Obituary: Liz Smith, legendary US gossip columnist

Gossip columnist Liz Smith. Picture: AP
Gossip columnist Liz Smith. Picture: AP
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Liz Smith, gossip columnist. Born: 2 February, 1923, Fort Worth, Texas. Died: 12 November, 2017, Manhattan, New York City, aged 94.

Liz Smith, the ­syndicated gossip columnist whose banter, barbs and bon mots about the glitterati helped her climb the A-list as high as many of the celebrities she covered, has died at the age of 94.

For more than 25 years, 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 insider access rather than relying 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: Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce and Woody Allen and Mia ­Farrow’s impending ­parenthood among them.

One item proved embarrassingly premature – in 2012, she released a column online mourning the death of her friend Nora ­Ephron. But ­Ephron, who was indeed gravely ill, did not die until a few hours later and an impending tragedy that ­Ephron had tried to keep secret became known to the world.

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.”

“I was fortunate enough to work with the amazing Liz Smith,” Al Roker tweeted. He said that during his time at WNBC, she was nothing short of “fabulous”.

“Liz Smith was the definition of a lady,” actor James Woods tweeted. “She dished, but always found a way to make it entertaining and 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.

“When she escorts us into the private lives of popular culture’s gods and monsters, it’s with a spirit of wonder, not meanness,” wrote Jane and Michael Stern in reviewing Smith’s 2000 autobiography, Natural Blonde, for the New York Times Book Review.

But it may have been the question of her own sexuality which kept her from discussing that of the stars.

A subject in the gay press for many years, Smith ­acknowledged in her 2000 book that she had relationships with both men and women, and confirmed a long-rumoured, long-term relationship with archaeologist Iris Love.

Born Mary Elizabeth Smith in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1923, she was the daughter of devout Baptist mother and an eccentric father. Smith said her father received his divine inspiration more from the race track than the pulpit.

As a young girl, Smith ­quickly fell in love with the silver screen, since movies were one of the few things her mother did not consider a sin.

After a brief marriage while attending Hardin-Simmons University, Smith earned her journalism degree and headed off for New York with two ­suitcases and $50.

For nearly 30 years, Smith bounced from job to job: ­publicist for singer Kaye ­Ballard; assistant to Candid Camera creator Allen Funt; ghostwriter for Igor Cassini’s Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column.

Smith ultimately 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.

In 1978, during a strike at the News, Smith helped usher in the era of celebrity journalism on television by joining WNBC-TV for three nights a week commentary. Ten years later she jumped to Fox, and she later did work for the cable channel E! Entertainment ­Television.

During that time, Smith migrated from the News to the rival New York Post and finally to Newsday, ­ultimately earning salaries well into six figures. Her column was ­syndicated nationwide, ­drawing millions of readers.

In between all the parties, movie premieres and late-night soirees at celebrity hangouts like Elaine’s, Smith found time to host an ever-widening array of charity ­fundraisers.

She raised money for groups such as Literacy Volunteers, which teaches adults to read and write, to the Women’s Action Alliance, which ­promotes full equality for women.

She is survived by several nieces and nephews.