HER CAT IS NAMED for her good friend Rex Reed, she's got an autographed picture of Liz Taylor, and she wears a $200 belt buckle that Henry Winkler "went insane" for. She makes 75,000 of the big fat green ones a year, mostly from her syndicated gossip column. But the very favorite thing anyone has written about her, in the two years since her column started (and out of about 300 interviews!!!) was a story in the National Enquirer saying she lives "like a low-paid secretary."
"Perfect, I love it," hoots Liz Smith. "They had Rona in her Rolls and Suzy in her townhouse and Me driving a '67 Mercury Cougar and living in a messy apartment. That's the image I want exactly!!!"
Dizzy Broad; who is this flake, you are perhaps asking??? Not to wonder! Liz Smith is the hot New York gossip columnist, the plucky middle-aged person ("give my age? They'd retire me tomorrow!") who skyrocketed to fame two years ago, when, at the utmost beginnings of her six-day-a-week column in the New York Daily News, she procured the more salient parts of Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President Men." Another big coup was heralding John Chancellor's proposed hoist out of the anchor chair at NBC, which prompted John to call Liz some very nasty names.
She also, of course, made more than a few major gaffes (that's French, for error), for instance writing that H. R. Haldeman in his upcoming memoir had Nixon stripping down in the Oval Office. H. R. called Liz some nasty names also. Still, nobody's perfect, as the people at Valium might say. And even though Liz makes mistakes (more and more, her critics claim) lots of people, including Truman Capote and Ed Kosner, the chief enchilada at Newsweek, think she's very good. Kosner told us he especially like Liz's many media items. (Liz, you should know, does not merely do the tedious Travolta Bianca sort of gossip; the exuberant girl covers publishing, TV, and politics as well!)
QUEL GRIND; naturally, you're thinking, this woman's life is one long weekend in Costa Smeralda, nothing to do but hit parties and then gossip about them, but when Liz talks about her calling, it sounds like gossip-schlepping . "I have no life of my own anymore," she complains. "People call me up at 11:30 at night to tell me Monique Van Vooren came into their restaurant and they're under the impression that's a real hot tip. I have to go everywhere. My idea of a real good time now is to lay in bed and watch TV and eat candy bars." (Mr. Goodbars, we bet!)
She told us this, exclusively, at her apartment; a cluttered one-bedroom in a modern and rather antiseptic (though luxe) Manhattan skyrise, out of which she works and plays. Lizzie (as Truman calls her) comes from Forth Worth, Texas, (from a Baptist Fundamentalist household just like you-know-who!) and her digs reflect it. She has a Texas Longhorn bathmat, a pastoral scene reminiscent of Texas, borrowed from The Graham Gallery, in the living room. (Well, when you're rich and famous and pining for your roots, you can borrow an oil from a fancy Madison Avenue gallery, too!)
Liz herself, New Yorker though she's been for nearly 30 years, evokes rather more the Lone Star State than the isle of Manhattan. Five-feet-seven, with (let's be brutally frank) a little tire around her middle (get thee to Elizabeth Arden, Liz!) she wore plain old American blue jeans with her designer shirt and snazzy makeup. She sounded, with her leftover Texas accent, like she'd come in off a smallish ranch, and she walked like it, too - so that's a real shockerco when you learn that what you think are her Cowboy boots are really Guccis!
As for her personal style, well, somebody tell the girl to stop putting herself down! "Welcome to my palatial palace," she say when you come to her apartment. She also says she's good at gossip because she "has a real aptitude for trivia." Really now!Is this the best her fancy shrink. Mildred Newman ("How To Be Your Own Best Friend") can do? More on that later!
THE GOSSIP GAME; we do digress, however. We were talking about Liz's life in the gossip mines and what a life it is! She works all day on her column, does a monthly movie review for Csmo (a gig she's had for 10 years), does a local morning talk show from time to time and is writing a book! She reads everything, goes to the best parties to report, but her juciest tidbits come over the phone from personal contacts in the New York literary scene. (The best sources are people with no axes to grind.") Truly nice person that she is, she won't report extramarital affairs or homosexuality - unless the person is being very public about it - though in the case of a politician, she might make an exception. "The behavior of a world leader can be of pertinent concern . . . like since Mr. Carter is taking such a high moral stance if I had a story that he was not all he seemed, I sure would use it."
"I don't mind being called a gossip columnist," she adds, "because I think there is a lot of fabulous writing that's gossip. I think that "The Best and the Brightest" was gossip. All the great news stories come out of gossip. " We hear she does mind. More on that later!
NICE, SCHMICE, FACTS, SCHMACTS; some of Liz Smith's good friends (who prefer to be unnamed) feel she just makes too many errors and that she's "too nice" to people in her column. Well, we asked her about that, and she said she checks just as much as she possibly can but when you run 30 items a day it's impossible to check everything. As for being too nice: "if anybody thinks that, they should be on the receiving end of my phone calls . . . one them Bette Midler called me up and hollered and screamed, you wouldn't believe! Yelled and carried on and said she didn't want to be in my 'slimy column' . . . said the story I did on her seeing this guy was accurate, but that it would 'cheapen' her affair . . . I thought that was just hilarious, coming from someone who comes out on stage and says, 'Hello, you . . ." Yes, that's what she said! No use denying it, Liz we've got it on tape.
ROOTS; LIZ SMITH'S story, as it thoroughly typical of so many successful New York career people, is to utterly ordinary that you might be inclined to just pass over this section completely. (Though if you don't know where you're coming from on the highway of life, how do you know where to tell somebody to get off, as Freud or Rand McNelly might have said?) At any rate, Liz's father was a cotton broker who was sometimes broke and sometimes doing OK. her mother was "a real Southern lady" who wanted better for her children, and Liz, who had two brothers, was bored, bored, bored. She craved the lights of the big city (well, who don't?) and after a college marriage, followed by a splitsville divorce, she got a master's degree in journalism at the University of Texas and, in 1949, came East. A second marriage, to a travel agent, and a second divorce followed. "I don't think anything lasts," says Liz.
She also worked a string of publishing jobs, ghost-writing for gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, free-lance writing, fan and assistant, TV-producing, none of which quickened her pulse. "I wanted to get a job at the New Yorker," she says, "but I never could get a job anyplace respectable." Respectable or no, our Lizzie sure could rake it in. As a free-lance writer, never earnings less than $25,000 per annum, sometimes earning 40 grand a year, "I always did well as a free-lance because I was a natural born nervous wreck."
OOPS! Did careless us forget to mention that Liz Smith is syndicated in 60 publications, nationwide? That sort of fact lends weight to a column . . .
YOU'RE OKAY, I'M INADEQUATE; you may have gathered from all of this that Liz Smith has not been for most of her life a happy woman, and Liz Smith will allow that's so. "I spent a lifetime thinking I had to be a nice guy or people wouldn't like me, I was a terrible coward," she confesses. She was in fact, Ultra Nice, and even now that she's been in therapy for three years, she's still the sort of person who buys expensive cowboy boots for her hairdresser, but says he can't affort to fix up her old car; who spends more on presents for other people than she has on herself. And, of course, only the people who are really close to her know that she not only supports her 85-year-old mother back in Texas, but has also, for years, taken upon herself the responsibility of caring for a half-dozen nephews and nieces, too.Of course, now with analysis, Liz has a brand new person to care for - herself! "Analysis taught me to be more selfish . . . to speak up . . . that I'm as important as everyone else." And what a revelation that can be, don't we know?!?!
REGRETS; so many people, when you ask them to look back on their lives, insist it's all been grand, and they would not change a moment, and that' why it's so refreshing to talk to someone like Liz, who admists that lots of the time life's been lousy.
"If I were doing it all over again," she confides, "I never would have wasted time working in radio and TV, and I never would have written for any women's magazines . . . it was totally self-defeating for anyone who wants to be taken seriously . . . you're only as good as your subject. And I would have tried to be a better writer and do more seriously accepted writing, sociological phenomena or politics, or some kind of serious essays. The people I really admire are Renata Adler and Susan Sontag and John Leonard, those are my idols. I wasted so much time . . . and what I'm doing now . . . I'm sure not Albert Schweitzer . . . but I like my work and I do it well. And like Peggy Lee says, success is loving your work, and I do. I'm just miserable when I don't work. I think if I had to retire I'd die."
Yep! She said that! And remember, you read it here first!