Be grateful you didn’t sit next to Fran Lebowitz on the plane from New York to Melbourne. The trip was the longest flight she had taken, and therefore the longest time she managed to go without a cigarette.
When I ask if it is her first time in Australia, she says: “That makes it sound as if there’s going to be a second time.” She surprised herself by not being taken off the flight in handcuffs for assaulting fellow (first-class) passengers or smoking in the toilets.
“I was like a child on the plane, asking the flight attendant, ‘Are we there?’ And she said, ‘Are you nuts? We’ve only been flying for four hours.’ The only people who live in Australia are those who came to Australia and couldn’t face the trip back – I’m actually one of those people.”
Lebowitz has been invited to Australia several times but, as a long-time smoker, 30 hours on a flight without a cigarette was out of the question. But she was persuaded to perform shows (which quickly sold out) at the recent All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House, and a Wheeler Centre talk in Melbourne. She got though the flight without being arrested by chewing lots of gum and being able to smoke during a brief stop in LA.
Before our meeting, I spot her standing on the footpath – smoking, naturally – in her sartorial uniform of Levi 501s, a white shirt and custom-made dark blazer. She glances up the street, towards Melbourne’s Fawkner Park, as if she’s not quite sure where she is or how she got here. (She later asks me what day it is.)
Once we sit down to talk it’s immediately apparent that talking is what Lebowitz does best. That’s a big call, given the New Yorker is an author, social commentator, public speaker and even actor, appearing in shows such as Law and Order. She’s such a good talker that when I go to a nearby restaurant to do some work on my laptop after our interview is over, she sees me, sits next to me and talks for another hour. (“Let me know if I’m disturbing you,” she offers politely).
But first, during her interview with Guardian Australia, Lebowitz wants to make it clear that she takes no responsibility for the state of American politics. She had just arrived in Melbourne and was having breakfast in her hotel when a man next to her saw she was reading the paper. “And this guy started talking to me, I was reading something about Trump, and he said, ‘You elected him!’ And I said ‘I did not!’”
Lebowitz becomes indignant. “I mean, I did not. It’s not my fault. I know you [Australians] are very upset about it. But we are more upset. Even my friends – I have a lot of friends in New York who are not American – were blaming me. I spent a year of my life before the election, going around the country, talking about this stuff. It’s not my fault. I am blameless. I am not a perfect person. I am not blameless in life but I do not know one single person who voted for him.”
Echoing the reported opinion of former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Lebowitz thinks the biggest danger of Trump is that he is a moron. “Everyone says he is crazy – which maybe he is – but the scarier thing about him is that he is stupid. You do not know anyone as stupid as Donald Trump. You just don’t.”
Lebowitz is still shocked that Trump won. Part of the shock is that she was living so fully in a liberal New York bubble. “I had zero belief he would win. I have never been so wrong in my life. And being right is something I cherish. It’s really important to me to be right.”
It’s one of three nights burned entirely into 67-year-old Lebowitz’s memory – on a par with the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. “I remember every single second of the whole day – voting, everything – the whole day.”
She voted and went to lunch, and on the way home she felt like New York was getting ready to welcome its first female president. She walked past a party being set up, hosted by Harvey Weinstein. They said, “See you tonight, Ms Lebowitz!” But she didn’t attend that party, opting instead for the party of the then Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.
“Everyone was in a great mood and there were these huge American flags draped everywhere. Everyone was drinking champagne.”
From time to time over the night, Lebowitz popped into the kitchen to look at the election map on TV and, with each visit, became increasingly nervous. The map was turning red.
A friend, the contributing editor at Vogue, André Leon Talley, who had been on a strict weight-loss regime all year, entered the room. “I had been with this guy in restaurants all year and he was like, ‘Fish, just a little salad, no dressing!’ There were all these chocolates and cookies and stuff [on the table] and he started eating them without even looking.
“Then I’m smoking as usual but at a certain point I realised I’m smoking two cigarettes and Andre had eaten all the cookies. Graydon had in his hands two martinis and a waiter said ‘You want another?’ and he said ‘Yes!’ He couldn’t even hold them. At a certain point [another] friend of mine said, ‘I’m going home, I can’t take this – I’m not tough enough. I’m going home to take drugs.’ This is a man my age, a very distinguished man.”
Lebowitz went home to Soho through neighbourhoods usually busy with nightlife. “But there was no one in the streets – it was nothing. It was like grief inside those houses. It was horrible. I felt that strongly affected emotionally for at least a month. My level of rage, always high, is now in fever pitch all the time.”
Lebowitz believes naked racism is behind Trump’s election. “He allowed people to express their racism and bigotry in a way that they haven’t been able to in quite a while and they really love him for that. It’s a shocking thing to realise people love their hatred more than they care about their own actual lives. The hatred – what is that about? It’s a fear of your own weakness.”
The other hot button issue right now is guns. Lebowitz nearly chokes on her mineral water when I ask her if she has one.
“Of course I don’t have a gun!” She is scathing of gun owners. “Who are these people that love guns? These people who love Trump and they love guns, these are the most frightened people I have ever seen in my life. Who’s after you? They live in the middle of nowhere. I live in New York city and I don’t have a gun. No one I know has a gun.
“In the early 70s, when I was more vulnerable in every way, it was really dangerous. I could have gotten a gun but I never got one. I was an 18-year-old penniless girl in the middle of a dangerous city and I was never as afraid as these men in Texas, living in a state of terror.” Her voice drips with disdain.
What does she think of the teenaged activists taking on Congress over gun control?
“I do feel that this very young generation – people who are teenagers today and in their 20s – are so much better than the generation right above, people who are in their 40s. When I was in my 40s and these people were coming up, making music and taking drugs, I thought, ‘These people are horrible.’ But when these new young people started coming up, I was pleasantly surprised. I mean – they read books. When I am on the subway and I see a person reading a book, they will be 24, and the person on the Kindle is 44.”
While Lebowitz loves to talk, she sees herself as a private person.
“Publicly, I don’t really talk about myself in a very personal way and I wish other people wouldn’t either. I mean, partially this is because people my age were raised that way. We were raised not to talk about ourselves. But I don’t really think about myself anymore. It’s one of the upsides about getting old. I’ve lost interest.”
Today’s young people “have always lived in an environment where people asked them what they thought”, she says.
“When I was a child no one ever asked you a question – and I mean no one. Children were told what to do. From morning to night, instructions … No one ever asked about yourself, that is for sure. Unless you had a fever, and even then they took your temperature and told you how you felt. ‘I don’t feel well.’ ‘Yes, you do.’”
Apart from taking part in the Trump resistance, Lebowitz says she has considered running for mayor of New York – except she doesn’t want to do any early starts. “I would consider being the night mayor and starting at 4pm,” she says.
“You’re a nightmare already,” I joke.
“Yeah, I don’t need to be elected to be a nightmare.”
She looks out to the quiet, leafy Melbourne street, contemplating the flight home to that city she embodies in so many ways. “You know what,” she says. “I can’t do that trip again. It’s nice here. I’ll get someone to send my stuff.”