Liz Smith is famous for saying, “Begin somewhere; you cannot build a reputation on what you intend to do.” And she has lived by this. The Fort Worth native has worked for an array of publications, including the Daily Texan, Modern Screen, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Newsweek, and Newsday. Her syndicated gossip column appears in more than seventy newspapers, six days a week. And she says there is talk about a radio show featuring Smith and her friend, former Texas governor Ann Richards. Her New York Times best-selling book, Natural Blonde: A Memoir, took her two and a half years to write. But despite what the title of her memoir may suggest, Liz Smith is not a natural blonde. The name is a good example of frank irony, something Smith is pretty good at. If you haven’t had a chance to read her book, you can pick up a copy of the paperback version in bookstores this month. Even better, read the following Q & A (and her memoir) to see why she thinks blondes have more fun.
Joan Schadt: I wanted to ask you a little bit about growing up in Texas and going to the University of Texas at Austin. I went to UT as well.
Liz Smith: All this is in my book, and God, it was a great thing. I wouldn’t take anything for having grown up in Texas in its most recent sort of formative years. I was born in 1923, so I lived through the stock market crash as a child in 1929, and then I lived through the Great Depression. I’ve been through World War II and the economic revival of America and of Texas. And there were just so many adventures to have. Texas was old-fashioned when I was first growing up, and then Texas became more and more sophisticated and became what it is today. The university was an incredible revelation to me and made everything else that has happened in my life possible. I don’t think any of these wonderful things that have happened to me could have happened without an education at the university. So I love Texas and I love my roots and I wouldn’t take anything for it, and I’m sitting here right this minute looking at a rag rug somebody had made for me with the state of Texas in it and a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and it’s very cute. I put my feet on that every morning when I wake up.
JS: Did you study journalism at UT?
LS: I did.
JS: How was the program?
LS: We had great teachers. I mean, this was before they taught television. Television was in its infancy, so there were no classes for broadcast journalists. We were all print journalists, and we learned to write from writing for the Daily Texan and writing for the Texas Ranger, which was the college magazine. And it was a great experience, you know, just sensational. Everything good that’s happened to me in my life has happened from my having been born in Texas.
JS: Why the title Natural Blonde?
LS: Oh, just for fun. Just because after I began to do television in New York, the hairdressers made my hair lighter and lighter. And finally I became a blonde. I’ve had a lot more fun since I became a blonde, so I just thought it would be a funny title. And I think also it has a certain little philosophical meaning in that things are not always what they seem to be.
JS: If your book had a different title, if it were titled Natural Brunette, what would that be about?
LS: I don’t think it would have been as good. I think blondes have more fun. I was thinking of writing another book called Dark Roots. So that’s my next book.
JS: What’s that going to be about?
LS: Oh, it’ll just be more of my adventures in journalism and in life. I thought I’d go back over fifty years of writing and see what I had to say. We’ll see. I don’t know if I can bring this off or not.
JS: Looking back on your career, do you feel like it was charted for you?
LS: No. No, it more or less happened to me. Though, of course, it happened in journalism, so that part of it was charted. I owe everything to the journalism department of the University of Texas. But I certainly didn’t plan to become a gossip columnist. I was just in New York trying to make a living, and I would just bounce from one job to another—television producer, radio producer, press agent, magazine editor, movie reviewer, and finally they offered me a gossip column. And that made me rich and famous.
JS: So when you were little, you didn’t dream of being a gossip columnist?
LS: Well, I loved Walter Winchell as a kid, and I always tried to imitate him, but I don’t think I had any hope that I would be a bylined columnist any more than I had a hope that I would become a movie star.
JS: Do you feel like you had to work really hard to get where you are?
LS: I did work hard; I’m still working hard. I write six columns a week and do magazine articles and still do television, and I’m busy. And Ann Richards is moving up here to New York, and she and I are going to try to do a radio show together.
JS: Oh, that would be great.
LS: We’re hoping to do a radio show called Two Old Texas Broads Talking. We’ve been to see our agents, and there’s a lot of interest in it. If you print this, you’ll be printing a scoop.
JS: Are you friends with her?
LS: Yes, I’m very close friends with her. I couldn’t be doing a show with her if I wasn’t.
JS: When you were little, you liked cowboys and horses and all that.
LS: Oh, yeah, well, I was a typical little kid of the thirties, you know. I loved Tom Mix and I loved all of the cowboy stars.
JS: Do you think that’s affected your life in any way?
LS: Not really. It was just something to get over. I still keep a picture of Tom Mix, though, up in my apartment. I loved him. He was great. He was a cowboy star of the twenties and thirties.
JS: If you weren’t a columnist, what would you be?
LS: Gosh, I haven’t the vaguest idea. I’d probably try to be acting or something stupid that I wouldn’t do very well. I don’t know. I’d be writing somehow, I think.
JS: Have you ever been in any movies?
LS: Yeah, I’ve been in three movies. I was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was in The Fan with Lauren Bacall. I was in Garbo Talks, which was a movie that Sydney Lemet directed. I occasionally get little royalty checks of three dollars or two dollars and ten cents, or seventeen cents sometimes. It’s really quite funny. And I’ve done a lot of television shows. I did an episode on Becker with Ted Danson, I did Murphy Brown with Candy Bergen, I did The Nanny with Fran Drescher, I just did the new Martin Short comedy thing called Primetime Glick on Comedy Central. So, I’ve done a lot of television. But I’m no actor. I know that.
JS: Do you enjoy doing that?
LS: Sure, it’s fun. You get to see how show business works. How tedious it is, hurry up and wait. Making movies is really boring for me; it’s like watching paint dry. I wouldn’t be a very good actor; I’d hate to be an actor.
JS: Of all the people you have interviewed, who’s been the most interesting? the least interesting? the best?
LS: Oh, I don’t know. My most successful interviews were with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, when they were still married. I did a series of things on them that were important. All the reporting I did on the Trumps helped make me really famous, but I can’t single anything out as being the best. The director Mike Nichols is the most interesting person I’ve ever interviewed, or known. He’s just brilliant and witty and wonderful. I’ve met so many stars, television stars, radio, media stars, movie stars, you know. And most of them are kind of ordinary folk. There are a few exceptions like Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, where they are just so larger than life that your mouth sort of falls open in their presence. But I just try to treat them like I’d treat anybody I’ve met.
JS: What about a worst interview?
LS: I haven’t had too many bad interviews. You just occasionally have somebody who won’t say anything. I had an interview in Good Housekeeping this month with Julia Roberts on the cover, and I felt she was not forthcoming. And now I think it was because she was breaking up with that guy Benjamin Bratt, but she didn’t want to say so. I thought it was sort of a diffident, strange interview since I’ve known her a long time. I didn’t feel like I got anything out of her. To me—I love her—but that’s a bad interview. You want them to say something. They don’t want to.
JS: What’s the most shocking thing somebody has divulged to you?
LS: I don’t think anybody has said anything shocking to me. I wish I could get them to say shocking things and divulge things, but they usually don’t. You know, I don’t deal in scandal and shock much. I just try to deal with these people as human beings, which doesn’t make me a great reporter. I know you’re supposed to trick everybody into saying things they didn’t want to say. I can’t do that, that’s not my style.
JS: Do you think it’s really important to stay on the moral side?
LS: Well, I hope so. I’ve tried to be a good person in my life. I haven’t always succeeded, but I would hate to be an unprincipled person, wouldn’t you?
JS: Yes, I would.
LS: You know, do somebody wrong, tell a lie about them. Those are just things I wouldn’t do. I was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition of “Do Unto Others . . . “—the Golden Rule.
JS: You’re no longer Southern Baptist, right?
LS: No, I’m no longer anything. I’m just a doubting skeptic like most people are, really.
JS: So, you don’t go to any certain church or anything?
LS: I go to all churches. I love churches. I love to study religions, but I can’t embrace any one of them.
JS: Are there any that you like more than others?
LS: I like the whole Christian tradition very much. It’s hard for me to embrace all the supernatural aspects of it. But I think there’s something wonderful out there. Oh, and I’m writing a book about life after death. I’m writing a novel called . . . I don’t know, maybe you’ll think of a title for me. I don’t have a title yet.
JS: You’re writing a book about life after death?
LS: I am. I’m writing a comic novel about life after death.
JS: How far have you gotten?
LS: I’m pretty far along. I’d say it’s about a quarter finished. I don’t work on it much because when I start working on it I can’t do anything else. So I need to go away on a vacation and work on it and see if I can get it a little further along.
JS: What’s it about?
LS: It’s about a man on 60 Minutes who’s killed in a train wreck on his way to the Hamptons and he keeps wanting to go back to earth to finish unfinished business. And he’s in a sort of argument with God and the devil and all that. It’s supposed to be funny. I don’t know if it will be. If I could emulate anybody, it would be Joseph Heller, the guy who wrote Catch-22. He would be my idol for accomplishing this, and I don’t know if I can accomplish it. When I say it’s supposed to be funny, I don’t know if it will be.
JS: If you could go back and start all over, would you change anything that you’ve done in your life?
LS: Yeah, I wouldn’t have married the two men I married. I wouldn’t have caused them so much pain. I wasn’t meant to be married, so that’s all there is to that.
JS: Are you still friends with them?
LS: Yes. Well, one of them is dead. Yes, I’m still friends with my first husband who lives in Austin and is a wonderful guy. But I shouldn’t have caused him so much trouble.
JS: Do you have any words of wisdom or something to leave young journalists with?
LS: Learn to type. Learn to use computers. Employ these devices. Read. Get a liberal education if you’re going to be a writer. Study history, philosophy, stuff like that. Art.