Not many people could claim that gossip columnist Liz Smith did them wrong as she was one of the few that made sure to get the facts right and tried hard to not intentionally hurt those she wrote about.
She was like a wonderful godmother to me when I came to New York City and anytime I had a charity event, she would be the first to contribute one of a kind items like a pair of Elizabeth Taylor’s shoes studded with Swarovski crystals along with getting the word out in her daily New York Post column.
She loved helping a good cause, and many people felt her generosity knowing she wouldn’t turn it into a gossip piece.
Liz Smith was one of the most prominent gossip columnists in the country for decades, and sadly, she has died in New York from natural causes. She was 94.
Literary agent Joni Evans confirmed the news to media outlets on Sunday.
From hardscrabble nights writing snippets for a Hearst newspaper in the 1950s to golden afternoons at Le Cirque with Sinatra or Hepburn and tête-à-tête dinners with Madonna to gather material for columns that ran six days a week, Ms. Smith captivated millions with her tattletale chitchat and, over time, ascended to fame and wealth that rivaled those of the celebrities she covered.
A self-effacing, good-natured, vivacious Texan who professed to be awed by celebrities, Ms. Smith was the antithesis of the brutal columnist J. J. Hunsecker in Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for “Sweet Smell of Success,” which portrayed sinister power games in a seamy world of press agents and nightclubs. One of the interviews that made her most nervous was Warren Beatty in the late 90’s.
Her style was not the intimidating jugular attack of columnists who expose intimacies or misdeeds in the private lives of public figures, thriving on Schadenfreude and sometimes damaging reputations. Nor, for the sake of a titillating item, did she seize upon ugly rumors or tasteless embarrassments.
On the contrary, she offered a kinder, gentler view of movie stars and moguls, politicians and society figures. And gossip was hardly the only ingredient of her columns, which were sprinkled with notes on books or films, bits of political commentary and opinions about actors, authors and other notables.
She often inserted herself into stories. Explaining why Madonna had become a regular in her columns, Ms. Smith wrote in 2006, “I didn’t always agree with what she said, or what she did, but the hysterical overreaction to her caused me, if not to defend her, then at least to put a more balanced perspective on her astonishing ongoing saga.”
If her columns lacked edge, they provided something more: the insider’s view. Many of those she wrote about became personal friends, people she genuinely liked and who liked her. She lunched with them, partied with them, vacationed with them and shared their successes and travails. And they trusted her, knowing she would not trash them in print.
But journalism’s watchdogs accused her, with some justification, of conflicts of interest, of lacking objectivity and distance from those she wrote about. The Village Voice, Spy magazine and other publications made her the butt of satires, portraying her as an egocentric, mistake-prone partisan, using columns to promote her friends.
“It’s a valid criticism, I suppose,” Ms. Smith said in a 1991 interview with The New York Times. “But 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.”
The famously Texas-born, Southern Baptist with the blonde bob began penning a column under her own name at the New York Daily News in 1976. Three years later, during a newspaper strike in New York City, her editors at the Daily News asked her to appear in daily segments on WNBC’s Live at Five newscast; she remained with the program for 11 years, earning an Emmy in 1985. This exposure on television enhanced her status — she became a popular staple on the Manhattan social scene, which served to provide more material for her column, by this point in syndication in more than 70 newspapers.
At one point Smith was hired by Fox to develop a talk show that Roger Ailes would produce.
She moved from the Daily News to Newsday in 1991, remaining for four years, then signed with the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post. Once part of News Corp., she naturally made appearances on the Fox News Channel. Smith remained with the Post until she was let go in 2009; she continued writing her column, the syndication of which also continued, and the column appeared for a while in Daily Variety after the death of the paper’s own legendary gossip columnist, Army Archerd, in 2009.
Smith told The New York Times in 2014 that her love of movies began when she was 6 or 7 and that she never wanted to do anything else.
Asked about why we retain our fascination with celebrities, Smith replied: “Remember ‘Camelot’? The song: ‘I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?’ We make stars into something exquisite, and we want to know what they’re doing and thinking because our lives are desperately boring.”
“I grew up with all these little rich kids,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a dime. I couldn’t face that. I was always a horrible little social climber in my way.”
Smith was full of stories about the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Carol Burnett, Bette Midler and her sometime-friend Barbara Walters, but she professed, to the Times in 2014, not to pay any attention to Gawker, TMZ or any of the other celebrity gossip-oriented websites that have proliferated over the last decade. “I never know whether the stories are true,” she declared.
Despite her professed disdain for online developments, Smith came to write a blog for the Huffington Post. She was also one of the founding members, along with Lesley Stahl, Mary Wells Lawrence, and Joni Evans, of the website, which is intended to allow women to talk culture, politics and gossip.
Asked by the Times whether she ever paid for stories — a sensitive subject for at least some gossip columnists — Smith replied: “I could have. But that would have been against my principles. The only thing I ever negotiated for money was covering Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Larry Fortensky at Neverland Ranch. They said, ‘No press.’ And I said, ‘I’ll give all the money to AIDS charities.’ So they let me come, and boy, that was an experience.”
Mary Elizabeth Smith was born in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1949 Smith graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin — where she wrote for the Daily Texan, and all her papers are ensconced at the university’s Dolph Brisco Center. She soon relocated to New York, where she worked as a typist, proofreader, and reporter before working as a news producer for Mike Wallace at CBS Radio. She spent five years as a news producer for NBC-TV, and she also worked for Allan Funt on “Candid Camera.”
Smith started out writing the anonymous Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column in the 1950s for the Hearst papers. After ending her work on that column in the early 1960s, she went to work for Helen Gurley Brown as the entertainment editor for the U.S. version of Cosmopolitan magazine, later also working as entertainment editor of Sports Illustrated.
Smith raised millions of dollars for charities, including $6 million for Literacy Partners, millions for AIDS charity AmFAR, as well as money for the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
She appeared on a variety of documentaries about celebrities including 2007’s “A Tribute to Peter Bart: Newhouse Mirror Award,” centering on the former editor-in-chief of Variety; Smith also played herself on TV series including “The Nanny,” “Murphy Brown” and “The Roseanne Show.”
Her tome “The Mother Book” was published in 1978, followed by her New York Times bestselling memoir “Natural Blonde” in 2000 and 2005’s “Dishing: Great Dish – And Dishes – From America’s Most Beloved Gossip Columnist.”
Smith was married and divorced twice to George Beeman from 1945-47, and to Fred Lister from 1957-62, but acknowledged her bisexuality in a roundabout way in her memoirs, dubbing it “gender neutrality.” She was less circumspect in a 2000 interview with Judy Wieder, editor-in-chief of the Advocate, declaring that while it was not in her nature to be a role model in the LGBT movement, “I think that my relationships with women were always much more emotionally satisfying and comfortable (than with men). And a lot of my relationships with men were more flirtatious and adversarial. I just never felt I was wife material. I always felt that I was a great girlfriend.”
Long before her “Liz Smith” column ended in The Post in February 2009 — after being cut to three times a week in 2008 — newsprint gossip columns had been migrating to the internet and its ever-expanding blogosphere, which had become an ideal format for rapier thrusts at celebrities, often delivered anonymously and with little regard for truth or consequences.
Her 2000 memoir, “Natural Blonde,” a best seller for months, was a breezy compendium of tales about Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Joe DiMaggio, Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn and others — nothing very scandalous. Reviewers chastised her for not sharing intimate details of her relationships with women, including the archaeologist Iris Love, with whom she lived for many years.
But her work was praised. “Her brand of gossip is the old-fashioned kind, not the embarrassing or repulsive stuff dug up by so many of her journalistic colleagues,” Jane and Michael Stern wrote in a review for The Times. “When she escorts us into the private lives of popular culture’s gods and monsters, it’s with a spirit of wonder, not meanness.”