Liz Smith is the most powerful queer woman in media who you’ve never heard of. That’s probably because, at 92, her heyday of palling around with Elizabeth Taylor and refereeing feuding snark queens Truman Capote and Gore Vidal isn’t exactly trending on Buzzfeed. This is a pity, because those queers had razor sharp wit and real drama that puts reality TV to shame.
At the peak of Liz Smith’s career, she raked in over a million dollars a year writing a globally syndicated, massively popular New York Post column devoted to the intrigue and affairs of stars, socialites, artists, politicians, and royalty. Quite the workload to keep up with between popping off to Europe with the Burtons, snuggling Liza Minnelli, and being roasted by Gloria Steinem. Currently syndicated by The Chicago Tribune, carried on New York Social Diary, and published in papers nationwide, Liz and her column remain very much action.
I’m peeved to admit that I only discovered Liz Smith last week, when The Hollywood Reporter published a delightful and very detailed interview with the witty writer. Right off the bat she gets real real, real quick, recalling “Outweek was viciously outing me as a lesbian for two years. And you called to ask if you could interview me for them. It was so outrageous, I couldn’t say no.” Reading on, I recognized Liz Smith as the kind of woman I want to be: fearless, droll, perceptive, and always down to do something sensational. I had to know everything about her.
“I grew up in a hard-shell Baptist town,” Liz said. “I was this goofy starstruck kid, so in love with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that I couldn’t see straight.” Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1923, Liz Smith was only 21 when she got married. “I lucked out. I married a guy I really cared about — a strong, silent type, 6 [foot] 4. But he wanted to be a rancher in Texas and I wanted to get out of there.” At 25, Liz recognized that domestic bliss was not the scope of her ambitions and prompt off to New York City in search of adventure, success, and her celebrity idols.
With no money, Liz bounced from crappy apartment to crappy apartment, subsisting on ketchup and crackers while languishing with the other girls in a typing pool. Her big break came through Zachary Scott (Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce co-star), who hooked Liz up with a gig at entertainment magazine Modern Screen.
Liz rapidly established herself as a coveted writer, scoring intimate interviews with the era’s biggest celebrities. “I could get to people that nobody else could get to. I met lots of interesting people coming up, and they stayed friends with me when they made it big.” Mega stars like Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Elaine Stritch, and Richard Burton now counted Liz Smith from Fort Worth as part of their inner circle. The relationship was mutually beneficial. “My friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton really helped make my career. It didn’t do them any harm, either.”
Liz’s friendship with Elizabeth Taylor deepened when Taylor followed Burton to Europe and isolated herself from almost everyone else.“In the ’60s, she became completely distant from what was happening in Hollywood; she made all these crazy European movies and avoided the American press.” Liz Smith was a rare confidante for the most notoriously dysfunctional celebrity couple in Hollywood history. “They trusted me and eventually I became the only journalist who could get to them.”
Liz thrived on her role as go between celebrities and their fawning public, and enjoyed the creative opportunities writing a gossip column offered. Liz Smith found exactly what she wanted to do, and was spectacularly good at it. She had no interest in the stodgy confines of traditional news journalism. “I never aspired to be the Journalism Review. But it’s wrong to say that it was all positive. I reserved my punches for people who really deserved it.”
Included under “people who really deserved it” is Jackie O.’s sister, Princess Lee Radziwill, whose homophobic shit starting between Truman Capote and Gore Vidal earned her Liz Smith’s legendary and very public loathing. “She was always a close friend of Truman Capote’s. But then Capote got embroiled in that ridiculous libel suit with Gore Vidal over his claim that Vidal had been drunkenly kicked out of the White House,” Liz said. “Lee is the one who told Capote the story, but when it ended up in court, she threw him to the wolves. All she had to do was tell the truth. But she refused, and Truman lost the lawsuit, which devastated him. During the trial, as a last-ditch effort, he asked me to call her and beg her to testify. And you know, Truman had done everything for her. He even tried to help her start an acting career. But when I called her and said, ‘Lee, you really must testify for Truman,’ she said, ‘Oh, Liz, what do we care; they’re just a couple of fags! They’re disgusting.’ I was so stunned, I just hung up. I’ve never spoken to her since.”
Liz Smith’s sexuality was an open secret for decades, although the occasional bitter antagonist would try to humiliate her by making it a public spectacle. One scoundrel mailed fake wedding invitations to everyone who was anyone in New York City announcing Liz’s impending nuptials to then partner Iris Love. “It was more of an annoyance than anything… It only disturbed me because my mother was alive, and I was worried he would send an invitation to her. Thankfully, he never did. The whole thing embarrassed him more than me. People were appalled by what he did.” Like all attempts to shame and destroy Liz Smith for her sexuality, this one was unsuccessful. “He hated me for some reason, but he couldn’t take me down. I was too popular by then.”
Liz Smith’s audience reached epic proportions when she publicly took Ivana Trump’s side in Donald Trump’s first, notoriously nasty divorce. Her outspoken writing made Liz Smith a star in her own right. When NBC’s Live at Five offered her a TV gig, Liz tentatively accepted, and spent 15 happy years with the popular show.
“People seem to like me, and I like to be liked. I’m kind of vain about that.” Everything I’ve learned about Liz Smith has made me love her a little more. Her long life is a magnificent series of scuffles and friendships, triumphs and failure, reinvention and persistence. She possesses rare humor, vast experience, and unusual insight into the human mind. Liz has fallen in love “many times. Always with the wrong women or men. The truth is, I had no luck with either sex.” Liz Smith the sort of girl who inspires lasting love from many, not just one. She is ok with that.
Whatever I can say about Liz Smith, she can say better, so here are some choice quotes from this month’s Hollywood Reporter piece.
On being outed:
“I didn’t care about being outed. But I wasn’t going to paint myself purple and walk down Fifth Avenue waving a sign. I was old enough that people could describe me any way they wanted. I feel the same way now.”
On Academy Award Winning starlet Shelley Winters, who co-starred with Liz’s good friend Elizabeth Taylor in one of my favorite films: A Place In The Sun.
“Modern Screen assigned me to go around with her [Shelley Winters] in New York while she bought Christmas presents. Every store we stepped into, Shelley would take these expensive things and head for the door. The shops were horrified, but they were afraid to ask her to pay. So I really disliked her after that.”
The money quote from aforementioned 1992 Outweek profile:
“Who am I, the great lesbian of the Western world? They want me to go out, and I want them to go in!”
On Elizabeth Taylor:
“I loved her. She was just snarky and funny and crazy. Selfish and tremendously generous at the same time. But Burton liked me better than she did. She was threatened by any woman, but he knew better.”
On her former boss, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.
“She thought I was Jesus jumping off the cross because I brought her all these interviews. I found Helen fascinating, but I thought she was an idiot sometimes. She would constantly talk to me about getting married and how I should look for a rich man. This is a woman who dedicated her life to telling women how to feather their nest by throwing a scarf over a lamp.”
On being ditched by Barbara Walters:
“Well, it turns out Barbara Walters can do without me, though I still consider her a friend. She has done so much for me through the years. But when I lost my column and my power, she kind of lost interest in me. When we run into each other now, she loves me; she’s always saying, “Let’s get together,” blah, blah, blah. But I rarely hear from her now. That’s OK.”
On Rosie O’Donnell changing her mind about coming out because Liz wrote a blind item about her:
“She’s crazy, that girl. She loses her temper at everything. The item didn’t mention Rosie’s name, and she was about to make this grand announcement, but instead she started yelling and screaming. That item was so careful, it didn’t even say talk show host. It was such a blind item, it was groping around in the dark.”
On FOX mastermind Roger Ailes:
“Oh, I love him! He’s one of those villains you just gotta love, and he has always been great to me.”
On her changing career:
“In this job, you don’t have illusions about people you cover. I don’t mix with a lot of celebrities these days. I know Oprah, to say hello and kiss her and genuflect. Helen Mirren, Renee Zellweger, people like that. But I don’t see them often. The truth is, everyone around me is dropping like flies, so I don’t have many friends left.”