Late Liz Smith was the grande dame of gos­sip

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Le­land © 2017 New York Times

The fol­low­ing story about so­ci­ety writer Liz Smith ran in The New York Times in July. Smith died Sun­day at 94.

Liz Smith, who is 94 and re­cov­er­ing from a mi­nor stroke, would like it to be known that she is avail­able for duty.

“I’m just fine,” she said the other day. “I can’t walk. I can’t talk as well as I used to, but I’m rel­a­tively healthy oth­er­wise.”

It was a warm af­ter­noon in her new Park Av­enue apart­ment, six months into the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, whose tabloid rise was once closely linked to her own.

She has a lap­top, but she doesn’t like it. She has an elec­tric type­writer, which she bought af­ter her stroke at the sug­ges­tion of Tom Hanks, a friend, but it sits on the floor be­cause she does not have a desk.

She has her wits, though words some­times elude her or come out side­ways. She even has a col­umn of sorts, which she writes with her long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, De­nis Fer­rara, for a web­site called New York So­cial Di­ary.

What she does not have is a col­umn in a New York tabloid, the Via Veneto of the gos­sip world. Since The New York Post dropped her in 2009, she has been a herald with­out a proper plat­form, re­jected by the me­dia names she helped make bold­face.

She pleaded with Ru­pert Mur­doch, owner of The Post, not to drop her — no soap.

She of­fered her­self to Mor­timer B. Zuck­er­man, owner of The Daily News, the pa­per where she made her name. “I said, you have noth­ing to lose, you don’t even have to pay me a salary,” she said — no soap there, either.

So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to some­one else to make sure the public gets sick.

Face­book, maybe?

“I don’t think my name could sell any­thing now,” Smith said in the apart­ment where she moved af­ter her stroke in Jan­uary, from her long­time digs above a Tex-Mex restau­rant in Mur­ray Hill. She wore a white ca­ble-knit sweater and bright or­ange lip­stick.

“It used to mean — by­lines used to mean some­thing in jour­nal­ism,” she said, her Texas ac­cent still un­bowed. But with the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia, she said, “most peo­ple have for­got­ten about so­called pow­er­ful peo­ple like me; we served our time.”

Which put Smith at an ex­is­ten­tial cross­roads: If a gos­sip colum­nist dishes in the for­est and no one re­peats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity land­scape that con­sid­ers con­tes­tants on “The Bach­e­lorette” to be celebri­ties, how does a star-chaser re­gain her star?

“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, mus­ing at the thought. “Af­ter a life­time of fun and ex­cite­ment and money and feel­ing im­por­tant and be­ing in the thick of it, I am just shocked ev­ery day that I’m not the same per­son. I think that hap­pens to all old peo­ple. They’re search­ing for a glim­mer of what they call their real self. They’re bor­ing, mostly.

“I’m al­ways think­ing falsely, ex­pend­ing what lit­tle en­ergy I have, be­liev­ing ev­ery day I may just re­dis­cover that per­son. I try to be all of the things I was, but it in­evitably fails. I don’t feel like my­self at all.”

Mary El­iz­a­beth Smith was born in 1923 in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up en­thralled by the ra­dio broad­casts of Wal­ter Winchell, aching for “the glam­our and the ex­cite­ment of New York,” she said. She was not in­ter­ested in Hol­ly­wood; New York was where the luster was.

Her ar­rival, in Septem­ber 1949, was less than glam­orous. She reached Penn­syl­va­nia Sta­tion af­ter a three-day train ride, with $50 and no job prospects, and spent her first night in a ho­tel room on 21st Street with two friends. She knew how to hail a taxi be­cause she had seen it in movies, she said. When she looked out the win­dow her first morn­ing, she asked, “Which way is town?”

She quickly found her way, land­ing an apart­ment with two room­mates, tak­ing turns sleep­ing on the couch. The place was small but it did not mat­ter. The city was too ex­cit­ing for her to stay home and read or sleep, know­ing what was out­side her win­dow — stars, celebri­ties, the El Morocco club.

“I was just climb­ing and elec­tri­fied all the time,” she said. “Burn­ing up with am­bi­tion. So I don’t want to judge other peo­ple too harshly that I see on tele­vi­sion. They’re just climb­ing also. But I like to think that I had some tal­ent.”

Words that re­cur in her con­ver­sa­tion: climb­ing, claw­ing, tal­ent, im­por­tant, pow­er­ful, Trump, Mrs. As­tor. Also some that can­not be printed here.

Her friends in New York showed her how to make a meal of free crack­ers and ketchup at the au­tomat. She knew ac­tor Zachary Scott from col­lege — he played Joan Craw­ford’s love in­ter­est in “Mil­dred Pierce” — so she looked him up in the phone book, and he helped her get a job at Mod­ern Screen mag­a­zine.

The phone book!

“That would be im­pos­si­ble to­day,” she said. “Any celebrity would flee from the pub­lic­ity. They are try­ing to es­cape their fans. Once they’re re­ally big, they choose to in­su­late them­selves with money, and they don’t need pub­lic­ity, they just get it by ap­pear­ing, but they’re not ex­actly claw­ing their way to the top, like every­body in the the­ater and the movies used to be. They’re just so big, they don’t care any­more.”

Into this gap, of course — be­tween the un­touch­able star and the cu­ri­ous public — rose the gos­sip colum­nist, and par­tic­u­larly Smith. Ac­cess made the stars more like mor­tals, and made the gos­sip colum­nists more like stars. The price of ad­mis­sion, she dis­cov­ered, was of­ten un­crit­i­cal rev­er­ence. Celebri­ties learned they could count on Smith.

Meet­ing her he­roes, she said, did not di­min­ish their glow. “Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “It seemed fab­u­lous.”

She was in­vited to lav­ish open­ings and par­ties, or to travel to ex­otic film lo­ca­tions, and when she wrote fa­vor­ably about th­ese, she was in­vited to more. In­stead of dig­ging for scan­dal, like some of her com­peti­tors (“I thought I was above it,” she said. “I wanted to bet­ter my­self ”) she cul­ti­vated mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ships with her sub­jects.

“We need Liz,” gos­sip colum­nist Michael Musto once told New York mag­a­zine, “be­cause we need some­one who ac­tu­ally likes celebri­ties. We knock ev­ery­one down, and then she builds them back up.”

Oth­ers re­sented her fawn­ing and oc­ca­sional sharp el­bows. Spy mag­a­zine ran a monthly “Liz Smith Tote Board” of fa­vorites she puffed. Pub-

li­cist Bobby Zarem, an­gered over per­ceived slights, once helped send false wed­ding no­tices for Smith and her part­ner at the time, a so­cialite and ar­chae­ol­o­gist named Iris Love. Zarem, who, when asked to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle, said, “I hope it’s for an obit­u­ary,” added that as Smith rose, peo­ple bowed to her.

“I know peo­ple who wouldn’t care if Liz Smith killed some­body as long as she men­tioned their names in her col­umn,” he said.

She ad­vised a vir­ginal Elaine Stritch to have sex with Mar­lon Brando to keep him in­ter­ested; helped Rock Hud­son thwart a black­mailer who threat­ened to out him; shel­tered Ivana Trump from other gos­siphounds; trav­eled the world with El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton; and dur­ing her ten­ure at The Post broke the story of Mur­doch’s di­vorce — from his point of view, of course. She mixed with Richard Nixon, Roy Cohn, Ron­ald and Nancy Rea­gan, Ann Richards, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Roger Ailes, among oth­ers.

“I had a fab­u­lous ed­u­ca­tion around the world, through peo­ple no one else could get,” she said. “What re­porter wouldn’t have wanted to go?”

But Smith also had mis­giv­ings. She had stud­ied jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Texas and wanted to be taken se­ri­ously, like the news re­porters she ad­mired. When she landed as­sign­ments for the first is­sues of New York mag­a­zine, which pub­lished the “New Jour­nal­ism” of writ­ers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, she thought about fol­low­ing their path. “I was still at their feet, slather­ing over them,” she said. Then she dis­cov­ered that she could not make a liv­ing at it. Celebri­ties, on the other hand, paid the bills. Like the stars she wrote about, she did what was nec­es­sary to get ahead.

“I needed ac­cess to peo­ple,” she said. “And you’re not sup­posed to seek ac­cess. You’re just sup­posed to be pure and you go to the per­son you’re writ­ing about and you write the truth. No­body can do it to­tally.”

“But every­body gives up some­thing to be able to do a job, a de­mand­ing job,” she added. “And be­ing a re­porter is a de­mand­ing, dan­ger­ous job. It may be glam­orous or put you in harm’s way. I gave up be­ing con­sid­ered eth­i­cal and ac­cept­able, for a while.”

She moved from Mod­ern Screen to tele­vi­sion to Cos­mopoli­tan, along the way con­tribut­ing to the pseudony­mous Cholly Knicker­bocker so­ci­ety col­umn in the Hearst news­pa­per chain. At The Daily News, where she got her first col­umn un­der her own name in 1976, she took no­tice of a brash young real es­tate de­vel­oper who irked the city’s old­money types but en­ter­tained the read­ers of New York tabloids. Don­ald Trump was made for tabloid col­umns, she said, be­cause he was both rav­en­ous for their at­ten­tion and gifted at feed­ing their needs.

Smith es­pe­cially be­friended Ivana Trump, who she thought was be­ing un­fairly shunned by high so­ci­ety. When the Trump mar­riage soured in Fe­bru­ary 1990, Smith chose sides can­nily.

“I was hor­ri­fied at the way he treated her, and I made the mis­take of de­fend­ing her,” she said. “This is al­ways fa­tal for your as­pi­ra­tions to be taken se­ri­ously as a re­porter. But I had no choice. I had to be nice to them for a while to get ac­cess to them. I didn’t par­tic­u­larly ap­prove of them, I didn’t like or dis­like them. And I met his whole fam­ily and they were charm­ing. So I was swept up in the scan­dal of Ivana want­ing a de­cent set­tle­ment from Don­ald. And I be­came a fea­tured player in the story, which I came to re­gret.”

“The di­vorce made Liz,” said gos­sip colum­nist Cindy Adams, who landed ri­val ex­clu­sive in­ter­views with Don­ald Trump for The Post. “It cat­a­pulted her, be­cause she had the orig­i­nal story. In those days she was a ma­jor force.”

As Ivana Trump’s con­fi­dante, Smith chan­neled de­tails of a di­vorce that filled not just the tabloids, but also the net­works and the cov­ers of Time and Newsweek. As former gos­sip colum­nist Jean­nette Walls noted in her 2000 book “Dish: How Gos­sip Be­came the News and the News Be­came Just Another Show”: “A lot hap­pened in the world that week. The Berlin Wall was top­pled and Ger­many was re­united. Drexel Burn­ham Lam­bert, the wildly pow­er­ful junk bond com­pany that spear­headed the 1980s fi­nan­cial boom, col­lapsed. And af­ter 27 years in prison, South African civil rights leader Nel­son Man­dela was freed. But for 11 straight days, the front pages of the tabs were de­voted to the Trump Di­vorce.”

For three months, Smith wrote about noth­ing else, of­ten on the tabloid’s front page, and she even ap­peared there in a photo, ush­er­ing Ivana Trump past a horde of jour­nal­ists and gapers in front of the restau­rant La Gre­nouille. She re­peated her sto­ries or added new ones on the 5 o’clock news. Alexan­der Cock­burn in The Na­tion called the story “Man­hat­tan’s an­swer to Göt­ter­däm­merung” and wrote that “its Wag­ner is Liz Smith.” If her uni­verse was one in which the Trumps and Marla Maples were the bright­est stars, she was the one hand­ing out the glow.

“I just tried to be fair, and most of th­ese other colum­nists weren’t,” she said of her ri­vals. “I like to think I was bet­ter than them. I’m prob­a­bly mis­cal­cu­lat­ing.”

The suc­ces­sion of front page sto­ries raised the stakes for gos­sip, and made the com­pe­ti­tion for sources more cut­throat, Adams said. “We were two tigers try­ing to cover our turf, I’ll just say that,” she said.

Cir­cu­la­tion and rat­ings boomed. With in­come from her col­umn, syn­di­ca­tion and tele­vi­sion, Smith was said to be the high­est-paid print jour­nal­ist in Amer­ica. When Don­ald Trump vowed to buy The News just to fire her, it made her only big­ger.

But the high did not last. When news­pa­pers started to crash in the first decade of this cen­tury, Smith fell with them, ac­cept­ing “less money for the priv­i­lege of still be­ing printed as a by­line,” she said. Un­til fi­nally, even this came to an end.

Smith still loves fa­mous peo­ple, in­clud­ing Glo­ria Steinem (“one of my idols”), Larry Kramer (“a su­pe­rior per­son”), Jen­nifer Lopez (“I just love her”) and Michelle Obama (“If I were en­er­getic and young and Liz Smith again, I would go af­ter Michelle Obama”). But she is some­what baf­fled to be in a world where peo­ple can tell the Kar­dashi­ans apart.

“Maybe gos­sip is still amus­ing, but I don’t think it’s as much fun as it used to be, be­cause it’s now all-per­va­sive,” she said. “Some­one you never knew their name is on the front page, mak­ing mil­lions of dol­lars or go­ing broke, and you never heard of them be­fore. In the past we were able to iden­tify im­por­tant peo­ple and stars.”

Adams, who at 87 is still writ­ing a col­umn for The Post, char­ac­ter­ized the new gos­sip as “young kids who are out there with their tele­phones record­ing what th­ese non­peo­ple are say­ing.” She added, “They’re mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult.”

Two years ago, a web­site called AfterEllen de­scribed Smith as “the most pow­er­ful queer woman in me­dia who you’ve never heard of.”

Smith, who ap­pre­ci­ates a well-packed phrase, was amused. “Ha!” she said.

Since pub­lish­ing her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Nat­u­ral Blonde,” in 2000, she has dropped her ret­i­cence about her re­la­tion­ships with men and women, in part in re­sponse to gay ac­tivists who de­manded she come out.

Her re­gret, she said, was wait­ing so long. “It sounded de­fen­sive to protest that I thought my­self bi­sex­ual, like I wouldn’t ad­mit that I was a les­bian. I wasn’t a happy con­vert to any par­tic­u­lar sex­ual thing. But I even­tu­ally got tired of de­fend­ing my­self and said, ‘Say what­ever you like.’”

Since break­ing her hip a few years ago, Smith has used a walker to get around. Th­ese days she rarely leaves the apart­ment, ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional Broad­way open­ing. Even dress­ing up to go to the restau­rant on the ground floor is of­ten too much trou­ble, she said.

But she still has sto­ries to tell, she said, even if she is no longer sure that any­one is read­ing them. “It’s just the diminu­tion of your name,” she said. “It’s a nat­u­ral thing to hap­pen. So I be­gan to be for­got­ten, like the seven news­pa­pers I worked for are for­got­ten.”

“And I could give up and com­mit sui­cide or just let events take their place,” she added. But she thought she had one last con­tri­bu­tion to make — a re­minder, per­haps, of what gos­sip once was, and a chance to dis­cover who Liz Smith was now. “I don’t par­tic­u­larly want any re­ward,” she said. “I know I’m not go­ing to get it. But I might get another day of search­ing.”


Liz Smith in her apart­ment on Park Av­enue in New York in July. Smith, the long­time queen of New York’s tabloid gos­sip col­umns who for more than three decades chron­i­cled lit­tle tri­umphs and tres­passes in the soap-opera lives of the rich, the fa­mous and the merely beau­ti­ful, died on Sun­day at her home in Man­hat­tan. She was 94.


Gos­sip colum­nist Liz Smith (from left) with Don­ald, Ivana and Ivanka Trump in 1987.

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