Given that we’re basically a bunch of global pariahs right now thanks to our seemingly bullish Covid variant and more so, now that President Joe Biden has just slapped a big fat ban on South Africans travelling into the US, it seems unlikely that you’re going to find yourself in New York City anytime soon.
This means no bagels and lox from Russ & Daughters. It means no sitting on a bench in Union Square watching the world speedwalk by. It means no Broadway (not that anything is happening in theatreland anyway right now), or whatever it is in particular about Manhattan that turns you on and makes us all return again and again.
Thank goodness then for Martin Scorsese and Netflix. The godfather of movie directors has put together a most enjoyable seven-part series which centres on two characters: humorist, writer and speaker Fran Lebowitz and New York, New York. It offers an excellent bit of armchair travel, and it couldn’t have come at a better moment.
Perhaps you are not familiar with Lebowitz. If that is the case, now is your moment to get up to speed with her lightning wit, her sardonic ways, her surprisingly practical approach to life — and her marvellous, totally unfashionable aesthetic.
I say unfashionable, but Lebowitz is actually terribly sure of herself and unmoved by trends or passing fancies. She has neither a computer nor a cellphone and doesn’t care for the Kardashians. But that doesn’t mean she’s missed their meaning in our world, or isn’t prepared to comment on them.
Combine this demeanour with a look we might otherwise scoff at, and what you get is just unbearably cool.
So in her white shirts, oversized coats and blazers, jeans and boots and always, always large cufflinks (I predict she is single-handedly about to spearhead a revival of the accessory) and with her trademark bob and gap in her teeth, the 70-year-old says it like it is.
There are truisms about topics ranging from health and wellness (she’s not a fan) to the art market, books, sports (also not a fan), property, money and many, many fascinating observations of the Big Apple.
Lebowitz is a stalwart of the New York scene. In fact, it’s surprising to discover she isn’t originally from the city but rather New Jersey, so close enough. But she’s been there since the 1970s and made her name writing for magazines like Interview and Vanity Fair, and through her two acclaimed books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. She’s also famous for a writer’s block that has lasted decades. In lieu of the books, it’s the speaking appearances she’s become recognised for — and some of which are edited into the series.
In between cuts of her traipsing about the city she clearly adores — and adores to complain about — there are clips of her speaking to talk show hosts, friends (including Scorsese, who is patently captivated by her every word) and audiences, whom she takes questions from.
"How would you describe your lifestyle?" asks someone in an opening scene. "How would I describe my lifestyle?" she snaps back. "Well, I can assure you, I would never use the word ‘lifestyle’."
You get the picture.
Beyond the uplifting glimpses of sidewalks, of architecture, of busy intersections, of subway trains and throngs of New Yorkers and tourists, I have fallen in love with Fran for her brain and sense of humour. She is a total tonic. A fierce, sharp, Manhattan-style livener and a dose of joy while we wait for the vaccines.
Fran at her best
"The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting."
- "Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying."
- "I really think that musicians, probably musicians and cooks, are responsible for the most pleasure in human life. Motown music, which was very popular when I was a teenager — whenever I hear it, I instantly become happier. This is true of almost nothing! […] That’s a very important thing to do for human beings. Music makes people happier, and it doesn’t harm them. Most things that make you feel better are harmful. It’s very unusual. It’s like a drug that doesn’t kill you."
- On being ordered outside as a child: "We weren’t even allowed to stay in the house. And that was not peculiar to my household. ‘Get out.’ Just, ‘Get out.’ It wasn’t because they thought we should have fresh air. It’s [as if] they thought: ‘We don’t want to see you, get out of the house. We don’t want to deal with you. We’re not interested. Get out of the house.’ And so we went out of the house and we, like, ran around."
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