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40th Anniversary

The Original Gossip Girl

Liz Smith and the twilight of celebrity.

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Liz Smith is sitting front and center at Michael’s, still a media whorehouse after all these years. It is the Wednesday after Labor Day and everyone is back. Smith herself just flew in from the Hamptons on a helicopter with Pete Peterson and his wife, Joan. You can practically smell the pent-up neediness—the yearning to get back in the spotlight—emanating from all these show-offs in their new fall wardrobes. Indeed, there is so much boldface here today that Smith’s blonde bobbed head is spinning.

Next to us on one side is Les Moonves, sipping a glass of white wine. (“He didn’t introduce me to his lunch companion.”) Kathleen Turner arrives to sit on the other side of us, and Smith jumps up. (“I feel I should rise for her. I can’t let her come to me.”) The handsome young fellow who is keeping Barry Diller waiting for far longer than anyone should has not arrived yet, so Diller pays us a visit, bends to kiss Smith on the cheek, and then talks about his trip through the Greek islands on his “boat.” (“One of the biggest yachts in the world,” says Smith. “When he says we, I am not going to ask who we is.”) Jim Bell, the executive producer of the Today show, appears in front of us and tells Smith she looks beautiful. (“He’s a really important guy.”) Jerry Della Femina waves from across the room as Smith points out an elegant elderly English gentleman at the table next to his. He was once … the Beatles’ publicist. Still in the game!

In fact, Smith is so busy looking around, name-checking half the room, ignoring Star Jones, and acknowledging all who come to genuflect at her altar that she does not realize that the onetime superagent Mike Ovitz is sitting directly in front of us. “Where?” asks Smith. Right there, I say. “Oh my God,” she says in her noisy whisper. She looks down at her lap and unfolds her napkin. “I’d better move tables. He doesn’t like me.” Apparently she had lunch with him in the early nineties and then wrote a column that enraged him. “I thought Liz was my friend,” Ovitz whined to the director Joel Schumacher, who had arranged the lunch. “Why? Because you had lunch with her?” Schumacher said to Ovitz. “Have you ever given her a story? Made her the recipient of any of your inside knowledge? What does she owe you?” And then Smith says to me with surprising intensity: “I hate him. He’s an awful person. He really betrayed all those guys who worked for him.”

On the one hand, you can’t fault Smith for somehow not noticing Ovitz. She is 85, after all. Not quite as sharp as she used to be. On the other hand, we have chosen this place as the site for promiscuous, sweeping reminiscence about the famous and/or rich and/or powerful in New York and/or Hollywood over the past 40 years, and Ovitz, as the exiled Most Powerful Man in Showbiz, is a perfect representative of a certain era of West Coast power that no longer seems to exist. It’s like bumping into a chain-rattling Jacob Marley on December 24 and not recognizing him.

Still, she is “amazed by how many people are here.” As if on cue, the maître d’ turns up to tell Smith that a New York Times photographer is here to take a picture of the room to accompany a Frank Bruni review (no stars! Oh, the irony!). Would she mind, he asks, if she was in the photograph? “Mind?” she practically shouts. “Honey, I’d be delighted!”

A couple of weeks earlier, I met Smith for an afternoon margarita at El Rio Grande, a lousy Mexican restaurant on the ground floor of the high-rise on 38th Street where she has lived and worked for many years. We sat at the same table where I met Smith in the winter of 1989, when she was at the height of her gossipy powers as a columnist for the Daily News. She was in the midst of breaking the biggest story of her career: Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce. The melodrama stayed on the front pages for three months. “In retrospect,” she says now, “it was a story about rich people getting a divorce. It had absolutely no other significance or meaning whatsoever.” But at the time, it was a huge, hairy deal, and Liz owned it. Her coverage of the fiasco turned her into a national star. But there was a downside: She was being attacked by her peers for being too close to her subjects (she had lavished praise on the extravagant parties of people like Gayfryd and Saul Steinberg and Malcolm Forbes)—and for escorting a hysterical Ivana to La Grenouille in the middle of her divorce. “I can’t believe I took it all so seriously,” she says when we talk about those days. “Let me ask you a question: Am I still as big of an asshole? Have I learned anything?”


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