Fran Lebowitz is not an easy person to track down. The essayist, author, cultural arbiter, and famous contrarian would disagree (of course)—she has lived in the same city, New York, for the past four decades with the exception of a few seasons in Princeton. However, she also doesn’t own a cell phone or have a computer, which explains the process required to get in touch with her: Call this number, begin to leave a message on answering machine, wait for Fran to pick up. The featured guest at this year’s “Beyond Words” gala to benefit the Princeton Public Library, Lebowitz has contributed to some of the most iconic magazines ever printed, including Andy Warhol’s Interview and Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair; written three books; and penned infamous essays on everything from her love of sleep to her loathing for mood jewelry. Outfitted in her sartorial suit of armor—a uniform of men’s Levi’s 501 jeans, Savile Row–tailored blazers, white button-downs, wing-tip cowboy boots, and tortoiseshell glasses—that’s landed her on best-dressed lists, nothing is safe from her penetrating eye and acerbic wit. So it should come as no surprise that over the course of a phone call, a lot of ground was thoroughly covered: her devotion to anchovies and libraries; her fear of deer; her good pals, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and one-time landlord Michael Graves; and her brief but happy time in Princeton, including the torch she still carries for Conte’s pizza and Micawber Books (in that order).
Bricks & Mortar: We’ve actually met before—about 10 years ago, at Conte’s Pizza & Bar.
Fran Lebowitz: My favorite place on the planet Earth! I haven’t been there in forever, but I know that every time I was there, I realized there is no place I’m happier. Unfortunately, I never figured out how to actually live there…
B&M: You were with Vanity Fair music editor Lisa Robinson at the time, and you were sharing a pie.
F.L.: Lisa has been my best friend for 40 years, but we probably weren’t sharing. We probably each got our own with the idea we would take the leftovers home if there were, in fact, leftovers. There is no limit to what I actually could eat there.
B&M: What’s your Conte’s order?
F.L.: Half anchovy and half mushroom.
B&M: Half anchovy, half mushroom? That’s a statement.
F.L.: Yes, is that bizarre in some way?
B&M: I knew a person who would put anchovies on his pizza so he didn’t have to share it with anybody else because that topping was unpopular.
F.L.: Oh, that would be true of Lisa. Anchovy is one of my favorite foods. I’ve been known to eat anchovy sandwiches.
B&M: With just anchovies? What kind of bread?
F.L.: Whatever good bread that I’ve baked. Obviously, this is not something commercially available; you have to make this yourself. Although, I think that if they sold anchovy sandwiches there would be people who would buy them. There’s almost no food I don’t like.
B&M: You can’t think of a single one?
F.L.: I will not eat the internal organs of an animal. Because I was a child during an era where maybe not all mothers, but my mother, absolutely believed if a child does not eat liver once a week, they died.
B&M: Speaking of your childhood, you’re technically a Jersey girl.
F.L.: Yes, I was born in Morristown. I grew up there. I left when I was 18, and that’s the last time I lived there. I was expelled from high school, and I didn’t go back to school after that. I don’t like school—and as a kind of payment for that, I spent a great deal of my adult life speaking at colleges, none of which would ever have admitted me.
B&M: What do you remember most about growing up in Morristown?
F.L.: I’m the only writer I’ve met who had a happy childhood. I was very suited to being a child, by which I mean, I’m suited to knowing nothing about money, or having to pay rent. When I lived there, Morristown was a small town like from a fairy tale. As soon as you got a bicycle, you were allowed to go wherever you wanted. No one kept track of us. And I don’t mean just my parents; I mean no parents. In fact, we were never allowed even to stay in the house. I think that was partially from the fact that our mothers did not work, and so our mothers didn’t worry that they weren’t spending enough time with us. If I lingered over the lunch table on a Saturday, my mother would look at me like, “Have you lost your mind? Get out of the house.” We were only allowed to stay in the house if it was pouring rain. The amount of freedom we had, you know, no kid has now.
B&M: What did you do with all that freedom?
F.L.: I would ride my bike to the library several times a week. The Morristown Library was centrally important to me as a child because my parents didn’t have money. We didn’t buy books. Then you were only allowed to take three books out at a time. The library was and still is a very beautiful building—although they put an addition on it without asking me [laughs]—so it gave a child the impression that in this building were very important things, which were books. And libraries then, not like now, were silent. So now, it appears, they want them to be noisy.
B&M: So you think libraries are too loud?
F.L.: Well, if you spoke above a whisper, the librarian, you know, who terrified you, would glare at you, and you would just shut up. The places I had ever been to in my childhood that were like that were churches. The library really seemed, to me, like a religious institution.
Clockwise from left: Fran Lebowitz with Toni Morrison at the premiere of the HBO documentary film, Public Speaking, directed by Martin Scorsese; Lebowitz on the streets of her beloved New York City; the “Gallup Farm” where Lebowitz rented her country cottage.
B&M: In what way?
F.L.: That it was incredibly serious and important, and it was beautiful, and in that library were the important things of the world. I still feel that way. The buildings in Princeton, at the school, that whole gothic architecture is what the library was like in Morristown. I mean, Princeton is a place where obviously books are centrally important.
B&M: What did you read when you were a child?
F.L.: My favorite books were Nancy Drew. I always asked for the books for my birthday or Hanukah. I now own all of them. In my adult life, I bought myself every single thing I wanted when I was a child. So I have all the Nancy Drew books, and the Bobbsey Twin books, and when my first book came out, I bought myself the Encyclopedia Britannica because I wanted it when I was a child, and it was too expensive.
B&M: So, how did you end up in Princeton?
F.L.: Three separate times I went to live in Princeton. The first time, the building I lived in in New York announced they were putting on a new roof. So not only was I paying for this because it was a co-op, but of course, it would be impossible to think or to write there. Michael Graves was a good friend of mine, and I was complaining to him. He said a friend of his who also taught in the architecture school, but who was Italian, had an apartment … I can’t remember the name of the street where all the Eating Clubs are.
B&M: Prospect Street.
F.L.: His apartment was on that street and he was going away for the summer, so I could rent his apartment at this incredible deal which they give to people who teach there, and so I did. I lived there for the summer, and I got a lot of work done, and then I left. And then my building did something else incredibly noisy, so I rented a house that Michael owned, in front of the house he lived in on Patton Avenue. I rented that house for about a year and a half. Several years later, Michael put me in touch with a real estate agent, and I rented a cottage on a farm that had been originally owned by Ben Gallup from the Gallup Poll. He had two small cottages, and I rented one of them for about five years.
B&M: Did the “country life” suit you?
F.L.: I always got a lot more work done there, but living on that farm was a very unusual experience for me because I was terrified of being in the country. If Jack, the guy who owned that farm was away, I never slept. People say, “You lived in New York in the ’70s!” I never was afraid of New York, but I was always afraid of the country—the sounds [there] I was totally unfamiliar with. There was a snow storm and I went out to look at the snow, and I heard what I thought was a pack of lions. I said, “Jack, what is that?” And he said, “It’s deer.” I never knew deer made a noise.
B&M: I didn’t know deer made a noise, either.
F.L.: I mean, they don’t actually sound like lions unless you’re in a state of terror, but they make a heavy breathing noise. I called Jack up once to tell him there was a wolf on the property, and of course, it was a fox. But to me, a fox and a wolf, they’re the same thing. I experienced quite a bit of terror on the farm, but otherwise it was a very beautiful place.
B&M: Aside from abject fear, what else did you experience during your time in the area?
F.L.: A friend of mine, Logan Fox, owned Micawber Books. He was the son of my editor, Joe Fox, who has been dead for a great many years. So I would go into town and go to the bookstore. To me, Micawber Books and Conte’s … that was Princeton.
B&M: When was the last time you were in town?
F.L.: Last year, when they named a building at Princeton University after Toni Morrison. They had this big event, so I went with Toni to watch her get this building named after her, which is now called Morrison Hall.
B&M: You and Toni Morrison are friends? That’s amazing.
F.L.: Toni is one of my best friends. I met her in 1978 when my first book was out, and Toni’s third book was out [editor’s note: The book was Song of Solomon, which won the National Book Critics Award that year]. Toni was an editor at Random House, because she could not afford to live from her books. The American Academy of Poets had a reading series and asked if I would like to read. I said yes, and they said, “Do you know who Toni Morrison is?” I said, “Yes,” and they said, “Do you like her work?” I said, “I love it.” And they said, “Well, would you like to read with her?” I said, “That’s ridiculous. We’re too different.” And they said, “Well, we think it’s a good idea, and you’re going to read with her.” So we read together, and it went so perfectly even though we’re incredibly different writers.
B&M: That’s some “meet cute.”
F.L.: We instantly became friends. The thing people don’t know about Toni is how much fun she is. She very well disguises that from the general public; she has a very grand manner.
B&M: Why did you feel it was so important to be a part of the Princeton Public Library’s “Beyond Words” gala this year?
F.L.: I love libraries. I remember as soon as the person from my agency called and said, “Princeton, New Jersey,” I just said, “Yes.” I don’t think I’d ever turn down a library. I can’t believe there still are libraries. I can hardly think of a more important thing in public American life. I think this is true even though there’s the Internet now, where apparently—although I do not partake in it—every single thing ever written is.
B&M: So I’d imagine that reading books on an electronic device doesn’t appeal to you?
F.L.: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading books on your phone or whatever; it doesn’t really matter how you read them. I happen to be in love with the object of the book. I don’t think it has to do with technology; I think it’s a human need. I think it’s really important there are libraries, and in a town like Princeton, where there’s already such an emphasis on reading, it’s not going to save anyone’s life the way it saves people’s lives in other places. But there’s a lot to be said for there being a building that you go into, that is dedicated to the printed word. I really cannot think of a more important thing. —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Bill Hayes, Robert Manella, Nicholas Hunt/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images, Brigitte Lacombe; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Fall/Winter 2018)