FEBRUARY 22, 1923 - NOVEMBER 12, 2017
Liz Smith, the longtime queen of New York’s tabloid gossip columns, who for more than three decades chronicled triumphs and trespasses in the soap-opera lives of the rich, the famous and the merely beautiful, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 94.
Her friend and literary agent, Joni Evans, confirmed her death.
From hardscrabble nights writing snippets for a Hearst newspaper in the 1950s to golden afternoons at Le Cirque with Sinatra or Hepburn and tête-à-tête dinners with Madonna to gather material for columns that ran six days a week, Ms. Smith captivated millions with her tattletale chitchat and, over time, ascended to fame and wealth that rivaled those of the celebrities she covered.
A self-effacing, good-natured, vivacious Texan who professed to be awed by celebrities, Ms. Smith was the antithesis of the brutal columnist J. J. Hunsecker in Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for “Sweet Smell of Success,” which portrayed sinister power games in a seamy world of press agents and nightclubs.
Her column, called simply “Liz Smith,” ran in The Daily News from 1976 to 1991; in New York Newsday from 1991 to 1995, when that newspaper closed; continued in the Long Island-based Newsday until 2005; and, with some overlap, in The New York Post from 1995 to 2009 — a 33-year run that morphed onto the internet in the New York Social Diary.
“Liz Smith” was syndicated for years in 60 to 70 other newspapers, even as she appeared on television news and entertainment programs and wrote magazine articles and books.
She was not an exceptional writer or reporter, although there were occasional scoops — the 1990 split of Donald and Ivana Trump, Madonna’s 1996 pregnancy — but her income often exceeded $1 million a year, more than any newspaper columnist or executive editor. She was as prominent as her legendary predecessors, Walter Winchell in New York and Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons in Hollywood.
Her style was not the intimidating jugular attack of columnists who expose intimacies or misdeeds in the private lives of public figures, thriving on Schadenfreude and sometimes damaging reputations. Nor, for the sake of a titillating item, did she seize upon ugly rumors or tasteless embarrassments.
On the contrary, Ms. Smith offered a kinder, gentler view of movie stars and moguls, politicians and society figures. And gossip was hardly the only ingredient of her columns: They were sprinkled with notes on books or films, bits of political commentary and opinions about actors, authors and other notables.
She often inserted herself into stories. Explaining why Madonna had become a regular in her columns, Ms. Smith wrote in 2006, “I didn’t always agree with what she said, or what she did, but the hysterical overreaction to her caused me, if not to defend her, then at least to put a more balanced perspective on her astonishing ongoing saga.”
Nevertheless, she often played down the juiciest bit of information about herself. Promoting her own memoir, “Natural Blonde,” in the pages of New York magazine in 2000, she joked about her status as a lesbian. “All this crap about ‘coming out’! Honey, I don’t think I have ever really been in,” she said.
In truth, Ms. Smith, who died Sunday at 94, was private for years about her interest in women. (Even in the book, there was only one blatant confession of an intimate relationship with a woman, from 1946.) Iris Love, the classical archaeologist, was a romantic partner of Ms. Smith’s between 1978 and 1996 — and lived with her between 2010 and 2016.
This Life Story was created using original copyrighted articles and photographs from the New York Times:
“Liz Smith, Longtime Queen of Tabloid Gossip Columns, Dies at 94, ” By Robert D. McFadden, Nov. 12, 2017
“Liz Smith’s Complicated Relationship With the Closet,” by By Jonah Engel Bromwich, Nov. 15, 2017