Nick Mauss and Fran Lebowitz at the Whitney Museum of American Art on May 14, 2018. Photo by Paige Katherine Bradley.

Fran Lebowitz Remembers When Everyone Hated Jerome Robbins and Money Had No Currency

An evening at the Whitney Museum with artist Nick Mauss and public servant Fran Lebowitz.

by Paige Katherine Bradley
May 14 2018, 12:20pm

Nick Mauss and Fran Lebowitz at the Whitney Museum of American Art on May 14, 2018. Photo by Paige Katherine Bradley.

Nick Mauss is a lovely man with a terrific show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which you now have less than twenty-four hours left to see, and as an icing finish to his layered cake of an exhibition, he brought the one and only Fran Lebowitz out for a conversation about ballet. And not just any ballet, we were talking the New York City Ballet, as in George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins—that lot. Mauss’s show traces a history of collusion and flirtation between modern ballet and the visual arts in America, and capping it with intermittent dances in the museum’s gallery where his show is installed, he spins audiences between live subjects and objects—remnants of other lives that danced. No one has to be there to witness, but they should. Lebowitz has spoken before about what the loss of an educated audience with high standards does to the visual and performing arts (decimates it) and she reiterated the sentiment last night. She also emphasized the need for context in looking at art, e.g., if you don’t know what came before or after anything else, how would you know how to evaluate it? What do you do with art you can’t place? Well, I guess you can always just applaud and be done with it. Lebowitz sees your game though, and she says you’re really just applauding yourselves. Honest, harsh, and for your own good; a brutally straightforward, or queerforward, assessment of childishness on Mother’s Day.

She noted how the New York City Ballet audience, a whole generation of brilliant homosexuals smote by AIDS, were so keen they might speculate amongst themselves if Suzanne Farrell had a cold, and chalk her subpar performance (which would have been stunning to anyone else) up to it. Yes, it does sound tyrannical, but guess what, standards are how you get greatness, punk. Lebowitz remembers a time when “money had no currency,” meaning, as she remembers it, no one was interested in how much money anyone else had. You were living in public, not going to each other’s apartments (unless you were sleeping with them), and rolling from film screening downtown to disco to film screening uptown. There was simply no time to notice your companions’ material circumstances, or for indulgences like food—a pleasure for the middle age—when there were Things to Be Found Out.

And lo, I went out for one night to the Whitney and found out that everyone, apparently, hated Jerome Robbins. His dancers loathed Jerry, per Lebowitz, and a movie producer fired him from the lauded film adaptation of his 1957 musical West Side Story. Also, did you know thousands of people were forced out of their apartments, which were demolished, to build the Lincoln Center that housed this great New York City Ballet? I did, but perhaps you need to get out, and into the library, more.

Someone in the Q&A (brace yourselves) asked F.L. to tell us about Stonewall, which felt like a pretty loaded question, and I’m not even a card carrying member of the LGBTQIA+ community. I mean, I guess one could just read a book. Luckily Fran Lebowitz has (on many an occasion), and she noted that after confronting James McCourt, author of Queer Street, about the hearsay surrounding the legend of the Stonewall Riots—she maintains it’s not a riot if everyone goes home and sleeps until 2 PM the next day—he told her “every people needs their myths.” Fair enough, I love believing in things too!

Nick Mauss
Fran Lebowitz
new york city ballet
lincoln center
Whitney Museum of American Art
jerome robbins
right now