The fabulous New York life of Lauren Leto
"I don't want to buy any furniture," Lauren Leto said. "Literally I have four suitcases. I'm trying to keep it to four suitcases."
She was sitting with a reporter at Cafe Select on Lafayette Street, just a few blocks from the fully furnished apartment where Leto has been living for the past four months.
"I don't know, it just seems so hard to move in the city," she continued. "I would rather just sublease furnished places than ever worry about moving. Do you own furniture?"
Leto moved to New York from Michigan in April, almost exactly a year after the launch of her website, Texts from Last Night, which began as a sorority email chain featuring text messages from Leto's jerk of a boyfriend and then became very popular, very quickly.
And very profitable, too: The site, Leto said, is now a multimillion-dollar company, with brand-extensions like the book Texts From Last Night, published in January, and a production deal for a TV sitcom.
It's been a big year for Leto, and a big week. On Thursday, her next book, Judging a Book by Its Lover, was sold to HarperCollins. And on Friday, TechCrunch reported that Leto had secured funding for a new Internet project.
It's a defining moment, a one-two punch of "old" media and tech, a week full of the kind of improbable, varied, self-made success that has always been the promise of New York, and that is, apparently, still possible. Possible, that is, if you are very, very driven and work very, very hard.
Judging a Book By Its Lover was the first project that is hers, and hers alone. She said again and again how much she had always dreamed of being a writer (there's a completed, if unedited, novel manuscript lying in her apartment), so the new book seems an odd choice. The sections, which include "How to Write Like Any Author" and "Twitter Versions of Novels," are by their nature reductive. But they're also confident, aggressive, and yes, presumptuous: the paper-and-ink versions of the "dislike" button everyone claims to want on Facebook. Posting about the book to her Tumblr, Leto wrote: "[My] favorite section so far is “How to Speak Condescendingly About Any Author.” This section has been inspired heavily by people I’ve met in NYC (wink)."
While we were talking, Leto got an email from her book club, which had decided to read Let the Great World Spin rather than Leto's suggestion, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I asked her if she'd ever read "Goodbye to All That," the seminal Didion essay about coming to New York. After all, in that essay Didion also finds herself mysteriously incapable, during her eight years in the city, of buying furniture.
"I just read it yesterday," Leto said, "and that's why I suggested Year of Magical Thinking. I like her writing style. And then under my new section I'm working on, called 'How to Write Like Any Author,' I'm like, 'Joan Didion: redundant, scattered, doesn't stay on the same subject for more than one long, run-on sentence.'"
Why are Leto's judgments so much in demand? It could be that repressed, insecure, pretentious New York is just self-aware enough to be looking for something to pierce its literary afflatus—but it would seem to require sharper instruments than these to accomplish that. Or is it that the readers have the opportunity of turning the joke around on Leto?
"It's so stereotypical to be like, ‘I see myself in it,’" she said of the Didion essay. "Because one of the reasons it's such great writing is that there's a lot of bits anyone can identify with. But it's become really cliché. Duh, you see yourself in 'Goodbye to All That.' But the one stupid part of that stupid essay that all girls love: It feels that I'm not living here. Especially since I have no furniture. It feels like I'm visiting."
Judging a Book By Its Lover arose out of Leto's side project: a “book porn” blog in which she critiques New York bookstores, re-posts funny literary merchandising efforts, writes one-word book reviews, and makes observations like “Margaret Atwood is so hot” and “I am consistently surprised by Sam Lipsyte’s appearance.”
The most popular post, though, was one from last December, “Stereotyping People by Their Favorite Author,” the seed of her current manuscript. It’s a list of dozens of authors, each with a brief description of his or her stereotypical readership. A few of the entries have the specificity of truth ("Nicole Krauss: Girls who intern at Nylon but end up moving back to the Midwest for their real job"), but most are on the random side, like "Stieg Larsson: Girls who are too frightened to go skydiving" or “Friedrich Nietzsche: Sommeliers.”
There’s something resentful and defensive about the nearly endless post, especially when you take into account that she wrote it before she’d moved to New York. It’s all about not being "from here," either geographically or intellectually. It's a project that simultaneously broadcasts her knowledge and prevents any real discussion of it: "Dislike."
But like Texts from Last Night itself, the post swiftly flew around the Internet, drawing hundreds of comments. It was the first time that Leto had gotten attention for something in her own name; as one of the Texts from Last Night creators, she was essentially anonymous.
"I got some street cred," she said.
Foster Kamer, then the weekend editor of Gawker, started following her on Twitter, and the two began emailing back and forth. On Kamer's last day at Gawker on February 28th, he invited writers to submit posts to the site. Leto volunteered, and Kamer suggested a brief version of her "stereotype" post involving New York Times writers. The bio he wrote for her turned out to be prescient: "She also wrote an awesome blog post about who your favorite author is that she'll probably also get a book deal for."
She followed up the “stereotypes” post with another that gave rules for “How to Fake Like You’ve Read” certain authors. She chose Dostoevsky, Salinger, and Kerouac. (“1. Knowing Dostoevsky’s first name is not important. Knowing how to pronounce his name is important.”)
But the post reminds you not so much of Henry Higgins instructing a legion of Eliza Doolittles as an upperclassman overheard giving questionable advice to her first-year sorority sisters. The sense in much of Leto's literary reductiveness is that she is trying to make it all manageable, to stay just one step ahead. Despite the tendency of a certain kind of New Yorker to be pious about a certain French novelist, she pronounced "Proust" as though it rhymed with "Faust." It was almost possible to wonder whether it was a trap.
Just 23, Leto is pretty and put-together, with long, gently waving dark hair. She fidgets and gesticulates, and has all the signs—"LOVE" tanktops, chunky Chanel bags, subtle chestnut highlights—of a suburban princess.
Which is what she confesses, essentially, to being. She grew up in the small, affluent, white Detroit suburb of Grosse Point. Her father, Peter, owns a construction company—"so dago," she said, laughing—and her mother, Julie, is a computer assistant at an elementary school.
During high school, she took classes at nearby Wayne City Community College—she was already into politics and law—and decided she was going to become a prosecutor in Detroit. She wanted to go to NYU, but her parents wouldn't pay for it, so she ended up in an honors public affairs program at Michigan State, with thirty-one credits from her high school work. She set up her schedule to graduate in three years so that she could enter law school with her brother, also named Peter, who is a year older and with whom she often did community service work.
"He'll never leave Michigan," she said of her brother. "He's like what my life would be if I never left. And I keep thinking about that. I'd be doing my summer internship and then finding out where I'm going to work. When he gets married in three years—because everyone from Michigan gets married at, like, 26—I'm just gonna be, like, thank God I left. Thank God I left."
And yet she professes a certain ambivalence for New York—and not just its literary scene. It's as though it were a not particularly interesting puzzle that she needs to solve.
She says she doesn't do much, prefers being alone, dislikes parties, and spends most of her time on the computer in her apartment. She has, it seems, few interests besides work, reading, and success. This kind of focus has always been said to be integral to "making it" in New York. But though she's clearly smart, charming, and hardworking, there's an element of the stereotypical ambitious New York arrival that's missing here. Something like appetite. "I feel like I'm already jaded," she told me, four months in.
"It was pretty easy to meet people once I was here," she said. "I'd been advised to hit the ground running, so I just kinda hit the ground running."
"Running," though, is a relative term. Leto lives in the center of everything, the heart of the startup world that she is eager to be a part of. Yet she says she goes out only a night or two a week, and that quota is sometimes met by Wednesday trivia nights at Dempsey's in the East Village. She says she doesn't leave her apartment most days, ordering some sesame chicken for lunch and eating it slowly through the rest of the day.
When she does go out, though, she's not careless, and has ended up strategically placed in party photos next to The Office's BJ Novak and Ricky Van Veen, a co-founder of CollegeHumor.com. She likes casually fancy, guidebook-approved places like Bar Pitti and Da Silvano, and sometimes she’ll have drinks with potential investors at the Bowery Hotel. Her social life, like so many in New York, is a Mobius strip of people who know each other. She recently went to an office party at Hunch, the guided-recommendations startup run by Chris Dixon, one of her new investors, along with David Lee and Shana Fisher. She went to the party with Elizabeth Stark, who's roommates with Nick Gray, who throws low-key bloggy parties at their Williamsburg apartment.
"There's good people to meet there," Leto said, "but I kinda feel like I already know everyone I want to know."
At Michigan State, Leto was a member of Alpha Phi, a sorority that she described as "wild," but she was too busy with Arabic and her constitutional law classes to be as wild as she might've been. Ben Bator was her roommate's best friend growing up, and the two became friendly as they both prepared for law school. They started bouncing ideas off each other, planning a group that would meet monthly to talk about how to change Detroit, and a new radio station they wanted to start.
She told Bator that her sorority sisters had been emailing around funny, often gross text messages they'd been sent. At that point, the texts were marked by the sender’s initials; after all, everyone knew all the senders. Bator had the idea to switch it to area codes, making the whole thing less exclusive and widening the potential scope. They each put in $200 to have the site designed, and it launched on April 18, 2009, in the middle of Leto's first-year law school finals (she was at Wayne State). By April 23, she says, there had been a million hits.
Editors from about seven publishing houses quickly contacted them about writing a book, and Mark Frenkel, a medical student at Case Western, designed an iPhone app. (About 600,000 have been sold to date.) They chose Frenkel's sister's college roommate, Erin Malone, to be their literary agent. She works at William Morris Endeavor, and was experienced at this kind of thing, having represented the blog Stuff White People Like.
Leto traveled to New York for the first time that June to take meetings with potential publishers. She and Bator ended up going with Gotham Books, whose senior editor, Patrick Mulligan, had acquired blog-to-book gems like The Truth about Chuck Norris and I Can Has Cheezburger? The manuscript was due August 1, which caused some stress on her second trip to New York in July, a vacation with her mother and younger sister. Leto was in a bad mood, and a visit to the High Line is about the only thing she remembers. But she also remembers knowing she wanted to move here.
Leto had stayed in Michigan through the fall and winter to take care of her ill grandmother, who died in the beginning of April. She moved to New York two weeks later, by which time she was dating Foster Kamer, who’d taken a job as a blogger for the Village Voice writing about New York media. Leto was poring over Craigslist looking for an apartment while the two were working in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, and Kamer took her computer and found her an apartment, which she moved into three days after her arrival. (Her relationship with Kamer ended a few weeks later.)
Cindy Gallop, a branding consultant whose recent "Make Love Not Porn" campaign targets the sexual mores of young men, reached out to Leto, and introduced her to Elizabeth Stark, who teaches law and technology at Yale and whom Leto described as one of her best friends in the city.
"It's funny,” she said. "I came here and have a ridiculous set of friends, like Cindy Gallop. It's like people just reached out to me automatically and I got in with a cool crowd of people, who I would never, ever, ever have fucking talked to, ever, if it wasn't for Texts from Last Night. So that's kind of one interesting point. I realize that time and time again, that I would never have been friends with these people."
That's not necessarily a fun thing to realize, time and time again, about your close friends. I asked her if she was lonely. She said she wasn't; more precisely, she said she preferred being alone. I asked her if she was happy. She paused for a few seconds.
"Yeah, I'm really happy," she finally said. "Nothing turns me on more than a to-do list."
There is, indeed, a to-do list. Her startup, called Bnter, will be a social-networking platform using similar technology to that found on Texts from Last Night. Meanwhile, Ben Bator has been living in Los Angeles and handling the TV show, which is being developed for Fox, written by Steve Holland (of the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory") and produced by Sony Pictures TV and Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions.
On the one hand, she says she doesn't know if she'll ever leave. On the other, she answers "hell, no" when asked if she'd raise a family in New York. The only thing settled about her five-year plan, in fact, is that neither marriage nor kids is a part of it.
"I don't like New York guys," she said. "They're fucking full of shit. They're full of shit. And this isn't a town for dating. This is a town for working."
There's something almost preternaturally savvy about how quickly Leto has mastered certain New York signifiers. She has the vocabulary down: a web developer "codes up" a site, an agent "goes out with" a manuscript. And she guessed—correctly! from across a rooftop! in the dark!—before we first met that my friend and I were, she said, "old media journalists."
Yet there are disconcerting gaps: At that first meeting, she'd heard of Capital, but not the Observer. She'd been interviewed, she told me, by the Wall Street Times.
These are beginner's errors, the correction of which is precisely the condescension her personal brand is all about cutting down. Nevertheless she'll surely fix them.
Not that roosting is in the plan for now. When her Soho sublease ends, she's thinking of moving to a studio on Jane and Greenwich in the West Village that Foster Kamer had told her back in April was too far out of the way of everything.
"I want to stay for like two months," she said. "I want to try out different places. I dunno. Maybe I'll see a place, and love it, and want to stay for six months."