Secrets

Liz Smith, the Last Nice Gossip Columnist

Liz Smith, who has died aged 94, became famous after covering Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce. In an age of brutal gossip sites, she was a model of decorousness.

Liz Smith became the most influential gossip columnist in America for more than a quarter century through incomparable access to the rich, famous and formidable folks she wrote about, a breezy attitude that didn’t take itself too seriously, a forgiving tolerance of human foibles, and a self-created identity as The Nice One.

To be spanked by her in print was not only a rare experience, it was deeply unsettling.

In early June 1994, I was a staff reporter for The Washington Post, toiling to finish a freelanced article for Vanity Fair, when I felt her piercing sting.

It arrived as the lead item of a syndicated Liz Smith column being offered to hundreds of newspapers over the LA Times-Washington Post wire service—and it came as a complete surprise, inducing a sickening wave of panic.

My public spanking (about which more in a moment) was also an instructive case study into how and why Liz—who died Sunday at age 94, having lived an adventure- and friendship-filled life that one can’t help but celebrate—operated at the top of a precarious game for so many rewarding years.

Yes, she was “nice”—more a confidant and cheerleader of her celebrity friends (who included Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Roy Cohn, Ann Richards, Roger Ailes, and Frank Sinatra) than a scandal-monger reveling in their ruination. Every so often, however, she allowed herself to tsk-tsk over some famous person’s missteps and failings, offering the hope that they might reform and live a better life.

When Donald Trump dumped Ivana for Marla Maples in 1990—as recounted in her highly entertaining 2000 memoir, Natural Blonde—it was the biggest scoop of Liz’s career, and she stepped into the starring role of Ivana’s soul mate and amateur therapist, taking Ivana’s side of the tabloid-ready battle in the New York Daily News, while Cindy Adams championed The Donald’s point of view in the rival New York Post.

“Liz sided with the people who deserved to be sided with,” said her longtime literary agent Joni Evans, noting that she raised millions of dollars for her favorite charities, promoting literacy and a cure for AIDS.

A footnote in her best-selling book now shudders with irony: “In 1999, Trump supporters launched thedonald2000.org, a Web site dedicated to urging him to make the [presidential] race sometime in the future. He took it seriously for a little while, but finally came to his senses.”

The Trump scoop made Liz a near-constant television presence and ultimately the highest-paid print journalist in history (with a reported million-dollar salary during the early 1990s at the now-defunct New York Newsday).

After trying brief marriages to men—in the 1940s and again in the 1960s—Liz accepted that her deepest romances were with women.

The archeologist Iris Love was her longtime partner, and New York high society invited them everywhere as a couple.

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“I think that my relationships with women were always much more emotionally satisfying and comfortable [than with men],” she once said in an interview with The Advocate. “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.”

In respect of her vaunted niceness, Liz, an unabashed liberal Democrat, was a departure from the harsh and often malicious judgments rendered by the gossip columnists of a previous generation: the Red-baiting Walter Winchell and the Hollywood terrors Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.

Likewise, in her later years, as the internet swept over the newsbiz like a tsunami, destroying traditional income streams and incentivizing previously unexplored gossip frontiers of nastiness and cruelty (as manifested in websites like Gawker and TMZ), Liz—writing for the WowoWow.com website and David Patrick Columbia’s New York Social Diary—was increasingly out of synch with the brutish zeitgeist.

“The problem with a column now is, What’s gossip? What’s a scandal?” said Columbia, whose website was the final resting place for Liz’s column (an increasingly nostalgic look at times gone by, co-bylined with her longtime associate Denis Ferrara).

“It’s people walking down the street practically naked, and the other people just looking down at their cell phones. I  think the technology has pretty ended the gossip column, because it’s almost irrelevant. People don’t really read any more.”

In the past, “her influence had been tremendous,” said Columbia. “A good word from Liz could really help a movie, could really help a show and could always help a person.” 

Columbia added: “She had a popular column, a column for the people. She had a lock on absolutely everybody except for Aileen Mehle, who would never speak to her.”

Mehle was Liz’s longtime rival, a sharp-elbowed competitor who wrote under the byline “Suzy” for the Daily News and the Post (and died almost exactly a year ago, Nov. 11, at age 98).

“The reality for Liz, when she was in her prime, was all she had to do was sit at her desk and they called her. Everybody gave her everything. People had a problem—they called her. They wanted publicity—they called her and told her. And she was always very generous about giving it.”

Yet, for all her aw-shucks Texas charm, Liz was a power-player nonpareil—as demonstrated in that long-ago column in which she reduced me to a burnt little cinder.

Her June 3, 1994 column began: “There have been a number of Barbara Walters-Diane Sawyer ‘sightings’ lately. Only Tuesday of this week were they enjoying a splendid lunch together.”

The item continued:

These two ABC biggies have about had it with the constant rumors of their feuding. Barbara and Diane were recently urged by their network to cooperate with Washington Post reporter Lloyd Grove’s coming Vanity Fair profile on “The Divas of Television.” They agreed, but they also made a pact, and insisted first on being interviewed together. This resulted in a hilarious event in which Barbara arrived, breathless, a few seconds late and apologizing. Then Diane rushed in, breathless, apologizing. Barbara said something like “You better kiss me so he won’t think we’re mortal enemies!” Diane missed Barbara’s cheek and landed a lipstick smack on the shoulder of Barbara’s white cashmere sweater. (“It was white. So white. Whiter than anything ever worn by the Madonna,” said Diane ruefully.)

The interview was so exasperating, I’m told, that the two famous subjects told the reporter, “Go ahead and write whatever you like. You’re going to anyway!”

It is doubtful if anything can stifle the sexist sludge of gossip that results when a male reporter is bent on showing professional women to be bitches and alley cats. You’d never read that kind of stuff about Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, or Tom Brokaw.

When reporter Grove telephoned me to inquire about Diane and Barbara, he opened his conversation by saying: “Well, what can we say about these news gals?” I was shocked. I said, “How about calling them journalists instead of gals?” He and I didn’t get very far after that.

Working women are weary of this nonsense. But the more things change, the more they stay the same in the new era of tabloid-journalism.

After several dark moments of deer-in-the-headlights panic about a thrashing scheduled to be administered in the next day’s papers across the nation—in which I would be branded as, at best, a male chauvinist pig—I managed to calm down enough to deconstruct the item, its purpose, and how it had probably come about.

I knew that Walters and Sawyer were important friends of Liz, which is why I’d called her in the first place. We’d had what I thought was a perfectly agreeable conversation that bore little resemblance to the account in her column, although I do remember saying “gals,” probably trying too hard to be chummy since it was an old-school term that Liz—a native of Fort Worth—frequently used herself.

I figured that Liz’s item had been planted by Sawyer (the only person directly quoted) as a preemptive strike against a worrisome magazine article that wouldn’t be published for several weeks. So I phoned the star ABC anchor to explain that the item didn’t accurately reflect the Vanity Fair piece I was still struggling to finish.

Sawyer affected ignorance about the item that was currently moving across the wire. “Should I call Liz and tell her not to run it?” she asked.

“No, please don’t. It’s too late anyway. I just wanted you to know it’s wrong,” I answered.

Minutes later, however, I received word that Liz had phoned Leonard Downie, the Washington Post’s executive editor, and angrily complained that I had somehow broken the embargo on her column by calling Sawyer—which created a bit of unwelcome awkwardness between me and my boss.

On reflection, I could only be impressed by Liz’s thoroughgoing gamesmanship, showing me up as a mere piker compared with her overpowering mastery. 

Years later, after I joined the gossip-column fray for The Washington Post and later the New York Daily News, Liz and I became pals, greeting each other warmly whenever we crossed paths at various events and once even going to lunch at her favorite Tex-Mex restaurant on the ground floor of her apartment building in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. We never mentioned her long-ago column.

And in February 2009 we commiserated with each other—as one fired gossip columnist to another—after New York Post editor in chief Col Allan unceremoniously sacked her, a few years after Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman declined to continue my five-day-a-week column “Lowdown.”

“It’s emasculating, you know?” Liz told me at the time, speaking for both of us. “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.”

In recent months, according to friends, Liz lost none of her sharp-minded self-awareness as she defiantly, even angrily, confronted the depredations of old age, following Dylan Thomas’ advice to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

Last July, in what amounted to an exit interview with The New York Times, she mused: “I am in search of Liz Smith. After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.

“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”

In recent weeks, after suffering a series of strokes, she was surrounded by close friends keeping vigil—mostly women like Cynthia McFadden, Suzanne Goodson, Joni Evans, Iris Love, and Louise Grunwald—and passed peacefully.

“She didn’t want  a funeral or a memorial service,” Joni Evans said. “She wanted absolutely nothing. But now that she’s gone, we can do a great memorial for her behind her back, maybe early in the next year.”