Liz Smith, the syndicated gossip columnist whose mixture of banter, barbs, and bon mots about the glitterati helped her climb the A-list as high as many of the celebrities she covered, died Sunday at the age of 94.
Joni Evans, Smith’s literary agent, told The Associated Press she died of natural causes.
For more than a quarter-century, Smith’s column — titled simply “Liz Smith” — was one of the most widely read in the world. The column’s success was due in part to Smith’s own celebrity status, giving her an insider’s access rather than relying largely on tipsters, press releases and publicists.
With a big smile and her sweet Southern manner, the Texas native endeared herself to many celebrities and scored major tabloid scoops, among them Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce, and Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s impending parenthood.
Smith held a lighthearted opinion of her own legacy.
“We mustn’t take ourselves too seriously in this world of gossip,” she told The Associated Press in 1987. “When you look at it realistically, what I do is pretty insignificant.
“Still, I’m having a lot of fun.”
After graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Texas, Smith recalled buying a one-way ticket to New York in 1949 with a dream of being the next Walter Winchell.
But unlike Winchell and his imitators, Smith succeeded with kindness and an aversion to cheap shots. Whether reporting on entertainers, politicians or power brokers, the “Dame of Dish” never bothered with unfounded rumors, sexual preferences or who’s-sleeping-with-whom.
But it may have been the question of her own sexuality which kept her from discussing that of the stars. She was divorced twice, from her college sweetheart Ed Beeman and travel agent Freddie Lister, but acknowledged in her 2000 autobiography Natural Blonde that she had relationships with both men and women, and confirmed a long-term relationship with archaeologist Iris Love.
Smith laughed it off in an interview at the time with USA TODAY, declining to define herself as bisexual or gay. “I don’t say what (I am) because I have never known, and I have switched around a lot,” she said. “I have left my options open and made a few jokes and ‘came out’ in this book as a heterosexual. Let’s just leave it at that.”
She wrote for nine New York newspapers and dozens of magazines, but it was a stint writing for Cosmopolitan that led to her break. While establishing herself as an authority on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Smith attracted the attention of the New York Daily News.
She started her own column at the tabloid in 1976. A gossip star was born.
By 2000, she would lament the loss of glamour among modern celebrities. “There isn’t any glamour except as they get themselves all tarted up for awards shows,” Smith told USA TODAY. “Making a fashion statement has been substituted for real mystery and glamour. It’s totally synthetic. … I knew Tallulah Bankhead, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner and Bette (Davis) and Joan (Crawford). A big star like Loretta Young had real glamour and real class, and she had mystery! This woman could have a child by Clark Gable and wouldn’t confess it.
“What everybody needs today is a big sense of humor about themselves. I don’t think these stars now have enough background or sense of history and philosophy to do that.”
As news spread about her death, the stars she covered for so many years began to react.
Al Roker tweeted about having worked with her. He wrote, “I was fortunate enough to work with the amazing Liz Smith. During my time at WNBC she was nothing short (of) fabulous.” He added that “a piece (of) New York” has passed away with her.
Rob Lowe tweeted: “Loved Liz Smith. Smart and funny. Gossip from the High Road.”
Singer and actress Betty Buckley also tweeted about the newspaper legend. “Deeply sad reading this. Liz Smith was such a force & great, great lady.”
James Woods paid homage to Smith as well, writing in a tweet that “She dished, but always found a way to make it entertaining and fun.”
Contributing: The Associated Press, Lorena Blas, Kim Willis and Stephen Schaefer
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