Fort Worth native Liz Smith was unceremoniously fired by the New York Post last week at the age of 86. The legendary “Grande Dame of Dish” was informed by letter that her contract would not be renewed. The Post cited hard times as its reason for letting her go, but her dismissal caused an uproar. Not one to wallow, Smith hasn’t missed a beat; she is continuing to write her daily column for Women on the Web.
Smith once famously said, “Gossip is news running ahead of itself with a red dress on.” Here, she talks with Texas Monthly about her departure from the Post, how the media world has changed since she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a journalism degree in 1949, and the egalitarian nature of gossip.
You don’t sound too depressed about having been fired.
It’s been kind of exhilarating. The outrage at the Post’s decision was vindication for me. I was surprised that anyone was even paying attention! Still, to be fired at 86, after you’ve been writing a column for thirty-three years, is kind of amazing.
Who did you hear from after the Post let you go?
Well, let’s see. Dame Helen Mirren wrote a wonderful poem for me. Warren Beatty called me in the middle of the night and said, “Whatcha doin’?” which I loved. Renée Zellweger sent me some fabulous flowers. And, oh, I heard from Madonna, and Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Tom Cruise. I heard from the mayor of New York. People are really very unhappy about being deprived of this column. Not that it’s so great. It’s just been around for so long that there’s a lot of good will.
What was the gist of the poem that Helen Mirren wrote?
Oh shit, I’ve got to remember it. It’s gone out of my head. It was about the Post and being at the peak of your popularity, and then at the end, she wrote, “Fuck the Post”!
What’s the back story to what happened at the Post?
Well, you know, the Post is being run by Australians. And Australians and Texans are a lot alike, and I’ve always liked Australians. But they happened to get an Australian editor that didn’t like me, and he’s been trying to get rid of me for a long time. So he finally succeeded, with his excuse being that the money they save by not paying me is going to help save the paper. They’re only $30 million dollars in the red, so I figure that when they stop paying me, they’ll go right into the black!
I was surprised when I read that they weren’t exactly paying you millions.
I made a lot of money from this column when I worked for New York Newsday, but I hadn’t made any money from the Post in quite a long time. I’m sort of in the hole from writing this column, but aw, hey—it’s been a great life!
This wasn’t the first time that someone has tried to throw you under the bus.
I’ve had a few nasty turns. When you become a public figure, there’s always somebody out there ready to get you. There was this press agent in New York named Bobby Zarem, and he didn’t like me, and he sent out these wedding invitations that had me marrying a woman in her mother’s apartment! Oh, it was outrageous.
Wow, when was this?
Oh, it was ages ago. That was so long ago, it was in the Gideon Bible. [Laughs.]
This may be a silly question, but here goes. What is gossip, exactly?
Gossip is unsubstantiated rumor, really. But let’s not knock it. It’s the most egalitarian thing. I mean, anybody can do it. It’s very democratic. It doesn’t cost you anything. Everybody does it. Families especially—they’re the worst.
So where do you draw the line? You’ve always managed to dish and be classy at the same time.
Every day I have to ask myself that. What’s in the interest of the reader? And what is fair to the subject? What you can get away with? When you write about famous people, you’re always on