DIVA OF DISH
Late Liz Smith was the grande dame of gossip
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.
“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.