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 the horns of a dilemma, which is, if you don’t have access, you’re just writing from observation or opinion, like Gawker and all the other gossip Web sites. And if you get access, it’s not freeing; it actually hinders your ability to speak freely, because you have to maintain that relationship. The most interesting part of the job has been that dilemma: Where do you draw the line? I don’t know! Every day, it’s different. You’re subject to your own fears and anxieties and your desire to be brilliant and also to be fair.
How is gossip different now than it used to be?
In my day, when I was beginning, there were still real movie stars left. You didn’t have to ask who Elizabeth Taylor or Marlon Brando was. But now there are thousands of these people, and they make the whole thing so trivial. My favorite thing is that magazine [US Weekly] that has a column called “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” Boy, if there’s ever anything I don’t want, it’s for a star to be just like me. I want the stars to be stars!
How much of what you read in the tabloids is true, do you think?
You know the speculation about what goes on between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston? It’s just all made up! Nobody knows that shit! People sat in some office somewhere and said, “These two people got divorced because of another woman,” and then they attributed all these emotions to them. How do we know what goes on between them? Maybe they simply don’t give a damn one way or another? Maybe they’ll be in a threesome with each other next week!
Now that would be gossip!
Well, that sure would! [Laughs.] That would be an ideal gossip item! I’m just kidding, of course. We don’t know any more about them than we did in the beginning.
Your column is being published online now. Has that changed how you write?
It’s more freewheeling. Maybe that’s because I don’t believe that anyone really reads the Web. I don’t believe in anything I can’t hold in my hand! I’m so old-fashioned, it’s hopeless. But really, the writing is not very different. The Women On the Web site—which my column now appears on—is more immediate than print, because if something breaks, I can put it up there. I’m giving wowOwow.com my best shot because I own part of it, along with Candice Bergen and Whoopi Goldberg and Mary Wells Laurence and Lily Tomlin.
Is it true that you print out your e-mails?
I just learned this week how to send an e-mail. So I’ve been working without knowing how to get one or send one. Every e-mail demands a clarification. “I’ll meet you there at 6 o’clock.” Well, that doesn’t tell you where to meet, or on what day. So I just make a phone call. I’m not modern.
Do you ever envision a day when you will want to retire?
I feel like the response to the Post’s decision to get rid of my column answered the question of whether I should stop. I don’t want to stop working. I love to work. And I have four people who help me and work with me and I don’t want them to be out of job. This is a terrible time to be out of job.
So, at 86, retirement is not on the horizon.
Well, I haven’t retired yet—I’m just working for no salary! But I’m not retired, darling.