Liz Smith, the veteran gossip columnist known as the ‘doyenne of dish’, has died aged 94.
She was born Mary Elizabeth Smith in Fort Worth, and graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism in 1949. After moving to New York, she worked her way up from typist to producer for radio host Mike Wallace, and on television’s Candid Camera. In 1959, Igor Cassini – who anonymously penned the Cholly Knickerbocker column for the New York Journal-American – hired her to interview celebrities in nightclubs, and as a guest writer when he was on vacation. She also wrote for Ladies’ Home Journal, Modern Screen, and Vogue, and was entertainment editor at Cosmopolitan under Helen Gurley Brown.
Liz recalled an early star sighting in 1961: “I finally saw Montgomery Clift in person, with Marilyn Monroe, at the New York premiere of The Misfits. They sat right in front of me, enjoying each other like real friends. I was mostly stunned by how gorgeous she looked in a black fox fur. It was a privilege to see them even once.”
Monroe’s fame has, of course, endured long after her death. Liz often wrote about her, including a 2008 article for Parade magazine, ‘The Marilyn Monroe You Didn’t Know.’ “Had she lived, the ‘white hot’ of that fame would have inevitably passed by,” Liz wrote last year, on what would have been Marilyn’s 90th birthday. “But in a cooler climate, she might well have found all she desired. We would not talk of her as we do now, as an almost mythological figure, a repository of endless fantasy and speculation. She would speak for herself. And her work, which mattered to her more than people realized, would speak as well.”
Smith’s friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and numerous other stars made her a natural for the world of gossip, and in 1976, she began a legendary column for the New York Daily News. Warm and witty, hers was an amiable – but clear-eyed, and never sycophantic – take on the lives of the rich and famous. In 1991, she broke the news of future president Donald Trump’s divorce from his first wife, Ivana. She moved on to Newsday and later the New York Post, and became a popular TV pundit.
Liz forged close relationships with contemporary stars like Madonna (whom she considered “the only real star since the rise of Barbara Streisand”), and was given the scoop of her first pregnancy in 1996. “I didn’t always agree with what she said, or what she did,” Smith has admitted, “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.”
“I used to hope that at a certain point Madonna would go all Dietrich on us,” she wrote earlier this year. “Stand in a misty spotlight in a glamorous, glittery gown, and sing some of her truly lovely ballads … But this is not going to happen! Calming down would be like a little death for her. She has to be active, brassy and bold — creative.”
In 2009, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation axed Smith from the Post. As the golden age of print media drew to an end, she wrote for websites like wowOwow (which she co-founded), Huffington Post and New York Social Diary. However, she was wary of social media and kept her distance from the more scurrilous gossip blogs, saying, “I never know if those stories are true.”
In her 2000 memoir, Natural Blonde, Liz spoke of her two marriages and ‘outed’ herself as bisexual, having lived for many years with archaeologist Iris Love. She was supportive of younger writers, and extremely gracious to myself and Eric Woodard when she reviewed Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, our biography of the 1920s actress.
With her passing, readers may wonder as tomorrow’s scandals unfold, ‘What would Liz Smith say?’ She freely admitted that the entertainment sphere was trivial stuff, but brought to it an amused fondness and genuine respect for the talents involved which has all but vanished today.