Liz Smith Recalls When Gossip Columns Ruled

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Renee Montagne gives a short preview of her conversation with gossip columnist Liz Smith. "The Grand Dame of Dish" shares how she got started in the late '50s ghost-writing a column about the end of 'Cafe Society' in New York City. The conversation continues Thursday when Smith dishes on her run-ins with Donald Trump and Frank Sinatra.


And now for A Long View - that's our occasional series of conversations with people of long experience. This week, we're delving into the world of press agents and gossip columnists. The Grande Dame of Dish, Liz Smith, has been writing columns in New York dailies for three decades, and we're going to get just a taste of our conversation with Liz Smith. There'll be more tomorrow.

This time, her story of how she got started back in the early 1950s when gossip columns ruled the day.

Ms. LIZ SMITH (Gossip Columnist): I became the ghostwriter for the old Cholly Knickerbocker Society column, and it was the last gasp of cafe society. So, for five years I went to El Morocco and the Stork Club and wrote about society, what people were doing.

MONTAGNE: And what were they doing?

Ms. SMITH: Well, you know, here's the thing. The cafe society came into being because people kept letting their help go one day a week. And then they would go out to eat, and that had been unheard of in the old-fashioned society of the original Mrs. Astor. You know, you never ate out in a restaurant.

So, times were changing. And there was a lot, if you just sat in El Morocco and watched them and described their clothes and who they were with and how they danced and whether they were fooling around or whether they hit somebody with a toy bear, like Humphrey Bogart did. He had a fight with a woman. She had won the bear in some contest, and he took it away from her.

There were just wonderful, silly things happening. And, you know, then society was slopping over into show business. It wasn't just society, or what was left. It was also these big movie stars.

MONTAGNE: Well, it would allow readers into these lives.

Ms. SMITH: I think you're right. The gossip column then, it wasn't just about people doing terrible things all the time. A lot of it was just wannabe news, you know. You wanted to go. You wanted to - how - what would it be? How much did you tip the hat check girl in a place like that? You know, looking through the keyhole at how your betters lived, I guess.

So, I learned a lot. I also learned how to write a column, and I guess I learned to be entertaining.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Indeed. So much so that she became as much of a household name as the people she wrote about. Our conversation with columnist Liz Smith continues tomorrow, when she dishes on her run-ins with Donald Trump and Frank Sinatra.

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