Liz Smith, queen of tabloid gossip, dies at 94

Liz Smith, the longtime queen of New York's tabloid gossip columns, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan.
Liz Smith, the longtime queen of New York's tabloid gossip columns, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. PHOTO: NYTIMES/HILARY SWIFT

LOS ANGELES (NYTimes) - Liz Smith, the longtime queen of New York's tabloid gossip columns, who for more than three decades chronicled the lives of the rich and the famous, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.

From hardscrabble nights writing snippets for a Hearst newspaper in the 1950s to golden afternoons at Le Cirque with Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn and dinners with Madonna to gather material for columns that ran six days a week, Smith captivated millions with her tattletale chitchat. Over time, she ascended to fame and wealth.

Her column, called simply Liz Smith, ran in The New York Daily News from 1976 to 1991; in New York Newsday from 1991 to 1995, when that newspaper closed; continued in Newsday until 2005 and, with some overlap, in The New York Post from 1995 to 2009 - a 33-year run that morphed onto the Internet in the New York Social Diary.

It was syndicated for years in 60 to 70 other newspapers, even as she appeared on television news and entertainment programmes and wrote magazine articles and books.

There were occasional scoops - the 1990 split of Donald and Ivana Trump, Madonna's 1996 pregnancy - but her income often exceeded US$1 million (S$1.36 million) a year, more than any newspaper columnist or executive editor.

Her style was not the intimidating jugular attack of columnists who expose intimacies or misdeeds in the private lives of public figures.

She offered a kinder, gentler view of movie stars and moguls, politicians and society figures. Her columns were sprinkled with notes on books or films, bits of political commentary and opinions about actors, authors and other notables.

Explaining why Madonna had become a regular in her columns, Smith wrote in 2006: "I didn't always agree with what she said, or what she did, 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."

But journalism's watchdogs accused her, with some justification, of conflicts of interest, of lacking objectivity and distance from those she wrote about.

"It's a valid criticism, I suppose," Smith said in a 1991 interview with The New York Times. "But I don't know what to do about it. I don't have to be pure, and I'm not. I mean, I am not a reporter operating on life-and-death matters, state secrets, the rise and fall of governments, and I don't believe you can do this kind of job without access."