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Tattletale

NATURAL BLONDE A Memoir By Liz Smith; Hyperion: 464 pp., $25.95

October 22, 2000|LAURIE STONE | Laurie Stone is the author, most recently, of "Close to the Bone" and "Laughing in the Dark."

Liz Smith is good for the rabble. For more than 50 years, in columns in the New York Daily News and Newsday, among other venues, she has served dish about the rich and powerful, people who think that money can protect their privacy. The rabble have never had their privacy protected. Family fights, keeping too many cats, letting dirty laundry pile up and engaging in orgies go into files if you're poor and have to deal with agencies. So Liz levels the playing field.

Score one for the 77-year-old, surgically enhanced, bleached-blond gossip columnist from Fort Worth, Texas, who, she confides in her memoir "Natural Blonde," came to New York after World War II in search of excitement and glamour and is kinda sorta bisexual or gay (more about that later). Of course, if you're rabble, Liz won't write about you, whether you tend an oversized menagerie or turn a dump site into a community Eden. For Liz to write about you, you have to have gained celebrity not by planting hydrangeas over crack vials but by being a movie star, a flashy rich person, a president of the United States or the sex partner of any of the above.

Liz can't be shocked, though she likes the unusual, and while sharing her findings about the far reaches of the human imagination, she has the grace to spare her readers inspirational bites. She couldn't care less about what makes people tick, including herself. Oddities are sometimes just dropped in. She reveals that her father called her "my best boy" and so despised body hair that he shaved his armpits.

Liz tends to inspect the nose hairs of people who have put her nose out of joint. There aren't that many of them. Since she spends most of her time enabling people who love themselves to hold them selves in even higher esteem, most boldfaced types think the world of Liz. (She sneaks in accolades she's received in a gee-whiz-can-you-b elieve-what-big-so-and-so-said- about-little-ol'-me? voice.) Allen Funt, Phil Silvers and Shelley Winters weren't nice to Liz when she was coming up. Funt is portrayed as a liar, Silvers a jealous egotist, Winters a schnorrer who begged freebies from a florist. The snarkiness sounds a welcome rare note in this love fest, but it seems what grates on her more than the meanness of this trio is their being so like rabble--so fat, ugly, bald, unglamorous.

After all, Frank Sinatra insulted her publicly but followed up by taking her to dinner wearing a well-cut shirt and handsome tie. She gushes that she felt like becoming his slave. Her former boss Igor Cassini--for whom she ghost-wrote the syndicated Cholly Knickerbocker column in the '50s and early '60s--was exposed as a paid flack for Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (Cassini used his influence to try to have economic sanctions lifted), but Liz reserves a sweet spot in her heart for him too. (He also wore posh clothes.) And speaking of scoring loot, Liz ranks with the best of them, though unlike Shelley Winters, she doesn't cop trinkets but rather free jet flights and digs in five-star French hotels. She won't stand accused of perspective.

She's proud to be part of the expansion of news to include--beyond what males do on battlefields and in boardrooms--private actions with public consequences, such as high-profile people publicizing an illness or a sexual preference. Liz has boosted this uncloseting, but let's not forget that what most lifted her profile was breaking the Trump divorce. For weeks in 1990, on the front page of the Daily News, it was Donald this and Ivana that, tears and blond hair, money and forgiveness and another blond, while, at the same time, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, Germany reunited, Drexel Burnham Lambert collapsed and Nelson Mandela freed. She carps that, in the '70s, snobbery prevented her from being taken as seriously as Tom Wolfe, Pete Hamill, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and Nora Ephron. What made these writers significant was that they raked muck in high places, unafraid to rattle cages. Liz, on the other hand, cemented friendships with celebrities she wrote about.

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