NY columnist whose gossip created wonder, not meanness

Liz Smith (above), the long-time queen of New York's tabloid gossip columns, died at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.
Liz Smith (above), the long-time queen of New York's tabloid gossip columns, died at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.

NEW YORK • She tracked the lives of the rich and famous, but it was not her style to gloat when things went horribly wrong for them.

Last Sunday, Liz Smith, the long-time queen of New York's tabloid gossip columns, died at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.

From hardscrabble nights writing snippets for a Hearst newspaper in the 1950s to afternoons at eatery Le Cirque with Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn and dinners with Madonna to gather material for columns that ran six days a week, Smith drew millions of readers.

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; 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.

There were occasional scoops, including the 1990 split of Donald and Ivana Trump and Madonna's 1996 pregnancy.

Her income often exceeded US$1 million (S$1.36 million) a year, more than any newspaper columnist.

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

If her columns lacked edge, they provided something more: the insider's view.

Many of those she wrote about became personal friends. They trusted her, knowing she would not trash them in print.

But she was, at times, lambasted for lacking objectivity.

"It's a valid criticism, I suppose," Smith said in a 1991 interview with The New York Times. "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."

Mary Elizabeth Smith was born in Texas on Feb 2, 1923. Her father was a cotton broker whose gambling problems and fading income during the Great Depression forced the family to sell their home and move.

"I grew up with all these little rich kids," she recalled. "I didn't have a dime. I couldn't face that. I was always a horrible little social climber in my way."

After high school, she attended Hardin-Simmons University and met Mr George Beeman, whom she married and divorced.

She studied journalism at the University of Texas and moved to New York in 1949. In 1959, Igor Cassini, who wrote the Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column for The New York Journal-American, hired her to interview celebrities at nightclubs and write the column during his vacations.

In the 1960s, she was married for several years to Mr Fred Lister, a travel agent. That marriage also ended in divorce.

Her 2000 memoir, Natural Blonde, a bestseller for months, was a breezy compendium of tales about Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn and others.

Reviewers chastised her for not sharing intimate details of her relationships with women, including archaeologist Iris Love, with whom she lived for many years.

But her work was praised. "Her brand of gossip is the old-fashioned kind, not the embarrassing or repulsive stuff dug up by so many of her journalistic colleagues," Jane and Michael Stern wrote in a review for The Times.

"When she escorts us into the private lives of popular culture's gods and monsters, it's with a spirit of wonder, not meanness."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'NY columnist whose gossip created wonder, not meanness'. Subscribe