Liz Smith

The 82-year-old syndicated newspaper columnist—and professional Texan—on politics versus gossip, the trouble with young Hollywood, and the one magazine that can make or break a star (nope, it’s not Texas Monthly).

Evan Smith: So here we are in a Mexican restaurant on the ground floor of your  apartment building in New York.

Liz Smith: Do you think it’s funny that I live over a Mexican restaurant called El Rio Grande?

ES: I think it’s appropriate. But what I’m stuck on is whether you can get good Mexican food in New York.

LS: Remember what Jane Trahey, who used to work for Neiman Marcus, always said? There’s no such thing as really bad Mexican food, and even bad Mexican food is better than no Mexican food. They make a few things here that I like and a few things that I don’t like. You can’t get a decent taco in New York, and people are crazy about burritos, which I never much took to.

ES: What did you like growing up, and what do you still like now?

LS: Oh, I like chicken-fried steak better than anything. I’d eat it every night if it didn’t make you weigh four hundred pounds. Then I could do the Kirstie Alley show.

ES: You’ve managed to retain a lot of your Texanness after being away all these years—

LS: Well, I have on cowboy boots today from Tony Lama.

ES: Some people lose it.

LS: I think Dan [Rather] has kept it. Bob Schieffer has kept it.

ES: It’s obviously an important part of your self-identity.

LS: I guess so. I’m not good at faking anything. When I went to work for NBC, I said, “I’d like to go to your speech coach and get rid of my accent,” and they said, “Are you crazy? We hired you for your accent!” So I never did.

ES: You don’t seem to have much of an accent now.

LS: I think it’s terrible. If I’m around people from Texas, it gets worse.

ES: But you’re around them a lot. You’re the queen bee of the ex-Texans.

LS: I have a lot of Texas friends here: [former Miss America] Phyllis George, [ABC News executive] Joe Armstrong, Ann Richards. I gravitate toward anybody who’s doing anything interesting. That’s the point of my new book [ Dishing]. I’ve lived the high life and the low life, and I think they’re both great.

ES: How connected are you to the state these days?

LS: You know, I lived there when I was in college, and it was a different world. I still have a few friends in [my hometown of] Fort Worth, so I like to go back there. But most of my relatives are dead now. That’s what happens when you get old: Everybody dies and you haven’t got anyone to reminisce with.

ES: Did you ever regret leaving?

LS: No. I loved Texas, but I was always trying to get to New York. I had read Tom Wolfe—the Look Homeward, Angel Tom Wolfe—and Christopher Morley and a lot of books about New York, and it seemed great to me. I wanted to be here. And I really realized my dreams here.

ES: What’s your life like now?

LS: It’s changed a lot. I’m not so young anymore. I’m active, but, you know, I miss a lot of stuff, like the latest nightclubs. I used to want to know everything—what the king is doing tonight. But I’m not part of what’s moving and shaking New York’s social life these days.

ES: Is it still interesting to you from a distance?

LS: Yeah, it always has been. I’ve loved being on the fringes of it. I think I wanted to be like the Colossus of Rhodes; I wanted to stand with one foot in one place and the other in another. I wanted to live in both worlds. Being from Texas gave me an immeasurable advantage.

ES: Why’s that?

LS: People really like Texans or they really hate them. But they have to get to know you. They have to pay attention.

ES: I wonder if you all aren’t regarded as charms on a charm bracelet up here: “Oh, she’s a Texan. She’s so cute.”

LS: I don’t know if anybody takes me seriously. I’m not a very good gossip columnist.

ES: How can you say you’re not a good gossip, when you’ve been doing it for so long?

LS: I don’t chase after stuff like I should. And nobody else cares about what I care about. Nobody else writes about books, and nobody else writes about politics. You know, I wrote about politics so much during the election that my editors at Newsday tried to stop me. They were very concerned. They felt I was biased.

ES: You are biased. You have a personal point of view, just like everybody else.

LS: Oh, I’m a real liberal. I didn’t care for the way the country was going, and I still don’t care for it. I don’t know how anybody could care for it.

ES: I guess the question that I would ask your editors is, Why shouldn’t you write about whatever you want?

LS: I told them, “Well, there isn’t any news except political gossip.” Anyway, I tried to be fairly evenhanded. I didn’t just romp on George Bush; I romped on the Kerrys too.

ES: Did you get any mail from angry readers?

LS: Oh, sure I did. And if it was intelligent and not just inflammatory, I answered it. I have some readers who are very conservative, like Bill Buckley and Norman Podhoretz—both friends of mine—who were always writing me, saying, “Let us reason with you.”

ES: Okay, liberal, let me ask you: How do you feel about the fact that when people around the country or around the world think of Texas, they think of George W. Bush?

LS: That’s one of the things that I really don’t like about the president—that my state would be defined by Mr. Preppy. I think the whole Texas thing with him is such a put-on. I don’t consider him a real Texan. When he tells you how great it was

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