Fran Lebowitz Really IS the Mayor of New York

Netflix series “Pretend It’s a City,” helmed by Martin Scorsese, shows the writer at her hilarious best

| 19 Jan 2021 | 12:52

Fran Lebowitz has a bulletin for Andrew Yang and all of the other folks who are in the running to be the next hizzoner of Gotham.

“I would like to be mayor of New York,” Lebowitz declared during “Pretend It’s a City,” her alternately hilarious and revealing and riveting Martin Scorsese-helmed, seven-part Netflix special.

But Lebowitz has a characteristically quirky caveat about when she would prefer to serve.

“At night.”

As usual, she has a point. Who’d want to be mayor of New York during business hours? As Lebowitz knows, the town comes alive after the commuters go back to the ‘burbs and everyone vacates office buildings – well, before COVID, and when people did go to work in offices. New York is a Night City.

But imagine for a moment if our town’s doyenne of wit actually did have such lofty political ambitions. Maybe the subway system would continue to still fall apart and rents would still be way too high to allow for comfortable migration here and the wretches who feel powerless would always look perpetually angry – to name but three of Lebowitz’s observations during the broadcasts of her interviews with Scorsese, Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee and Olivia Wilde as well as a smattering of clips from her appearances with David Letterman’s.

(You want a fourth? OK. How about this gem: “A tenement museum is not a tenement”)

‘So Much Fun’

But Mayor Lebowitz’s term would surely be “so much fun,” a phrase she used to describe New York in the Seventies. Forget Studio 54 uptown. In the “Me Decade,” Lebowitz’s city glittered DOWNTOWN – Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, to the soundtrack of her beloved New York Dolls.

Of all the themes that we can appreciate in the Netflix series, the most resounding one is that Lebowitz, as anyone who has read her many books or followed her ascent in the city over the past four or so decades knows, doesn’t tolerate fools.

When she was asked to describe her “lifestyle,” she shot back, “I would never use the word ‘lifestyle.’”

That’s her. Funny. Wry. Incisive – and, as ever, unapologetically blunt.

As New York magazine correctly (and inevitably) described her recently,

“A well-dressed Larry David before Larry David.”

So Much More

The Netflix series is so much more than Lebowitz, now 70 years old, blithely bitching about smoking restrictions, the deterioration of traveling on an airplane, the state of Times Square and sports. To Spike Lee’s comic dismay, Fran clearly has no use for sports – a pity, really, considering the artistry and pure entertainment of the iconic New York athletes over the years. Plus, Lebowitz, a natural cynic, would have a field day tearing apart the inept leaders of New York’s perpetually woeful Knicks, Jets, Giants and Mets of recent years.

At the same time, it must be noted that one of the great joys of the series was the look of astonishment on Spike Lee’s face when Lebowitz divulged that she attended the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier championship fight on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden – in great seats, no less. It pitted two charismatic and undefeated heavyweight boxers – especially Ali – and has been remembered as arguably the greatest sports spectacle in the city’s history. It was so glamorous that Frank Sinatra worked as a photographer that night. Fran said she was an Ali fan and loved him for his politics, but she mostly remembered the outrageous fashion statements of the spectators.

It’s also a love song to what the city was and could be. No, rest assured that Fran doesn’t wax effusively about the good old days. Nor does she go on about her greatest hits, when she was riding high as the class wit, the one that journalists tripped over themselves to call The New Dorothy Parker.

The documentary is at its best when Lebowitz riffs about whatever is on her mind. My favorite moment came when – as New Yorkers of a certain age understand – Lebowitz evocatively revealed that she made a point of never working on Wednesdays. Because that was the day when The Village Voice came out. And the Voice always had the best classified ads (and the most entertaining personal notices, as a matter of fact). New York, which seems to have become a city of freelancers, is inhabited by loads of people who are looking for work.

Moment in the Sunlight

Maybe the best feature of the Netflix series is that it gives us an opportunity to remember and appreciate Lebowitz. After all, she has not published a book in three decades. Maybe the series should have been entitled, “Remember Fran Lebowitz?”

It would be a nice outcome if the Fran’s moment back in the sunlight would inspire her to write a book. We deserve it in these COVID-scarred times and the dawn of something promising, following the end of you-know-who’s presidency.

What’s more, we need it! We need a new volume of Lebowitz delightfully ranting about facial masks, self-quarantining, socially distancing and the constant reminders that we need to wash our hands.

Lebowitz occupies a special niche in our city’s cultural history. We miss her – and maybe, just maybe, she misses us.