Back before the internet turned everyone into a gossip columnist, newspapers featured wildly popular writers who regularly covered the rich and famous. In Houston, Maxine Mesinger, Marge Crumbaker, and Betsy Parish were household names. And in New York, a Texas native named Liz Smith ruled the tabloid world.
In the '90s, Smith breathlessly revealed every juicy detail of the breakup of the marriage of Donald and Ivana Trump and told the world about such scoops as Madonna's pregnancy. From 1976 to 2009, her column ran at various times in the New York Daily News, Newsday, and the New York Post, and was syndicated in newspapers across the nation. In recent years, she posted online for the New York Social Diary. At the height of her popularity, she made more than $1 million a year.
I was fortunate to have spent some time with Smith during her heyday, so I was particularly saddened to receive a breaking news alert from The New York Times, which reported that she had died in her Manhattan apartment on Sunday. She was 94.
Though Smith lived in New York for much of her life, she never strayed far from her Texas roots. In a column in the New Yorker magazine last year about her association with the Trumps, writer Jeffrey Toobin noted that Smith was still "making wisecracks in a Texas twang undiminished by six decades of living in Manhattan."
When I profiled Smith for the Houston Chronicle in 2000, just after her book, Natural Blonde, was published, she told me, "People don't really care if you're from Ohio. But they do care if you're from Texas, because it's glamorous and different and unique and all that stuff. It has been a big plus for me from the beginning."
She showed me 25 pairs of cowboy boots crammed into the hall closet of her New York apartment, including a pair of white Luccheses that Ivana Trump gave her. Upon first seeing the boots, she told Trump that in Texas, nobody wears white boots but cheerleaders.
"Aren't you a cheerleader?" Trump replied.
In its obituary, the Times noted that Smith was known for "a kinder, gentler view of movie stars and moguls, politicians and society figures." She rarely had mean things to say about notables — Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Walters, Rock Hudson were among her many close celebrity friends — and she often included musings on movies, books, and opinions about other topics of the day.
"I open up Vanity Fair and I see my picture there with Tom Cruise holding my hand while we're standing there talking. ... Do I get a real story on him? Probably not," she told me at the time. "But I get some kind of story, which is more than most of my compatriots can say. Maybe you get something the public wants, some little bit of glamour or fun."
Fort Worth to New York
Mary Elizabeth Smith was born in Fort Worth in 1923 at a time when "Dallas and Fort Worth were still enemies and Houston was kind of a foreign territory," she recalled. Known since birth as Liz, she was the daughter of a devout Baptist mother and a father who enjoyed betting on horses.
"My father won some money in a horse race and managed to send me to journalism school at the University of Texas," she once remarked.
Smith practically lived at the movies, because it was one of the few things her mother did not consider a sin, and fell in love with the stars. Soon after receiving a journalism degree from UT-Austin in 1949, she packed her belongings in two suitcases and bought a one-way train ticket to New York, with only $50 left in her pocket.
While at UT, she had interviewed Zachary Scott, the actor who played Joan Crawford's two-timing husband in Mildred Pierce. So once in New York, she looked up his number in the phone book — it was, indeed, a different time — and called him up, asking if he knew anyone who could hire her. He suggested a friend at Modern Screen magazine who gave her a job.
Over the years, she worked for Mike Wallace at CBS Radio, Igor Cassini, who wrote the Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column, and Allen Funt, the creator of Candid Camera. She wrote for magazines and was entertainment editor of Cosmopolitan, where her reporting on Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor led to a regular newspaper gossip column in 1976.
As she rose to fame in New York, she stayed close to such expatriated Texans as publisher Joe Armstrong, director Bob Benton and writer Marie Brenner. In the early '70s, Smith and Armstrong hosted popular dinners where they cooked chicken-fried steak for their guests because the Texas delicacy couldn't be found in any New York restaurants. The apartment where Smith lived for years before moving out in January after suffering a stroke was above a Tex-Mex restaurant divided into two sides, "Texas" and "Mexico," with a line representing the Rio Grande down the middle of the kitchen.
She usually dined on the "Mexico" side because it was quieter.
Despite deteriorating health in recent months, Smith was sought out by reporters because of her Trump connection. But her affection for Donald Trump has waned.
“In the old days, Donald reminded me of my brothers in Texas,” she told the New Yorker. "He was attractive and dynamic and took up all the oxygen in the room. When he saw me, he’d give me a big hug and tell me I was the greatest. I never took him seriously. I didn’t even think he would last in New York, because people hated him once they got to know him. He was a horse’s ass. Still is."
And, she noted to The New York Times, the world of gossip had changed a lot, too.
“Maybe gossip is still amusing, but I don’t think it’s as much fun as it used to be, because it’s now all-pervasive,” she said. “Someone you never knew their name is on the front page, making millions of dollars or going broke, and you never heard of them before. In the past we were able to identify important people and stars.”