Liz Smith, ‘Grande Dame of Dish' gossip columnist, dies at 94

Gossip columnist Liz Smith works on the red carpet at the National Board of Review gala in New York January 6, 2015. — Reuters pic
Gossip columnist Liz Smith works on the red carpet at the National Board of Review gala in New York January 6, 2015. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, Nov 13 — Liz Smith, who earned the title “grande dame of dish” for covering the rich and famous as a gossip columnist for more than 30 years, has died. She was 94.

She died yesterday at her home in Manhattan, the New York Times reported, citing her friend and literary agent, Joni Evans.

In a career that took her to three New York newspapers and dozens more across the nation by syndication, Smith viewed gossip as one of the great luxuries of a democracy, calling it “the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech and free expression.”

At its height, her column appeared six days a week in more than 70 US newspapers. Her many scoops included the news of Jacqueline Kennedy’s plan to marry Aristotle Onassis and — most famously — Donald Trump’s affair with model Marla Maples, which led to the end of his marriage to his wife, Ivana.

In 1976, the Daily News hired Smith as an entertainment and gossip columnist and syndicated her column to other newspapers. She jumped to New York Newsday, then owned by the Times Mirror Co, in 1991 and didn’t dispute widespread reports that her annual pay reached US$1 million. In 2005, amid a bitter contract dispute, she left Newsday for the New York Post, owned by News Corp.

The Post, citing grim economic conditions, declined to renew her contract in 2009.

Post’s dismissal

Smith devoted most of her final Post column to news about Cher, Madonna, Carol Burnett and other bold-face names. She ended with a personal note:

“Tomorrow marks the first time in 33 years that the Liz Smith column will not appear in a New York City newspaper. But it’s exhilarating to be fired at age 86. So, thanks for all your support and enthusiasm over the years and much love to each of you.”

Hardly the retiring type, Smith continued to write for a website, Parade magazine, and Daily Variety.

Success for the woman with regal bearing, elegantly coiffed blond hair and a Texas drawl lay in her ability to achieve a comfort level with celebrities, with well-placed sources who trusted her.

“Is it more important to have access or to slash and burn ‘em and tell everything you know?’’ she said in 2000. ‘‘I guess I tend to tiptoe around a lot of people’s faults.’’

She was criticised by some for coddling her subjects and covering a small group of celebrities and socialites who were friends.

Gaining access

Smith got access to celebrities by being nicer to them than competitors, said Michael Musto, who wrote a gossip column for New York’s Village Voice weekly newspaper from 1984 to 2013.

‘‘Madonna is not going to call me. Nicole Kidman is not going to call me,’’ Musto said in a 2005 interview. ‘‘They are going to call Liz.’’

Mary Elizabeth Smith was born February 2, 1923, in Fort Worth, Texas. Childhood excursions to the cinema made her think about living a life involving celebrities. Inspired by gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s weekly radio program, she started her own mini-newspaper at age 10, using her father’s typewriter.

In 1949, Smith received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked for the Daily Texan, the school paper, according to a biography on the university’s website.

Soon after graduating, Smith arrived in Manhattan with two suitcases and US$50. Her first job was ghostwriting for the Cholly Knickerbocker society column for the New York Journal American published by Hearst Corp.

Trump’s affair

Her career included stops at CBS radio and NBC television; Cosmopolitan magazine, where she was an entertainment editor for more than a decade; and Sports Illustrated, working as a writer.

At the Daily News in 1990, Smith broke the story of Trump’s affair with Maples and his divorce from wife Ivana. Her source was a friend: Ivana Trump herself, who invited Smith to her home and told all.

In 1991, she accepted the lucrative offer to write a column for New York Newsday, the Manhattan edition of the Long Island-based newspaper, then owned by Times Mirror. When the newspaper closed in 1995, its Long Island parent kept her contract and continued to syndicate her column. Smith was allowed to make a deal with the New York Post so her column could continue to appear in New York City.

Post owner Rupert Murdoch once gave her a scoop on his divorce.

In the 1940s, Smith was briefly married to George E. Beeman, a college football player and World War II veteran. The marriage, and a later one to Fred Lister, both ended in divorce. She published two memoirs: Natural Blonde in 2000 and Dishing: Great Dish — and Dishes — from America’s Most Beloved Gossip Columnist in 2005.

“God knows, it had never been my ambition to be a gossip columnist,” Smith said, according to a 1979 article in Esquire magazine. “I was never particularly intrigued by show business celebrities. I really want most of them to leave me alone, so I can go talk to writers, which is what I really enjoy.” — Bloomberg

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