02.24.09

Long Live the Queen!

This week, Liz Smith, the doyenne of gossip columnists, was fired after more than 30 years of writing for New York newspapers. She dishes with Lloyd Grove about why Rupert Murdoch couldn’t save her, Gawker doesn’t matter, the Post isn’t a real New York paper—and how she was abducted by aliens.

After more than three decades as the reigning queen of New York gossip, Liz Smith was unceremoniously let go by The New York Post this week. Editor in chief Col Allan, who arrived from Australia eight years ago to run Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, informed the 86-year-old legend by letter that tough economic times have made it impossible to renew her contract. (Her final column runs Thursday—though she is still syndicated and will write for wowow.com and Variety.) There is, of course, a backstory and Smith dished about it with former Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove.

Let me ask—as one fired gossip columnist to another—

Yes, I’ve joined the club.

What does that feel like, after 33 years with a column in the New York newspapers, to be canned like that?

It’s emasculating, you know? It makes you feel like you’ve lost your identity to some extent. I think we’ve probably identified ourselves with our work more than we realize we do, maybe even more than is healthy for us and in that respect we place ourselves at the mercy of people who are so much more powerful than we are.

How long ago did you see this coming? It wasn’t a surprise

No, I feared from the beginning I wasn’t Col Allan’s cup of tea. And I didn’t hang around The Post. I never sucked up. I didn’t go up to Elaine’s and hang out. And that’s just because I was busy doing my own thing, and last year when he wanted to cut me down to three a week from six a week, I tried to go over his head, to Rupert [Murdoch] who I’ve worked for off and on for twenty years, and who I like very much. He’s always been great to me. I sat down and told him I wasn’t ready to quit yet anymore than he’s ready to quit. Rupert is a lot younger than I am—I think he may have gotten it—but he is dedicated to Col. I would be, too, if I had ever met with his charming approval. And Rupert said he couldn’t overrule him.

Why do you think you and Col didn’t click?

I don’t really know. I had one little quarrel, just one disagreement with the photo editor who wanted me to kill an item and I said I wouldn’t. It was an item about Mariska Hargitay having a baby. She had called me herself to say she was pregnant, and for some reason, this guy didn’t want me to print it—he said it was his story. I didn’t quite know what that meant. I’d already written it into the column and it had gone, so I appealed to Col over his head and he wrote back that the photo editor had his confidence. I sure didn’t have it. Look, he has a perfect right not to think I’m not his kind of writer. I’m not scandalous enough, I’m not aggressive enough, I’m doing philosophical journalism, if you will, because there’s no other kind now. I didn’t really fit the mold there. He had a perfect right to get rid of me, and he’s done that. I just think that his argument of economic hard times is not in the Post’s interest.

According to what I’ve seen you were making only $125,000 from the Post.

Yes, I was making nothing compared to what I’d made in the past, and I would’ve negotiated again with them if they were in trouble. I mean, I’m a reasonable person, I know that times are tough.

Now Col sent you a letter. Did he ever tell you anything in person about this?

No, no one has spoken to me. At the end of January I wrote a letter to Rupert because Col Allan hasn’t spoken to me in a year, so I said I was anxious to re-sign and wanted to go on working and hoped to die with my boots on at my desk and all that stuff. And Rupert didn’t answer. And then Col sent me a very nice letter saying he was sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, and they had economic difficulties, et cetera, and they were not renewing my contract. So I’ve never talked to anybody there.

But I will go bravely on, move on more fully to the wowowow.com and keep up writing the column every day to the Tribune Syndicate, and keep writing for Variety twice a week.

Now how many papers does your common appear in now?

I don’t know. They keep saying 70 but I doubt there are 70 papers left in America. You know what? I don’t want to find out. I love newspapers. I love working in New York. I loved working of the New York Daily News for 19 years, I loved working for New York Newsday which was very innovative, ahead of itself, and died, of course, because the Chandler family wouldn’t sustain it. Then I worked for Newsday and the Post at the same time. I was thrilled that the Post took me on, though I knew I wasn’t their kind of person and so they’ve now proved that I’m not their kind of person.

There was a time obviously when gossip was the big thing and it was very remunerative. Weren’t you getting over a million dollars from Newsday?

For a long time, at Newsday I was paid much above my station. [Laughs] Yeah, I made a lot of money from writing this, and I’ve had the time of my life, so I’m not going to complain now. I’m just moving on to whatever is left.

There was a time when you had a television show, you were being produced by Roger Ailes.

I’m still being produced by Roger Ailes! I’m still working for FOX News, I do a sort of philosophical, I hope entertaining, commentary every week on a show called Lips & Ears. I love Roger Ailes, so I’m still essentially working for Rupert Murdoch

And aren't we all in some way or another?

Well there aren’t that many choices.

What’s your sense of the arc of the gossip business? What’s it like today compared to when you started your column in 1976?

There were still big stars. There aren’t any big stars anymore.

You’re talking about Hollywood stars?

Well, not just Hollywood. The stars made by television who were once so big you just couldn’t believe it—Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, people like that, Sid Caesar—they were enormous stars made by television, but there were lots of real stars in America. Now everything is so vitiated because there is so much media, if we want to dignify a lot of it, it begins to just all run together. At least when you said “Clark Gable” or “Elizabeth Taylor” or “Katharine Hepburn,” you knew exactly who you were talking about, you didn’t’ have to explain them. Now you have to talk about people like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and the people on the American Idol. I mean, it’s very diminished in quality, I guess is what I’d say, the quality of stardom. Because I don’t know who most of those people are. I’m not kidding! I read Page Six mystified every day, and everybody I talk to agrees with me. They don’t know who anybody is. Page Six is mythically the most important thing, gossip-wise, in America. What do you think?

I have to confess having the same experience. Pat Buckley, God rest her soul, once told me that she made the same complaint to [Page Six editor] Richard Johnson—“I read your column and I don’t know who any of these people are”—and Richard, according to Pat. replied, “Well, neither do I.”

Well, it’s almost like they just dump a bunch of chicken feed out there and there’s no bones in it. Nothing is more important than the next thing. I don’t know. I can’t write that way, I’m amazed and happy for their success, but I can’t do that. I’m trying to tell stories.

What has been the impact of Internet sites like Perez Hilton and Gawker who are putting up items on an hourly basis?

I don’t think they mean anything either, except they mean instant success for these very, very energetic and ambitious young people. And it’s perfectly fine, but I wouldn’t give any credence to most of the stuff I read. I mean, there are no publishers, no editors, no lawyers vetting anything. This is the problem with the Internet where everybody has a voice and we’re stuck with it. We’re going to have the Internet even when we don’t have things to eat. We’re going to still have it. I’m all for it, and I’m doing it myself on the Wowowow.com site, but it’s not important. It isn’t even semi-important

Do you have any sense of whether the increased velocity of gossip has contributed to more viciousness and more snark?

It’s pretty hard to be more vicious than LA Confidential was in the ‘50s. I wouldn’t say gossip is worse, it just seems more trivial now. A real gossip story is Lana Turner’s daughter killing Johnny Stompanato. It had all kinds of tragic ramifications—celebrity, sex, a little girl involved and so forth. I mean, who cares if somebody you’ve never heard of is sniffing cocaine in a bathroom down in Soho? That’s the level of gossip today. There seems to me to be no real stories and the real ones all appear in the headlines—A-Rod taking steroids, though why anybody gives a shit I don’t understand. You know, the real story of this year is Bernie Madoff, and betrayal, disaster and everything else, lives being smashed and ruined by somebody’s criminal activity. But gossip? Even the ‘90s are beginning to look good. Donald Trump is beginning to look like a great story. He’s a great New York character, he’s endured everything, he’s not dishonest and he’s beginning to look better and better. He’s beginning to look like an elder statesman. He once threatened to buy the Daily News so he could fire me, but you know he doesn’t stay mad and neither do I.

Is there any useful purpose to gossip?

Yeah, it’s to raise money for charity, which I’ve done millions of dollars worth over the years, and I don’t think that was too well received either in my most recent job. They just don’t care. The New York Post, I hate to say this, is not a New York newspaper. It doesn’t love New York, it hasn’t adjusted to New York. It’s like aliens came down. It’s a fun newspaper at times. I always liked its saucy, vivid, way, but it has no New York heart. I figure they didn’t like me because I was alien to them. I’ve been a real New Yorker since 1949. I love New York. I’m really involved in it.

Now don’t get me wrong. They have one really vivid real New Yorker in Cindy Adams. She is authentic, and boy, they better keep her! But I feel like they have no real sensibility about what this city means, what it needs. It needs people working for charity, examining the social scene, all of that. I think Col Allan is always proving how much of the proletariat he is. He thought I was uppity and mixing with highbrows or something. I shouldn’t try to psychoanalyze him, he’s actually a very charming fun person when you just sit down and meet him—which I did once.

You met him just once?

I had met him once, then I met him at a funeral for [Post writer] Neal Travis. Since then I’ve seen him exactly once. So I’ve seen him three times in my life.

How many people have you heard from in the last couple of days? Who are some of the people who called?

Tom Brokaw, Frank Langella, Barbara Walters, you know. I got lots of calls. I heard from the mayor. He’s my pal. He sent me message. And all these poor press agents.

Who have one less place to go. What about the people working for you?

Well yeah, that’s my problem—to keep my office going. I have four people, counting my housekeeper, who I would like to keep employed. Listen, that’s not the problem of the New York Post, my domestic staff isn’t their problem. But I don’t believe that saving my salary is going to take the New York Post into the black, do you?

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.