February 2, 1923 – Liz Smith
Gossip columnist Liz Smith chronicled the triumphs and trespasses in the soap-opera lives of the rich, the famous and the merely beautiful. She mixed banter, barbs, and bon mots about celebrities, and climbed to the top of the same A-list that she covered in her syndicated column.
Smith’s 60-year career started in the 1950s, sharing tid-bits about film and stage stars, musicians, and the rich and powerful. While the newspapers she wrote for cut staff and budgets, Smith continued to write for online publications.
During the apex of her career in the 1980s and 1990s, she broke big stories like the divorces of Donald Trump from wife number one, Ivana Zelníčková, and number two, Marla Maples. She was an authority on all things Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She covered all of Liza Minnelli‘s weddings.
Smith always said that gossip was meant to be a fun:
We mustn’t take ourselves too seriously in this world of gossip. When you look at it realistically, what I do is pretty insignificant. Still, I’m having a lot of fun.
She dubbed herself the “Dame Of Dish”, and she was a nicer version of the long line of the gossip columnists from the Golden Age including Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Walter Winchell. A native Texan, she had a big smile and her sweet southern manner. Unlike the other columnists, Smith succeeded with kindness and an aversion to cheap shots. When reporting on entertainers, politicians and power brokers, she never bothered with unfounded rumors, sexual preferences or who’s-sleeping-with-whom.
While studying Journalism at the University of Texas, she interviewed actor Zachary Scott. He had just made Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford. He told her: “If you ever come to New York, call me.” So she did. He sent Smith to his friend who was the editor of Modern Screen. At the time, celebrity magazines were promotional rags controlled by the studios. Smith:
I thought I was a real journalist!
Some accused her, with some justification, of conflicts of interest, lacking objectivity and distance from those she wrote about. Spy magazine made her the butt of satires, portraying her as an egocentric, mistake-prone partisan, using columns to promote her friends. Smith:
I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t have to be pure, and I’m not. I mean, I am not a reporter operating on life-and-death matters, state secrets, the rise and fall of governments, and I don’t believe you can do this kind of job without access.
Smith was a wickedly funny and energetic observer of America’s celebrity circus, overflowing with impertinent anecdotes and insider information she’s gleaned as the pal of the rich and famous.
Her column was sometimes derided as a friendly refuge for celebrities. Smith:
It was just a gossip column! It wasn’t about attacking people. I never aspired to be the Journalism Review. But it’s wrong to say that it was all positive. I reserved my punches for people who really deserved it.
Donald John Trump was someone that received those punches. One of the biggest scoops of Smith’s career came in 1990, when she broke the story of the divorce in the New York Daily News. She knew the couple, who had previously invited her on trips. Ivana asked her to come to the Plaza Hotel, which Trump owned at the time. Smith:
When I got there, she threw herself in my arms and told me that Donald didn’t want her anymore. And I tried to give her some motherly advice. I said, ‘Get yourself a PR person who’s respectable and defend yourself against him’.
An angry Trump told her he would buy the New York Daily News just so he could fire her. He never did.
In her memoir Natural Blonde (2000), Smith confirmed her own gossip and came out as bisexual, or as she called it “gender neutrality”. She was married twice to men, but Smith’s great love was Iris Love, a famed archaeologist. It was her only longtime relationship. When she was outed by Outweek in 1992, Smith quipped:
Who am I, the great lesbian of the Western world? They want me to go out, and I want them to go in!
She later regretted not coming out sooner:
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’.
Before having a successful column, Smith worked as a publicist for the late, great actor/singer Kaye Ballard; assistant to newsman Mike Wallace and Candid Camera creator Allen Funt; ghostwriter for the Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column, before getting her own column.
Smith ultimately wrote for nine New York newspapers and dozens of magazines, but it was her stint writing for Cosmopolitan that led to her big break.
She started her own column at the New York Daily News in 1976. In 1978, during the newspaper strike, Smith helped usher in the era of celebrity journalism on television by joining WNBC-TV for three nights a week commentary. Ten years later she jumped to Fox, and then E! Entertainment Television.
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; she mixed with Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Ann Richards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Roger Ailes.
Smith was 94-years-old when she left us in 2017. Even at the end, she was still churning out her column from the same Murray Hill building she had lived in since 1979.
The gossip column then, it wasn’t just about people doing terrible things all the time. A lot of it was just wannabe news, you know. … looking through the keyhole at how your betters lived, I guess.