Remembering Syndicated Gossip Columnist Liz Smith

Nov 17, 2017
Originally published on November 22, 2017 11:53 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Liz Smith, one of America's most famous and enduring gossip columnists, died this week. She was 94. We're going to replay part of an interview she conducted with Terry back in 2000. But first, we'll put her particular approach to gossip in context. She was a more benign, less aggressive and destructive presence on the gossip pages, a stark contrast to what came after her on the Internet and on television. But she also was nicer in her approach than those who came before her.

Here's a clip from what is still regarded as the best movie about the gossip columnist business, the 1957 film "Sweet Smell of Success." Burt Lancaster plays a ruthless gossip columnist. Tony Curtis is a press agent who will do anything to get his clients into the column. In this scene, the columnist and the press agent are talking at a restaurant when they are interrupted by a man with a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS")

WILLIAM FORREST: (As Sen. Harvey Walker) May I ask you a naive question, Mr. Falco? Exactly how does a press agent work?

BURT LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) Why don't you answer the man, Sidalee? He's trying to take you off the hook.

TONY CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) You just saw a good example of it, Senator. A press agent eats a columnist's dirt and is expected to call it manna.

FORREST: (As Sen. Harvey Walker) But don't you help columnists by furnishing them with items?

CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) Sure. A columnist can't do without us, except our good and great friend J.J. forgets to mention that. You see, we furnish them with items.

LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) What, some cheap, gruesome gags?

CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) You print them, don't you?

LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) Yes, with your clients' names attached. That's the only reason the poor slobs pay you, to see their names in my column all over the world. Now I make it out you are doing me a favor?

CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) I didn't say that, J.J.

LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) The day I can't get along without a press agent's handouts, I'll close up shop and move to Alaska lock, stock and barrel.

BIANCULLI: In her memoir called "Natural Blonde," Liz Smith said that when she got started in the '50s, gossip was a nasty business. She began working for a theater press agent trying to get items about their clients into columns by Walter Winchell and others. She started writing a daily column under her own name in 1976 at the New York Daily News and ended her career at the New York Post 33 years later. When Terry asked her in 2000 how she decided what to print and whom to trust, Liz Smith said it all depended on the source.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LIZ SMITH: When Nora Ephron told me she was divorcing Carl Bernstein, I didn't feel I had to check that out with anybody. But ordinarily, I might call a lawyer, say, is this just a rumor or is it really in process? Is it actually going to happen? I might try to call the parties involved or call one of them depending on what the other one said. You know, you want to give them both a chance to say their piece.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: If a person is involved with something or has a problem that they really don't want to make public and you know that they don't want to make it public but you've found out about it, how much does their desire to not have it be public count for you? Or is that irrelevant because if you can prove that it's true, you can just print it?

SMITH: Well, I never wanted to write the nastiest gossip column in America. And I always held back from writing things that were intensely hurtful, though some people don't think I did. But, you know, I don't generally write items about situations where people are obviously ill, where they need drug treatment or they need alcohol, need to go to AA or might be good if they checked in at the Betty Ford clinic.

I would sort of hold back on that until - unless it became a matter of public behavior that was so outrageous that there was no point, just like I wouldn't be the one to write about an extramarital affair because I just think that's too dangerous and hurtful. It's too hurtful. I don't want the wife or husband to read about it in my column. I'd rather just pass the item up.

GROSS: Now, Nora Ephron once gave you the story that she and Carl Bernstein were divorcing. Then Bernstein called you and said it wasn't true. And he begged you not to print it, but you did print it. Tell me what went through your mind in deciding whether to go with it or not.

SMITH: Well, I felt I had the facts from her. She intended to divorce him, and she wanted it printed. And so I didn't pay much attention to his desire not to print it. I printed that they would divorce. And he was furious with me forever after. I mean, someone's desire that you not print news is not totally germane to the process of getting correct news out.

And I felt Nora was a pretty good source as to whether or not she was going to divorce Carl. They had been, you know, written about quite a lot. I mean, he was having an open affair with someone, and it had been in the paper, not by me. And so I knew she was serious. This was quite a piece of news to those who cared about them.

GROSS: Why do you think she wanted it in your column? How would it have helped her?

SMITH: I feel she wanted to not have to answer any more questions. And she wanted it to be definite. And she wanted to put him on notice how serious she was. I don't know that I'd thought about that at the time, but now I think that's what it was. I think she used my column to make it permanent, to make him see she was serious because I guess he was arguing with her that she should forgive him and forget it, they should go on being married together.

GROSS: Now, you've - you became friends with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when they were married. And they were, I mean among, the most prized subjects of gossip of the time. After you became friends, was it difficult to figure out what was printable and what was private?

SMITH: No. They gave me really free rein and access to them. And I followed them around. And I would stay with them in places in Europe and observe them for like - while they were making movies or one of them was making one. And so I don't recall their ever asking me not to print anything. They weren't that way. But they were performing for me, you know. They were doing their married thing.

GROSS: Well, what a strange position to be in that people are performing their marriage for you as opposed to actually living the marriage.

SMITH: Well, I think they were very taken with their love affair and the fact that they had married against public opinion and that they'd been beleaguered by the paparazzi all over the world and despised and denounced by the Vatican. So they wouldn't have stood still for publicity without thinking it would, you know, be to their benefit. And I always thought they put on a great show for me when I was around. And I got some fabulous stories about them. I wrote about them in Rome, in Paris, in London, in Moscow.

GROSS: What was one of your favorite stories about them?

SMITH: My favorite story about them is a story about them eating. They were great gourmands. And they constantly were talking about what they wanted to eat or what they would eat if it wouldn't make them fat or what they had eaten in the past. And I wrote a whole article on this. And I think it's terribly funny and very revealing of them.

BIANCULLI: Liz Smith speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. LONNIE SMITH'S "TALK ABOUT THIS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2000 interview with longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith. She died on Sunday at age 94.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: In your book, you write about how you helped Rock Hudson cover up something that he was being blackmailed about. Was he being blackmailed by somebody who was trying to out him?

SMITH: Well, I assumed that's what it was. When he called me, he told me this woman was going to print a story about his homosexuality. But in retrospect, I'm not sure that that's exactly what happened. I'm beginning to try to remember, but we may have just had the conversation without any mention of what she was trying to reveal because it really wasn't necessary. He knew that I understood.

GROSS: What could you do to help him?

SMITH: Well, I didn't know what I could do. I was appalled. I don't think - I hate blackmail, and I knew that this kind of story would really effectively ruin his career as a romantic leading man. Those were very different times than now - though not totally different. And I said I'd call him back.

So later, I thought a little bit about this lady who was going to reveal the story. And I looked through my files, and I found - lo and behold, I found a file on her. She wasn't a star or a public person, but she was someone that I had known slightly. And I had some information on her that wasn't too savory that I would never have printed. So I sent the file to him, and I said, I suggest you show this to her. And he did, and she dropped her plan to go to the tabloids.

GROSS: You knew Rock Hudson was gay, right?

SMITH: I didn't know it for many years. I met him early in the '50s, and I knew him a long time before I heard that he was gay or thought that he was. He never acted in any way to make me think he was. And, in fact, I was around him a lot on a movie location in Rome, where he was making "For Whom The Bell Tolls." And I didn't know then that he was gay. I had a big crush on him.

GROSS: When you did find out that he was gay, did you consider printing it or...

SMITH: Oh, no. Of course not. Why would I help him stop somebody else from printing it if I would have printed it?

GROSS: No, why would that qualify as something that you wouldn't print, whereas, say, somebody's divorce is something that you would print, like...

SMITH: Well, people live over divorces, but people used to absolutely hardly live over being revealed as gay. I still don't write that people are gay unless they are self-avowed and openly gay. I think it's a very - I think outing people is a very cruel thing. And I don't write about the children of celebrities, either, though I get a lot of news about a lot of them. But I never wrote about John and Caroline Kennedy. I just didn't think - they didn't ask for their notoriety. So they're just things I try to stay away from.

GROSS: Now, a question a lot of people expected you to address in your memoir is whether you're straight, gay or bisexual. Time magazine has a review - you've probably seen it - where the headline is, Liz outs self - sort of.

SMITH: (Laughter).

GROSS: And it says, if you can call this coming out, it is one of the weirder coming outs in the history of the genre.

SMITH: Well, it's OK with me. I mean, it's OK with me that they think that. I have spent a lifetime of conflicting experiences, and I try to tell that in the book. And I just am not going to categorize myself. So it's OK if other people want to categorize me. I don't care what they say. But I'm not going to do it myself. I might change my mind tomorrow. I have changed my mind many times.

GROSS: You do write about a brief romance when you were in college with a woman student who was engaged, and the relationship ended after your parents read your love letters. You refer to this in your book as your ill-fated affair with the, quote, "wrong sex," which is, I guess, what your parents called it?

SMITH: That's right. Boy, at the time, that was really a fact. I'm writing that in the context of the time. It was certainly considered the wrong sex. And it certainly made them unhappy and made me unhappy. I had a very unhappy experience. So I try to tell about that to sort of illustrate the conflicts that young people go through when they think they are madly in love and can't live without somebody, and the person doesn't seem suitable.

GROSS: Then the next relationship you had was with a man - the way you describe it in the book.

SMITH: Well, I had already been married when this...

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: ...Other incident happened. I - you know, I mean, I'm just not settled in this. I'm not going to nail myself in the box. It's OK if somebody else wants to.

GROSS: No, you know, what a lot of people are trying to figure out, too, reading your book, is whether the 15 years that you lived with a close companion who was a woman was an intimate relationship or not. Now, I'm not asking you to answer that question.

SMITH: I think they...

GROSS: Here's my question.

SMITH: (Laughter).

GROSS: Wait, I'm going to ask you my question. My question is, is it any of...

SMITH: OK.

GROSS: ...Our business? And so...

SMITH: No, I don't - I think if they (laughter)...

GROSS: As someone who's a gossip columnist, is it any of our business what the nature of that relationship was?

SMITH: I don't - it's OK if people want to make it their business, but I think I was pretty straightforward about that. I think if you read my book, you don't have to read so much between the lines. You can figure it out for yourself.

GROSS: Oh. So the answer is, then...

SMITH: Well, I had a very intense companionship with this wonderful person who's still a very good friend of mine. I guess the answer is yes, but, I mean, I think you would know that from reading the book.

GROSS: Did anyone ever try to blackmail you during your years, you know, just to say that you had had or that you were having a relationship with another woman? And did you worry about that possibility? You'd seen it happen...

SMITH: Yes, I...

GROSS: ...To other people.

SMITH: Yes, I worried about it mainly because it would reflect on another person who wasn't a public person. And this is something I guess all people in the public eye worry about - their significant others - if they're, you know, embroiled in anything controversial or so forth. It makes you worry about the private person you're involved with. Yes, I was constantly being attacked by the underground gay press and by people sending anonymous letters and things. But I managed to live through it.

GROSS: Attacked by the gay press for not coming out?

SMITH: For not coming out. They wanted me to be a role model for a gay life. And I wasn't always leading a gay life. I wasn't ready to be their role model. And I'm still not.

GROSS: I guess here's what I'm wondering. What was it like, or what has it been like to be in the position where you're always interested in reporting on celebrities' private lives, but you have or had something in your private life that you really wanted to keep from the public, and it's the kind of thing that the public would have been real interested in hearing about?

SMITH: Well, I wanted to keep private because it was - would be hurtful to someone else. I didn't think I would be fired or anything. I wasn't, no matter what people wrote and did.

GROSS: So you were more worried about your partner than you were about yourself.

SMITH: Right. And other people - my parents and my brothers, my nieces, my nephews. I had a wonderful family. I didn't want to embarrass them.

GROSS: I guess let me put this more bluntly. Did you ever feel like it was hypocritical of you to know that there was something in your life that you really had to protect, while, at the same time, you were trying to make public things from other people's lives that they might have wanted to protect?

SMITH: Well, maybe it was hypocritical, but I don't think hypocrisy is anything new in any stratification of society. So I just did the best I could. And I tried - always tried to be fair - whatever I was writing. I tried very hard to be fair, to give people a chance, to answer, to tell two sides of things if it seemed to me there was one and to not complain too much about what people said about me.

GROSS: Now, in your book, you call gossip the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech. Gossip is often used as an almost dirty word. It's just gossip. What do you like about gossip?

SMITH: What do you like about it? Don't you like it? Or are you too pure to like it? You know, I mean, I think that gossip is absolutely endemic in - I mean, substantive in human nature. I think we're all constantly talking about each other and about what we think we know or heard or saw, overheard. And we use this sort of medium of exchange between us to enhance the human condition. It helps us figure out what we think. It helps us sort out our ideas morally. Do we approve when we're gossiping? Are we approving, or are we disapproving, or are we trying to figure out what we think? And I think that a lot of gossip is just this idea of, let me tell you a story.

BIANCULLI: Gossip columnist Liz Smith speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. Liz Smith died on Sunday. She was 94. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Mudbound," a new film produced and released by Netflix. This is FRESH AIR.

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