Venerable gossip columnist Liz Smith, 89, has been in the catbird seat of New York gossip for over 50 years, with columns in the Daily News, Newsday, the Post, and syndication in over 70 newspapers. She got her start ghostwriting Cholly Knickerbockers’s column in the Hearst newspapers. The Post dropped her column in 2009, though she’s still in other papers. Steven Gaines is author of such books as Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion Property in the Hamptons and co-author of Obession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein.
Steven Gaines: You once said something to me years ago, just in passing: You don’t have to sleep in the bed that you made. That people are forever escaping their follies.
Liz Smith: If you’re just guilty of public opinion, you can work against that to come back. A lot of people have. Eliot Spitzer is on the rise. Clinton totally became a reformed character, or he appears to have become one. Anybody can come back from anything, I think, if they haven’t killed somebody or committed a criminal act.
S.G.: I’m surprised how easily Don Imus came back. He was off the air for a little while after the “nappy-headed” comment in 2007, and then he’s back as strong as ever.
L.S.: Well, he made a really righteous apology. Also, Imus kept on being on the air, and the victory will come to those who are constantly in the limelight. If you’re on television enough, you become some kind of a classic, whether people hate you or love you. Look at Jennifer Lopez. Wasn’t she with Sean Combs when the gun went off in the nightclub and all of that? She wasn’t too popular and then she took up with Ben Affleck and then she … Now she’s a beloved figure, I’m telling you. Paula Abdul—a big comeback.
S.G.: Marv Albert had trouble coming back from his sex scandal. It involved biting.
L.S.: It’s hardest to come back after something specific and, I’m sorry to say, in my opinion, small. Eliot Spitzer’s involvement with a prostitute was a real scandal because he was so brilliant and rising. The difference between him and Congressman Weiner is that the latter treated his own body like a kind of joke, and it made him a joke.
S.G.: There are some things that other people just don’t want to forgive you for. For instance, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi.
L.S.: That’s exactly right. And he was kind of arrogant when that happened. But now he seems to have changed. And also, he made a success of the thing that was a scandal. He made a success of his marriage, and he suffered terrible losses, whether we think so or not. He lost touch with his own child, and he changed his life. And he is a much nicer person now. But listen, things have changed drastically. Divorce itself, the very word used to be a scandal. And now it doesn’t even—you don’t pause. You’ve got Newt Gingrich married so many times, and he’s running for president. But because the Internet tells all, and so quickly, nobody is sure what they believe. So the result of this instant news and the press hyping it up into a scandal—well, the Post is a good example. They make big mountains out of molehills every day. They’re going now with this prostitution scandal. And I don’t blame them, but I’m not very interested in that. I don’t know who any of the people are.
S.G.: I know, I’m not at all interested.
L.S.: But the enhanced access of the instant news, so that gossip columnists of my kind couldn’t even exist today, the result is total cynicism on the part of the public. They’re quick to point the finger, they’re quick to be reassured. Thinking about Lindsay Lohan; she has become a scandal because the press overemphasizes her every move. Addicts have been forgiven. But she was so attractive when she first appeared—and so your admiration, your scorn, and your pity all mingle when you think about her. She becomes a scandal, like, “Why can’t that girl pull herself together?”
S.G.: Scandals used to be more rarefied.
L.S.: Ann Woodward—this was a really great story. She shot and killed her husband in their home and claimed she thought he was a burglar. It was said she committed suicide when she read the Truman Capote version of the story. And her mother-in-law was protecting her two grandchildren and refused to say anything about the fact that a lot of people believed that Ann had murdered William. That was a great story. That had class.
S.G.: Do you remember when I wrote the Calvin Klein book? The fury that that caused? They said I outed Calvin.
L.S.: Well, timing is everything. You could write a book like that today and Calvin probably wouldn’t care.
S.G.: It wasn’t so much about what I wrote, although I did write about his sex life, and I don’t think anybody had—I think he was only described as bisexual before that. But that book was killed at G. P. Putnam. One of the things that made it into a greater scandal was that my editor called me and told me that Barbara Walters had a word with [then-publisher] Phyllis Grann and said, “You can’t do this to Calvin; it’s making him miserable. Everybody’s gonna be angry at you, Phyllis.” And so once I went to the press and repeated that, a lot of people were really angry at me, including you.
L.S.: Well, I probably was. I probably was defensive about Calvin’s sex life.
S.G.: No, you were defensive about Barbara Walters.
L.S.: Well, I used to defend Barbara. I always believed, Steven, that you had to get access. So I worked hard to get access. So sometimes I overstepped my … I think loyalty is the biggest last line in the world. More people do bad things and lie and defend people and attack people over their loyalty. Loyalty seems to be craved by everybody, and I think it’s a bad thing to have. It clouds your judgment. Makes you so you can’t be dispassionate about things. When you’re writing about them, you need to be dispassionate. Generally. I got away with a lot because I wasn’t a serious writer.
S.G.: Also, there was a certain kindness. You weren’t in this to destroy lives, to make people unhappy, or to cause embarrassment.
L.S.: I don’t know whether I deserve so much credit. I was probably just cowardly and loyal to certain people.
S.G.: You were kind to me when they dragged me off to the hospital to dry out.
L.S.: I never wanted to see people suffering. I had an advanced viewpoint about sex. Sex is sex. It never surprised me or shocked me. People are going to go on doing strange things like biting each other. But the Internet is just outrageous. Maybe when I was writing, you could believe that I was a real human being who was trying to present both sides of it, though I certainly have fended against that plenty. But you don’t believe any of this shit you read on the Internet. They may be right, they may be intrinsically right, but it’s all so mean-spirited that it’s made gossip not fun.
S.G.: You don’t know what to believe.
L.S.: And they have no guardians. No editors, publishers, lawyers. We used to have to vet everything with the lawyers. We had to explain ourselves, what we were saying. Well, all I can say is I had the best of it. It deserted me in the end.
S.G.: How do you mean?
L.S.: Well, I got fired by the Post. I had no outlet anymore. And you’re only as good as your outlet.