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Gossip Maven Liz Smith's Dishy Book Breaks a Few Plates

September 29, 2000|BOOTH MOORE

Grand dame of dish Liz Smith is the type who doesn't have to be coaxed into ordering dessert. "I'll try your apple pie," she told our waitress at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. "C'mon . . .," she cajoled me in her sweet Texas twang. "Don't you want a little something?" (I didn't take much coaxing, either.)

Smith has written a column on and off for nearly 50 years and has interviewed everybody. So, naturally, this fledgling was a bit nervous to be interviewing her. Smith, whose syndicated column runs in The Times' Calendar section, was in town Tuesday to promote her memoir, "Natural Blonde" (Hyperion, $25.95), which serves up a plate load of gossip. What's garnering the most attention, however, is Smith's revelation that she's had affairs with women.

"I never thought these minor tepid revelations about sex would set everyone off like slathering dogs," said the twice-married brassy blond in a pantsuit and green suede cowboy boots. "I think it's just great people are interested in the sex life of a 77-year-old woman, but they already knew about this. Gay activists have been on my case for years."

Although she said there's interest in making a movie out of the book, "I just don't believe it. . . . There's no big whammy. I need a finish like Rob Lowe leaves his wife for me or something."

As a child growing up in Fort Worth, Smith identified with men more than women, she said, because "they were having all the fun." The idea really hit home during World War II when, she said, "nobody even noticed women." After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism, Smith went to work in an airplane factory. In the 1950s, she moved to New York City, where she began ghostwriting the syndicated Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column. The gig led to TV production jobs, freelance writing and, eventually, her own column at the New York Daily News in 1976. She's also been published in the New York Post since 1995.

At the Daily News, it was the scoop about the Trump divorce that catapulted her into the big time. In the 1980s, Smith partied with the Trumps, traveled to Palm Beach with them, and even attended family functions. Most journalists would consider the cozy relationship unethical, but Smith didn't care. "The chief thing for a columnist to have is access," she writes in the book. It paid off. When Ivana wanted to break the news about her split with Donald, she went to Smith.

She's been criticized for her nicey-nice approach to gossip. New York Post boss Rupert Murdoch even went to her to break the news of his own divorce. Detractors call the style brown-nosing, but it's more the civility of a different time. "I never wanted to hack my way through the jungles of [celebrities'] private lives," she said. Being nice has worked for her, but it's not something she would recommend for aspiring columnists. She said, "They probably wouldn't be allowed."

And anyway, no one pays attention to gossip writers the way they used to. "I don't believe anything written has the power it used to," Smith said. "It's vitiated by there being so much competition." Still, she isn't finished with dish quite yet. "This is a great profession," she said. " . . . addictive."


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