Liz Smith Dishes On Her Feuds With Sinatra, Trump

As part of Morning Edition's series "The Long View," gossip columnist Liz Smith talks to Renee Montagne about hobnobbing with the boldface names of New York. The Grand Dame of Dish shares the secret of her success, and dishes on her legendary feuds with Frank Sinatra and Donald Trump.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We are going to take the long view now, continuing our conversation with the Grande Dame of Gossip, Liz Smith. For years, she's hobnobbed with the boldfaced names of New York, a long way from her Depression-era childhood in Texas. Most recently, she helped found the woman-oriented Web site wowOwow. Still, Liz Smith says that new venture didn't take the sting out of having her newspaper column dropped earlier this year.

Ms. LIZ SMITH (Journalist): I had a daily column in New York for 33 years. So when I was fired by the New York Post last March, that was the first time there hadn't been a Liz Smith column in a New York newspaper. So I've gone on, on the Web and I'm still in print in a lot of syndicated papers. But there's nothing like being in print every day in a big city. I guess I'm just an old newspaper hack.

NORRIS: You know, I gather you actually did not want the job in the '70s when the New York Daily News offered you a gossip column.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: I thought gossip columns were all washed-up, that they...

MONTAGNE: So you mean based on...

Ms. SMITH: The New York Daily News kept pursuing me. So after two years, I gave in and said yes. And they splashed me all over. They made me really big. It was fabulous.

MONTAGNE: You know, I mean, getting this, having this greatness thrust upon you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: What happened with you...

Ms. SMITH: Well, maybe it was mediocrity thrust upon me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: Whatever it was, the column was a big, big hit. It ushered in the new celebrity. So, shortly after, People magazine was invented, USA Today came into being.

MONTAGNE: You know, when looking back, was there a particular column that made you realize that you were very powerful?

Ms. SMITH: Well, when the Trumps decided to divorce, I became like an international phenomenon for three months because that story stayed on the front pages. And when I look back on that I say, well, it was totally unimportant. It was just two rich people arguing about money.

MONTAGNE: Well, how would you have been able to break that story?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I had been introduced to them socially, and they invited me on trips. And I was entertained by them because they were different. They hadn't descended from the social register or old money or anything.

But one day, Ivana called me and asked me to come to the Plaza Hotel. And when I got there, she threw herself in my arms and told me that Donald didn't want her anymore, that she had just gone through all of this plastic surgery to enhance her looks. And I tried to give her some motherly advice. I said get yourself a PR person who's respectable and defend yourself against him. So he got on the other side. He said he was going to buy the New York Daily News and order to fire me.

MONTAGNE: He didn't?

Ms. SMITH: He didn't want me to take her side in this story. I didn't particularly want to take a side. I didn't care. But I didn't have, then, access to him anymore. So he told his story to Cindy Adams of the New York Post, and it became a kind of, you know, standoff at the O.K. Corral. It was absurd.

MONTAGNE: You do have dinner with and have social relations with the people you write about. And I'm wondering if that does sometimes present problems, as it would have seemed in this case.

Ms. SMITH: No question. But I can always talk people into my way of covering their story. If they didn't like something I wrote, I would say, well, why don't you just consider this as part of your large legend? This is the image you're going to leave behind, and I'm just a recorder of it.

MONTAGNE: What would be an example...

Ms. SMITH: But sometimes they would...

MONTAGNE: ...of that?

Ms. SMITH: Oh, let's see - people got really mad at me. I had some marvelous set-tos with Frank Sinatra and Donald.

MONTAGNE: Kind of interesting having Frank Sinatra for an enemy.

Ms. SMITH: Well, it was the most dramatic experience of my life, I guess. I wrote one day that I thought he was always bullying women. Well, that really set him off. He denounced me from every stage after that. So he had a lot to do with making me very well-known. People would yell from the audience: Shut up and sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: Oh, and he would carry on for 20 minutes on stage about what a terrible person I was. If you hung a pork chop out the window of your car, I would run alongside barking.

MONTAGNE: Whoa.

Ms. SMITH: This is funny.

MONTAGNE: Oh.

Ms. SMITH: Well, thought it was funny, but many years passed and a wonderful journalist name Sidney Zion arranged for me to meet him in a really crummy bar name Jimmy Weston's. We sat down, and we didn't mention that we had had any differences. We started talking about music, and he was just fascinating. I told him that I had danced to him when I was 18 at the Fort Worth Casino. And, I'm telling you, for three months after that, he sent me orchids every day. It was just too much. And we stayed friends, and I would pray every day he wouldn't do something bad I should write about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Could you ever have imagined sitting down for a drink with Frank Sinatra...

Ms. SMITH: No, of course not.

MONTAGNE: ...when you were back growing up in Texas?

Ms. SMITH: I think that the, quote, "secret of my success" was that I was essentially a very naive person who, you know, I want to be a fan. I am a fan.

MONTAGNE: You know, there's one thing I want to ask you about. When you wrote your memoir, "Natural Blond," and told stories of your own life and the fact that you had had love affairs with women, as well as being married to men, that was much discussed at the time. This was a few years ago when the memoir came out. And I think at the core of it was less your life but that there was a secret that you kept about your own sexuality...

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...while being a person whose business it was to reveal other people's...

Ms. SMITH: Well, I didn't...

MONTAGNE: ...private information.

Ms. SMITH: ...I didn't go around revealing other people. There were things I didn't write about. I mean, I wasn't that hypocritical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well...

Ms. SMITH: It was news for a day. Anybody who knew me already knew it, that I hadn't been as pure as the driven snow. I had a lot of gender confusion when I was younger. I mean, everybody has something they don't want people to say about them, I guess.

MONTAGNE: Mm-hmm. You know, along those lines, you don't mind if I mention your age?

Ms. SMITH: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: My age is like part of Guinness Book of World Records. I'm going to be 87 years old on February 2nd.

MONTAGNE: Do you plan to write forever?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I would like to go on writing for the Wow site until it gets its sea legs and makes a lot of money. So I go out at least three nights a week - four, sometimes five. You know, you have to go out now to get news. News won't come to you.

MONTAGNE: Liz Smith, it has been a pleasure speaking with you.

Ms. SMITH: Well, thank you so much and Merry Christmas to NPR's listeners. And I don't see anything wrong with still calling it Merry Christmas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, Merry Christmas to you, too.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

MONTAGNE: Liz Smith is now posting her scoops on the Web site she just mentioned, wowOwow.

Tomorrow, we take the long view and a walk on the red carpet with a press agent to the stars. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.