Gossip queen Liz Smith tells her own tales

Posted: April 07, 2005

Let all those turtle-necked would-be poets keep their dog-eared copies of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. For a novitiate in the delicate art of gossip-trafficking, there can be no greater gift than a conversation with America's grande dame of gossip, Liz Smith.

You expect Smith to be impatient, too busy to waste time on yet another greenhorn, but the transplanted Texan proves to be nothing short of delightful - ever the pro, she anticipated half the questions and managed to be refreshingly gracious as she dished about the bold-faced names she's known over the years.

"They sent in the young to interview the old," she quipped.

Smith, who will be at the Free Library tonight to talk about her new book, Dishing: Great Dish - and Dishes - From America's Most Beloved Gossip Columnist, was jazzed to wax philosophical about our celeb-obsessed culture and the current state of the chatter, calumny and scuttlebutt that nowadays passes as gossip reporting.

"It's like a mania, this celebrity worship thing," she says with equal parts dismay and disgust on the phone from her office in Manhattan.

"Attendant to that is gossip," she says - and then transforms a blanket condemnation into incisive, if ironic, social commentary: "It's very egalitarian. Very democratic. Everybody can do gossip. It's the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech," she said, using one of her more famous tropes.

"You want to say to people like that, 'Get a life'!" she says of celeb-obsessed fans.

This, from a gossip columnist?

That's when it dawns on you that our leading reporter on celeb-culture revels in contradictions, in mixing up the high and the low.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in Dishing, the follow-up to her 2000 memoirs, Naturally Blonde. The book, which came out Tuesday, is equal parts autobiography, gossip, and food commentary - with recipes thrown in for good measure. A thematic bouillabaisse, it chronicles Smith's passionate love affair with food and all kinds of cuisine - high or low.

In 38 short chapters, Smith seamlessly moves from tales of sumptuous meals at famed New York eatery La Cirque, to a snapshot of breaking bread at Michaels' with Bill Clinton, Robin Williams, Ann Richards, Billy Crystal and Diane Sawyer, to a hilarious discussion of Elvis' penchant for deep-fried Snickers bars and chicken-fried steak.

"I was exposed to everything, and I kept my roots in a way," Smith explains. "All that Southern white trash cooking! I loved it, and I still love it."

At 82, the opinionated dame from Fort Worth has lost none of her bluster, energy, charm - and certainly none of her humor.

Asked if she's thrown a big book party for Dishing, she laughs.

"I don't have time for that," she declaims. "All I do is party. My whole life is going to parties."

They started in 1949 when Smith arrived in New York with nothing but $50 and a journalism degree. In the half-century since, she has managed to cultivate an extraordinary number of connections - and real friendships - with an array of celebs, including Barbara Walters, Frank Sinatra, Rock Hudson, Robert Redford, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron. Her favorites? The writers, she writes in Dishing. She's always had a thing for real writers.

Smith established herself as a print and TV journalist, with early apprenticeships with Mike Wallace, Candid Camera's Allen Funt, and original Today host Dave Garroway. Her entree to the gossip world came in the mid-'50s when she ghost-wrote Igor Cassini's (who claimed he coined the term "jet-set") Cholly Knickerbocker society columns for the Hearst newspaper chain. By the time she was offered a column at the New York Daily News in 1976, the twice-divorced Smith had worked as entertainment editor for Cosmopolitan and correspondent for Sports Illustrated.

By the late 1990s, Smith had become not only America's best-known gossip columnist, but reportedly the highest-paid female print journalist in history. She is said to pull in just under $1 million with her column, syndicated in 70 newspapers.

That price tag has drawn some controversy. Last week, Newsday, Smith's "home" newspaper since '91, made a move to drop her: The paper said she never renewed her contract. But Smith contends she wanted to renew it, but just missed the deadline. The real reason for the ruckus, she says, is that Newsday wants her to take a whopping 95 percent salary cut. She did renew her contract with the New York Post, which features her as part of its famed Page Six gossip package, and her column continues in syndication.

So what's her secret? It can all be summed up in three words.

Access.

Smith doesn't just observe or report on the celebs - she's their best bud, their confidante: She scooped the Trump divorce in 1990 because Ivana called her to tell her she was leaving the Donald.

"I do have a lot of access," Smith says. "It's experience: I've been around a lot."

Of the stars who confide in her, she says: "They feel like I'm going to give them a fair shake."

And a fair shake she gives them, which is what distinguishes Smith from the rest of the gossip pack, who resort to sarcasm, nastiness and scandal-mongering. Smith's tone is genteel.

The new gossipers make you feel ressentiment - you hate the celebs even as you envy their riches and their beauty. Smith gives you a taste of their fabulousness.

"I don't write scandalous, horrible things about people," she says.

"I wish I were a better gossip. I wish I were better at it. More ruthless," she says - perhaps ironically.

"I opted to become an observer. To take a philosophical approach to it all."

She's especially dismayed by how the media has treated Charlie Sheen and his recent split from wife Denise Richards. Some tabloids have implied that Sheen, who has had substance-abuse problems, is once again using drugs, gambling, and womanizing.

"What's happened to him is a disgrace," she said.

"He's not gambling or using drugs. I happen to really know this."

But it's not just the tone, it's the sheer volume of contemporary gossip that appalls Smith. "It's [taken] what's interesting and good and real in the celebrity culture and has devalued it. I'm sure the celebrities feel that way too. They hate it."

She's equally dismayed by the protean growth and mutations of the very concept of celebrity. "I can say without laughing that everybody is now in show business," she says about reality TV.

"And now bloggers have come along and everyone is a journalist now. We are into overkill here."

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or at tirdad@phillynews.com.

Book Chat

Liz Smith

Will talk about "Dishing" at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., tonight at 8. $12; $8 for students. Information: 215-567-4341.

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