Liz Smith, who died Sunday at age 94, had a simple philosophy regarding aging and beauty.
In a story in Beauty Biz, the forerunner of Beauty Inc, in February 2007, on women of uncertain age, called “Golden Girls,” she described what she thought of as the essentials: “approaching life with a sense of humor, some philosophy and a continuing study of history are the true necessities of life….And always stay abreast of the movies, because that way you never grow old.”
On beauty, she added: “I’d say being vivacious is more important than being beautiful. To me, many of the world’s most beautiful women also seem sexless and vacuous.”
Smith met many beautiful women throughout her career as a gossip columnist — a career that also resulted in her being named a New York Living Landmark. She was the first gossip columnist to have her column run in three New York newspapers simultaneously, and also was one of the highest paid, earning a reported $1 million a year when she moved to The New York Post in the Nineties.
As Joseph Conrad wrote, “Gossip is what no one claims to like, yet everyone enjoys.” In 1976, Smith launched her first gossip column under her own name for the New York Daily News. One early scoop was a preview of the stories in the book “The Final Days,” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which was about the bizarre last days of President Richard Nixon’s White House tenure before his resignation.
During a 1979 newspaper strike, Smith’s editors at the News asked her to appear daily on WNBC-TV’s “Live at Five,” and, finding that she liked it, she continued to contribute to the program for over a decade.
Smith was often criticized for being too nice to the people she wrote about, and in the Eighties, Spy magazine created a “Liz Smith Tote Board” to make fun of her and counted the number of times certain people and things were mentioned in her column.
In her best-selling autobiography, “Natural Blonde: A Memoir,” which came out in 2000, she wrote, “My column was not very critical of celebrities. I tried to give everyone a break. I liked actors and understood that like all true paranoids, some of them actually had enemies. But when a phenomenal celebrity rose on the horizon, a person with real power, who threw their weight around, I would occasionally tilt at windmills. I had come to feel that the federal government, the Pentagon, politicians, televangelists, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and Frank Sinatra were all big enough that, in criticizing them, I would not destroy them.”
She did in fact have a long-running feud with Frank Sinatra, which began when she called him out in print on his nasty remarks to women such as writer Maxine Cheshire and socialite Barbara Howar, and on his general attitude toward the opposite sex; he took to denouncing her from the stage during his performances. Eventually, after other entreaties from mutual friends, Daily News columnist Sidney Zion managed to broker a truce between Smith and Sinatra.
Smith was born in Fort Worth, Tex., on Feb. 2, 1923. She was a middle child, with an older brother, James, and a younger brother, Robert. Her father, Sloan Smith, was a cotton broker and gambler, while her mother, the former Sarah Elizabeth McCall, had attended Mississippi State College and was a devout Baptist. In 1944, their daughter married George Edward Beeman, a tall, handsome man who was an Air Force pilot in World War II. The marriage itself was short-lived, but he remained a lifelong friend. Their problem: He wanted to be a rancher, and she was keen to hotfoot it to New York.
She attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., for a year, then dropped out. Her father won $1,500 on a horse named Soapstix, and he gave it to her for tuition at the University of Texas, where she wrote for the school humor magazine, The Texas Ranger, and its newspaper, The Daily Texan. She received a degree in journalism from the university in 1949, then moved to New York. She got a job at Modern Screen magazine by cold-calling actor Zachary Scott, a University of Texas alumnus, whom she had interviewed for the Ranger. He contacted his friend Chuck Saxon, its editor, on her behalf. Smith recalled pitching a couple of young actors for the magazine’s covers in an editorial meeting: Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Her second husband was travel agent Fred Lister, to whom she was married for five years.
Smith, who was charming, outgoing and loved to laugh, was a mix of enthusiasm and intelligence as a young woman — qualities she held onto all her life, even as she lost the wide-eyed innocence she had brought with her to New York. She was known for her high productivity level and continued to file stories on a regular basis into her 90s.
In her early days in New York, she was also a proofreader at Newsweek, a radio producer for Mike Wallace at CBS Radio, a television producer at NBC TV and spent five years as the assistant to Igor Cassini — brother of designer Oleg — when he wrote a gossip column under the name Cholly Knickerbocker. Another job was working for Alan Funt at “Candid Camera”; she thoroughly disliked him.
Smith became the entertainment editor of Cosmopolitan magazine just before Helen Gurley Brown took over the publication in 1965 and stayed for 11 years. She also served as entertainment editor for Sports Illustrated during that time, and freelanced for other publications.
She pleased Brown and made a name for herself at Cosmo by writing multiple stories about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the biggest celebrities on the planet at the time. Taylor, Smith later recalled, was bored — she was spending lots of time in Europe, following Burton to film sets or making strange movies such as the 1968 bomb “Boom!” — and she trusted Smith to be sympathetic to her, a trust that wasn’t misplaced.
In 1991, Smith got an exclusive interview with Ivana Trump, who was then divorcing Donald Trump because of his affair with the woman who was to become his second wife, Marla Maples. Shortly after that, Smith went to Newsday, where she stayed until 1995. Smith then went to The New York Post, making a reported $1 million a year. She also worked for Fox News, appearing on “Fox and Friends.” To cut costs, in February of 2009 the Post stopped running her column.
In 1978, Smith published her first book, “The Mother Book.” In 2005, she came out with “Dishing: Great Dish — and Dishes — From America’s Most Beloved Gossip Columnist.” For many years, Smith held fund-raisers for the group Literacy Partners — events that were frequently covered by WWD — and she helped raised funds to fight AIDS from early on in that epidemic.
In 2008, Smith was one of a group of women, among them Joni Evans, Lesley Stahl, Mary Wells Lawrence and Peggy Noonan, who founded WowOwow. In June 2013, she began writing for The New York Social Diary.
In her memoir, Smith noted that Aileen Mehle, the gossip columnist Suzy, asked her society friends not to invite Smith to their parties, an embargo that was eventually breached when C.Z. Guest insisted on having Smith attend the funeral of her husband, Winston Guest, in 1982.
In “Natural Blonde,” Smith described her relationships with men and women, including a romance with an unnamed engaged woman during college and a live-in relationship with archaeologist Iris Love that eventually evolved into a friendship. In the Eighties, publicist Bobby Zarem sent out 400 invitations inviting people to a fictitious Smith-Love wedding. Some people even sent gifts. Smith was angry about this prank, particularly, she said, because her mother was still alive at the time.
As for the current crop of celebrities, as Smith told The Hollywood Reporter in April 2015, “Oh, I don’t even know who they are! Suddenly you have to remember a dozen Kardashians, and really, who has the time? The only reason I can do that is because I’ve written out their names on a piece of paper stuck on the wall. And still, I’m always having to check, is that Khloé or Kourtney or Kendall or Kim?”