She’s been called the grand dame of dish. Liz Smith, in her mid 80's, is still an influential part of the New York nightlife scene.
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But with her beloved watermelon and the soft drawl in her voice, she still carries more than a hint of her native Texas. She’s the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
| View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.|
Almost 60 years out of her native Texas, Liz Smith still holds on to a few of her favorite things from home. Like watermelon.
"My mother used to put us in the bathtub to eat watermelon. She would take all of our clothes off and put us in the bathtub. There were three of us and we would have watermelon and she would wash us off with the hose,” recalls Smith.
The voice is still pure Texas, but Smith has been a New Yorker since 1949 and she’s still an important part of New York nightlife.
“Woody Allen said that fabulous thing that success was showing up. Well I've been showing up for years,” says Smith.
She "shows up" to get information for her column and to raise money for a myriad of charities, like after school programs, centers against domestic violence and adult literacy.
“I like doing my charity things. But they've just about taken over my life, so I would like to get rid of a few of them,” says Smith. "But you can't get rid of a charity once you start with it, it’s like riding a tiger, you can't get off.”
She started writing a gossip column in the daily news in 1976, and became known for not tearing everyone down. Now, it's a whole new ballgame.
"I think the internet changed the coverage of entertainment — it made it a lot meaner and probably more down to the nitty gritty,” says Smith. "So I've become a different kind of an entertainment writer, I feel. I've become more analytical and philosophical. I'm a philosopher of entertainment."
Smith says the immediacy of the internet makes it much harder to come up with scoops, like one of the hottest stories of her long career, the Trump divorce of 1991, when smith's conversations with Ivana Trump were daily front page fodder.
"It had a life of three months and it was my editors you know, calling me at five o'clock in the morning saying, Îwhat have you got?’ everyday,” says Smith. “The Trumps were, you know, in a class by themselves. They liked to be on the front page of the paper. They still do and it didn't hurt anything, let's put it that way. It was a big entertainment for about three months."
But not everyone is so thrilled to see their name in the paper.
"People are so sensitive. You can even write something about them you think is just great, and then they just freak out,” says Smith. "So when you think you've done them a big favor, you always find out you didn't. There was something you left out or you didn't mention their beloved Aunt Sadie or something."
Smith has been on a first name basis with entertainers and celebrities and politicians for so long that it begs the question: Do people befriend her or the column?
"I always knew it was the column they were interested in, but I didn't care. I was never worried about that, or being loved for myself alone. I was having fun anyway,” says Smith.
Hard to believe, but the woman who would become the highest paid newspaper writer in the country initially passed when The Daily News offered her a gossip column in the mid Î70's.
"I said, ÎNo I'm making a good living as a freelancer and I don't want to do gossip. I mean, people won't care about that anymore.’ Boy was I wrong! It was great that I was wrong,” says Smith.
Smith grew up in Texas, in what she calls an upright Christian family. She says her father didn't believe pregnant women should be seen in public, but Smith was cut from a different cloth.
"I had to move 1,500 miles away from my mother and father to keep from offending them every day they lived,” says Smith. “You know, it was a wild, reckless, time I guess. I was the first person in my entire family to ever get a divorce. That was considered a horrible disgrace."
Smith wrote about her early years and the transition to life in New York in her 2000 memoir "Natural Blond, " which came out when she was in her late 70s.
Still, much of the attention about the book centered on her brief discussion of having relationships with men and women.
"I didn't want to be categorized by that because I wasn't going to limit my options in the future. So that seemed to — now of course it's all moot. I'm an elderly citizen,” says Smith.
The subject is perhaps one of the reasons why Smith says she was never able to be herself with her parents.
"I'll have to wait Îtil the hereafter when my mother and father are more liberalized. I love them, I adore them. They were great, they were fabulous characters,” says Smith.
After graduating from the University of Texas in 1949 with a journalism degree, Smith came to New York. She worked for Mike Wallace as a producer at CBS Radio. She served as Cosmopolitan's entertainment editor for 11 years and wrote for several magazines.
But there was a lot of what she calls "scut work" in writing for women's magazines, and that led to one regret.
"I was jealous of my peers who helped invent the New Journalism cause I was right there writing with them too at the same time, but I had to make a living,” says Smith. "I always felt I held myself back from what I could have done.”
But she would soon make her name in gossip, with no apologies.
“I don't think it could be just fluffed off. You could like it or not like it, or say you don't do it, but everybody does it,” says Smith. "People are so exhausted by their fears and so beset by worries, and so forth that they use this interest in celebrities — it's just as an escape.”
Her column has appeared locally in all three tabloids: The Daily News, Newsday and The Post, and in papers around the country. She won an Emmy during her 11-year stint on WNBC’s Live at Five, and she's still out there, going to events almost every night.
“I’m getting older and older and older, and I think a lot of people think I should quit and retire, but I just don't know, what would I do if I retired?” says Smith.
She was twice married when she was young, never had kids, but got to have what she calls the "grandmother experience" when she became godmother to several children in the past decade.
At 84, she is still a funny, smart, sweet blend of deep in the heart of Texas on the sidewalks of New York.
"I loved my life. I loved everything about it. I got everything I wanted,” says Smith. “I mean, I think I've been one of the luckiest, overpaid, over-fed, over-entertained, over-evaluated person. This normal person with ordinary talents to come along. It’s been great."
— Budd Mishkin