Famed Gossip Columnist, Liz Smith Dies At 94

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 13, 2017 4:46 pm
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For decades, if you wanted to know where a famous person was last night and with whom, you'd see what Liz Smith was writing. Smith was a famed gossip columnist who chronicled the lives of the rich and powerful in New York's tabloids. She died Sunday at the age of 94. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Liz Smith liked to compare gossip to Greek tragedy. She was especially fond of this quote from an academic calling gossip an emotional release valve that allows us to express a whole range of human findings - envy, anger, compassion - and to find solace in other people's woes. But she herself wasn't that high-minded about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LIZ SMITH: It wasn't just about people doing terrible things all the time. A lot of it was just wannabe news.

LIMBONG: This is Smith on NPR in 2009. She talked about bringing readers to places where all the rich and famous people hung out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SMITH: You wanted to go. You wanted to know how - what would it be? How much did you tip the hat check girl in a place like that? You know, looking through the keyhole at how your betters lived, I guess.

LIMBONG: Liz Smith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1923. Her babysitter used to take her to movies where she'd be captivated by movie stars. She moved to New York and began ghost writing gossip. In the '70s, she eventually got her own column in the New York Daily News simply titled Liz Smith. She never wanted her columns to be mean, and they were far removed from the sort of bloggy online snark of the gossip that came after her. But she had insider information on the likes of Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Elaine Stritch.

DOREE SHAFRIR: And you could tell that she was writing them sort of from a place of almost, like, love of the people she was writing about. Like, she really enjoyed the world that she was writing about and the characters in it.

LIMBONG: That's Doree Shafrir. She covers tech for BuzzFeed now, but she used to work at Gawker and profiled Smith for the New York Observer in 2008.

SHAFRIR: Like a lot of people in media, but probably especially for gossip columnists of her era, the line between friends and sources and subjects necessarily got very blurred.

LIMBONG: Smith was criticized for not being objective, but she didn't pretend to be. She told NPR in 2009 about her biggest scoop. She got it from her friend Ivana Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SMITH: One day Ivana called me and asked me to come to the Plaza Hotel. And when I got there, she threw herself in my arms and told me that Donald didn't want her anymore, and that she had just gone through all of this plastic surgery to enhance her looks. And I tried to give her some motherly advice.

LIMBONG: The Trumps' divorce was a big deal, and Smith knew what the fallout would look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SMITH: I said, get yourself a PR person who's respectable and defend yourself against him.

LIMBONG: Donald Trump, who was a celebrity real estate developer at the time, wasn't thrilled Smith was writing about his divorce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SMITH: He said he was going to buy the New York Daily News in order to fire me.

LIMBONG: That didn't happen. Her column remained at the Daily News until 1991, when she moved it to Newsday and eventually to the New York Post. In 2009, she started her own website, wowowow.com, as a slower, thinkier (ph) take on the news. As for the day-to-day stuff of celebrities that made her name, Smith told Doree Shafrir, frankly, I don't think most of it is worth keeping up with. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.