Those whom Smith cites as representing “the apex of whatever society is today” are all fashion people. Anna Wintour, she says, is “about as near as we come to a really mysterious, glamorous person, a woman whom either you don’t understand or you aspire to be like … She has become like Hillary Clinton or Madonna, people who just transcend criticism.” Also on the list are Oscar and Annette de la Renta, “elegant people with money who live very tastefully and try to stay out of the papers. There is a crowd … Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg, Reinaldo and Carolina Herrera. These are all really nice people who are civilized, know how to act, have actually read a book. And the big thing is for them to go on boats. To go on Barry Diller’s or David Geffen’s yacht. They get away from the great unwashed and they can do as they please.”
Even though Smith claims that when she “reads ‘Page Six’ I don’t know who they’re writing about,” she may be the most pop-culturally fluent octogenarian in America. She moves quickly from Wasp society to the onslaught of Trumpian nouveaux riches to a discussion of hip-hop—and a generation of entertainment moguls that would have been unimaginable 40 years ago.
Hasn’t society always been about money? I ask. “There was plenty of ostentation,” she says. “The Vanderbilts, the Astors, their houses in Newport, but they were so far above the average person that they were almost mythic. The people with money today, some of them are right up out of the street. Rap music has made stars out of people who weren’t just poor, they were really underprivileged, and then overnight they were running empires. And all of them can’t turn into Sean … Diddy. I’m not sure what he turned into is so great, either, but at least he’s very creative.”
Diddy, she says, is one of the few hip-hop stars who’s been able to climb the social ladder. “The gun incident has all been forgotten, because he’s now a businessman with lots of money and he can do just about anything.” If newly minted hip-hop stars “stay in their instant affluence, you don’t have to take them too seriously.” But if they transform themselves into real businessmen, “you’ve got to take them seriously. Because that’s all New York takes seriously now.”
Of course, it’s no coincidence that Diddy’s business is now largely about fashion, the milieu of the new society. “Musicians want some kind of authentication that they can’t get elsewhere—they aren’t going to get it through a literary connection, and they aren’t going to go to society functions.” But, “because Vogue wants to be on the cutting edge of everything and the music culture has become so important, fashion is one of the ways they can connect.” The apotheosis of this fashion-music-finance complex is the Metropolitan Costume Institute Ball, where Anna Wintour presides over a high-low mix of hip-hop, Hollywood, and fashion elite, media people, and whatever is left of what Smith still calls café society. Throw in a pinch of dissipated drag queen and a dash of coked-up supermodel and … voilà! “I was reading today that the Met ball is the biggest party of the year,” says Smith. “As big as Vanity Fair’s party at the Oscars. This year, indeed, it did seem great. At least from what I read about it. I didn’t go. It’s a lot of work to go to the fucking thing. The last time I went, they put me at a table by the kitchen, and that pissed me off.”
Recently I heard someone say, in all seriousness, that “Hollywood is over.” On the face of it, this sounds preposterous—but not after having lunch with Liz Smith five feet from Mike Ovitz. Hollywood may not be what it once was, but Smith thinks it’s having an outsize influence on New York now. “Because people have had it with Hollywood and they are coming here! The studios are all in total limbo. There are no movies being made. Everything is either independent—somebody goes to Sundance with a little movie they made in this restaurant—or it’s big blockbusters. A lot of people are looking toward getting out of the movie business.”
But it is not just the pictures that got smaller. “I think what’s different is that celebrities are different now,” says Smith. “There are some big stars, but they are very few. And they’re totally unapproachable, for the most part, except by the people they’ve chosen. Angelina Jolie is not available to me. I’ve never spoken to her, I’ve never seen her. I’ve never been anywhere she is, I’ve never been introduced to her. Jennifer Aniston either. They choose. I don’t think they see anyone they don’t want to. This is one reason they get such bad press! They are not masterminded anymore by great PR people who do them justice.”