netflix. But she is also, in no particular order:

— Joan Didion for bisexuals
— Susan Sontag for the Dimes Square set
— The reverse Vivian Gornick 
— A girl with no job
— A pin formerly sold by The Wing 

In episode 1 of Pretend It’s a City, an audience member asks Lebowitz, “How would you describe your lifestyle?” She responds, “Let me assure you, I would never use the word lifestyle.” In episode 4, she says, “I hate money but I love things.” Which to me is the very definition of lifestyle. But that level of analysis is difficult to utter through your bottom teeth, which I must say, are very white for a smoker like her. 

It’s easy to hate money when you have it, but throughout the series Lebowitz goes out of her way to assure us she does not. In this way, she is very much like middle class kids who move to New York City in their 20s and are careful to describe themselves as “broke” and not “poor.” The same 20-somethings that transfer money from one sub-$50 bank account to another to pay for an Uber while they are riding in said Uber. By which I mean, me. 

I am trying to say that I understand Lebowitz — but does she understand me? 

After the NYRB x David Zwirner panel, a select group of attendees gathered at a bar on MacDougal Street. I briefly saw Lebowitz when I walked in and then not again. Later in the night, the publisher asked me if I would do an additional interview with her because she hadn’t said as much as the other speakers on the panel (I hadn’t noticed a discrepancy, regardless, the interview never happened). “She should write something for us,” I said. He responded that she has had writer’s block for forty years, information that is apparently well known but was very much not known to me or the friend I was sitting with. 

My friend and I thought this was hilarious. It was the tidbit of unexpected information that crops up when you’re already having a good time and makes you truly lose it. But it was also really loud in there, and we thought the idea of a writer who doesn’t write was sort of unbelievable, making writer’s block sound like one of those made-up rich white lady diseases. So when the publisher circled back around we asked him again and he confirmed it. 

“I’m not alone in thinking that...” is one way Fran Lebowitz starts a sentence. She doesn’t use the Internet, so I wonder how she tracks how widespread her ideas are. Does she merely bounce them off her social circle? It’s never been dicier to be a public intellectual, not least of which because of the shifting definitions of “public” and “intellectual.” It must be unsettling to have grown up with Hannah Arendt’s vision of the private sphere and live in a world where @kimpossiblefact can body David Sedaris.

These people don’t know they can simply not take the Uber. 

In May 2020, I got a text from an unsaved number asking me to call back when I could. Sitting in bed, I googled the number and found that it belonged to the New York Review of Books office, where I was diligently working, albeit remotely. The publisher answered. “We’re going to have to eliminate your position.” I walked over to the window and looked out at the Q Train tracks while he plodded through an explanation. I sat back down on the bed just in time to watch my email and Microsoft Teams accounts time out. Fuck.

Fran Lebowitz is an avatar for how people feel about the health of the creative class, which is a large burden for one person to bear. Yet, she invites this projection. “I am buy high, sell low Lebowitz,” she tells Scorsese. The arts are full of big guys and little guys but Lebowitz is the worst type of guy: the big guy that insists he’s a little one. 

On my layoff call, it was heavily implied that the review would not make it until the end of the summer at the current rate of expenditure. As if I should be honored that ‘the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language’ bungled their finances so colossally that my $75,000 salary could decide whether Bob Silvers’s legacy lived or died. (In which case, you’re welcome.) 

Back in February, we’d opened champagne in the office to celebrate the review buying Milton Glazer’s old townhouse. I remember listening to plans for what would happen there: events, parties on the roof, cozy nooks to work in. Still holding my glass, I had a powerful premonition that it wasn’t going to happen for me. At the time I chalked that up to the residual perma-crisis brain of the long term freelancer and not my gut which is truly, rarely wrong. 

A June 7th diary entry: I just need to quiet my head. If I can quiet my head I can figure out what’s going to happen next. 

Fran Lebowitz makes bad real-estate decisions. I don’t make real-estate decisions, I make real-estate contingency plans. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that you have to know when you’re not the little guy anymore– I certainly hope that I will recognize that power in myself, when the time comes. In fact, as I prepare to start a new job as many peers remain locked out of stability in the media industry I have never felt a greater responsibility to treat other people’s future and livelihood with care.

As time goes on, I’m less mad that the review took away my employment and more annoyed that they complicated my ability to have a narrative about my own work. 

Fran Lebowitz has a narrative. Her narrative is “I’m Fran Lebowitz.” My narrative was Daisy the freelancer or Daisy that wrote that thing about the thing. I was excited to become Daisy that works at the New York Review of Books — I worked hard for that. I gave up a lot of my independence to have my reputation subsumed by a prestige institution that then spit me back out like an olive pit when I no longer fit into their bottom line. No wonder the Internet can’t help rooting for Reddit’s Wall Street Bets. It’s a bunch of olive pits getting together to say, “Ok, now choke.”

Fran Lebowitz seems to equate pragmatism with passivism. She holds many righteous opinions about class and race that I also share, and yet she refuses to call herself an activist. When she talks about the sexism her generation experienced, her comments are accompanied by a nihilistic lack of agency. As if passivism is the only way to be a true and honest observer — the bohemian’s equivalent of a New York Times standards guide. 

An armchair psychologist might say that Fran Lebowitz lacks the courage to look stupid, the vulnerability and depth of feeling it takes to put your own art out there. Instead, one is forced to conclude that if Fran Lebowitz said one truly vulnerable thing publicly she would simply die. Fran Lebowitz might not be on the Internet, but she embodies the Internet’s practice of playing a version of oneself, a curse and a privilege once afforded to celebrities that has now trickled down to the common man — overexposure accomplishing what Reagan could not. 

I am reminded of a 2014 piece in The New Yorker about how Virginia Woolf managed to be both exceedingly public and exceedingly private: “Like one of Woolf’s hostesses, we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.” But why should this limited openness only be available to those who have already made it? 

In June 2020, my best friend ran into the Naked Cowboy in a parking garage in midtown. His parting advice? “Business sucks but it’s all in the attitude!” I wonder if this is something Fran Lebowitz also believes, or maybe it’s just that she wears the same shoes— By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: I’m rooting for the little guy. I don’t know if I’m rooting for Fran Lebowitz.