She leans in closer. "You know, one of the things I've always feared most was public humiliation. And I think that was sort of like public humiliation. But I don't blame my parents. I don't know how else they could have reacted. It was not an enlightened time in 1945, '46. But I don't know that things are that different today. I don't think parents are just jumping up and down all over America hoping their kids will turn out to be gay, do you?"
The waitress wants to know if Ms. Smith wants more coffee.
"I probably wouldn't have written this book if they were still alive."
Liz Smith bought a one-way train ticket to New York City in 1949. She arrived in Penn Station with two suitcases and $50. She found a typing job and started to apply to the places "where I felt I belonged." The New Yorker, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek. But her University of Texas degree "didn't stagger anybody," she sadly learned. "Young women wanting to work in publishing in 1949-50 needed to be debutantes who had gone to Vassar, Smith and Bryn Mawr."
"I'm telling you, I almost starved to death," she says, "but I was so enthralled with New York, I didn't even notice." Desperate and broke, she went to a pay phone on the street and called up the actor Zachary Scott -- whom she had profiled in college for The Texas Ranger (the story is framed in her apartment, with the caption first byline). She reminded him of who she was -- "We met at your delightful mother's house in Austin" -- then cut to the chase. She needed a job. It was her first valuable lesson in schmoozing and schnorring. The next day, she had a job as a writer for Modern Screen, the cloying celebrity magazine of the time, whose editor declared, " 'You have a very virile writing style' -- I had to go . . . and look up the word virile in the dictionary."
Those who know Smith well say that deep, deep down, she always wanted to be a "legitimate" writer. Well, maybe not so deep down. "The New Yorker was my ideal. It still is," says Liz. "Or Time or Newsweek. I thought for sure I could get a job at one of them, but I couldn't get arrested." If only she'd had the right credentials, says Liz, "I might have become a respectable reporter."
What is staggering about Liz Smith's résumé is how many media outlets she did work for. Long before, and even after, she was Liz Smith, Gossip Queen, she wrote for nine New York newspapers (most of which she has outlived) and dozens of magazines, from Vanity Fair to Cigar Aficionado to New York. She became the only person, let alone woman, to write simultaneously for Cosmopolitan and Sports Illustrated -- a time during which she segued gracefully between the estrogen-charged Helen Gurley Brown and the testosterone-fueled boys at S.I. All of whom she, of course, loves and adores. In the fifties, she toiled for Mike Wallace ("I loved him the instant we met") at CBS radio and suffered through a miserable year at Candid Camera, working for Allen Funt, who once had her arrange an abortion for his mistress. At one point, Gurley Brown assigned her a story on what the stars ate for dessert. "Those were the good old days," writes Liz, "when the press still asked what stars ate, not who they ate!"
Along the way, she acquired another husband, Freddie Lister, "a dapper and elegant travel agent from South Africa." She agreed to marry him, but only if they "kept it quiet." This continued for five years, through "some rather stupid playacting in the bedroom. . . . But we lunched and gossiped with gusto. He became my travel agent, of course," she writes. Liz never even told her family about Freddie, who mysteriously disappeared one day on the Long Island Rail Road and was never seen again. When he was finally declared dead, it turned out he had a fortune. "If only I hadn't divorced him," says Liz, "I'd be rich today."
One of the biggest secrets about Liz is that she never made any serious money until she was past retirement age. It wasn't until she broke the biggest scoop of her career -- the Trump divorce in 1990, when she was 67 -- that she suddenly became a hot commodity. New York Newsday lured her away from the Daily News for a reported $500,000 a year. Then, when she was 72, when the New York edition of Newsday folded, she was scooped up for an undisclosed sum by the New York Post. She also landed a series of increasingly high-profile (and lucrative) jobs on television. But she still can't balance her checkbook. "The fact that in the end I may be making a lot of money is a real fluke," she says. "And in a funny way, I think I've suffered some for that, because a lot of people really resent that I -- I cashed in."
If there's one recurring theme in Smith's book, it's her absolute phobia of having anyone stay angry at her. The last legendary gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, was so despised when he died that only his daughter showed up at his funeral. This will not happen to Liz. In her book, she lavishly doles out praise and gratitude to anyone who's ever helped her and even a few who hurt her. Take Frank Sinatra. For years, Liz Smith was Francis Albert's most prominent critic. She loathed "his chutzpah, his hubris, his attitude toward women." She gallantly slapped him in boldface when he called an Entertainment Tonight reporter a "two-bit hooker," and when he dared to attack Barbara Walters, well, fuhgeddaboudit. Then "he attacked me," writes Liz. "I was a dog. . . . I was fat, old and ugly. He said I preferred Debbie Reynolds to Burt Reynolds." (She left out his crassest crack: that Liz was "a big old dyke.") But one page later, she is invited out to dinner with him. "I dressed seven times that afternoon," Liz swoons. "I threw my clothes around like a demented debutante. I was a girl on a first date." By the end of their meal at a New York steakhouse, Sinatra the thug has morphed into her latest crush. "I had a feeling for what it would be like to be in his strong and capable arms . . . his beautiful French cuffs, fantastic silk tie, wonderful hands with clean strong nails and sexy wrists. (I'd always been a sucker for wrists.) I loved his smell, the scars on his face. . . .
"We kissed good-bye in the drive-through of my apartment building. As his chauffeured car drove away, I realized I had thrown all judgment to the wind. I was Sinatra's slave. Co-opted by a couple of gin and tonics. I was his for the rest of my life. . . . Love is funny that way."
Yep, she wrote that.
But what Liz left out of her book is even more amazing. While she gleefully reports getting whisker burns while "wrestling" with a gentleman from The Hollywood Reporter, dancing naked in her former agent's apartment with a TV director sporting a "hard-on," and devotes an entire chapter to her unrequited love affair with decorator Lee Bailey, when she finally gets to her well-known relationship with archaeologist Iris Love at page 272, she is stingy in her depiction of a live-in arrangement that lasted fifteen years. Liz and Iris's relationship was well known enough in certain New York circles that in the eighties, publicist Bobby Zarem, the only enemy Liz hasn't made nice with, sent out 400 wedding announcements, to which some recipients actually responded with gifts. (One Hollywood producer reportedly sent the couple hers and hers towels.) The book makes no mention of this infamous incident. "I resented it a lot because my mother was still alive -- it was disgusting," is all Liz will say.
For years, Liz and Iris were inseparable, making the rounds of society parties and reading novels together in the car as they drove back and forth to their second home, in Vermont. But in the book, Smith describes Iris as a "pal" who moved into her apartment because it "was in Manhattan."
It's a distant and rather joyless take on their years together. Iris doesn't like it, either, admits Liz. "But look," she says, "everybody edits themselves. I don't think I'm under any obligation to tell every intimate thing that I ever did. Or said or felt. And, well, maybe I feel guilty. I always felt I sort of abandoned her . . . I think I'm a serial relationship failure. Iris stuck around with me for a long time, but I'm not good at commitment, I guess."
She looks down at her lap. "I also didn't want to go into any romantic details, because it wasn't really like that. That really wasn't the point of it . . . You're probably right: I don't think I dealt with that part very straightforwardly. "