Speaking of New York

An Interview with Fran Lebowitz
Fran Lebowitz

 

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?

Peter Hujar was so elusive. And so, naturally, more and more people liked him because it was impossible to get him.

FL: Actually, I remember where and when I met very few people, but I do remember about Peter. I was at a screening; I’d say it was 1971. I had heard of him. The life of artists and writers in New York then was so minute. In other words, no one was paying attention—there was no media attention on us—but it was like a little world, and especially the part that converged with being gay. This was not only small; it was secretive.

I was sitting in the screening room, and I saw my friend Vince Aletti sitting kind of in front of me with this man, and someone said, “That’s Peter Hujar.” And then, when the movie was over, they got up. Peter was wearing, like, a sweater, a jacket, and a skirt.

Now, first of all, no one did this. It was against the law. I mean, people were arrested. But also, he didn’t look like he was in drag. He looked like a lunatic.

And afterward, after I got to know him, which was like one week later, because I instantly loved him, I said, “Why did you do this?” He said, “I decided that it wasn’t fair that women could wear pants and men couldn’t wear skirts.” But he never did it again, because I said, “And what did you discover wearing the skirt? It’s more comfortable to wear pants. That’s what you’ve discovered.” That’s the only time he ever did it, so that’s when I met him. 

And I became friends with him quite quickly, I must say. And I had a very close friendship with Peter. I mean, Peter was adored by people, even though he had absolutely no sense of this. I used to say this, and I believe it to be totally true: I’m the only person who ever met Peter who didn’t fall in love with him. The only person, man or woman, and so because I wasn’t in love with him, he was more relaxed around me. He was a man; I don’t fall in love with men; I wasn’t in love with him. Everyone was. And he was absolutely impossible for someone to get. He was so elusive, Peter. And so, naturally, more and more people liked him because it was impossible to get him. And I wasn’t trying to get him, so I really do think that was part of my friendship with him. 

CW: And you didn’t take to David Wojnarowicz that quickly.

My friends are always amazed by this: my whole life I have very carefully have followed the cardinals in New York City.

FL: I didn’t, no. I met David through Peter. When Peter started talking about this guy, I paid no attention. But when Peter was dying, he had sought out a Catholic priest who was coming to his house apparently every day and talking to him. Peter was raised Catholic, but I don’t mean in a real way, because he wasn’t “raised.”

I knew nothing of this, but David did, and so when Peter decides he wants to plan his funeral, I could not talk about this with Peter because I kept saying to him, “You’re not going to die.” 

But David could talk about this with Peter, and helped Peter plan his funeral, how he wanted everything, the kind of casket, that kind of thing.

Almost no funeral homes in New York City would bury people with AIDS. You couldn’t bring the body in. One funeral home that we could find, a Catholic funeral home on Fourteenth Street, agreed to do it. They routinely did it. There were no laws forcing people to do this. There were hospitals that wouldn’t take people with AIDS. There were doctors who wouldn’t touch people. So I said, “I will go and arrange this,” and then David called and said, “I’ll go with you.” And so we went together to do this. And after that we became close friends.

I was close with David until he died. He was a spectacular person. When he was dying, I got a horrible cold. He called me every day: “How’s your cold?” I said, “How’s my cold?” So, I mean, he was a really unusual person. He was devoted to Peter. I think that their actual affair didn’t last that long. But he designed the tombstone for Peter. He went every day and sat on the grave; it was way up in Westchester. He had a car, David. And he would call. He was angry they didn’t maintain the grave. And I kept saying, “Don’t go there, David. Don’t go there every day.” To me it seemed like an awful thing to do. I don’t know how long he died after Peter. But there’s a book about David, a biography. 

CW: The Cynthia Carr biography.

FL: Right. Right. There could not be one about Peter. I mean, there could be, but, truthfully, most of the people who really knew Peter are dead.

CW: David very passionately opposed the Catholic Church and Cardinal O’Connor.

FL: Oh, insanely. We had many fights about this, because I kept saying to him, “He is a cardinal.” My friends are always amazed by this: my whole life I have very carefully have followed the cardinals in New York City. This came from my grandparents who were always very scared of who the pope was going to be, because they worried about whether the pope was going to be good or bad to the Jews. The pope who was in office during my childhood the Jews loved because he wasn’t saying bad things about the Jews all the time.

I always followed the cardinals in New York, not for the same reasons that my grandparents did, but for which ones interfered in politics. That has always been a very big concern of mine my whole life. It still is; as you can imagine, now I’m in a constant state of uproar. And O’Connor was never not interfering in the public schools, in every law. He was constantly taking political positions, so I really, really disliked him. But David must have been Catholic. I’m guessing he was. And he was in a constant state of fury with O’Connor, who was awful. I’m not saying he wasn’t awful. But I had fights with David about this. He would say to me, “O’Connor said at Mass, ‘Do this, do that.’” I said to him, “David, telling the Catholics what to do is his job. That is his job, David. So you cannot take issue with him telling the Catholics what to do.” I said, “You can not listen; you don’t have to go.” But I said he is wholly not only within his rights, he is fulfilling his obligations to tell the Catholics what to do. It’s when he tells the Democrats what to do that I get angry. I said, “Why don’t you reserve it for that?” And then he goes, “Because he has all this influence.” I said, “That’s the influence of the church. That is not the influence on politics. That’s a separate issue,” and good luck to you with that, by the way, at that time. That was the fight that I had with him.

CW: Can I ask you about your view of the Catholic response to the AIDS crisis? Because it seems to me that at one level, there’s the cardinal’s response to what’s going on, but then there’s also the nuns at St. Vincent’s helping people who are dying. Being here at the time, which was the church for you?

The nuns don’t run the church. If it was just nuns, I would be happy to have the nuns run the Congress.

FL: St. Vincent’s Hospital was the hospital I lived nearest when I was young, so if you were, say, Fran age twenty-one with not only no health insurance but, like, not two cents to your name, and you cut yourself on a window, you walk into St. Vincent’s Hospital bleeding, no one’s asking you, “Do you have insurance?” They fix it; then you go to them and you say, “I don’t have any money.” And they actually said, “Do you have five dollars?” “How much was this to stitch this up?” “Forty dollars.” “Can you come every week with five dollars?” Which I did.

And a friend of mine, who was on the board of St. Vincent’s, told me there was a doctor who refused to operate on people with AIDS—there was a risk of infection operating on someone with AIDS because of blood—and the doctor was saying, “I might cut myself through my glove,” and this friend of mine said, “That’s right. You might. The reason people respect doctors is because they take this risk.” Doctors have always risked getting sick. You know, when there was tuberculosis, there were no antibiotics, doctors got sick. They died all the time. He said, “That’s why people respect you. Not because you have a Mercedes. You do this, or I’ll see that you lose your license.”

And so the nuns don’t run the church. If it was just nuns, I would be happy to have the nuns run the Congress.

My focus on who was bad about AIDS was not on the church, it was on Ronald Reagan, who was the president. Okay? But that was David. By the way, rabbis were terrible, everyone was terrible. If you ask me if a Democrat had been the president then would it have been much different, I do not think it would have been.

CW: Was Andy Warhol really very religious?

Christianity is about forgiveness. That’s what I believe. Christianity is 100 percent about forgiveness.

FL: He was a Catholic; he went to church. I did not like Andy, and Andy did not like me. But not because he was a Catholic. He was extremely anti-Semitic. The whole Factory was. He was from Pittsburgh—a city particularly filled with ethnic enclaves where the people hated each other. This is most true of places that have that kind of heavy industry like Pittsburgh. Steel, coal. Many cities in Pennsylvania were like this, by the way. There was tremendous ethnic hatred among groups of people who lived in those cities. Much more than New York. He was from there.

I know that he went to church. His mother lived with him. His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was whatever you call the biggest kind of Mass…. So it was very long. St. Patrick’s Cathedral—I don’t know how many people can fit into it—but thousands. Thousands of people—it was completely full. Here’s one of the things I remember about Andy’s funeral. 

There were so many people that they had a priest at the end of every aisle distributing Communion. I was sitting there—not taking Communion—and I looked to the line that was to the right of me. There was Claus von Bülow. Do you know who he is? Claus von Bülow was out of jail and I see him taking Communion, and I was thinking to myself, “I’m not an expert on Communion, but I’m pretty sure that you have to confess before you can take Communion.” Is that not true?

CW: You’re not supposed to take Communion if you have unconfessed mortal sins.

FL: Right, so having tried to kill your wife would be up there. I thought, “I wonder if he confessed before?” 

This is why there are so many Catholics in the world. I always say to people, “Here is what Christ was. Christ was the one who said, ‘I forgive you.’” Christianity is about forgiveness. That’s what I believe. Christianity is 100 percent about forgiveness. The Christian God is a forgiving God. The Jewish God is a judge. So when Christ came and said, “I forgive you,” of course almost every single person said, “Yes!” ….  Forgiveness is a Christian thing. It is what Christianity is. That’s what I believe the popularity of Christianity is. Because if you say to people, “Forgiveness? Or no forgiveness?” there is a certain kind of person who’s going to say, “No forgiveness.” But there are very few of them.

Published in the February 22, 2019 issue: 

Nicholas Haggerty is a writer who works in Hartford public schools. James Lassen is a writer living in New York. He was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Taiwan in 2016. Matthew Sitman is the associate editor of Commonweal.

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