Media Diet

Fran Lebowitz’s Life in Print

How a consummate New York personality has been defined by the magazines — large, little, old, and short-lived — that have always surrounded her

“I’m an addict of print,” Fran Lebowitz, the writer who doesn’t write, told The Fine Print. “Almost anything that comes to my house, I read. To the extent that I own a car and I belong to the AAA: They have a magazine, and I read it.” Sometimes when people see an issue of the AAA magazine in Lebowitz’s home, they’ll ask why she reads it instead of just throwing it away. “Because they give it to me. The same reason that people who are alcoholics, don’t leave a bottle of whiskey in their house. They’re gonna drink it.” She subscribes to The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, New York. “You’re probably seeing a thread here,” she said. “They send me Artforum, so I read it. They used to send me Bookforum. They don’t anymore. They went out of business, and they rebounded, but I no longer know how to subscribe to a magazine,” she said. The easiest solution presented itself after a moment’s thought. “I actually know who owns it now,” she said, “so next time I see her, I’ll ask her to subscribe me.”

Rather than writing, Lebowitz, a former columnist for Interview and Mademoiselle, now makes her living being interviewed in front of paying crowds. On October 21, she spoke with novelist Marlon James at the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, but much of the time, she’s on the road to make appearances around the world, further from her print subscriptions. “I travel a tremendous amount, so very often they pile up. Truthfully, certain of them piled up even without traveling. Then I take them with me, and I read them on the plane,” she said. “Sometimes I go through a pile of magazines, realize I haven’t read them at all, and then look at the date, and it’s like two years old, but I read it anyway.”

Magazines have been a constant in Lebowitz’s life. “As a child, I didn’t have my own magazines,” she said. “I was a child in the 1950s, so we got Life magazine because it was like a law. The whole country got Lifemagazine, so we got Life. We did not get Time because it was owned by Henry Luce — I knew this even as a child because my parents told me — because Henry Luce was an anti-Semite. Now, I doubt my parents knew that he also owned Life, so we got Life, and we got Newsweek instead, which was a very similar magazine. We got The Saturday Evening Post, which had — not every week, but almost every week — a cover by Norman Rockwell. I used to marvel, ‘He is such a great artist. This looks exactly like a chair.’ My mother used to get Gourmet. I used to read that magazine when my mother got it, and the world it conveyed was as exotic as the world of The New Yorker.” The magazines that came to their home weren’t enough to satisfy her budding addiction. “In my school library, I discovered the Saturday Review, which hasn’t existed in hundreds of years,” she said. “I also read Ebony and Jet, because it was in my junior high school library. I really read every magazine that was in the library.”

“It’s a different world now than it was last year, but the 1950s is as different as the 1850s. It’s really hard to describe how much I looked forward to these magazines,” Lebowitz said. “Every single thing in a magazine in the 1950s was new to people. They didn’t have foreknowledge before it was in the magazine.”

In the early ’70s, her first years in New York, Lebowitz found a print fiend’s mecca. “Every corner, practically, had a newsstand. I lived in the Village, now called the West Village, and there was a big newsstand in Sheridan Square. I mean, really big. It was open all night, as were many, if not most,” she said. “I was talking about this with Marty [Scorsese, who has directed one documentary and one documentary series about Lebowitz]. Near Times Square, there was a newsstand, very big, that had foreign newspapers from all over the world. Because there were always people here from all over the world, but there was not the internet. So if people wanted to read a newspaper from Milan, or from Shanghai, or from Delhi, you could go to that newsstand. They had a zillion newspapers from all around the world.”

Though she loved magazines, she couldn’t always afford them. “On Madison Avenue between, I think, 57th and 58th, there was a very fancy magazine store that also had fashion magazines from all over the world. They had architecture magazines, design magazines, from all over the world,” she said. “We always wanted to see French Vogue, and you couldn’t find that everywhere. And it seemed to me incredibly expensive, so I would try to cajole someone into buying French Vogue so I could look at it.”

It didn’t take Lebowitz long to discover a subterranean print culture. “There were tons of these little magazines. We call them underground newspapers. They were not. No person publishing an underground newspaper in the Soviet Union would have recognized this as an underground newspaper,” she said. “There was The East Village Other, there was The Village Voice, that wasn’t really considered so underground, because it was so big, relatively speaking. There were tons of them. And I wanted to write for them. That was my big goal. My big goal was never to write for a magazine like The New Yorker because even when I was 20 years old, I knew that that was a club.” As much as those little magazines were unlike Soviet samizdat productions, they weren’t like today’s little magazines either. “The little magazines [today] are meant to be literary magazines or art magazines. I’m not talking about those. They weren’t little magazines like, I don’t know what ones you have now, Drift or whatever,” she said. “Nothing like those. Those magazines are modeled on The Paris Review. The Paris Review was to me an old person’s magazine when I was young.”

The people who started the little magazines of the ’70s were largely, sometimes interestingly, eccentric and, much of the time, unreliable. “They were people who had enough money to get one or two issues of a little magazine printed,” Lebowitz said. These weren’t the type of little magazines that get started with anything as tony as an inheritance. “I think it’s probably drugs were mostly involved,” she said. “They didn’t pay much, and sometimes they didn’t pay me at all. Because these magazines would crop up, I would race to one of these places. It would be a tenth of a loft somewhere, there’d be one guy sitting there. He would give you an assignment, you would write it, you would turn it in, they would print it. One issue, two issues, they disappeared. You never got a check. Or if you did, it bounced.”

She became one of those guys in a tenth of a loft when she became the advertising manager of a little magazine she’d never heard of called Changes. “I never sold one ad, because I never had the nerve to call people and ask them to buy an ad in a magazine which I knew no one was reading. But I did convince the owner to let me write, and that’s how I started publishing,” she said. Of course, she wasn’t just writing as a little magazine staffer. “Newspaper and magazine distribution was a huge business and pretty dangerous when it was basically controlled by gangsters,” she said. “When I worked at Changes, the only real credential I had was a driver’s license, and a lot of people didn’t have them. I could use that to get work to drive things, and one of the things I did was to pick up Changes from the printer at a depot in Queens. It would be me in the station wagon, owned by the woman who owned the magazine, and 300 giant trucks with really scary truck drivers in them. We would get there, it was dark, like at four in the morning, when these things would come in. I would lock myself in the car until they would put the issues in the back of the station wagon.”

From Changes, she hopped over to Andy Warhol’s Interview. “A friend of mine was writing for Interview,and I wanted to write for it — Interview was bigger, not that it was big — and that’s how I got the job at Interview, which was quite easy to get because no one my age wanted to be a writer. All the people I knew who were my age wanted to be filmmakers or musicians. So it was pretty simple to get these jobs,” she said. Still, once acquired, the job wasn’t always so pleasant. “I also took Interview to the printer,” she said, “also at three o’clock in the morning.”

This chronology can hardly brush the present. Part of Lebowitz’s appeal is that she seems to live outside contemporary time. She never got online, and she’s more articulate looking back. She’s always understood the appeal of the antique, though she doesn’t go overboard. “I did like old magazines, but I didn’t make a career out of it. I mean, I do have a friend who has what I would describe as basically a psychotic collection of old magazines,” she said. “There was a magazine called Holiday magazine, I used to always like that. Old New Yorkers. Sometimes people send me a New Yorker from the week of my birthday. What’s really interesting about them, if you look at those old New Yorkers, to me, is less the content of the magazine than the ads. Because the ads really show you what the city that The New Yorker was aimed at was like at the time. Even things that I remember, I forgot about.”

Lebowitz’s preservationist instincts have flared up impractically over the years. “My mother’s father subscribed to the National Geographic, and he kept them all.” she said. “We never subscribed to the National Geographic. No one in my family was ever in the slightest interested in nature, in that kind of travel to places like sub-Saharan Africa, so I always looked at those in my grandfather’s house.” She lost an opportunity to pour over them more closely after her grandparents died. “I asked to have them, and my mother and my aunt would not let me have them. They threw them away. They said, ‘You can’t have them, you have no room for them.’ Which was true. At that time, I didn’t really have room for them,” she said. “I could see that my mother was thinking they’re gonna end up with a garage full, which they would have, but I always liked to look at those.”

Libraries helped foster Lebowitz’s magazine habit, and her indignation still flares at their violation. “Condé Nast used to have a library at Condé Nast. I would sometimes go in there if I was waiting for something,” she said. “They originally had all the Condé Nast magazines, from the beginning of Vogue, and you would open one, and someone had cut something out of it. I would tell people, and no one did anything about it. I said, ‘You have to guard this in some way. You can’t just let people cut these up.’ But they did.”

Lebowitz is connected in a way that pre-dates broadband. Sometimes she’ll cut something out of a magazine because she wants to show it to someone. “I realize that no one else has to do this. Everyone else can just say, ‘Go on the internet, and you can find this.’ I don’t have the internet, but everyone else does,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you what it was and to whom I did this, but I wanted him to read something because I want to win an argument. I found it, and I cut it out, and I sent it up to his house. And he responded, he then agreed with me. If I had said, ‘This is in such-and-such issue of this publication,’ it wouldn’t have the same impact,” she said. “I clipped it out, and I sent it up by messenger. They still have messengers, by the way.”