Last winter, Nicholas Haggerty, James Lassen, and Commonweal associate editor Matthew Sitman sat down for a conversation with Fran Lebowitz, the writer, speaker, wit, and archetypal New York personality. She is the author of two essay collections, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), a children’s book, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994), and was the subject of the Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking (2010).
Lebowitz was a close friend to Peter Hujar (1934–1987), the Downtown photographer whose work was the subject of an exhibition at the Morgan Library last spring, and to David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), the Lower East Side writer and artist whose work was featured last summer in a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, an exhibition at the P.P.O.W. Gallery, and an exhibition at the Mamdouha Bobst gallery at New York University. Both Hujar and Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications.
We began by asking Lebowitz about her portrait “At Home in Morristown,” a photograph taken by Peter Hujar, and her relationship with him and his close friend David Wojnarowicz. What emerged was a long conversation about their friendship, AIDS in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Catholic Church. This is an excerpt from that interview, which lasted for more than two hours. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Commonweal: Thanks for coming by.
Fran Lebowitz: Believe me, I was so intrigued by this idea. When I first got the letter, I said to my assistant, “This can’t be right.” She said, “Do you know what this is? I’ve never heard of it.” I said, “Yes, of course I know what it is, I just can’t understand it. The only person that I’ve probably ever talked to that I know had any involvement with the magazine was Garry Wills, who I don’t know, but who I met many years ago, and I love his writing. So that is my only…that’s not a connection, that is my only non-connection to it.
CW: The first question we want to ask is about the Peter Hujar portrait of you as a young woman, “At Home in Morristown.” Do you know that picture?
FL: You know, I did not know that picture, then someone called me and said, “There’s a picture of you all over the internet…. It’s a naked picture of you.” I said, “That’s impossible.” And he said, “It’s a picture Peter took of you.” I said, “Peter never took a naked picture of me,” which he did to many people, and he didn’t because I wouldn’t let him. I said it’s impossible. Anyway, Lena Dunham tweeted this picture, and then I saw it, and it was in a show. Then someone showed it to me on their phone, and I instantly knew where the picture was taken. It was my sister’s bedroom. Peter came with me often to my parents’ house, but I don’t remember the picture being taken. He always had that camera in his hand, and he probably said, “Can I take your picture?” And I said yes. Someone said, “Oh no, you look too good.” I said, “I was twenty-four. That’s how you look when you’re twenty-four.”
CW: So your parents were okay with Peter Hujar just hanging out at your house?
FL: He was completely unknown. Peter did not become known until he died. I mean, my parents knew him. My parents liked him very much. There was nothing more exotic to Peter than a middle-class house. He was never in one in his life. He had a horrible, Dickensian childhood.
I just recently found a picture of a Seder at my parents’ house, and there’s Peter sitting there with a yarmulke on. He wasn’t that desirous of being in this kind of environment, but he really found it mesmerizing. It would be as if he went to the palace of the czar. He’d ask, “What is that?” “That’s a coffee pot, Peter.”
CW: How did you meet him?