The Original Gossip Girl

Photo: Dan Winters

Liz Smith is sitting front and center at Michael’s, still a media whorehouse after all these years. It is the Wednesday after Labor Day and everyone is back. Smith herself just flew in from the Hamptons on a helicopter with Pete Peterson and his wife, Joan. You can practically smell the pent-up neediness—the yearning to get back in the spotlight—emanating from all these show-offs in their new fall wardrobes. Indeed, there is so much boldface here today that Smith’s blonde bobbed head is spinning.

Next to us on one side is Les Moonves, sipping a glass of white wine. (“He didn’t introduce me to his lunch companion.”) Kathleen Turner arrives to sit on the other side of us, and Smith jumps up. (“I feel I should rise for her. I can’t let her come to me.”) The handsome young fellow who is keeping Barry Diller waiting for far longer than anyone should has not arrived yet, so Diller pays us a visit, bends to kiss Smith on the cheek, and then talks about his trip through the Greek islands on his “boat.” (“One of the biggest yachts in the world,” says Smith. “When he says we, I am not going to ask who we is.”) Jim Bell, the executive producer of the Today show, appears in front of us and tells Smith she looks beautiful. (“He’s a really important guy.”) Jerry Della Femina waves from across the room as Smith points out an elegant elderly English gentleman at the table next to his. He was once … the Beatles’ publicist. Still in the game!

In fact, Smith is so busy looking around, name-checking half the room, ignoring Star Jones, and acknowledging all who come to genuflect at her altar that she does not realize that the onetime superagent Mike Ovitz is sitting directly in front of us. “Where?” asks Smith. Right there, I say. “Oh my God,” she says in her noisy whisper. She looks down at her lap and unfolds her napkin. “I’d better move tables. He doesn’t like me.” Apparently she had lunch with him in the early nineties and then wrote a column that enraged him. “I thought Liz was my friend,” Ovitz whined to the director Joel Schumacher, who had arranged the lunch. “Why? Because you had lunch with her?” Schumacher said to Ovitz. “Have you ever given her a story? Made her the recipient of any of your inside knowledge? What does she owe you?” And then Smith says to me with surprising intensity: “I hate him. He’s an awful person. He really betrayed all those guys who worked for him.”

On the one hand, you can’t fault Smith for somehow not noticing Ovitz. She is 85, after all. Not quite as sharp as she used to be. On the other hand, we have chosen this place as the site for promiscuous, sweeping reminiscence about the famous and/or rich and/or powerful in New York and/or Hollywood over the past 40 years, and Ovitz, as the exiled Most Powerful Man in Showbiz, is a perfect representative of a certain era of West Coast power that no longer seems to exist. It’s like bumping into a chain-rattling Jacob Marley on December 24 and not recognizing him.

Still, she is “amazed by how many people are here.” As if on cue, the maître d’ turns up to tell Smith that a New York Times photographer is here to take a picture of the room to accompany a Frank Bruni review (no stars! Oh, the irony!). Would she mind, he asks, if she was in the photograph? “Mind?” she practically shouts. “Honey, I’d be delighted!”

A couple of weeks earlier, I met Smith for an afternoon margarita at El Rio Grande, a lousy Mexican restaurant on the ground floor of the high-rise on 38th Street where she has lived and worked for many years. We sat at the same table where I met Smith in the winter of 1989, when she was at the height of her gossipy powers as a columnist for the Daily News. She was in the midst of breaking the biggest story of her career: Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce. The melodrama stayed on the front pages for three months. “In retrospect,” she says now, “it was a story about rich people getting a divorce. It had absolutely no other significance or meaning whatsoever.” But at the time, it was a huge, hairy deal, and Liz owned it. Her coverage of the fiasco turned her into a national star. But there was a downside: She was being attacked by her peers for being too close to her subjects (she had lavished praise on the extravagant parties of people like Gayfryd and Saul Steinberg and Malcolm Forbes)—and for escorting a hysterical Ivana to La Grenouille in the middle of her divorce. “I can’t believe I took it all so seriously,” she says when we talk about those days. “Let me ask you a question: Am I still as big of an asshole? Have I learned anything?”

Then: Jackie O., Brooke Astor, Nan Kempner.Photo: (From left) Peter Simins/Condé Nast Archives; Mark Peterson/Corbis; Rose Hartman/Corbis

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.”

Now: Anna Wintour, Sean Combes, Angelina Jolie.Photo: (From left) Eric Thayer/Reuters/Corbis; Mark Peterson/Redux; Mark Stewart/Camera Press/Retna

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.”

Smith lists only Angelina Jolie as a star who approximates the glamorous complexity of the women from Hollywood’s so-called golden era. “After Angelina Jolie, please name somebody! There are a few people who are famous and very talented, like Charlize Theron, and there are a few distinguished actresses, like Annette Bening and Cate Blanchett, people whom you respect and admire, but all of them are slightly older. And if you can separate any of these younger people from one another, please do it for me! Because I have a real hard time knowing who’s what. I can’t fall in love with these television stars.”

As she sees it, the reason for the near-total implosion of celebrity culture is that actresses are now forced to play these pathetic, pedestrian, tacky soap-opera roles offstage in the tabloids. Jen talks to Brad! Angelina has puppies! “The worst thing that ever happened was Bonnie Fuller telling us that stars are just like us,” says Smith. “Because if there was ever anything that we didn’t want, it was for our stars to be just like us. We are all fucked up and we never realized our potential for looks or happiness or … anything.” She longs for the days before we knew too much. “I really miss it, because, honey, there is nothing to write about! There’s a mania now for examining people’s potential to become pregnant. We have to read about when they become pregnant, when they begin to show, when the baby is born, and then they sell the pictures. I am so bored with that.”

Back at Michael’s the crowd starts to thin, and suddenly Smith’s table feels like the center of the room. There are four or five people swirling around. Peggy Siegal is begging her to come to the U.S. Open to hang out in the locker room with Billie Jean King before she hits a few balls with Regis for an exhibition match. A very rich, very tan, very blonde, and very thin Terry Allen Kramer, the Broadway producer, swings by for the second time. When Liz tells her she’s “good-looking,” she swats the compliment away. “I’m just an old lady,” she says with the raspiest laugh north of Boca. There is also Felicia Taylor, a television personality, who says hello and kisses Liz on the cheek. “I’m not sure who she is,” says Smith, when she exits. “All blonde women begin to look alike after a certain age.”

Smith, lapping up the attention, looks like she’s in heaven. Let’s face it: Newspaper gossip columnists are all but obsolete; a 40-year diminishment of power has led to—wah, wah, wah—Perez Hilton. In fact, Smith points out a woman sitting at the bar right now who in about an hour will post a blog about who was at Michael’s today, just as she does every week. For Smith, reporting on lunch at Michael’s in her column would be pointless. But the old broad still has clout, especially with this crowd. “My column has become more historical, more philosophical,” she says. “I feel like I am a recording angel.” People like Barry Diller, Les Moonves, and even Smith herself are starting to think about their legacies. “The thing about people who last long enough to make a real impact, like I have,” she says, “is that you finally have to learn to live with the image you’ve created. It’s your legend. You don’t have to agree with everything said about you, but you can’t really quarrel with the cumulative thing.”

Throughout the lunch, Smith remains obsessed with Ovitz. Just who are those three guys he’s eating with? At one point, she calls the maître d’ over and asks him, but he doesn’t know either. Finally she says, “He may not even remember me. I haven’t seen him in years.” But now, as Smith, resplendent in bright-yellow jacket and matching shoes, is surrounded by well-wishers and hubbub, Ovitz stands up and looks over. A phony smiles spreads across his face. “Hello, Liz,” he says.

“Hi, Michael, how ya doing?” she says, batting her eyelashes. “You certainly brought the tone up here today.”

“Either that,” he says glumly, “or I brought it down.” As he walks out she giggles to herself, pleased that the game of chicken tilted toward her in the end. “It’s nice to have someone say hello when you thought they had a hit out on you.” She lets rip a big cackle. “Plus, I love that I was able to act like I hadn’t seen him. Because I hadn’t!”

The Original Gossip Girl