Except for the annoying phone calls pouring in about whether she is really going to Out Herself in the book -- like, hello! -- it's business as usual for Liz Smith this morning.
"Wait a minute, I'm writing something," says Liz, her eyes on her computer screen, which her loyal elves have rigged so the words are THIS BIG. "She's terrified of computers," whispers her longtime assistant and pal Diane Judge. And e-mail. "Oh, God, yes. We have to do it for her." Fifty-four years after Liz Smith's byline first appeared in print, there are certain things she shouldn't be asked to do.
"Heh!" cackles Liz.
In just a matter of days, the 77-year-old gossip queen's much-hyped, supersecret, heavily embargoed memoir, Natural Blonde, will finally appear on bookshelves, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "Does she or doesn't she?" Which means that Liz Smith, the premier purveyor of gossip in this country for nearly half a century, will be the topic of, yes, fabulous gossip! Not to mention that she's been sitting on the hottest scoop in town. But today, she is writing her syndicated column, read by millions of people in nearly 70 newspapers a day, about . . . Cats. "I first saw it in London with the mighty Elaine Paige, I loved it!" she is typing, in what will be a five-paragraph eulogy for the Broadway show.
She swivels in her chair toward me. "I brought you a bagel. Eat it!" she instructs.
Two days later, while her own column in the New York Post has her waxing sentimental over Cats, and even A Chorus Line ("It was one singular sensation," she notes), her former newspaper the Daily News has written what everyone's been speculating for months now: that Liz Smith will finally dish the dirt on her own much-speculated-about sex life.
"Oh, for Chrissake," says Liz, settling into a more comfortable chair in her office-apartment. On the coffee table in front of her, she has placed not her new book but a spoof of her new book. Mary Jo, another of her assistants, took the cover photo from Natural Blonde and plastered a new headline on it: the fucking book. "Isn't this great?" howls Liz. "This is how I've always referred to it. The fucking book!"
So to speak. "I'm beginning to realize," Liz says wearily, "that the emphasis, the publicity emphasis, will be on this 'bisexual thing' or this 'gay thing.' You know, my so-called mythic sexuality from the dark ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth!" She frowns. "And I find that slightly unfortunate, because that's not what I think the book is about. It's not about sex!" she says in her Texas drawl. "All this crap about 'coming out'! Honey, I don't think I have ever really been in."
Which might come as a surprise to avid Liz observers, especially the legions of gay activists (and journalists) who have been trying to coax her out of the closet for almost twenty years -- to the point where she complained they were "terrorists." It may seem unseemly, all this frenzy about the sex life of a 77-year-old woman, but then, Liz Smith isn't just any woman. She has regularly used her powerful column as a platform to promote social issues -- along with show tickets. But her relationship with the gay community has been ambivalent at best. When aids launched a new generation of activism, Smith came under constant fire not only for staying in the closet but for helping celebrities like Malcolm Forbes and Rock Hudson stay in with her.
In Natural Blonde, an advance copy of which was shared with New York Magazine, Smith does finally -- stop the presses -- out herself. But mostly as a shameless star-kisser. Liz is right. Her book is not about sex. It's about love! In 445 pages, she never met a celebrity she didn't positively adore. With a few notable exceptions. Lee Radziwill, for one, will probably not be at the book party.
Liz has never forgiven the princess for turning her back on Truman Capote, refusing to testify on his behalf in a lawsuit filed against him by Gore Vidal. According to the book, Liz pleaded with her, prompting Radziwill to deliver the coup de grâce: "What does it matter, Liz? . . . After all, they're just a couple of fags."
"Well, she won't like that," says Liz today. "But I don't like her. I don't approve of her. And I didn't approve of the way she treated Truman."
Liz in Natural Blonde is a beguiling combination of prude and shrewd, raunchy and naïve, Texas and New York. But mostly, she is an equal-opportunity flirt. She adores women; she adores men; she even ends up adoring Richard Nixon. It didn't take much. After skewering him for decades, she became putty in his hands at Malcolm Forbes's funeral, when Nixon turned in his pew and complimented her! She was mush. "I left the part out about how he was always sending me wine at Le Cirque."
Like her column, her book is an ongoing cocktail party, funeral, and press release. And that's why it, like her column, will be successful. "We need Liz," as rival gossip columnist Michael Musto of The Village Voice puts it, "because we need someone who actually likes celebrities. We knock everyone down, and then she builds them back up."
And yes, she also reveals -- though mostly in carefully coded language (she does not, for example, actually use the G-word or the L-word, or even the B-word) -- her tendency to have pretty intense feelings for both teams. But alas, despite all the hoopla, she really fesses up to only one intimate relationship with a woman. In 1946! Her "affairs" with men get much more airtime, even the unconsummated ones. In Natural Blonde, Liz comes close to bedding everyone from Warren Beatty to bandleader Artie Shaw.
In 1957, while in Rome, she becomes "ga-ga over Rock" -- yes, Hudson -- doodling "Mrs. Rock Hudson" on a tablet all night after meeting the actor over dinner. "On my last day in Rome . . . Rock's handsome face appeared. 'You're leaving, Liz? Give me a good-bye kiss, girl.' I touched his perfect lips with mine," she writes, deadpan. She also goes on to say that while Hudson "never confessed the nature of his problem," he once turned to Smith when he was about to be blackmailed over his homosexuality by a female acquaintance. Liz responded by handing him a thick file of material she had gathered on his tormentor, helping Hudson turn the tables on the blackmailer -- and keep his secret for another two decades.