Liz Smith, the longtime gossip columnist whose stories earned her a celebrity that rivaled many of the A-listers she covered, died on Sunday of natural causes, Smith’s literary agent Joni Evans confirmed to the Associated Press. She was 94.
Smith started her own column, titled “Liz Smith” that ran in the New York Daily News from 1976 to 1991, and ultimately drew millions of readers when it was syndicated nationwide.
Skirting the Schadenfreude and sensational exposés of many of her tabloid colleagues, Smith scored a number of big scoops throughout her career: the 1990 split of Donald and Ivana Trump, Madonna’s 1996 pregnancy and, prematurely, the death of her friend Nora Ephron.
Instead, readers relished her insider’s view. The humble Texan immersed herself in the social circles of the rich and famous, who were taken by her kind nature.
One of the biggest scoops of Smith’s career came in 1990, when she broke the story of Donald and Ivana Trump’s divorce in the Daily News. She knew the couple, who had previously invited her on trips. Ivana asked her to come to the Plaza Hotel, which Donald Trump owned at the time.
“When I got there, she threw herself in my arms and told me that Donald didn’t want her anymore,” she told NPR’s Renee Montagne in 2009. “And I tried to give her some motherly advice. I said, ‘Get yourself a PR person who’s respectable and defend yourself against him.’ ” Smith says an angered Donald told her he would “buy the New York Daily News and order to fire me.” He never did.
She befriended many of her subjects, though not without criticism. News outlets reproved her for conflicts of interest and for using her position to promote her friends, notes The New York Times.
“It’s a valid criticism, I suppose,” Smith told the Times in 1991. “But I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t have to be pure, and I’m not. I mean, I am not a reporter operating on life-and-death matters, state secrets, the rise and fall of governments, and I don’t believe you can do this kind of job without access.”
Smith’s agent Joni Evans tells the AP that Smith endured a series of minor strokes earlier this year but nothing that restricted her active social life.
When her best-selling memoir Natural Blonde came out in 2000, reviewers criticized her for not including more intimate details of her relationships with women, particularly the archaeologist Iris Love.
Asked about how she perceived that criticism, Smith told NPR’s Renee in the same 2009 interview, “I wasn’t that hypocritical … 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.”
Her short-lived marriages to George Edward Beeman and Fred Lister ended in divorce. Smith leaves behind no immediate survivors.
Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, Smith sized up her own role in the current media landscape in a New York Times profile this past July: “I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” she said. In an age of social media, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”
She adds in the Times interview, “Maybe gossip is still amusing, but I don’t think it’s as much fun as it used to be, because it’s now all-pervasive.”
But back in her heyday, she held a trivial opinion of her beat — and had a ball.
“When you look at it realistically, what I do is pretty insignificant,” she told the AP in 1987. “Still, I’m having a lot of fun.”
“The gossip column then, it wasn’t just about people doing terrible things all the time,” she told NPR’s Renee. “A lot of it was just wannabe news, you know. … looking through the keyhole at how your betters lived, I guess.”