The late Nora Ephron was such a loyal friend to Liz Smith, the longtime queen of New York gossip columnists, that anytime she was at a social gathering at which Helen Gurley Brown appeared, she made a point of cutting and shunning her.
Apparently Smith and Brown, the celebrated editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, had suffered a nasty falling-out, and Ephron wished everyone to be clear concerning whose side she was on.
But then, one evening at a glamorous Manhattan soirée, the famed movie director/screenwriter spotted Helen and Liz warmly schmoozing arm-in-arm, looking for all the world like the best of pals.
“What the hell?” a shocked Ephron muttered.
“Liz was the most bighearted connoisseur of scuttlebutt that God ever made,” said CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, recounting the anecdote Friday afternoon to a nearly full house of Liz Smith admirers at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre. “Liz forgave everyone and everyone forgave her.”
Stahl added: “There’s always the exception, I guess, and in this case it was Donald Trump, who said he wanted to buy the Daily News [the flagship paper of Smith’s syndicated column in early 1990s, when Smith consistently took Ivana’s side in the tabloid-ready Trump divorce] just so he could fire her.”
Smith died last November after a long and adventure-filled life as one of New York café society’s more important newspaper columnists—although she often said self-mockingly–in a Texas twang that she never got rid of despite nearly seven decades of living in the big city–that she was merely “the garbage pail of journalism” and that “gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”
Yet on what would have been her 95th birthday—Feb. 2—a huge swath of the New York’s media, business and showbiz communities showed up to honor a woman who possessed not only a razor-sharp sense of humor and a keen eye for misbehavior (especially if it was entertaining), but also a generous spirit and a massive gift for friendship.
Indeed—Donald Trump aside—there were some prominent folks in the crowd who could thank Liz Smith for using her column to frame their own divorces in the nicest possible way.
“As Lizzie would have said: Greetings friends, enemies and those of you who aren’t yet decided!” said one the more prominent members of Smith’s coterie of soulmates, NBC correspondent Cynthia McFadden, introducing a program that featured remembrances by Renee Zellweger (who said their relationship existed mainly through letter-writing) and Bruce Willis (who, sighing, recalled how Smith helped him and his daughter, Tallulah, get 12,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies to service members in warzones on far-flung bases).
There was also a sweet song performed by Broadway icon (and Smith’s fellow Texan) Tommy Tune—“The Way You Look Tonight,” which the tall, imperially slim Tune said she had specifically chosen for the occasion—and a tribute by media mogul Barry Diller (chairman of The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC), among other eulogists.
Filling the orchestra seats, meanwhile, were Ephron’s widower, journalist and screenwriter Nick Pileggi; showbiz types such as F. Murray Abraham, Cynthia Nixon, Bob Balaban, Kathleen Turner, and Griffin Dunne; financier Steven Rattner; former talk show host Phil Donahue and current MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell; novelist Tom Wolfe (in his dapper white suit) and food and culture writer Calvin Trillin (less conspicuously garbed in gray); First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams; and Michael’s Restaurant general manager Steve Millington, who worked the crowd as though it was Michael’s dining room at the peak of lunch hour.
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Diller, who happened to be marking his own birthday—number 76—on Friday, recalled that he first encountered Smith, then a staff writer for People magazine, shortly after he was named chairman of Paramount Pictures at the tender age of 32.
“She called me out of the true blue,” Diller said, adding that Smith had phoned to warn him that a different People writer was preparing a hatchet job on him.
“But it isn’t true!” Diller recalled insisting.
“Geez, kid, you gotta grow up really fast,” Smith shot back, and somehow, Diller recalled, managed to get the hit piece killed.
Diller also remembered that when he was launching the Fox Television Network a decade later in the mid-1980s, by which time Smith had become a close friend, he wanted to create an entertainment news show featuring her as a host, and Smith suggested Diller hire a talented television producer who had done a bit of work in political campaigns.
“Liz introduced me to this producer, and I thought he was great,” Diller said, “and later I introduced him to Rupert Murdoch.
“And his name was Roger Ailes. So Liz, it’s your fault,” Diller added over general laughter.
“Friendship. Loyalty. Decency. Liz Smith, thank you,” Diller concluded.
Diller was followed to the stage by Smith’s 64-year-old niece, Karen Smith Williamson, who recalled how her earthy aunt livened up occasions in a family of Southern Baptist teetotalers; and 19-year-old Spencer Hoge, the son of McFadden and newspaper editor and publisher Jim Hoge, recalled Smith as an always encouraging surrogate mother who only got mad at him twice: once when he tried to cheat during a game of Candyland (“She wasn’t having that!”), and another time, stopping off at a Denny’s on the way to Maine, when he was 6 years old and kept swinging his legs in the booth.
“If you don’t stop kicking me under the table, we’re not friends anymore,” Smith declared.
Meanwhile, Billy Norwich—the Vogue writer and editor, former gossip columnist and novelist—recalled how Smith took him under her wing, wrote letters of recommendation, and found journalism jobs for him when he was broke and struggling in Manhattan.
“She was the mother of my invention,” said Norwich, whose parents died before he reached the age of 20.
Norwich—who was born Billy Goldberg and hailed from Norwich, Connecticut—said he changed his byline at Smith’s suggestion, and that Smith engineered his gig as a sharp-penned gossip columnist at the Daily News—and then generously opened her Rolodex to him.
“I became Billy Norwich of Goldberg, Connecticut,” he joked, recalling that unlike Smith, who had a knack for smoothing things over with celebrities who didn’t always enjoy what she wrote about them, Norwich made powerful enemies right away.
Once, at a big society dinner, he was sitting at Smith’s table when one of his targets, Oscar de la Renta, came up in a rage and took a swing at him.
Smith blocked the blow with her arm, Norwich recalled. “She said, ‘Oscar, you can’t hit him! He’s a Jew wearing eyeglasses!’”
The audience at the Majestic roared with laughter.
Another time, Smith and Norwich found themselves together inside a huge sweltering tent in Morocco for a banquet celebrating Malcolm Forbes’ 70th birthday.
Norwich recalled that they sidled up to the head table where Elizabeth Taylor was sitting between the colorful Forbes magazine impresario and the King of Morocco.
“I heard there was a movie star at this party,” Smith drawled to Taylor, a friend, in a tone that made clear she was less than impressed.
“Fuck you, Liz,” the former Mrs. Richard Burton retorted.
Another showbiz Taylor—actress and playwright Holland Taylor—recalled meeting Smith, long before she was famous, when the Texan was eking out a freelance living—at the antique New York restaurant Tout Va Bien.
After some sparkling conversation, Taylor recalled, Smith told her “she was leaving in the morning for the South of France, but when she returned, we would begin our affair. I certainly thought it was very unlikely to happen, and if it did, it certainly wouldn’t go past Labor Day,” Taylor recalled, to laughter.
Early in life, Smith was twice married briefly to men, but as she wrote in her best-selling autobiography, Natural Blonde, her real romances were with women.
Taylor said that during their 45-year friendship, Smith was “a safe harbor in what has always been a storm-tossed, scattered, and let’s not kid ourselves, mean old world.”