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This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“I’m too old for gossip,” insists 92-year-old Liz Smith, delicately settling into a banquette at her favorite Tex Mex watering hole in Murray Hill. But a few hours with the legendary columnist proves that’s far from the truth. Despite a few aches and pains, Smith remains a wickedly funny and energetic observer of America’s celebrity circus, overflowing with impertinent anecdotes and insider information she’s gleaned as the Boswell of the rich and famous. From the time she began her first job at a New York City studio rag called Modern Screen, the renowned journalist has had a ringside seat for every celebrity story and scandal since World War II. Not since the glory days of Walter Winchell has a gossip columnist been as powerful — or as widely read — as she was.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1923, Smith fled to New York in her 20s and began her steady conquest of the city, cultivating friendships with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and parlaying those intimacies into a lucrative lifelong career. At its height, her column was syndicated in more than 75 newspapers worldwide, including the New York Post, which lured Smith away for a princely sum from arch-rival Daily News. At one point, she was earning more than $1 million a year. And while the Post let her go in 2009, she’s still churning out her column from the same Murray Hill building she’s lived in since 1979. (Syndicated by the Chicago Tribune, it’s carried in dozens of papers nationwide and on New York Social Diary.) In March, THR met with the grande dame of dish to discuss Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Madonna, Barry Diller and life in the gossip trenches.
I believe the last time I interviewed you was exactly 23 years ago.
Our interview made headlines, as I recall. Outweek was viciously outing me as a lesbian for two years. And you called to ask if you could interview me for them. It was so outrageous, I couldn’t say no.
I believe the money quote was, “Who am I, the great lesbian of the Western world? They want me to go out, and I want them to go in!”
Yeah, well, I don’t really like blackmail and being told what to do. I didn’t care about being outed. But I wasn’t going to paint myself purple and walk down Fifth Avenue waving a sign. I was old enough that people could describe me any way they wanted. I feel the same way now.
How would you describe yourself?
As a very, very old person. (Laughs.) I’ve changed a lot, but everybody does. When I was 80, I was doing fine. I was still part of life. But something happens when you have to say you’re 90.
Smith was photographed by Wesley Mann.
You were 86 years old when Rupert Murdoch let you go from the New York Post. Were you surprised by that?
I was more shocked than anyone. I thought I was indispensable. Looking back, I just wasn’t what the powers that be wanted. And I don’t think it had anything to do with Murdoch himself. He liked me well enough and I had been nice to his family when they were virtually unknown here. I went to see him after they fired me and I asked for my job back. He was very sweet and complimentary and finally he said, “Well, you know, it’s an editorial thing, Liz. I can’t interfere with the Post‘s editors.” I burst out laughing. I said, “Of course you can!” And then he started laughing, too. But then he said he was sorry and kissed me on the cheek, and that was that. But the whole thing hurt my feelings and my stature as a columnist. I’ve had to struggle to make an adequate living since then.
You expected more loyalty from him.
No. He didn’t owe me loyalty. You’ve got to remember I had worked for the Daily News for 15 years. I was the enemy at the Post, so I was never completely accepted. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t depend on anything. The world can change in a minute.
How did a tomboy from Texas end up chasing movie stars in New York?
Just lucky, I guess. I grew up in a hard-shell Baptist town. I was this goofy starstruck kid, so in love with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that I couldn’t see straight. So I’d go down to the Tivoli Theater for a dime on Saturdays and watch them singing and dancing all day. But I didn’t have the talent to pursue performing myself, so I decided to be a writer instead. I pretty much separated myself from my parents, who were lovely people but thought I was crazy. At some point, I read a book by Christopher Morley called Kitty Foyle, about a girl who falls in love with a mainline guy. She’s just an Irish nobody, and his family won’t let them marry. So she goes to New York instead and becomes a big deal running businesses. She was my role model when I was 16.
With Ivana Trump in 1990.
You married for the first time when you were 21. Why did you marry so young?
Well, everybody was doing it. All these brave, fabulous, decent guys were all going off to war. So the least you could do was marry them. And I lucked out. I married a guy I really cared about — a strong, silent type, 6 [foot] 4. But he wanted to be a rancher in Texas and I wanted to get out of there. Later, when I made some money, I bought him a truck and delivered it to him in Texas. He didn’t want to accept it. I said, “Yes you have to because my conscience hurts.” It was sad, but I was desperate to get to New York. By the time I got here, I was 25, ancient compared to my contemporaries.
What was the city like when you finally arrived?
Well, I didn’t have any money, so it wasn’t terribly glamorous. I only had $50 when my train rolled into Penn Station. But I found some friends of mine who had graduated earlier, and they showed me the ropes. Like how to subsist at the automat on crackers and ketchup, or get dinner for a quarter at a restaurant with knives and forks!
Where did you live when you got here?
I shared apartments with all kinds of people that I never got to know. Usually three girls in a one-bedroom apartment, drawing straws to see who got the bed and who got the sofa. But it was fine. When I first arrived, I was so excited, I couldn’t stay at home anyway. I’d find myself out on the street, standing on a corner, listening to the subway and saying to myself, “OK, Liz, where will we go tonight?”
What kind of life did you imagine for yourself here?
I wanted to cover celebrities and know them. I wanted to hang out at El Morocco and the Stork Club. But I was stuck in the typing pool with all the other girls instead.
How did you finally break out?
Well, back when I was at the University of Texas, I had interviewed Zachary Scott, the actor. He had just made Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. He said to me, “If you ever come to New York, call me.” So I did. He sent me to his friend Chuck Saxon, who was the editor of Modern Screen. At the time, celebrity magazines were promotional rags controlled by the studios. But I didn’t know that. I thought I was a real journalist!
Did you ever aspire to be, say, a news reporter?
No, no. I was glad I had a job where I could announce in the editorial meeting what celebrity I thought we should put on the cover. (Laughs.) I was really good at that. I remember going to my boss and taking him pictures of two up-and-coming actors named Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.
Smith (left) shared a light moment with then-Sen. Clinton at a 2006 memorial for Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
You and Brando were friendly before he was famous.
I was living in the Village in a tiny apartment with all sorts of people coming in and out. Marlon was dating my friend Elaine Stritch at the time. One night, he called me at home and he said, “Liz, Elaine just keeps letting me kiss her but she won’t go any further.” I said, “Put her on the phone.” I said, “Elaine, you don’t understand about men. They aren’t satisfied with just kissing. So you have to stop being a prude or just end it.”
Wise advice. What did she decide?
They were both pupils of Stella Adler, so they wisely decided to break up. Another one I met early on was a girl named Shelley Winters. Modern Screen assigned me to go around with her in New York while she bought Christmas presents. Every store we stepped into, Shelley would take these expensive things and head for the door. The shops were horrified, but they were afraid to ask her to pay. So I really disliked her after that.
You became a sought-after writer early in your career.
Mostly because I could get to people that nobody else could get to. I met lots of interesting people coming up, and they stayed friends with me when they made it big. And my friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton really helped make my career. It didn’t do them any harm, either.
How did that friendship come about?
I met Elizabeth just as her career as a beautiful movie star was tapering off and she had escaped to Europe with Richard Burton because she didn’t dare leave him alone. In the ’60s, she became completely distant from what was happening in Hollywood; she made all these crazy European movies and avoided the American press. But they trusted me and eventually I became the only journalist who could get to them.
Did you like Elizabeth Taylor?
I loved her. She was just snarky and funny and crazy. Selfish and tremendously generous at the same time. But Burton liked me better than she did. She was threatened by any woman, but he knew better. He liked that I could talk to him about Dylan Thomas and not sound like a total idiot. It got boring for them, hiding in Europe. When I was working at Cosmo, I did five or six stories on the Burtons. I practically lived with them in Rome and Paris. My ticket would always be paid for by Liz, or by 20th Century Fox. That was in the studio era, when sticky ethics still prevailed.
I can’t imagine two women more different than you and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. Did you two get along?
She thought I was Jesus jumping off the cross because I brought her all these interviews. I found Helen fascinating, but I thought she was an idiot sometimes. She would constantly talk to me about getting married and how I should look for a rich man. This is a woman who dedicated her life to telling women how to feather their nest by throwing a scarf over a lamp.
From left: Smith, Beverly Sills, Carol Burnett and Barbara Walters at a Lincoln Center tribute to Sills in 2003.
Your column was sometimes derided as a friendly refuge for celebrities. Was that what you meant it to be?
Oh, yeah. 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.
Did anyone ever offer you a bribe or threaten you?
No. But it’s not too late! (Laughs.) Bette Midler was pretty tough on me early on. I ran something about her dating some actor. And she called me up, furious, saying, “I don’t want to be in your f—ing column!” Which was an odd thing to hear from someone just starting a career in show business. The funny thing is, I love Bette now. She’s amazing, but she’s a volatile person. Remember the guy she was with? The funny guy with the grand piano?
That’s him. I used to go see them at the Continental Baths! But that partnership didn’t end so well.
You had a legendary aversion to Jackie O.’s sister, Princess Lee Radziwill. What was it that set you off?
Well, she did something terrible. She was always a close friend of Truman Capote‘s. But then Capote got embroiled in that ridiculous libel suit with Gore Vidal over his claim that Vidal had been drunkenly kicked out of the White House. Lee is the one who told Capote the story, but when it ended up in court, she threw him to the wolves. All she had to do was tell the truth. But she refused, and Truman lost the lawsuit, which devastated him. During the trial, as a last-ditch effort, he asked me to call her and beg her to testify. And you know, Truman had done everything for her. He even tried to help her start an acting career. But when I called her and said, “Lee, you really must testify for Truman,” she said, “Oh, Liz, what do we care; they’re just a couple of fags! They’re disgusting.” I was so stunned, I just hung up. I’ve never spoken to her since.
Publicist Bobby Zarem once sent a fake invitation to all of New York society announcing your wedding to your then partner, Iris Love. Were you embarrassed by that?
It was more of an annoyance than anything. People sent me gifts that I had to return. (Laughs.) It only disturbed me because my mother was alive, and I was worried he would send an invitation to her. Thankfully, he never did. The whole thing embarrassed him more than me. People were appalled by what he did. At the time, he denied sending them, but one of his assistants, a friend of mine, found a huge mound of invitations in his drawer. He hated me for some reason, but he couldn’t take me down. I was too popular by then.
Donald Trump was another famous antagonist of yours.
I was just appalled by his treatment of Ivana! She came to me shortly after he dumped her, and she was beside herself. I said, “Look, everybody’s had a love affair where they’re rejected. It takes about two years to get over it — less if you see a psychiatrist.” I was touched by Ivana, so I spoke up for her. But, in the end, their fight wasn’t about betrayal. It was about money. She was as greedy as he was. It was a great story about nothing. But it made me world famous.
You used to work with Mike Wallace at CBS. Was that a happy experience?
I got the job because a friend, a booker on his [radio] show [Mike Wallace at Large], told me she was quitting to go on tour with Porgy and Bess, where she intended to bed every black man in the cast. (Laughs.) She recommended me for the job and I got it. Mike Wallace became a real mentor to me. We stayed close until his death.
I’m dying to hear how you got your job on NBC’s Live at Five.
There was a newspaper strike, and the Daily News forced me to go on television. I had so much fun doing the show that I kept doing it for 15 years. Then Barry Diller came to the idea to do this big national show. He had just become the head of 20th Century Fox and we were old friends. He was practically killed by people who were offended that he had such a great job and he was gay and he wouldn’t admit it.
Sexuality can be hard to pin down.
I saw him after David Geffen came out and he said, “Liz, do you think I should come out, too?” And I said, “No, Barry, David Geffen needs to come out. He needs a big story or a scandal or a fight to push him in business and make people afraid of him.” But I said, “People are already afraid of you. So what will you gain? And also, you like women.”
He seems to like Diane von Furstenberg.
Oh yes. He not only worships Diane von Furstenberg, he has romanced her twice. And they’ve become New York’s most popular philanthropists. But I got off the point. The point was, Barry decided I would be a television star. He wanted to re-create Person to Person, which made Edward R. Murrow a star. I was skeptical, but Barry was set on it, and he hired Roger Ailes to oversee the show.
What do you think of Ailes?
Oh, I love him! He’s one of those villains you just gotta love, and he has always been great to me. When we met, he was still a power broker for the Bushes. I’d always say to him, “Roger, you’re OK, but as a liberal, I disagree with every word out of your mouth. And by the way, those Bushes are awful!” And he’d say, “Oh, no, no. You’ll meet them and they’ll love you!”
Smith (left) with Richard Nixon and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick at Kirkpatrick’s birthday party in 1988.
And did they love you?
(Laughs.) We got along OK.
You also were very close to Ann Richards, whom George W. Bush defeated to become governor of Texas. Was she your best friend?
Well, Ann elected herself to be my best friend. (Laughs.) I had met her through the years when she was governor. When she moved to New York after losing that election, I introduced her to the city. She was a lobbyist by then, representing awful stuff like Mexican beer! She was terrified about money. So Joe Armstrong and I gave a huge party for her at the Russian Tea Room to push her into New York society. Not that she needed much pushing. She would have been a big success anyway. Her death was tragic.
Just as she was starting a new life.
The funny thing is, Ann was the young, healthy one. She always complained about me! She said, “Liz, you only eat from the brown and white food groups. You’re going to die young.” (Laughs.) And I’d say, “Christ, I’m 86. Leave me alone!” But one day, she began to complain about painful heartburn, which turned out to be esophageal cancer. She left for Texas and refused to let me see her again. At her memorial, which was televised by CNN, I spoke along with Mrs. Clinton, the mayor of Dallas and the mayor of San Antonio. One black, one Mexican, one first lady and me. (Laughs.)
You grew close to many other well-known people over the years. Do you keep in touch with Barbara Walters?
Well, it turns out Barbara Walters can do without me, though I still consider her a friend. She has done so much for me through the years. But when I lost my column and my power, she kind of lost interest in me. When we run into each other now, she loves me; she’s always saying, “Let’s get together,” blah, blah, blah. But I rarely hear from her now. That’s OK.
Were there others who dropped you?
In this job, you don’t have illusions about people you cover. I don’t mix with a lot of celebrities these days. I know Oprah, to say hello and kiss her and genuflect. Helen Mirren, Renee Zellweger, people like that. But I don’t see them often. The truth is, everyone around me is dropping like flies, so I don’t have many friends left. My best friends are Mary Jo McDonough and Denis Ferrara, who put out the column with me every day.
In 1997 you caused a furor when you wrote that a certain star was about to come out of the closet.
Oh, yes, and it wasn’t just Oprah who was furious with me about that. [Media had gossiped at the time that the mystery star was Winfrey.] Rosie [O’Donnell] was as well.
I thought Rosie was going to come out.
She was! But she’s crazy, that girl. She loses her temper at everything. The item didn’t mention Rosie’s name, and she was about to make this grand announcement, but instead she started yelling and screaming. That item was so careful, it didn’t even say talk show host. It was such a blind item, it was groping around in the dark. (Laughs.)
But Oprah still felt compelled to put out a statement denying she was gay.
I was amazed by the blowback from that story! It was harmless. The gist of it was, “Better pay attention, readers, because gay people are popping up everywhere!” Despite all that hoopla, Oprah went right on being friends with Gayle King, and I always admired her for that, because she easily could have just rejected Gayle when rumors about them started spiraling.
You were among the first to write about Madonna. Are you still a fan?
She’s an extremely talented, deeply complicated woman. We were close for a while, or as close as anyone can get to her. The first time we met, she glowered at me and said, “Aren’t you scared of me?” I just laughed. We got along real well after that.
What do you think of the current crop of celebrities?
Oh, I don’t even know who they are! Suddenly you have to remember a dozen Kardashians, and really, who has the time? The only reason I can do that is because I’ve written out their names on a piece of paper stuck on the wall. And still, I’m always having to check, is that Khloe or Kourtney or Kendall or Kim?
Celebrities seem more interchangeable than they used to be.
They arrive full-blown from the head of Zeus with not a shred of talent. There are some I admire, like Taylor Swift. When you see her perform, it’s kind of old-fashioned, like if Lana Turner could dance and sing for one number. But I have no interest in hearing her whole catalog.
I know you’re obsessed with politics. Have you spent time with Hillary?
Yes! I’ve met her in such engaging circumstances that I can’t believe it when she does stupid things.
Why does she? What’s her fatal flaw?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s like the Republicans say — she lives in her own bubble. But Bill Clinton is one of the most delightful people I ever met. My brothers and my cousins were good old boys, so nothing he’s done has surprised me in the least.
What is the thing you’re proudest of in your career?
Well, people seem to like me, and I like to be liked. I’m kind of vain about that.
Have you ever been in love?
Oh, yes! Many times. Always with the wrong women or men. The truth is, I had no luck with either sex except Mr. Beeman, who I truly loved as a person.
Your first husband?
He was so good. And he kept on through the years, saying, “Babe, why don’t you come back?” He finally remarried and had nice children, who all took up with me. I wonder what their mother thought.
Do you have any huge regrets?
I wish I had been smarter about money. I didn’t know I was going to live so long. My advice to every young person is, “Be smart about preparing to live a long time.” It’s not fun to be old and poor.
You were making a million dollars a year at one point, right?
Yeah, but a million goes quicker than you think. (Laughs.)
What’s your biggest disappointment about your career?
Probably that I was never asked to be a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For 50 years, I’ve done as much for Hollywood as anybody. I’m disappointed Hollywood didn’t love me enough to recognize that.
But there’s a park named after you in New York, right?
Well, part of a park. Yeah, it’s up at 114th Street next to a big school. Bette Midler had it named for me.
You know, a park in New York is just as cool as a star in Hollywood, in my book.
Thanks for saying so, darling. I’ll try to look on the bright side.
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The Queen of Basketball