Who is Liz Smith? -- The queen of titillating tattle is making a big-bucks move

There is no greater need in society than that of gossip. It is the principal means of passing the time, which is one of the first necessities of life.
— Poet Giacomo Leopardi, quote starting Liz Smith’s first column, Feb. 16, 1976.

Liz Smith hasn’t even arrived yet at Le Cirque — Manhattan’s preeminent power-lunch restaurant for Armani-suited, table-hopping, air-kissing celebs and socialites — yet Barbara Walters and gossip columnist Cindy Adams can already be overheard talking about her. Deep in conversation, their perfectly coiffed do’s seemingly locked together, they whisper such words as ”Fox…Live at FivePersonalities” — referring to the news-making TV deal Liz has pulled off.

Suddenly heads swivel toward the front door as Smith bursts into the room. This isn’t hyperbole. She’s decked in a bright yellow blazer, black pants, and yellow lizard cowboy boots — a big, happy bumblebee in Le Cirque’s garden of hothouse flowers.

”Hey Liz!” yells Walters from a table away. ”We were just talking about you!”

They aren’t the only ones. In March, Liz made gossip-column history when she left the New York Daily News — where she’d toiled for 15 years — and went to upstart New York Newsday, the suburban Long Island paper that has barged into the big city, for $1 million a year, making her the most highly paid gossip columnist in America and, most likely, the world. At the same time, she jumped ship from WNBC’s local newscast, Live at Five, to the nationally syndicated Personalities, a breezy magazine show, giving her exposure in every major market.

So at age 68, Liz Smith finds herself in a unique position. She is already the most powerful gossip columnist in the country. (Recent example: In her column on April 30, she broke the exclusive news about Julia Roberts’ upcoming marriage to Kiefer Sutherland — a story that the tabloids might have paid six figures to get.) Now she’s expanding her realm. Syndicated in some 60 newspapers and seen on 129 television stations, she’s trying to extend her influence beyond New Yorkers and people in the entertainment industry to Americans of all persuasions.

The question: Will she stretch herself too thin? There’s already concern she might. New York Newsday isn’t as widely read as the Daily News; Personalities doesn’t have the clout of Live at Five. By making her big move, will Liz lose her power base?

Controversial because she’s powerful and powerful because she has access, Smith is often accused of pandering to the rich and famous — many of whom are her pals. ”She’s traded integrity for access, and it’s a deal with the devil,” says one competing columnist, who nevertheless concedes, ”The devil has done very well by her.” In her new book, Kitty Kelley takes Smith to task for changing a column at Nancy Reagan’s request.

”She’s an idiot,” Smith says of Kelley. ”Does she really think Mrs. Reagan has nothing better to do than chat with me on the phone? Her book makes anybody writing about gossip look like a jerk.”

Liz rarely gets so ticked off by a colleague — and not getting ticked off is part of her game plan. ”I just didn’t want to write a mean, bitchy column,” she says in her cozy Texas drawl. ”Nobody who is even vaguely decent or reputable could possibly compete with the Star and the Enquirer. So I try to do something different: I write what I think is going on, what interests and amuses me.”

Smith’s full-bore niceness is really the key to her success. Her down-home demeanor, her sympathetic crows’ feet, her habit of rambling on like a favorite aunt — all these strategies put people at ease and draw them out. Such disarming techniques produced one of the great triumphs of Smith’s career. The Daily News put her photo on the front page last year when she persuaded Ivana Trump to divulge her side of her messy divorce from Donald. ”Now, that was a great coup in this totally pointless world,” says Smith, who claims she was shocked and embarrassed about her cover billing and that the News only ran her photo for lack of a better one.

”I am always being criticized for being too in, but I didn’t pull any punches on that story,” says Smith. ”The importance of access is an interesting argument. I think if you don’t get access you don’t get it. When I write about my friends, I always say they are my friends, so people can discount it if they want.” Looking over at Barbara Walters, Smith continues, ”You know, I printed (an exclusive item) about Barbara’s divorce (from former Lorimar chairman Merv Adelson). She was pretty iffy about it — everybody wants to control their own story — but she knew it was inevitable, so we sort of sat down together and worked it out. As a result there was no scandal about it.”

A little history. Born in 1923 in Fort Worth, Tex., Mary Elizabeth Smith left for New York in 1949 with just $50 in her pocket. On the recommendation of movie star Zachary Scott (Mildred Pierce), whom she’d interviewed for a student magazine at the University of Texas, she got a job writing at Modern Screen magazine. Later she worked with Mike Wallace, who hosted Mike & Buff’s Mailbag, a talk show on CBS Radio. ”She was feisty and funny,” says Wallace. ”It was apparent that one way or another we would be hearing from her.” Liz’s job was to book guests — her biggest snare, Eleanor Roosevelt — and it was at CBS that she began the long process of building contacts. From there she became an associate producer at Wide, Wide World on NBC-TV, served as film critic and entertainment editor for Cosmopolitan, and even wrote for Sports Illustrated.

Smith got her start in the gossip trade in 1955, working on the Cholly Knickerbocker column at the old Journal-American. By 1975, she was anonymously cowriting a gossip column called ”Robin Adams Sloane” for the Daily News. Smith got her own column at the News in 1976. A few months later the column leaped to prominence on page six, in front of the more established ”Suzy” gossip column, written by Aileen Mehle. This set off a feud between Liz and Suzy and finally prompted Mehle’s departure for the New York Post.

”Liz is the antithesis of the era when I started,” says veteran New York publicist John Springer, whose clients have included Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, and Henry Fonda. ”Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Walter Winchell were all vying to see who could be the most vicious and destructive. Liz never does that.”

While Smith will occasionally dig for scandal, investigative is not an adjective that has often crossed her path. The bulk of her column comes from the flacks who regularly fax and phone items in to her and two assistants, Denis Ferrara and St. Clair Pugh. ”Her column is one of the best places to break news,” says publicist Pat Kingsley. ”She can elevate a story to make it an event. Sometimes we’ll take a chance and screen a movie for her, and if she likes it, it becomes more important, because people around the country read about it. She tells them what she feels about it, and they believe her. As good a movie as Awakenings was, and it was a terrific movie, she made it very accessible to a general audience.”

As swell as she is, Liz is not beloved by all. Spy magazine, which has made a cottage industry out of lampooning Liz, used to regularly feature the ”Liz Smith Tote Board,” a tally of the number of times she mentioned her friends each month. ”It’s too cozy a column,” says Spy editor E. Graydon Carter. ”You’ve got to be rude and offend people to make it effective. So much of what Liz Smith is about is supporting all of her friends. She should be casting a skeptical eye on the people she supports.”

”If I didn’t write every day,” counters Liz, ”Spy wouldn’t even notice me. They go on about how old I am, and they buy the worst pictures of me they can. I get a big kick out of that. I was very sorry they stopped doing their scorecard of me.”

There’s at least one flack who holds no brief for Liz. ”I’ve never wanted anything in her column,” says Bobby Zarem, publicist for Dances With Wolves, who has been feuding bitterly with Smith for 18 years. ”I’ve always known that nobody in my industry believed anything that was in the column because they all knew they could get anything in it they wanted — whether it was true or not.”

Ah, mistakes. A few notable gaffes have cropped up in the column of late. Spy sent Smith an obit last January, lamenting the loss of a fictitious personal manager named Jack Fine. Smith ran a kind announcement days later (Variety was also taken in by Spy‘s hoax). ”I don’t see how anybody could have questioned that,” says Liz, a bit disingenuously. ”I didn’t say that I remembered Jack Fine. Anybody can put something over on you if they are determined to go to the trouble.”

She also recently ran an item about Lisa Marie Presley getting ready to make a movie, Cool as Ice, with Vanilla Ice. Smith’s source for the story had identified himself as a PR person from SBK, Ice’s record label, and seemed legit. ”If someone calls me from MGM about a movie item, I don’t question them,” says Smith. ”It turns out they were trying to encourage her to do the movie, so we had to run a correction.” Another error presently worrying Smith was her announcement that New York Times reporter Alex Witchel, who is about to marry Times theater critic Frank Rich, is pregnant. She isn’t. ”The person who told me is never, ever wrong,” Smith says with genuine concern. ”I’m sorry I did that.”

On flubs in general, Smith says, ”Anybody who writes every day makes mistakes, and because I correct my mistakes, they make a big deal out of that, like I make more mistakes than anybody. Inch for inch I don’t make any more mistakes than The New York Times. To me the column is a living, breathing thing, it appears every day, it makes mistakes, it corrects itself, it makes fun of itself, it makes fun of other things. If you read it every day you’ll get the whole spectrum. Also it gives everybody a chance to give their version. If they don’t think I gave them a fair shake, I let them say whatever they want to say.”

And there are so many people who want to say it. After 36 years on the gossip grapevine, Smith still finds that the most difficult part of her job is dealing with an irate boldface over the telephone. ”You have a lot of responsibility with what you get,” she says. ”I just try to be fair. But it’s hard. Sometimes people don’t want to let the news out, but finally they’ll come to their senses. I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody says to me, ‘I thought you were my friend.’ Don’t kill the messenger.”

But the work does have its rewards. Asked to recall the most perfect moment her job offered her, a smile the size of a 10-gallon hat widens her face. ”When I signed the Newsday contract,” she says. And who can argue? ”I left that afternoon to go to California, and after giving interview after interview, I began to think, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I think I’ve arrived!”’

On Kitty Kelley
”She has gratuitously grabbed me and put me into her book. I don’t want to attack her. I think she’s very disturbed but I would be too if I was the most hated person in America.”

On Sean Penn
”It’ll be real interesting to see what happens to Sean once he goes to the Betty Ford Clinic.”

On Madonna
”She’s this major egomaniac. Even when she was making Desperately Seeking Susan Rosanna Arquette told me that Madonna said to her, ‘Wouldn’t you just love to be for just half an hour?”’

Best Friends
Elizabeth Taylor
Barbara Walters
Diane Sawyer
Mike Wallace
Joan Rivers
Barry Diller

Worst Enemies
Spy Magazine
The Village Voice
Bobby Zarem
Kitty Kelley
Frank Sinatra
Frank Rich