Over the years, Smith has broken numerous scoops (just last week, the Gotti divorce), but as she's gotten more inside, her columns have gotten more fawning. Her gushy valentines to favorites from Joel Schumacher to Madonna -- people often ask her, "How much is Madonna paying you?" she admits -- got her famously skewered. In the eighties, Spy magazine ran a monthly "Liz Smith Tote Board," itemizing her ass-kissing. Of course, that didn't stop Smith and Graydon Carter, Spy's then co-editor, from becoming fast friends as soon as he became editor of Vanity Fair. Today, over a bowl of hot chili, all seems to be forgotten. "Oh, I just adore Graydon," she says.
"How 'bout dessert?" she asks. "Yes? . . . Oh, I love a woman who'll have dessert! Life's too short!"
Already, those listed in Liz's index are sweating over how they might appear. On a recent weekend in Martha's Vineyard, she let it slip to Vernon Jordan that "I have a little chapter about you in my book." The next day, says Liz, Jordan cornered her friend Louise Grunwald, worried that her revelations "might upset his wife, Ann." "You know," says Liz, "he's never seen a woman he didn't like." Then quickly adds: "He's just nice to everybody." (Memo to Vernon: You're off the hook.)
Smith did share her book with director Mike Nichols, whom Diane Judge describes as "her real bosom buddy." Nichols calls or faxes her every day. Liz was thrilled when she got his fax from London raving about the book. "That was a real triumph," says Liz, though she confides that her editor at Hyperion made her trim down the Mike and Diane Sawyer chapter because it was filled with a bit too much praise.
In the end, Natural Blonde is the story of a woman who managed to become a quintessential New York icon against enormous odds. Smith was raised in Fort Worth, Texas, in the thirties (before the invention of plastic, she notes), the daughter of a priggish mother who was "southern Baptist to the core" and a father who was both a gambler and a moralist. She describes her daddy, Sloan Smith, who sold cotton for a living, as "masculine but dandified." A man who frequently shot his wad at the racetrack and "faltered in his mortgage payments" but was so fastidious that he would shave under his arms. "I realized early on that he was eccentric and no yardstick for what to expect of males in general," she writes. Though she had two brothers -- with whom she was extraordinarily close -- her father used to call Liz his "best boy." As she writes in her book: " 'My best boy!' he'd whisper, holding me between his legs, scattering ashes over everything. . . . Hello, Dr. Freud!"
Little Mary Elizabeth took refuge in the movies -- which cost a dime and were the only "minor pleasure," she writes, that her mother did not consider "a sin." To this day, writes Liz, "I almost always and invariably dream of famous stars." In her childhood dreams, "I was in the movies. I was Tom Mix. And later I was Ginger -- and Fred." This didn't go over big in the Smith home. "My mother spent an entire summer going mad," she writes, "while I marched up and down in our driveway shooting off my cap pistols and yelling over and over, 'I'm Tom Mix! I'm Tom Mix! . . . Mother would jerk me into the house exasperated. 'Stop this silliness. You are Mary Elizabeth Smith. Get out of those dirty coveralls, take a bath and put on a little dress before Daddy comes home.' "
And, of course, she obeyed: "I was a horrible little coward and I did want to please Mother and Daddy." Every Sunday night, she would listen to Walter Winchell on the radio. She was also obsessed with the film The Gay Divorcee. She learned all the lyrics to "Night and Day" and would sing it in the driveway until one day her mother told her to "hush up," because her aunt was upstairs recovering from a broken heart. "No more love songs around this house," her mother yelled.
Smith met her first husband while she was a freshman in college. Eddie Beeman was a "tall, dark and handsome right tackle of the football team, and I had been told . . . no girl could get to first base with him. I decided I'd go for a touchdown, to mix a metaphor." Soon after they started dating, he enlisted in the Army during World War II. "My unexamined life would stumble on to the altar. No guy who had flown 25 missions over embattled Europe deserved what Ed Beeman was about to get -- me for a wife."
The marriage lasted little over a year, and most of that time, Beeman was at war. When they divorced, Liz was all of 21 and her parents were furious. "They never did forgive me for divorcing Eddie," she says today. "You wanna see a picture of him?" On her desk, she keeps photos of Eddie Beeman -- who 56 years later runs a coffee shop in Texas -- with his grandchildren. "He's still a wonderful-looking guy, isn't he?" asks Liz.
Soon after her divorce, Sloan won some money on a horse named Soapstix and sent her to the University of Texas. It was there that Liz Smith discovered journalism. And women. She started writing for the college humor magazine The Texas Ranger. "Then -- bang, something incredible happened," she writes. "I fell in love . . . the only problem was . . . the object of my affection was a woman."
Liz Smith's take on this love affair is undoubtedly the most painful and revealing part of Natural Blonde. She writes about how "amazing" it was, and how "neither of us stopped to feel guilty, just a bit confused." But her lover was engaged to an Army officer overseas, and so "part of the time we were fixated on one another. Another part of the time she was planning her wedding."
When they were apart, they wrote love letters. Until their "smartly suspicious parents . . . decided to read our mail." Both women were yanked out of school. Both were "shattered," writes Liz. "We must never see each other again," she remembers being told. "Both of us must ask God's forgiveness. . . . I had committed a sin, a blasphemy against nature." Liz tried to appeal to her mother. "I thought if I could make her see how strong and pure my feelings were, she'd understand. But the more she wept and prayed, the more I saw how useless it was." Finally, writes Liz, she realized that if she adopted "the words of the future, 'Don't ask, don't tell,' she would be fine. . . . I had broken their hearts and they had broken mine." Afterward, writes Liz, "I don't believe I ever said an unfettered, open, frank, or totally honest word to either of my parents again. I told them what they wanted to hear."
She writes that she tried to contact her love, but "she refused to speak with me or even to say good-bye."
"It was very sad," Liz says today. "But everything is live and learn, you know?" She stirs her coffee. "Actually, I think it was very clever of her not to stay in touch with me." Clever? "Well, you know, she headed in a delightful way. I mean, she got married, had kids . . . Yes, I know where she's living and what she's doing and so forth, but we haven't been, you know . . ." Her voice trails off. And then she perks up. "Oh, listen. What? When you're young, you're supposed to fall in love and be heartbroken. I just wasn't prepared for that. I didn't know what was happening. I thought it was great and I couldn't understand why everybody didn't approve." She pauses. "Look, it was a great thing to happen, I think, to somebody when they're young. To get sort of jerked around by your feelings. And, um, to encounter so much disapproval. Moral disapproval."