Back when discretion was still the better part of valor, we wouldn't have dared inquire about a woman's age, a man's salary or either's sexual proclivities. Gary Hart might secretly ship out with Donna Rice, Marla Maples might hole up quietly in some cushy apartment in Trump Tower. A Presidential polyp was the business of no one but the Commander in Chief and his proctologist.
Today, everything about everyone is fair game. Entire TV shows, books and magazines are packed with revelations from trivial to sordid. What used to be the turf of the National Enquirer is now mainstream journalism. As Tom Wolfe once pointed out, People magazine changed the rules. "[It] showed you other people's living rooms." Now the gloves have come off. Living rooms are fine, but bedrooms are better.
Regardless of how one feels about the trend, few would argue that one of the most influential practitioners of gossip is the syndicated New York Newsday columnist Liz Smith, whose musings, wit and dish appear in over 70 newspapers around the country almost every day as well as on television reports on Fox Broadcasting.
The Liz Smith column is where America learned that the infamous Rob Lowe sex video tape was available for $35 at 42nd and Broadway. That Annette Bening was pregnant with Warren Beatty's baby. That Rose Kennedy, when told that Joan and Ted were separated and that "Joan was living in Boston and Ted was living in Virginia," looked up and asked, "So, who's Virginia?"
Her friend Mike Wallace says, "She has the power to get people to pay attention." Said Time: "She [can] make careers and unwrap reputations."
Smith isn't only in the business of telling all. She often writes--with fiery opinions--about subjects as diverse as inner-city violence, political scandal and America's lack of leadership. She also touts books and movies, announces casting decisions and top-level job switches in the entertainment and publishing industries. She lists the celebs who show up at hot restaurants and reveals the comings and goings of her famous friends such as Barbara (Walters), Kathleen (Turner), Candy (Bergen) and Liz (Taylor). Smith, naturally, was the only reporter invited to cover Taylor's wedding last October.
She is called the queen of dish, and with good reason. Tantalizing stuff oozes from her column, such as the hot on-the-set romance between Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich (Malkovich's wife found out about the affair in Smith's column); both the marriage and divorce of Debra Winger and Timothy Hutton; and the scoop heard round the world: that one of New York's most ostentatious couples, Donald and Ivana Trump, were in Splitsville.
If Smith was well known before the Trump story, the daily fixes she supplied catapulted her into real fame. She was becoming almost as well known as some of those on her star-studded list of friends.
Indeed, Smith herself lives a celebrity's life. She often dines at "21" or Le Cirque in Manhattan. She appears at Spago in Los Angeles, flies to Venice for a party thrown by Giorgio Armani, goes to Morocco for Malcolm Forbes's $2,000,000 birthday bash and sits next to Marilyn Quayle at a White House luncheon thrown by Barbara Bush.
She has enemies in high places, too. Frank Sinatra, on stage at Carnegie Hall, called her "a dumpy, fat, ugly broad." He claimed Smith would prefer Debbie to Burt Reynolds. (The audience booed.) New York magazine's John Simon called her a "know-nothing low-brow." Spy magazine has made relentless fun of her. In its regular "Liz Smith Tote Board," the magazine tallied the frequency with which she mentioned specific celebs in her column ("Jane Fonda, mentioned once every 8 days; Yoko Ono, every 6; Meryl Streep, every 4.8; Linda Blair, every 24 days").
She had to come a long way to drop names like that. Mary Elizabeth Smith was brought up in Depression-era Fort Worth. Her father was a cotton broker; her mother, Smith has written, was a "beautiful Mississippi belle." They were strict Baptists, "very narrow-minded," she says.
After graduating from the University of Texas in 1948, Smith bounced from job to job in New York. She worked as a proofreader at Newsweek, staff writer for Sports Illustrated, guest booker for one of Mike Wallace's early radio shows and ghostwriter for society and gossip columnist Igor Cassini. Smith was offered her own column in the New York Daily News in 1976.
She immediately published startling revelations--Pat Nixon's heavy drinking, to name one--from the upcoming Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book "The Final Days." The Liz Smith column took off instantly. Within the next few years, it was syndicated around the country. Then, 13 years ago, she began her regular gossip-and-commentary spot on New York's local WNBC-TV news. Things changed last year when her contract with the Daily News was up and its late owner, Robert Maxwell, declined to enter a bidding war with Newsday, which offered to make her possibly the highest-paid columnist in the country. She also left WNBC for Fox, where she had a regular spot on the short-lived "Entertainment Daily Journal." Fox now says she'll be making appearances covering entertainment on its news programs.
Smith has unabashedly announced that she has had a face lift and has been married and divorced twice (to an Air Force captain and a travel agent). She has been less candid about her current personal life, though. Outweek, a defunct gay magazine, claimed she lives with archaeologist Iris Love. The magazine also charged that she uses her column to mask the truth about prominent homosexuals, helping them appear straight to the public.
When Playboy decided to go for the deep dish from Liz Smith, David Sheff, whose interview with Carl Sagan appeared recently, was tapped for the assignment. Here's his report:
"Our first stop was a movie screening at the Museum of Modern Art. Smith, wearing a lemon sweater, pink pants, cowboy boots and a watch with a map of Texas outlined in diamonds, ducked past klieg lights as reporters fired questions at her and photographers snapped her picture.
"In the mezzanine, the introductions began. 'Gay [Talese], you know David Sheff, don't you?' Well, he didn't, and neither did Brooke Shields, Ellen Burstyn nor Alan Pakula. In the theater, we took seats near the guests of honor, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Four seats in front were reserved by a piece of masking tape. On the tape was written the word Madonna.
'As the crowd filed in, Liz pointed out writers, directors and movie stars, whispering their names. I may have made an audible gasp when Madonna arrived. I will digress here only to say that she was stunning, even though, as Liz pointed out, she hadn't washed her hair for the occasion. Liz filled me in on more of who was who.
"One thing led to another, and soon Smith was telling me a joke. A mouse and a lion go into a bar to have a drink,' Liz was saying. 'There's a giraffe sitting at the next table. And the mouse says, "Oh, my God, I'm in love. That's the most beautiful creature I've ever seen. Look at her eyelashes."
" 'The lion says, "Well, why don't you just go right over and buy her a drink?"
" 'The mouse says, "Oh, I can't do that."
" 'Eventually, after another drink, the mouse goes over and buys the giraffe a drink and, after a while, they disappear.
" 'The next night, the lion is in the bar drinking, and the mouse comes in, looking terrible. The lion says, "What's the matter? What happened?"
" 'The mouse says, "Are you kidding? Between fucking and kissing, I think I must have run three thousand miles." '
"I was laughing when I was stopped in my tracks. Madonna looked over her shoulder at me. And smiled.
"Just then the movie began, and by the time it was over and the lights were on again, Madonna had gently slipped out. Smith and I left, too, to begin the interview."
DS: Got any good gossip for us?
LS: People ask me all the time.
DS: Well? We're all ears.
LS: If I had, I would have used it in the column. Sorry to disappoint you. They call me the queen of dish, but it strikes me as being all wrong. Gossip isn't what is behind the success of my column. There are a number of gossip columnists in America who get much better gossip than I do. I'm not knocking it, but the great gossip columnists, such as Walter Winchell or Dorothy Kilgallen, were measured by how hateful they could be. I don't even begin to touch the hems of their garments.
DS: Some people--people exposed in your column--would say you're every bit as hateful as Winchell or Kilgallen.
LS: But when I write something fairly scathing, or that seems to be moralistic, it's usually about someone behaving in ways that I find just horrible. It's often because they almost ask for it.
DS: Who asks for it specifically?
LS: Sean Penn. He's his own worst enemy. It's hard to be sympathetic to him when he goes around socking people. I've never seen a picture of him where he wasn't smoking two cigarettes and having a drink. I wrote that he will finally be great after he checks into the Betty Ford Center or someplace like that. Roseanne Barr [Arnold] is another person who is her own worst enemy, though in some respects, I think she's been misunderstood.
DS: Does everybody you write about ask for it?
LS: Most of the time I'm not writing salacious gossip. I might write it when I get it, but I more often write about movies and parties. The column is a hybrid of what's going on, what interests me, commentary, other people's writing, what I think other people have said that's interesting. I'm a pretty good reporter. And if I can get something first about somebody getting married or divorced, I print it. But I'm much more interested in how things affect us sociologically and psychologically. It's much more important than who was under whose table at Morton's.
DS: But don't readers want gossip--the more salacious the better?
LS: I don't think so. I don't hear much from readers about gossipy items, except from people saying they are going to break my legs for telling on them.
DS: Do you get nervous over calls such as that?
LS: It's not fun when people don't like what you've written. You can't escape. That's the toughest part of the job--people upset, disappointed, angry, furious, going to break your legs.
DS: Has anybody ever followed through on threats?
LS: I've been threatened by experts. Sean Connery told me he would like to stick my column up my ass. I told him that was the best offer I'd had all week.
DS: What offended him?
LS: He was making a movie with an actress named--let's not say her name. I cast an aspersion on her ability by suggesting she had been left a lot of money by some guy. I guess he was just feeling gallant.
[A] I once had a terrible fight on the phone with Bette Midler, who called me up and said, "I don't want to be in your fucking column." All I had written was that she was having a romance with this actor, Peter Riegert. Neither one of them was married, so I didn't think I had to go get permission from the Pope to write this innocuous little thing. She felt that I had invaded her privacy and she screamed.
[A] I kept asking her, "What's the big deal?" She started to calm down and we ended up having a very nice talk. I thought it was gutsy of her to call.
DS: Have you been sued?
LS: I've had a lot of lawsuits threatened, but no one ever files. The one who screamed about it the most was Carl Bernstein when I wrote about his divorce [from writer Nora Ephron]. He said I had written about him with malice. The paper took the threat rather seriously. They wanted copies of everything I'd ever written about him. We sent every column and the lawyers called and asked, "Where's the rest of it?"
[A] I said, "That's it." They said, "Are you kidding? Is he crazy? You never said anything about him." The paper just laughed in his face.
[A] He never sued, but he uses me in his lectures as the great devil of American journalism. He came up to me at a party one night and threw himself in my arms and cried and said how much I'd hurt him. He blamed me for the divorce.
DS: Do you have any idea who reads you regularly?
LS: I hear from all kinds of people--intelligent people, people in padded cells. I think I have a real coterie of high-class fans, both in journalism and out of it, as well as just all kinds of people from all over the country.
DS: And some detractors as well. Spy magazine, for instance.
LS:Spy holds me up as a total buffoon, I have no idea why.
DS: One of Spy's editors said they do it "because it seems to rattle" you.
LS: It doesn't. They have a few pet targets that they cram down everybody's throat every month. They buy these bad pictures of me--there are a lot of bad pictures of anybody who goes out all the time--and they print them. I find it so juvenile. Spy makes fun of me; Esquire says I'm one of the women it loves. I would like to believe that neither one of those things are deserved.
DS: But whether it's Spy or Carl Bernstein, much of the peer criticism, even disdain, is virulent. Why?
LS: OK. I'm going to tell you. Honestly. I think it's envy.
LS: I think writers who work hard and don't get their due--they haven't arrived yet--are infuriated when they see somebody like me who they assume is making a lot of money and has a lot of power.
DS: Some of them are furious because they question your credibility as a journalist. You write about your friends; you are often as much a part of the story as the people you are writing about. Most of all, you're not tough enough.
LS: Nobody likes to be criticized and I'm not so secure that I can just say I don't care what people say, but I've gotten so I don't care about most of it. Some of it is so ridiculous. People suggested that I shouldn't have gone to Malcolm Forbes's seventieth birthday party in Morocco, for instance, that there was something unethical about my going.
DS: Well, as a reporter, it is unethical to accept gifts, which include trips to Morocco to hang out with Malcolm Forbes and Liz Taylor.
LS: I considered Malcolm a good friend. I wouldn't have thought of not going.
DS: But you weren't just a guest. You reported on it.
LS: Yes, and when I came back, I wrote about it in a very critical way.
DS: But it's a conflict of interest to accept a trip such as that.
LS: If I were a news reporter covering this for the front page of The New York Times, maybe. I have a job where I'm supposed to go to parties and say what's going on.
DS: But you might be tempted to ignore something going on--something newsworthy--if you're indebted to someone.
LS: Listen, if that were true, I wouldn't have written what I did about the party: I said I thought that the public relations overkill and everything was terrible.
DS: Do you agree that, say, Bob Woodward on assignment for The Washington Post shouldn't accept gifts?
LS: I'm a gossip columnist. Bob Woodward is an investigative reporter who has to be cleaner than a hound's tooth. I'm not writing about anything crucial.
DS: How do you respond to the criticism that the column is filled with press releases from Hollywood press agents.
LS: The only way you can write a column like mine is to have some help from public relations people. If a PR agent gives us something that seems like news, we use it. But it's a myth that there is an apparatus that feeds the column. Maybe ten percent originates with PR people.
LS: [Interrupts] Excuse me. But please tell me what is wrong with using PR people if they give you real news?
DS: You're publishing prepackaged public relations, not real news.
LS: If a PR person tells me that Debra Winger is going to make a movie, that is news. People are interested. If we find out she's gone off the deep end or something, we call the press representative to at least get a statement. We don't use anything without checking it. Some movie stars have very active press agents. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, for example, had a press agent who never gave me anything but was on the phone if I said anything about them that she didn't like. I said De Niro had an operation for gallstones or something--big deal--but she called up and denied it had happened. I knew somebody in the hospital with him. But if I want to know something, I can call her and she will, I believe, tell me the truth.
[A] Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger both have active PR people, because they evidently believe in the value of presenting themselves in the best way they can. I happen to like both of them very much and I've known them both for a long time. We get a story on something Stallone is going to do, a publicity release or an exclusive story to us about Stallone, and if I feel it is full of news, then I am happy to use it. But I wrote something about him and got a big flap from the same people. They were yelling because I said that he and Eddie Murphy were having a big feud. I just ignored them.
DS: Do they expect a certain kind of treatment from you? If you saw Stallone drunk at a party, would you be less likely to print it because you'd get no more cooperation from him?
LS: If I have a good-enough story, it wouldn't have anything to do with them. I get angry calls all the time. I know if I write anything that Jane Fonda doesn't like, I'm going to hear from her press agent.
DS: Who are your best sources?
LS: They change. People will get real interested in being a source, and they'll be a source, and then they'll disappear or they'll become personally involved in something they don't want me to know about.
DS: Has the business of gossip changed now that stories that used to be relegated to the columns--Gary Hart and Donna Rice, Jim Bakker and Jessica Hahn--are viewed as hard news?
LS: A gossip column can't be what it once was, because the whole society now seems pervaded by this obsession with people, with any detail about famous people. And it comes with this Victorian, moralistic attitude. Reporters are amazingly hypocritical. They always express this sort of shock: "Oh, my God! You took a drug! You were drunk! You were unfaithful to your wife!" They're very high-minded. It's amazing, because they have all taken drugs and cocaine and have been unfaithful to their spouses.
DS: Isn't it their job to have that attitude toward public figures?
LS: I think it's just a Victorian hangover. People judge one another by standards they would never apply to themselves. The Gary Hart scandal never would have happened a short time ago. It might have come up in a gossip column such as Walter Winchell's, but it wasn't suitable as hard news. These front-page stories are more compelling than anything I can come up with.
DS: Is it good that politicians' personal lives are front-page news?
LS: I think so, for the most part.
DS: The Kennedys might never have been elected if the press had covered them the way they covered Hart.
LS: Well, as far as I'm concerned, Bobby and Jack Kennedy were total disasters for the United States, based precisely on their lack of responsibility and restraint when it came to women.
DS: How did their sexual proclivities affect them as leaders?
LS: I was caught up in their glamour and sex appeal. It was a very exciting time. Jack Kennedy was one of the most compelling figures I've ever seen. Bobby seemed so sensitive and feeling. But their arrogance stuns me. It is as bad as the openhanded arrogance of Lyndon Johnson or the secretive, mad and paranoiac arrogance of Richard Nixon. It's horrible that the Kennedys were killed, and there's no question that they were very intelligent and attractive and dynamic and that they brought a kind of fresh breeze into America. But there was too little restraint.
DS: The Kennedys aren't alone.
LS: That's true. There probably haven't been too many men who've come to the Presidency who have always been faithful to their wives. But now we have television and this huge maw of reportage and sound bites and people scrapping for every little bit of anything. Any indiscretion is magnified. Most of us aren't as clean as a hound's tooth. But most of us aren't running for President.
[A] It's the same with the Charles Robb-Tai Collins story. He should have said, "I made a mistake and had a brief dalliance with this young lady and I've explained it and worked it out with my wife and I regret it." The most ridiculous thing was that he didn't do that and he suggested that the woman only gave him a massage and that they had prayed together.
DS: How about with Edward Kennedy and his nephew in Palm Beach. Was that a big story for you?
LS: It was covered so intensely by so many people that I felt there wasn't much I could add. I never could get anything I was really sure I could believe. I did quote the piece Taki wrote in the London Spectator in which he told about Willie Smith beating up an English girl he knew well. It was ignored until I wrote about it. Then everyone picked it up and, of course, then all the other women came forward.
DS: Where do you see America's hunger for dirt going?
LS: The irony of it all is if we go on in this natural progression it will eventually have a numbing effect--nobody will care what anybody does. There'll be certain things that still won't be acceptable--stealing money, beating up widows and orphans, murdering your opponents--but I think we will get to where people's sex lives will not be germane news so long as the American people know a politician isn't a sex maniac or apt to be diverted from a national crisis by a girl on his lap.
DS: Now that The New York Times is writing gossip, how do you compete?
LS: First of all, the Times has changed and the changes have not been good. Something drastic has happened there. It is a response to what it perceives as the shrinking newspaper readership. Within the space of a month, the editors shocked everybody by printing the name of the alleged Palm Beach rape victim and putting Kitty Kelley's book about Nancy Reagan on the front page. They gave the book so much credence, which is what created the furor over it. The Times in a sense authenticated it. They dismantled their reputation in a manner I've never observed before.
DS: Do you consider the tabloids to be competition?
LS: I can't compete with them. The National Enquirer, the Star and the other weekly tabloids don't care what they print. And the tabloids create news by paying for it; I certainly can't compete with that. By paying for information, they are attracting people to squeal on their lovers or so-called friends. People are paid to say they went to bed with a movie star. They pay chauffeurs and maids and nurses and X-ray technicians. I've never paid for anything.
DS: How conscious are you of the effect of what you write on the subjects you're writing about?
LS: I'm very conscious, which is probably why I'm not a better gossip columnist. I'm always trying to figure out whether a story is important enough to do--or whether I'm brave enough and whether I want to endure the fallout.
DS: Do you operate on the principle that public figures, be they politician or movie star, are fair game?
LS: I think that some public figures are more fair game than others. It's gloves off on politicians and people whose public image is perfection, like the televangelists--Jim Bakker--people who claim to be spiritual or moral leaders. They are the whited sepulchers waiting for our graffiti.
DS: In the aftermath of John Belushi's death, you took the controversial stand of supporting Bob Woodward for writing Wired, his exposé of Belushi's drug use, while most of Hollywood attacked it.
LS: I made a lot of enemies over that. Nobody wanted to deal with the fact that Belushi's drug abuse was being enabled by studio heads, producers, managers and all these people who just wouldn't say no to him. I was amazed that his wife, Judy Jacklin, was defending those people who were shown for what they were in Woodward's book. Penny Marshall, Robert De Niro--all these people got incredibly upset over it. They just didn't want the story written.
DS: How do you decide which movie stars are fair game?
LS: When people are so big and when they have lived by publicity, then I don't see any reason not to print anything you can find out about them. I only draw the line between bad and good gossip.
DS: What's the difference?
LS: Good gossip is just what's going on. Bad gossip is stuff that is salacious, mean and bitchy--the kind most people really enjoy.
DS: Like news of romantic entanglements? Is that OK to publish?
LS: It's OK if you can get a line on it and can confirm it. It's not of earth-shattering importance, but it's of legitimate interest to the public.
DS: What if no one confirms it but you have other sources?
LS: It depends. I don't like writing things about people playing around when they're married. I think it's too wounding. I don't want to be the one informing Mrs. So-and-so that her husband is having an affair with So-and-so.
DS: Have any Mrs. So-and-sos found out in your column?
LS: I printed the story about Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich having their big romance when they were making Dangerous Liaisons. They had gone totally berserk over each other. I got a letter from Malkovich's wife, Glenne Headley, telling me how much I had wounded her. She didn't know about it before she saw my column. I thought they had divorced. I wrote this thing completely unaware that he was still married.
DS: How did you respond to Headley?
LS: I apologized and told her that I honestly thought she and John had divorced. But she remained on my conscience, I must say.
DS: In general, how do you decide when to write news of a divorce?
LS: The fact is, every divorce and every separation isn't some salacious piece of shit.
DS: Yet, don't many people want it kept quiet?
LS: I don't know why they do, but they do.
DS: How about for privacy's sake? Or discretion?
LS: Of course, and I respect that. I just read a book about anchormen. Peter Jennings talked about how terrible it is to read about his private affairs in print--I printed the story about him and his wife splitting up briefly when she ran off with [Washington Post columnist] Richard Cohen. Well, all I can say is that that story was placed with me deliberately.
DS: By whom?
LS: [Smiles] Let's just say I didn't make it up. He didn't call me personally, but.... It was obvious I had been chosen to tell this story. Then he complains about it. When it comes to people divorcing, sometimes they want you to know. Barbara Walters wanted me to write that she and her husband were separated.
LS: I think a lot of people who are separated want people to know they're not playing around if they're seen out with someone else. They want to get it on the record. Nora Ephron wanted me to write that she and Carl Bernstein were divorcing. People know I'll be pretty evenhanded, and then it won't appear in the National Enquirer.
DS: Does the column come in handy for getting even with people who have crossed you?
LS: I try not to let myself use the column for revenge. I made some mistakes in the beginning. There are people I don't care for in the business, but I try to be scrupulously fair.
DS: How about if you had a really horrible meal at a restaurant?
LS: I just wouldn't go back. If I have something nice to say, OK. Otherwise, I let it go. Well, maybe if it was something that really ticked me off. In the old days, the columnists--Winchell, Kilgallen, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons--came to believe their own hype. They were really like demigods; you couldn't cross them. They had a kind of power that nobody writing today has. Television vitiated all of that. But Winchell had incredible power. He made the stock market go up and down. Poor press agents would commit suicide because their access to the column was cut off and they'd lose all their clients. I couldn't punish anybody. They wouldn't care. They'd laugh.
DS: You're criticized for writing about your friends. Can you write about them honestly, warts and all?
LS: Fortunately, I don't have that many real friends in the acting business. Still, if I have a pertinent and meaningful story about anybody I know, I go to them and try to develop the story. What do people want from me? You cannot know anybody and close all your doors and fix it so you don't have access because you're so pure--you won't take a peanut-butter canapé--but the fact is, I can't be bought for a plane trip. I can't be bought for something so petty. I don't mean that a lot of nice things don't happen to me as a direct result of writing a column. I get flowers. I get an occasional bottle of champagne. But I don't pay any attention. They say everybody has a price, but I haven't even heard any bidding for me. I wish I would get offered something great. Like how about a nice big diamond bracelet?
DS: Who are your closest celebrity friends?
LS: Kathleen Turner, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Walters.
DS: Is it hard for them because they know you're a columnist?
LS: It is hard for them. They take a lot of flak about me.
DS: What kind of flak?
LS: People assume that if I write stories relating to them, they told me. Nobody wants to be tagged as a fink. I end up getting less out of my friends than from people I don't know. They'll tell me something totally innocuous and ask me not to print it. I'd never use something without going back to ask them about it. I would like to be treated like an ordinary person, not like some pariah, though I understand it. I think the press is populated by people who are undereducated and by people who are betrayers. My own relationships with the press haven't been so great. It's hard to give interviews and be so totally misrepresented and misunderstood.
DS: But don't you have less to complain about, since this is your business?
LS: Absolutely. I'm complaining, but I don't have the right to. I admit that up front.
DS: So you're fair game?
LS: I'm absolutely fair game.
DS: What about those proponents of outing, for instance, who have targeted you as a closet homosexual who covers up in your column for others? How do you feel about that?
LS: What can I say? It's a free country. They can say whatever they want, and I don't have to respond to them.
LS: But I think they're terrible. I think they're terrorists. I don't think they have any ideology or sincerity--I think they're trying only to make themselves famous, which they have done.
DS: In fact, they claim they are tired of people hiding their sexuality because it contributes to homophobia and to some of the problems around AIDS.
LS: But they aren't honestly trying to accomplish anything by rushing about pointing fingers at people. They say I should be a role model. Who the fuck are they? I don't want to be anybody's role model.
DS: Their point is that there are so few positive role models because most prominent homosexuals are in the closet and you perpetuate the closet.
DS: By lying about people who are gay, by covering up for them as if it were something to be ashamed of. You would write about a major star if he were having an affair with some starlet, but not if he were involved with a man.
LS: Listen, gays have the problems of all downtrodden minorities, and so I haven't said they aren't entitled to do whatever they want. But outing doesn't accomplish anything.
DS: How do you respond to their charges?
LS: I'm not obligated to respond or answer their questions about their mythical ideas about my sex life. Nobody is.
DS: Don't you write about the sex life of public people all the time?
LS: I'm not going to make statements about my sex life. I'm sixty-eight years old. Let's just say I've had a very good time. But it isn't pertinent. I am not their creature, whatever they may think.
DS: Do you perpetuate the problem by writing about prominent homosexuals as if they were straight?
LS: Let me take a famous dress designer, for example. They think he's gay. He marries. Am I supposed to analyze that he is gay and shouldn't have married? He's never told me he was gay. I wouldn't have thought of asking.
DS: But if it was known by you and most everyone you know that a marriage was for show, would you expose it?
LS: That's not what I do. I don't tell on people.
DS: But don't you tell on people such as Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich?
LS: I explained that. Yes, if there were some real flamboyant behavior, throwing each other down the stairs, having orgies while the wife's upstairs, maybe. I don't even know then that that's my business.
[A] Everybody who knew Rock Hudson and everybody who worked with him and every Hollywood columnist knew that he was gay. I think eventually the whole nation knew he was gay. But if it was out and obvious, I don't see how he could have gone on working. He couldn't have played the husband in McMillan and Wife, even on television.
DS: Isn't that the point? If the public actually knew who was gay, would no one have to hide his or her sexuality?
LS: As we move out from under the shelter of Victorianism, it may eventually not become true.
DS: At least, do you understand the source of the frustration? Isn't it a choice between honoring someone's right to make the decision and perpetuating a myth that encourages bigotry?
LS: I'll tell you what this boils down to. There are more important things in life. I do not want to be defined by my nonexistent sexuality, or by any of my past sexuality, either. I've been married twice, to two men whom I love very much. Outside of that, I don't see anything that will be solved by saying any more about it. I married when I was young, in Texas, and then I married when I was doing the Cassini column. I wasn't meant to be married. I'm not a wife. I need a wife. I spent ten years of my life married and the rest of it bouncing from pillar to post, having a wonderful time. I had a wonderful time during the sexual revolution. I was a lot older than most of the people who were at the vanguard of it, but I still had fun. Now, I'm sorry my marriages didn't work out. But, you know, I want to go into a room and have people say, "There's Liz! She's a terrific person, a good writer, a columnist--she's fair, she's unfair--whatever." That's how I want to be identified.
DS: Let's move from the sublime to the Trumps. Here was a case where you became caught up as a character in the story you were reporting. In retrospect, how do you view the experience?
LS: It was all pretty creepy.
DS: How did it get that way? You were on the front page of the New York Daily News, shown escorting Ivana Trump from a luncheon into a waiting limo. What happened?
LS: I look like her nurse taking her to a psychiatric ward. I was shocked. I didn't know the paper was going to be there.
DS: But it was the Daily News--your paper at the time.
LS: Well, they didn't tell me or ask me. They had my inside story of what had happened at that luncheon, and that was the only picture they had of her.
DS: How did you end up in that position?
LS: There were about twenty-five of the social ladies at this lunch. When it came time to go out, none of those women wanted to face the crowd with her.
DS: Why did you brave it?
LS: I'm not afraid of the press. Those were my pals out there, or my enemies--my peers, at least. I'm not afraid of them. I said, "Come on, Barbara, you and I will go out with Ivana."
DS: Barbara who?
LS: Barbara Walters. I just thought we would help her get to the car.
DS: How could that not have been a scoop--Ivana Trump flanked by you and Barbara Walters?
LS: Well, all I wanted to do was get out of there and get Ivana out. As we reached the door, Barbara was shoved aside, so it was just the two of us. I said to Ivana, "Now smile, be like Jackie Onassis." She had been crying through the lunch. I said, "You don't want to go out there and let them see how sad you are. You look so beautiful, just smile." So we both went out with those idiot grins on our faces.
DS: You broke the story originally. Did you know the Trumps before that?
LS: I knew him first, actually. I liked him. He was very interesting and entertaining and funny. He was always sweeping me up in his arms and saying to everybody standing around, "Isn't she the greatest?" Of course, he did that to just about everybody. Then I met Ivana, and I loved her instantly. I began to see Ivana more because of these girls' things--luncheons, showers. I was invited to everything they did, but mostly as part of the press.
DS: And what led to your scoop?
LS: I began to hear that he was seeing somebody else. I never tried to find out because I would not have printed that, no matter what.
DS: Why? Wouldn't that have been a great item?
LS: I knew Ivana didn't know, even though everybody was talking about it. Finally I called him. I said, "Donald, there is a strong story going around and it just won't die. Why don't you either decide that you're going to talk to me about it and let me print it in a way that won't be too inflammatory or sensational or fix the situation so this story ends?"
DS: That was fairly presumptuous, wasn't it?
LS: Well, I really was concerned for Ivana.
DS: Did you think he would listen to you?
LS: I thought he at least should know that things were going to explode if he didn't do something, one way or the other. When I told him, he said he would think about it. He didn't deny it.
[A] The stories got worse. Then there was the blowup in Aspen--Ivana and Marla [Maples] screaming at each other in the restaurant. I wrote Donald a letter and again suggested he talk about it. I said, "You're going to be in someplace a lot worse than the Liz Smith column." Nothing. He never answered the letter.
[A] The next thing I knew, Ivana called me and asked if I would see her for a private meeting. She cried and wept and sobbed through the whole thing. She was in such a state of shock. She said she had a lawyer whom she trusted, and that she didn't trust anyone else. She said she knew Donald would ruin her, that he would take me away from her--he would take Barbara Walters and all her friends away from her. I told her that wasn't true. She asked me not to print anything about it.
DS: If she didn't want you to print it, why would she call you, of all people?
LS: She called to confide in me and to ask if I knew of any good public relations people, because she realized she would need one if the story came out. She was afraid Donald was going to announce it. I left thinking it would really be dirty pool to betray her by printing the story, but within a day, I was talking to her lawyer and to the publicist she hired, trying to convince them that it was in Ivana's best interest to release the story before Donald did. They agreed with me, and I guess they talked her into it and I broke the news about the divorce.
DS: Donald countered by giving his side to your competition, the New York Post. That started a newspaper war like New York hadn't seen in some time.
LS: The papers and my TV station loved it. My producer at WNBC was jumping up and down, calling first thing in the morning: "What have you got?" I'd say, "Fuck you. I'm asleep." I mean, he tormented me. We got some great stuff because he was so aggressive. It was the biggest story I ever saw happen that wasn't important, next to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
DS: Do you think the interest is mostly that the public enjoys watching the mighty fall?
LS: Absolutely. And this story had everything--a mistress, a spurned wife, enormous and ostentatious wealth. It had everything but murder. It was Dallas come alive.
DS: Does it show that we're obsessed with the trivial?
LS: Maybe. I thought it was noteworthy that while this was going on, Time interviewed me for its story on gossip. The first questions its reporter asked me was whether I had a face lift, dyed my hair and whether I was gay. I would never ask anybody any of those questions. And it had the audacity to make fun of me for being trivial.
DS: What do you think about Trump now?
LS: I pretty much stopped writing about him. I think he's pathological. The fact that he can get dates isn't news. He can get dates like a guy driving through the tunnel to New Jersey can get a blow job.
DS: Trump is someone who could only exist in New York. Could you do your column in another city?
LS: I don't think I'd ever leave New York. I do get away to Vermont a lot. Nobody there asks me about Michael Ovitz or Elizabeth Taylor or the Trumps. Nobody knows who I am, which I love. But where would I go? Back to Texas? There are only two conversations in Texas: football and cars. I'm not too interested in either of them. When I go back now, I'm a fish out of water.
DS: Is that how you felt when you were growing up?
LS: Yeah, I did. That's why the lure of New York for me was just so intense.
DS: How would you characterize your childhood?
LS: I grew up in Fort Worth, during what I call the Booth Tarkington era, when America was innocent, when little boys fished with a bent pin and a dog could sleep in the middle of the street and not be run over.
DS: Did you have aspirations as a child?
LS: When I was about eight or nine, I had an old typewriter that my father gave me and I made a newspaper--headlines, stories, everything. I guess I always wanted to write. I dreamed about New York. I would lie on the floor and read Walter Winchell's column about New York and the fancy clubs. I couldn't wait to go to New York.
DS: What brought you there?
LS: I came with a friend--as a sort of chaperone, of all things. I arrived with fifty dollars and no return ticket home. I guess my father would have let me come home, but he was pretty disgusted with me then because I had gotten a divorce--I was the first person in my family who had ever gotten one and I was in disgrace.
DS: What happened to your own marriage?
LS: I really loved this guy a lot, but I sure wasn't meant to be anybody's wife. I had very high expectations for myself. I wanted to be like Myrna Loy. Well, I just wasn't any good at marriage. I hadn't sown any wild oats. I didn't know anything.
DS: Was New York all that you expected?
LS: I was dazzled. I went out every night. You could go to the theater for a dollar and a quarter. I saw things I'd never seen in my life. Ballet, symphonies. Texas was sort of a cultural desert. I'd seen about four plays in my whole life. I'd never seen an artichoke. I was sort of like this waif with my nose pressed up against the glass.
DS: Soon you were one of the ones behind the glass, out at the fancy clubs alongside some of your former heroes, such as Walter Winchell. When did you begin writing your column?
LS: I began working for columnist Igor Cassini, reporting and writing. I wrote about El Morocco, the hot night club, practically every day, because it was where the remains of café society were still functioning. My boyfriend was the press agent for the club. It was fantastic. Lyndon Johnson would be at the first table, Aristotle Onassis at the next, Jack Dempsey at the next. All the columnists were there, including Winchell.
DS: What was he like?
LS: This was toward the end of his career. His newspaper in New York, the Daily Mirror, had folded and he didn't have a New York outlet. He'd come in to El Morocco--this man who had been so powerful--and pass out mimeographed copies of his column as it was appearing out of New York. It was so pitiful. No New York paper picked him up because he was too much trouble. He'd made too many enemies.
DS: What led to your own column?
LS: I began free-lancing for magazines and contributing to the Robin Adam Sloan question-and-answer column, which was about celebrities. It's just like the one in Parade, which is one of the most-read things in America, even though I'd be willing to bet that some of the questions are fake. It's a vaguely shadowy, unethical kind of thing. The Parade column is so transparent and so bad that I'm really surprised it's still there. But I did the Sloan column for the money. The Daily News' editors knew I was doing it and they asked me to start writing under my own name. I told them I thought gossip columns were deader than the dodo. But they convinced me to try it. They felt readers would identify with me. They thought I was down to earth, not off-putting and grand.
DS: You first made big news when you broke some of Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days. How did you get the scoop?
LS: I couldn't tell this for years. I'd been sworn to secrecy. I knew Carl Bernstein and I knew that he and Woodward were writing their book, but I never had any hope of getting anything. I was sitting at home minding my own business when a writer named Tony Schwartz called me. He said he had a great story for me--stuff from the Woodward-Bernstein book, The Final Days. I, of course, asked how he got it, but he told me not to ask any questions. Later I found out that he had gotten it from Kitty Kelley, who had gotten it from someone at the Post. Tony told me I couldn't contact Woodward and Bernstein because they were under an ironclad contract with Newsweek and The Washington Post, which had paid for exclusive rights to break the book. Well, the paper went wild with it. I saw Ed Kosner from Newsweek at a party the next day after it ran and he was furious. I got a telegram from Carl that said, "Congratulations, Scoop, I don't know how you did it." It did me a lot of good.
DS: What about the David Begelman check-forging and embezzlement scandal at Columbia Pictures?
LS: The story was ongoing but unresolved. One Christmas Day, the Washington Post printed the most incredible exposé about Begelman. He had forged Cliff Robertson's name on a check, so I called Cliff and asked if he'd seen it. He begged me to leave it and him alone. He said, "Please. They've threatened my daughter."
[A] Well, I convinced him to see me. After agonizing hours, I finally convinced him that it was better to tell the truth. I convinced him that he was in more danger from people not knowing.
DS: Who threatened him?
LS: It wasn't David Begelman, let's put it that way. But Columbia really wanted this story to die, and so did Ray Stark and a lot of other people. A lot of people who loved Begelman wanted it to die. These thefts had obviously been an action of a really disturbed person.
[A] I reprinted The Washington Post story, giving them full credit, and commented, "Nobody saw this. What's going on here? Is the Los Angeles district attorney ignoring this case?" And I wrote about Cliff--several columns about it. It caused a big explosion.
DS: Did you write that someone had threatened his child?
LS: Yes. And it continued. Later, when David McClintick's Indecent Exposure was coming out, Stark came to New York begging me not to write about it. He was a good friend. I said, "Are you kidding? This is one of the greatest stories of my life. Of course I'll write about it."
DS: McClintick, in his book, credited you with being influential in bringing the Begelman scandal to the attention of the public.
LS: Yes. It was a wonderful boost. I was very proud of it. Those are the things that make your life worth living.
DS: Has your running feud with Frank Sinatra been settled, too?
LS: Sinatra hated me because I attacked him in print for attacking other people. He denounced me from the stage of Carnegie Hall. He was violent about it. But then, years later, Sid Zion, a former New York Times reporter, called and told me, "Sinatra wants to meet with you." I told him that he must be crazy. He said, "So many people have told him he's wrong about you that he thinks you should make up. I'm going to call you some night. He's going to be here, and I want you to come and meet us and talk to him." He asked if I was going to be nice. I said, "Sure. I don't hold grudges. I don't care that he said I was fat, old, a lesbian and ugly from the stage of Carnegie Hall." [Laughs]
[A] One day Sidney calls me and tells me to meet them at Jimmy Weston's, a restaurant where Sinatra hangs out. I'm in a dither all day, like some dizzy girl going to her first dance. I couldn't decide what to wear. When I got there, Sinatra was sitting alone in a little private room. He jumped up and shook my hand. When I called him Mr. Sinatra, he said, "Frank, Frank, please call me Frank."
[A] We sat down and started talking. We talked for hours. We never mentioned our past differences.
DS: What did you talk about?
LS: We just talked about things. The weather and so forth. I admired his ring and his watch. He's very, very interesting and entertaining--obviously--when he wants to be. Then he said to me, "You and I should be friends. We shouldn't be attacking each other."
[A] The next day all these unbelievable orchids arrived with a note that said if I ever need him, I should call. And he signed it Francis Albert. It was sort of like having a love affair with Sinatra.
DS: Did you write about it?
LS: I wrote pretty much what had happened. I tried to write it in a way that wouldn't reflect on him in any way that would make him sorry he did it. And from that time, we sort of laid off each other. I keep hoping he won't ever do anything so bad I have to write about it again.
DS: Couldn't you look at it cynically: He wooed you to shut you up?
LS: Well, it wouldn't stop me from writing something if I found out about it and it was worth writing. But my father always used to say that wise people change their minds.
DS: Who out there is left that you would like to meet?
LS: A lot of people, but not necessarily actors. I would love to meet Mrs. Thatcher. I'm interested in politicians.
DS: Did you know the Reagans?
LS: I knew her. I said, "Hello, Mr. President, God bless you," two Christmases in a row, but I didn't really know him. I really hoped God would bless him because he needed it. I had a lot of interaction with Mrs. Reagan, though. Lots of her objecting to things I had written. She was delighted the couple of times I took her side. I defended her when everyone was criticizing her for buying the White House china. It was bought with contributions from her rich friends and didn't cost the taxpayers anything. Overall, I didn't think Mrs. Reagan was as bad as people painted her. She is just absolutely charming personally. She's the warmest of all of the First Ladies that I've known, all going back through Lady Bird. The others are all sort of glassy-eyed and talk in great political generalities.
DS: How about Barbara Bush?
LS: I know her pretty well. We work on the literacy committees together. I love her--she's wonderful. Mrs. Bush is different. She's very sweet and real, but she tends to be a bit controlling. I'm not being critical of her, though, because she's a lovely human being. And I think that kind of public life must be really hard--talk about people coming up and asking me stupid things, imagine the stupid things they ask her.
DS: Has she complained about things you've written about her or the President?
LS: I've written a lot of things critical of the President, which to her mind is being critical of her. She most recently took me to task for saying that the carpet in the upstairs of the White House had been newly ordered for the Diane Sawyer-Sam Donaldson interview, and she was right and I was wrong, so I corrected it. Also, I had referred to it as off-white. When I went to the White House to some event, I got off the elevator in the private quarters and Mrs. Bush said, "You see, Liz: This carpet is not off-white." It was yellow. She said, "And you can tell this isn't a new carpet." I said, "Mea culpa, Mrs. Bush," to which she said, "Don't give me Mrs. Bush--it's Barbara." It's very hard for me to call Mrs. Bush Barbara, but sometimes I choke it out.
DS: What's your relationship with the Vice President and his wife?
LS: I ran a big, devastating story on the Quayle family's involvement with Colonel Robert Thieme, Jr., the right-wing fundamentalist preacher. The implication was that both she and Dan were very much influenced by him. It was a story that had been buried in the Louisville Courier-Journal. I got a lot of nasty mail about it: How dare I smear the Vice President with guilt by association? But if a family that is potentially bound for the White House is in the thrall of anything--an astrologer, masseur, Gestalt therapist, fundamentalist preacher, Roman Catholic bishop--it is important for the American people to know about it.
DS: Did you ever hear from Quayle about it?
LS: No, but later, at a luncheon in the private White House quarters, Mrs. Bush seated me next to Marilyn Quayle. I was sure that she did it on purpose. Mrs. Bush is so wily and smart. Mrs. Quayle didn't act like she'd ever heard of me before or knew who I was or cared. She was very nice during lunch and we had a nice talk. She never brought it up and never mentioned it and I didn't either. I wasn't anxious to be involved in an incident in the White House.
DS: Are you a friend of Jackie Onassis?
LS: I almost made an industry out of writing about her for about a year or so when she married Onassis.
DS: You wrote that she "proved that if you do something really vulgar to get a lot of money, but don't do anything really vulgar with it, you can enter the establishment."
LS: Well, she came back to New York after Onassis. I saw her and decided I wasn't going to write about her anymore, because she was trying to lead a different kind of life and I didn't feel she was fair game anymore. She's living proof that you can drop out without dying. You don't have to be a scandal if you don't want to. But for a while, she, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the mainstays of my column.
DS: How did you get the exclusive on Liz's wedding last year?
LS: I wrote her a letter and told her that I felt that after twenty-six years of friendship, I should be at that wedding. Her press agent called and said, "A decision is being made. You'll hear right away." Then she called and asked me to call Liz. She said she wanted me to be the only journalist there. But she wanted me to give all the money I earned from the story to AIDS research. I suggested she'd get more money if she got someone like Norman Mailer to come and sell it as a big story with a big literary by-line, but she said, [imitating Taylor] "I don't want Mailer, honey. I want you."
DS: What do you make of the Jane Fonda-Ted Turner romance?
LS: I've known Jane Fonda for years, and though I don't know Ted Turner, I think it's just perfect that they're together. Don't you?
LS: This sort of swinging tycoon from Atlanta meets this lovely liberal from California who is very interesting, but extremely self-absorbed. It's a natural conclusion to the end of her metamorphosis from Hanoi Jane to total commercial respectability, sliding into the establishment. What's great about this story is that he could have done what other men his age do--go for some young, brainless bimbo. He decided to get involved with an attractive, middle-aged woman.
DS: Are you suspicious when big-name people like that get together?
LS: In this case, I think Ted and Jane are very much in love with each other. We all have romantic illusions about ourselves. I don't mean to be corny, but I think that they're very much like anybody else.
DS: Who are your favorite younger stars?
LS: I like a lot of them. I think Sean Penn, who hates me with a passion, is one of the best actors I've ever seen. I love Robin Williams. I think Demi Moore is one of the most ravishing girls I've ever seen. I like Bruce Willis very much.
DS: How do you keep up with the ever-changing cast of who's who?
LS: I try to keep up. I read Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. I read magazines I don't even understand. I don't know anything about sports. I don't know anything about rap and know very little about rock and roll. I don't care, but I try to cover it.
DS: Is there a big difference in the influence you have on television versus in the columns?
LS: Television is so fleeting that I wonder how profound the influence could be. When I write in the column, it can have a very profound effect.
DS: What's behind the big changes last year--leaving the Daily News and WNBC for Newsday and Fox?
LS: I'd done pilots for Fox. [Fox chairman] Barry Diller wanted me to do a regular interview show. We made a deal and I started doing the Personalities show, sort of a poor man's Entertainment Tonight. Well, it was abysmal and junked and rebuilt as E.D.J. It was a phenomenon, but it was expensive and it was killed. Now they say I'll do regular entertainment reports on the Fox network. And I didn't leave the Daily News until Maxwell gave me an offer. I felt a certain amount of loyalty.
DS: Did you meet with Maxwell?
LS: He was very nice but he literally didn't offer me much more than a cost of living raise. He sort of dangled a bonus in front of my eyes. He said he reserved the right to give me a bonus every year on my birthday. In the end, I didn't trust him; I didn't think I would love to work for him. But Newsday was offering the sun, the moon and the stars, including an enormous increase in syndication, appearances in the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Sun-Times and a five-year contract. Still, it was a very traumatic experience for me and I'm just now beginning to settle into it all.
DS: Are you completely free to write whatever you want?
LS: No one has said anything to me, though the Los Angeles Times changed an item I wrote about Don Hewitt, the producer of 60 Minutes, being steamed about something. I said, "Even if you reside west of the Hudson, listen carefully this evening, and you'll be able to hear Hewitt snorting." The Los Angeles Times changed the word "snorting" because they said it had a bad connotation on the West Coast.
DS: After all these years, do you still enjoy writing the column and living that fast-lane life?
LS: I am overstimulated, overentertained, overfed. All I want to do is go home and lie down and watch television and drink a Coca-Cola and have some tomato soup out of a can. I find going out and socializing very exhausting. I love the writing, but sometimes I think I've been going on too long.
DS: Well, you've certainly collected some good stories.
LS: I know. But the real advantage of having been around so long is that I have a lot of contacts and a lot of experience. I can call people and get answers. I have a sense of what I believe in, what I care about.
DS: What aspirations do you have for the column?
LS: I honestly think that tough, irreverent, frank discussion is good. Maybe it'll bring a new era where people don't have to go on with absurd hypocrisies. I can't stand that people have no sense of humor anymore, no sense of irony, no understanding of satire or any kind of subtlety. They don't read. I don't know what kind of civilization you can have if people don't read. They're outwardly stimulated.
DS: Does it frustrate you that the culture often considers your work so trivial?
LS: Sure, I like to be taken seriously. No, it doesn't bother me when I'm not.
DS: You obviously know a lot more than you're able to print--what happens to all that other stuff?
LS: Nothing. A lot of it isn't printed for reasons of taste or for reasons of hurtfulness. Maybe because it involves a minor child. A lot of people tell me perfectly incredible stories that can't be proved. We lose some great stuff. But, hell, who cares? This is not national security, just some good gossip.
"That's the toughest part of the job--people upset, disappointed, angry, furious, going to break your legs."