Women in the Arts: Fran Lebowitz

‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks about her experience in the arts

Andew Durbin  When you were beginning your career as a writer, what were the possibilities for mentoring, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women? 

Fran Lebowitz  Zero. I would say zero. I never thought about it. First of all, this whole world didn’t even exist. In other words, I never heard the word ‘mentor’. I don’t mean I never heard the word, but not in the way it’s used now. I wasn’t trying to collaborate with anyone, so I don’t know. I’m not the world’s biggest collaborator, as you may have noticed. What was the third one?

AD  Cross-generational engagement with women.

FL  As far as I could tell, I was the youngest person in New York. So, everyone was older than me. By which I mean, I was 18. So, most people that age were in college. They were in school and I didn’t really see them, and that’s fine. Everybody was older than me, but I don’t remember anyone helping me, if that’s what you mean.

But I also have to tell you, although this doesn’t sound likely, that I might have been well into my 40s before I ever really thought that any of the problems I encountered had anything to do with me being a woman.

Now, in a way, that’s good, I think, because we’re talking about an era where awareness of a horrible problem doesn’t change the problem. To me, it seems, even in retrospect, that it was just as well I didn’t think that. On the other hand, if you think of it that way, you think every single thing is completely your fault. Which I still believe, that every single thing is completely my fault, but I also believe every single other thing is completely your fault.

So, I don’t think in terms of groups like this, even though, in many ways, I’m wrong, and certainly, with regard to being a woman, I was wrong.

This partially has to do with thinking of yourself, wherever you grew up, as being totally outside the environment you live in, and it wouldn’t have really made a big difference, I don’t think. I suppose if I had been a more common type, I would’ve thought it in a different way, but then it wouldn’t have applied so much to me. Of course, feminism was already a movement. I didn’t pay much attention to it, largely because it never occurred to me it would work. I was, unfortunately, largely right.

But I really didn’t think of it that way. Yes, absolutely, in retrospect, a lot of things that did happen to me, happened because I was a woman. Some of them, I was more aware of just trying to earn money than I was in being a writer, things that I thought that were separate, and, largely, I was right.

For instance, people who are younger than me, which is pretty much all people, don’t understand how these things were. For instance, if you were looking for a job, which I was doing constantly. Want ads, which is how you found a job, unless you knew people, which I did not, were divided between men and women.

That’s how you looked for a job. It never occurred to me to look over into the male column and see if there were better jobs because although, probably, there were, what difference would it have made?      

But as far as writing, there were, of course, lots of discussions about this, publicly and privately, about being a woman. I think it was a lot harder for artists since they had to deal with more people – galleries, museums, etc., and, of course, because more money was involved. I remember reading Linda Nochlin’s essay in 1971 “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists”. From a career point of view, of course, it would be harder, but there were always women writers. Whereas, when I was growing up, I never heard of a woman doctor, for instance, or a woman lawyer, something like that. But I read books by women, so that might’ve had something to do with it. This probably isn’t the answer to your question.

AD  Well, a simpler version of the question might be: were there particular women whom you knew, when you were publishing, who you felt a kinship with?

FL  My first editor for my first book was a woman, named Laurie Colwin, who was also a writer. She was a junior editor at Dutton. And she wrote me a letter, saying that she had been reading me in Interview, which was very odd, by the way, because Interview was read almost entirely by gay men. And it was very odd even for her, which she explained to me. She had had the flu, during which she had read every magazine known to her. She had asked her boyfriend at the time, just go over to the newsstand and get me anything I haven’t read yet, and one of the things he gave her was Interview. So, she started reading me, and then she offered me the contract for my first book, Metropolitan Life (1978). The main thing she taught me was how to make coffee, which I didn’t know how to make. And I still use the coffee pot that she gave me for the occasion. So, you know, she was, in that way, a mentor, I would have to say. At that time, I was already 24, which now sounds very young, but it wasn’t considered that young then.

eph_5340-3_web.jpg

Peter Hujar, Fran Lebowitz at Home in Morristown, New Jersey. 1974, silver gelatin print, 36 × 43 cm. Courtesy: © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

AD  What were some the difficulties you faced in publishing, as a woman? 

FL  First of all, I was working in Interview. There were other girls there, but not, as far as I can recall, as writers. The receptionist was always a girl, but, in fact, a very specific kind of girl. There was an art director who was a girl. But, in fact, it was very largely male. What was the question?

AD  OK, more specifically, what were some of the difficulties of working at Interview and in [Andy Warhol’s] Factory.

FL  Well, I just think about it: what was the difficulty of being a girl at the Factory? You can well imagine. But I didn’t think about it. 

AD  There seems to have been an old gender distinction operating at the Factory, where women were looked at, or were the subjects of art, while men made films, paintings, photographs. How did you fit into that? 

FL  Obviously, I didn’t fit into it. But women were not looked at in the Factory, by the way.

AD  I mean by the camera.

FL  Well, I wasn’t in front of the camera. I wasn’t on either side. 

AD  One of Peter Hujar’s photographs of you is now on view at an exhibition of his work at the Morgan Library. It’s a very popular show, and I’ve been seeing his portrait of you shared across on social media – something I know you don’t have. You give the camera a very particular look. I think it’s become so popular because of the look you’re giving the camera. 

FL  I wish I could remember that picture more. You’re talking about the picture that was taken in my sister’s bedroom?

AD  Yes, you’re lying on a bed.

FL  Yes. When that first appeared, I hadn’t remembered him taking that photograph. It was first shown to me after it went on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in SoHo. I corrected the curator, because it was not taken at my apartment. That was my parents’ house, and that was my sister’s bedroom. That had been my bedroom, but the second I moved out of the house, my sister was moving in, by which I mean I did not choose that wallpaper.

So, Peter went with me often to my parents’ house, and he stayed overnight a couple of times. He must have just come into my bedroom and said, ‘Can I take your picture?’ And I just sat up and said, ‘Yes.’

I hate having my photograph taken, and I always have. I really hate it. I hated it then, even when I looked like that. But how I was looking at the camera? Peter took numerous photographs of me. Whenever Peter asked to take my photograph, I always said yes, because of my feelings for Peter, but not because I liked having my photograph taken. Of other kinds of photographers, more commercial photographers, fashion photographers, where I’ve had my picture taken for magazines, the ones I always say I like the best are the ones that are the fastest, because the whole process, I just cannot stand.

AD  What do you think has changed the most today versus when you were beginning in New York, when you were 24?

FL  The way girls are raised now. It’s so different. It’s almost as if they’re two different species. Girls now, not every girl, obviously, but girls have an idea of themselves that girls were not allowed to have when I was young. It didn’t even exist. I’m not saying women weren’t rebellious, but not in the world that I lived in when I was a child. If you wanted to do something and you were not allowed to do it, very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl.

AD  What do you think about #MeToo?

FL  I think it is fantastic, and I cannot believe it happened. Truthfully, there are not that many things that take me by surprise. 

In the case of Harvey [Weinstein], I never heard [these rape allegations]. I knew Harvey, and I knew a million stories about Harvey, all of which I believed, but I never heard rape, violence. The other stuff, say, around someone like Harvey, well, the best definition for that, since it began, would simply be: the movie business. That’s what the movie business was always like. This stuff about photographers? Photographers have sex with models, that’s the fashion business.

And those get the most attention because the people involved are famous, because it’s glamorous. But the reason I would never be a waitress, which is not a glamorous job, is because I would say to my friends who were waitresses, so almost all of my female friends who had to work, I would say, I’m not doing it. I’m not smiling at men for money, because that’s how they’d get bigger tips. I wouldn’t do it. It was and continues to be the case for every single job. But I am telling you that women, every woman who works, no matter what she does, has two jobs. One is the job, and the other is dealing with men in this way.

People say #MeToo happened very fast. I say, yes, it happened very fast, from the beginning of time until three months ago, or however long ago it was, four months ago. From the beginning of time, and then four months ago, it changed in five seconds. That is true.

It was an astonishing thing to me, really, how quickly it happened, once it happened, but also why it happened. I really believe that this would not have happened if Harvey’s business had been better. If Harvey had been the Harvey at his most powerful, this would not have happened. This happened when he was vulnerable to it. And I could prove that by telling you that it didn’t happen. And so that is something to, I think, consider when you think about this.

But the people that should be most paid attention to, who don’t get attention because they have no ability to attract attention, are women outside of Hollywood, outside of glamorous industries. It’s one thing that this happens to someone who’s trying to get into a movie, and it’s another thing that this happens to people who make beds in hotels, to people who work at the drive-through at McDonald’s. This happens to every girl, and this happens to girls who cannot say anything, and it’s in the hands of men who have no other power. In other words, someone like Harvey, or someone like Charlie Rose, or someone like all these other guys, they have a lot of power in the world. They have power over men, too.

But if you are the janitor on a floor of a hotel, and you can terrorize the maids on that floor, and they do, or you’re the night manager at a McDonald’s in Tulsa, and you can terrorize that girl who works there at night because she needs that $9 an hour, that is much more important, and it’s many, many, many more people.

AD  It seems like the next step is to extend #MeToo’s gains to exactly those people that you mentioned.

FL  Yes. These people, these women, are incredibly vulnerable. They are vulnerable at work and when they go home to it. You see, that’s the other thing. And they grew up with it. A girl like that, a girl who grows up in that kind of environment, never doesn’t see this. They see this from birth.

And the same way that I, a middle-class white kid in New Jersey in the 1950s, thought, this is the world, girls do dishes, they think this is the world, men beat up women, men sexually abuse women. And if I didn’t think that there was some way to change that when I had a billion times more opportunity to do that, imagine what kids like this think.

Fran Lebowitz is the author of Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981). She is the subject of Public Speaking (2010), a documentary by Martin Scorsese.  

Main image: Fran Lebowitz, 2011, phtographed by Christopher Macsurak. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (2014) and MacArthur Park (2017), both from Nightboat Books. A monograph on Raymond Pettibon is forthcoming from David Zwirner Books in May 2018. He is a Senior Editor of frieze and lives in New York.

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018