Liz Smith made Donald Trump a star

Gossip columnist Liz Smith (above) had travelled with Mr Donald Trump (left) and referred to him as her 'pal'.
Gossip columnist Liz Smith (above) had travelled with Mr Donald Trump and referred to him as her 'pal'.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Gossip columnist Liz Smith (above) had travelled with Mr Donald Trump (left) and referred to him as her 'pal'.
Gossip columnist Liz Smith had travelled with Mr Donald Trump (above) and referred to him as her 'pal'.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • Gossip queen Liz Smith claimed that she invented Mr Donald Trump and, in a powerful and enduring way, she did.

His rise to celebrity was the product of an energetic injection of tabloid journalism into New York's media bloodstream in the 1970s and 1980s. It was Smith who turned Mr Trump into one of the main characters in the city's soap opera.

Smith, who died on Sunday aged 94, started delivering her daily dish about New York celebrities in 1976. That was the year the brash Australian press lord Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post and transformed it into a British-style splash of lurid headlines, crime-drenched reporting and juicy gossip.

Smith's column ran in the Daily News and the two tabloids tumbled into a classic newspaper war.

Smith and Mr Trump were made for each other. She was a kinder, gentler gossipmonger, winning access to celebrities by telling the stories they wanted told.

And he was a young real estate mogul hungry to establish himself as one of the city's biggest names.

Mr Trump had been schooled in the art of manipulating the news media by his mentor Roy Cohn, a lawyer who had launched his career in the 1950s by enlisting the 20th century's greatest gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, as a booster for Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist-hunting crusade.

From the start of Mr Trump's career as a builder of hotels and apartment towers, Mr Cohn urged him to cultivate the gossip columnists.

Mr Trump used the tabloids to establish himself as a champion of the little guy.

"When we would talk particularly to immigrants, recent immigrants who were the readers of the Daily News, they would always want to know about Donald Trump," said News gossip columnist George Rush. "He embodied the American Dream to them. Excessive conspicuous consumption is not a bad thing in New York to a lot of people."

Excessive conspicuous consumption was pure oxygen to Smith's gossip page. And Mr Trump provided unending fodder. She socialised with Ivana and Donald, travelled with them and even referred to him in her column as "my pal".

In late 1989, someone sent a photo of a model named Marla Maples to a reporter at the New York Post, along with a note saying she was dating a prominent married businessman.

The Post's Page Six gossip column published the picture, along with a cryptic story about Maples having an affair with a "business tycoon".

Smith asked Mr Trump to give her an exclusive. He did not reply. While he was in Japan on business, Ivana summoned Smith to her apartment and told her the story of the marriage's dissolution.

Smith wrote about nothing but the Trumps for several months, trading scoops with the Post's Cindy Adams who took Donald's side.

Mr Trump later said the divorce episode put him on the celebrity map. It also made Smith a star, establishing her as the highest-paid print journalist in the country.

Mr Trump relished the idea that he was the talk of the town, both in the boardrooms and the barrooms where, he believed, middle-class New Yorkers aspired to be like him.

Smith recounted going to a cocktail party at which CBS reporter Mike Wallace shushed a room full of media executives: "Be quiet so Liz can tell us everything about the Trumps."

And out on the streets, she accompanied Ivana through a crush of photographers.

"People couldn't get enough of the Trumps," Smith wrote in 2015.

And: "I was a star."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'Liz Smith made Donald Trump a star'. Subscribe