Good question: What has Liz Smith learned? What can she tell us about how the worlds of celebrity and society and gossip have changed over the years? As someone who began her career working for Mike Wallace on CBS Radio in 1953, who was the entertainment editor at Cosmopolitan under Helen Gurley Brown for fourteen years, who flew around the world covering the “social side of sports” for Sports Illustrated during its expense-account heyday, who interviewed Liz Taylor and Richard Burton “in every world capital, like I was assigned to them,” and who is, as she says, “the oldest person on television” (she is still a commentator on Fox News), Smith, it would seem, knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Her career has been so long and has had so many twists and turns that she has to carry around a time line in her pocket to remember it all. (Sample entry: “1957—Took a 3 month leave of absence to go as an assistant to Elaine Stritch who was filming A Farewell to Arms with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones in Rome. Became a diva expert. Returned to work on the first Tonight Show called Tonight! America After Dark. A flop. Fired during the Eisenhower recession.”)
“Everybody thinks the sixties were terrible, but it was very exciting if you were a hick like me,” says Smith. “We still had the inheritance of all the great stars that had been created by the studios. They were all still alive, except maybe Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. And then they began dying out, and their replacements in New York, I think, slowly became big businessmen. In the sixties you didn’t ever read the financial pages! Now you do. In the eighties it became all about money. And everything has been all about money ever since. No matter what anybody says, since the moment Donald Trump appeared on the scene, everything in New York has been about money.”
Liz Smith was once Trump’s tormentor—she had chosen Ivana’s side during the divorce—so it is fascinating that today she gives him credit for reinventing the city in his own image. It’s Donald Trump’s New York; we’re just living in it. Smith tells me a story about how she finally wrote something nice about Trump a few years ago—how he never gets credit for his painstaking restorations of places like Mar-a-Lago. “This just blew his mind!” she says. “He wrote me a letter on this thick embossed cream stationery. ‘Dear Liz, I think I’m beginning to love you. You’re the greatest. Love, Donald.’ I framed it. He’s an old-fashioned character, and there aren’t any left. There’s almost nobody in construction. If you say the word tycoon it means you’re probably a crook. And he’s not a crook. And also, he is so self-satisfied that he doesn’t have to push to get anything. And I find his self-assurance sort of nice. He hates all of the upwardly mobile social climbing that everybody else does, including me.”
But the problem with Trump as a celebrity—the problem with most modern-day celebrities, in fact—is a lack of mystery. He may hate social climbing, but he will give an interview to a can of beans. Jackie O., on the other hand, “had that thing that all the great stars have, which is that you don’t get everything from them,” says Smith. “You don’t know their bathroom habits. You aren’t just bombarded with information. She didn’t give interviews.” Are there no stars anymore? I ask. “There are no Great Big People anymore,” says Smith. “Big business produced all the stars of the eighties and nineties, the two greed decades, when people like Donald became famous. And that Disney guy, Michael Eisner, and Michael Ovitz, to some extent. But there’s very little glamour. So maybe Jackie was one of the last. All of those kind of great insane ladies disappeared. Clare Boothe Luce, women who managed to become famous despite the fact that they weren’t very liberated.”
Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, Brooke Astor. All dead.
“That whole phalanx, the heirs to Mrs. Paley, is gone,” she says. “There isn’t any real society anymore. There isn’t even a vestige of it left. You know, there may be a little bit in private clubs, but you don’t hear about those people anymore. Mrs. Astor was the last. And she wasn’t really social, she just made herself really important because she was charming and she had all this money to give away. It’s all come down to the last gasp of café society. Everything social that’s happening in New York is motivated by charity money. There’s no more Wasp society. Just like the derision with which British royalty is held, it’s just gone steadily downhill. And now the duke of Edinburgh is trying to get a law passed that the British papers can’t write about the personal lives of the royal family. He won’t get it. The queen is the only one whose popularity has gone up. Helen Mirren is so great that she made the queen sympathetic! All the rest of them are sleazebags. Everybody hates them.”