Liz Smith, New York's Grande Dame of Dish, Dies at 94

THR Liz Smith - H 2015
Wesley Mann

THR Liz Smith - H 2015

The legendary gossip columnist made many friends (Liz Taylor, Lindsay Lohan) and very few enemies (Donald Trump) in more than three decades entertaining readers.

Liz Smith, the Grande Dame of Dish whose newspaper column emanating from New York satisfied readers' hunger for gossip about the rich and famous for more than three decades, has died. She was 94.

Smith's column at one point was syndicated in about 75 papers around the world and read by as many as 50 million people each day.

Literary agent Joni Evans told the Associated Press that Smith died Sunday of natural causes in New York.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, who arrived in Manhattan by train in 1949, Smith once famously defined gossip as "news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress."

She began her self-titled gossip column at the New York Daily News on Feb. 16, 1976, and enjoyed immense reader loyalty.

After writing for New York Newsday from 1991-95, she was lured to the New York Post, where she remained until the paper unceremoniously pink-slipped her in 2009 when she was 86. At one point, she had been earning $1 million a year.

"I was more shocked than anyone. I thought I was indispensable," she told The Hollywood Reporter in April 2015 in a candid interview. "Looking back, I just wasn't what the powers that be wanted. And I don't think it had anything to do with [Rupert] Murdoch himself.

"I went to see [Murdoch] after they fired me, and I asked for my job back. He was very sweet and complimentary and finally 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."

In 1979, Smith became a regular on the landmark WNBC-TV afternoon news program Live at Five and won a Daytime Emmy Award. "There was a newspaper strike, and the Daily News forced me to go on television," she once said. "I had so much fun doing the show that I kept doing it for 15 years."

Of her successful writing career, Smith attributed it to her ability to "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."

Gossip writers are not generally beloved by Hollywood stars, but Smith was an exception. "Absolutely adored Liz," Sharon Stone told THR of her good friend, whom she called "feisty and funny." Candice Bergen (who gave Smith a cameo in 1995 on Murphy Brown) said the columnist "was always a force for good, a trait that was unusual for the trade. She was lively … with a bawdy Texan undercurrent and very intelligent." Barbara Walters tipped her hat in respect, too: "To talk about trusting a gossip columnist may seem strange," she says, "but in Liz's case, it was true. She was a friend and a good read."

Smith's work was witty and rarely vitriolic. "In fact, the last time I was in Hollywood," she said in an August 2015 interview with Interview magazine, "I saw Lindsay Lohan from across the room, and she screamed my name. She said, 'You're the only person who's never written anything nasty about me.'"

Smith was born in Fort Worth on Feb. 2, 1923. She married her college sweetheart, George Edward Beeman, in 1944, but they divorced three years later. "I married a guy I really cared about," she said, "a strong, silent type, 6 [foot] 4. But he wanted to be a rancher in Texas, and I wanted to get out of there. … It was sad, but I was desperate to get to New York."

Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1949 with a degree in journalism and bought a one-way ticket to the Big Apple a few months later. "I didn't have any money, so it wasn't terribly glamorous," she said. "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.

"When I first arrived, I was so excited. 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?'"

Smith got her start when actor Zachary Scott — whom she had interviewed for her college newspaper, The Texas Ranger — introduced her to Chuck Saxon, the editor of the popular fan monthly 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!" she said.

Smith landed a writing gig at Modern Screen and later was a proofreader for Newsweek, a press agent for Broadway shows and a news producer for Mike Wallace at CBS Radio. She wrote for Cosmopolitan and Sports Illustrated and spent a year working for producer-host Allen Funt on Candid Camera.

Smith's entry into the world of gossip came in 1958 when she was hired to serve as Igor Cassini's ghostwriter for his society column called "Cholly Knickerbocker" in the New York Journal-American.

She noted that she was hired by the Daily News after three columnists at the newspaper died during an 18-month stretch. Her work was so popular, editors moved her column from Page 47 to Page 6 (long before the Post "trademarked" that space).

In 1990, Smith reported on one of her biggest stories, writing that Ivana Trump had walked out on her real estate tycoon husband, Donald Trump, following the revelation of his affair with Marla Maples. Smith wrote at the time: "She still wants to be his wife. But the bottom line is, she won't give up her self-respect to do it. Intimates say she had every chance to continue being Mrs. Trump by allowing her husband to live in an open marriage."

"I was just appalled by [Donald's] treatment of Ivana!" she said later. "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."

Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, paid her a reported $500,000 to leave the News when it launched an NYC edition, but when that edition folded, Smith was off to the Post for an undisclosed sum. (For a time, her column appeared in both Newsday and the Post as it was syndicated around the world.)

Smith authored several books, including Natural Blonde, her best-selling 2000 memoir in which she came out as bisexual and acknowledged her relationship with archaeologist Iris Love.

And why were people so fascinated with what Smith did for a living? "We make stars into something exquisite, and we want to know what they're doing and thinking," she explained, "because our lives are desperately boring."