Liz Smith started her gossip career in the early 1950s writing about Shelley Winters for a pulp movie magazine and ended it nearly seven decades later tweeting about actor Ryan Gosling. In between, she dished with and about pretty much every author, entertainer, business mogul and political eminence in the news.
A blue-eyed blonde from Texas with a disarmingly self-effacing manner, Ms. Smith inserted herself into the New York-Los Angeles orbit of celebrities, chronicling the mundane and significant events of their lives.
At her peak in the 1980s and 1990s, Ms. Smith’s eponymous and syndicated column was published in more than 70 newspapers. She publicly feuded with Donald Trump and Frank Sinatra, dropped acid with actress Holland Taylor, went ballooning in France with Malcolm Forbes and collected experiences as avidly as Elizabeth Taylor (one of her frequent subjects) collected jewelry.
In her column and in her 2000 memoir, “Natural Blonde,” she dashed off anecdotes in breathless fashion.
About the evening she spent with writer Truman Capote, she wrote in her book, “In came Truman carrying a large fishbowl full of white powder. He sat it down in front of us and announced, ‘This is the world’s purest, best cocaine. You have never had anything like this before.’ Then, as suddenly as he’d offered it, Truman snatched it up and marched away with it, saying, ‘No, it’s too good for the likes of you.’ ”
Another time, she added, “Madonna did me the ultimate favor. From Budapest, she gave my column the exclusive on her pregnancy. I was sputtering in shock when Madonna’s rep, Liz Rosenberg, called. ‘But, she’s just starting Evita,’ I said. ‘How can this be true?’ Madonna herself picked up the phone. ‘Liz, I’m pregnant,’ she barked. I started writing.”
Ms. Smith, 94, died Nov. 12 in New York. Her literary agent, Joni Evans, confirmed the death to the Associated Press but did not disclose a cause.
Ms. Smith was the natural heir to Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, whose viperish tidbits sowed fear and loathing among movie stars and studio heads. But Ms. Smith was different in one key aspect: She played nice.
A typical column mixed opinion with accounts of celebrity sightings, such as this one from April 2012: “The most dramatic entrance at this event came from the great opera star Jessye Norman, who arrived swathed in an enormous cloud of wild black hair, a glittering something or other and massive dangling earrings. No doubt about it, she’s a star! ‘What are you up to now?’ asked one fan. ‘What am I NOT up to, darling!’ said Jessye, and then she was swept into the arms of another opera diva, the popular and serene Renée Fleming.”
To maintain and expand her access to the gilded, Ms. Smith kept up an exhaustive, multiple-nights-a-week round of cocktail parties, book readings, dinners and lunches well into her 80s.
In 2000, she told the Houston Chronicle that she couldn’t recall the last time she had cooked a meal and joked that “she should convert her kitchen into a closet because it is never used.”
Always on the hunt for a fresh scoop, she once described herself as “an information magpie, a writer-collector” who can’t let go “of a scrap of information, an interesting observation, or just a lone little fact in search of publication.”
Mary Elizabeth Smith was born in Fort Worth on Feb. 2, 1923. Her father was a cotton broker and a gambler; her mother was a homemaker.
Growing up among rich kids, she said she never pretended to have more than she did because she thought she would gain respect by admitting to her reduced circumstances.
“I was always a horrible little social climber in my way,” she told the New York Times in 1998.
When she was about 6 or 7, her babysitter started taking her to movies — ones inappropriate for her age — which sparked a lifelong enchantment with film stars.
After graduating in 1949 with a journalism degree from the University of Texas, she promptly bought a one-way train ticket to New York, landing at Modern Screen, a movie fanzine, and later took a job as a ghostwriter for Igor Cassini’s “Cholly Knickerbocker” gossip column.
She then held various positions in journalism and entertainment: as assistant to “Candid Camera” creator Allen Funt and future “60 Minutes” journalist Mike Wallace; and as entertainment editor for Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan.
The New York Daily News offered Ms. Smith a column in 1976 after its arts critic, Rex Reed, pressed for her to be hired.
Two years later, during a newspaper strike, she was ordered to appear on the NBC affiliate’s 5 p.m. newscast and dole out pieces of her column. Ms. Smith’s folksy drawl and down-home style were a hit. She stayed at NBC for 11 years — while still writing her column — before moving to New York’s Fox affiliate, where she stayed for seven years.
Perhaps the biggest scoop of Ms. Smith’s career came in 1990, when she broke the story in the Daily News of Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce. She had been on trips with the couple — who intrigued her, she said, because they hadn’t descended from old money or Social Register families — and it was Ivana who asked her to come to the Plaza Hotel, which Donald Trump then owned.
“When I got there, she threw herself in my arms and told me that Donald didn’t want her anymore. I said, ‘Get yourself a PR person who’s respectable and defend yourself against him,’ ” she told NPR in a 2009 interview. Trump was so enraged, she said, that he threatened to buy the Daily News just to fire her. The story made tabloid front pages for 12 days straight.
Years later, she reflected, “That was the biggest story I ever covered that didn’t amount to a hill of beans. It was just two rich people arguing about money.”
Her popularity enabled Ms. Smith to take her column to New York Newsday for a six-figure salary, making her one of the highest-paid columnists in the nation. Not everyone loved her, though: Publicist Bobby Zarem said in a Times article in 2017, “I know people who wouldn’t care if Liz Smith killed somebody, as long as she mentioned their names in her column.”
In 1995, when New York Newsday announced that it was closing, the New York Post came courting. She worked out a deal with New York Newsday’s parent publication, Long Island-based Newsday, to continue writing her column for Newsday — and also write for the Post, as well as the Staten Island Advance — making her the only columnist to appear simultaneously in three separate venues in a single metropolitan area.
In 2009, a few days after Ms. Smith turned 86, the Post declined to renew the contract for her column, citing the newspaper’s financial difficulties. Ms. Smith announced she would concentrate on the Internet. She wrote for the website wowOwow.com, which she helped start, and later for newyorksocialdiary.com.
She also became a contributing editor at Parade magazine and gained a round of publicity with her memoir, in which she revealed she was bisexual. She wrote that she had her first affair with a woman while in college — a brief relationship that caused a long rupture with her strict Baptist family.
Her marriages to George Edward Beeman and Fred Lister were short-lived and ended in divorce. She had no children. A list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.
One of Ms. Smith’s last syndicated columns, in 2013, was typical of her trade, sprinkled with references to Taylor, long deceased, and a newly restored version of her 1963 film “Cleopatra.”
She quoted “Elizabeth’s super-devoted assistant of many years, Tim Mendelson,” who emailed from Cannes that “ ‘people in the audience were screaming and applauding all the way through. It was wild.’ He added: ‘She took so much of that movie with her for the rest of her mortal life. ’ ’’
But by 2017 — the year that Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president and ushered in an administration of unprecedented public backstabbing and palace intrigue — Ms. Smith sounded rueful as she assessed her position in the media landscape.
“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” she told the Times. “Most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”