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 to grow up in Midland, I have to laugh.
LS: Midland is a place you want to pass through.
ES: You’ll make a lot of friends in Midland with this interview.
LS: Should I lie?
ES: I know it’s not in your nature.
LS: Oh, it is in my nature, but I’m not going to lie about that. I lived in Midland-Odessa during World War II. And I had gone to Hardin-Simmons [before transferring to the University of Texas] with a girl whose family had a ranch there, and I had a roommate who was from Sweetwater, so I went to West Texas a lot. To me it was fun, because it was really Western in a way that my upbringing hadn’t been. It was raucous and rowdy, even if you couldn’t get a drink. I enjoyed the hoopla of it. But there was no there there. Between Fort Worth and El Paso, I didn’t really see much reason to stop, unless I was going to somebody’s ranch or something.
ES: In fairness to the president, you’ve never met him, have you?
LS: I’ve never met him. I met her.
ES: What do you think of Mrs. Bush?
LS: I like her just fine, and I admire her efforts on behalf of books and reading. I would do anything I could to help her. It’s just that she’s so guarded, sort of like The Stepford Wives. She tries not to let herself be known, though she’s entitled to [be that way]. She didn’t ask to be the first lady. She went along with him, and she’s probably an enormously good influence on him.
ES: We got sidetracked on politics, but I want to come back to entertainment. If you don’t write about gossip, what then?
LS: I’ve become more of a social observer. I report on new things I see, or new trends, like what women are wearing on the red carpet. It’s soft porn; it’s how little these starlets and movie actresses can wear and get away with. There isn’t much of a difference between Hilary Swank in the totally backless dress she wore at the Oscars and the woman from Desperate Housewives who dropped her towel in that ad. I’m not particularly against flashy stuff, but equating it with fashion? I don’t know.
ES: This is what a lot of entertainment has come to be about.
LS: There are magazines that don’t print anything but pictures of what these people wore and where, and they label them as “fashion victims.” It’s voyeuristic trash. It’s a horrible waste of time and effort.
ES: Leaving aside the fashion stuff, are the stars of today less interesting as personalities than the people you once knew?
LS: I’ll say they are. They haven’t been groomed and trained by the studios, which in the old days would have taught them how to wear riding clothes, smoke cigarettes, speak a little French, and hold a cup. It was like a college education. And nothing like that exists now. Renée Zellweger and Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts are likable and attractive, but they don’t begin to have that kind of glamour. You know, no one ever mixed up Bette Davis and Joan Fontaine and Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. They were total individuals. If you look at Us Weekly or InStyle, there’s a sameness to everyone. There are all these couples that look alike and have on their worst clothes. They’re wearing sweats, sneakers, caps, and T-shirts, and maybe they have some tattoos. They look terrible, like street people. And they present these images of themselves as down-to-earth, happily married for fifteen minutes, wanting a baby if they don’t already have one, and then the public gets totally invested in this bullshit of whether they stay together or not. The biggest story of last year, you know, was Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston breaking up. I went to dinner parties with really intelligent people who actually sat there and analyzed whether they would get back together. And they wanted me to discuss it because I’m supposed to know! But I don’t know any more than they do.
ES: You told me you’ve never met Brad or Jennifer. What does the fact that such a big-time gossip columnist hasn’t met them say about the way Hollywood and journalism have changed?
LS: Nobody doing what I’m doing is important anymore. Not in the way [Walter] Winchell, [Dorothy] Kilgallen, Hedda [Hopper], and Louella [Parsons] were important.
LS: There’s too many of us. Entertainment writing has been vitiated by there being so much of it. Once upon a time, columnists like Winchell could make the stock market go up and down. Hedda and Louella actually ruined people’s careers. People were terrified of them. Clark Gable would go to Louella to see if it was okay to marry Carole Lombard. You can’t imagine anyone doing that now.
ES: Could you make or ruin someone’s career? Could anybody?
LS: Oh, no. The nearest thing to a starmaker is Vanity Fair. It has this aura of glamour and this fabulous photography. So what they all want is the cover of Vanity Fair, and there are only twelve of those a year. One of them is given to music and one to film, so there are ten that you could maybe get by yourself if you’re big enough. And then the women want Vogue and [Harper’s] Bazaar, and then they want Elle.
ES: And they say celebrity journalism is dead.
LS: Well, that’s ridiculous. It’s the only kind of journalism that isn’t dead. It’s absolutely burgeoning; there’s so much of it that you can’t cope. My bet is you couldn’t identify 90 percent of the people in Us Weekly if they didn’t run captions. I might not be able to identify 50 percent. It’s not possible to keep up, because there’s an entire new generation of young people, and you can’t really know who they are until you’ve seen them do something on the stage, on the screen, or on television. I only know who the people on Will & Grace and Frasier are because I’ve seen the reruns.
ES: It’s amazing who’s a star and who’s not a star.
LS: It’s amazing how seldom they ever translate into the other kind of big stardom. It very rarely happens.
ES: Even understanding the difference between the bygone era of Hollywood and today, are there big stars anymore—people whom you look at and think, “That person’s a star”?
LS: Oh, sure. Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, and Clint Eastwood are the old ones. Dustin [Hoffman] is still a star; now he’s just kind of a character actor, but he’s great. [Robert] De Niro. Then there are all kinds of young stars: Kate Hudson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Renée [Zellweger], who I became very friendly with because she’s from Texas. She’s a nice girl, a real person. And then there’s Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock and Charlize Theron and that gang.
ES: So there are stars after all.
LS: The problem is they only want to be seen when they’re selling something, and that’s boring. Nobody likes being hustled. I’m trying not to hustle my new book, which, if you didn’t know anything about it, would be extremely boring.
ES: As opposed to your social life over the years, which is the basis for the book. It’s hard to imagine young people in Hollywood today, or even young people in journalism today, gathering in the kinds of settings you write about: a dinner party at Nora Ephron’s, a dinner party at Barbara Walters’s. It’s all very old-fashioned. I’m just not imagining a dinner party at Orlando Bloom’s.
LS: Listen, there’s no question that everything I’m reporting is about people of a certain age. These people today, these young stars, get dressed up only to go on the red carpet. They don’t get dressed up the rest of the time. They’re busy with their diets and their Botox and their trainers and all of that. And they’re always escaping the paparazzi! I don’t know that any of them ever have any fun. I don’t see any kind of real social life for them. I think that’s why a lot of them love to come to New York and work in the theater.
ES: It’s its own social life.
LS: Yeah. If you get in a play, other actors come to see you, and they come backstage afterward and compliment you or they want to meet you; they would never meet you otherwise, and you would never meet them. And then you coalesce into groups and go to theater-type restaurants like Joe Allen. So there’s a little community life.
ES: For them and for you, it helps to be in New York, I’m sure.
LS: New York has this small-town thing; you see the same people a lot, and all the media people. I know almost everyone working in magazines and TV news; Tom [Brokaw], Dan [Rather], and Peter [Jennings] are very good friends of mine. I’ve responded to the kind of social milieu I’ve gotten into, though of course I’ve always tried to keep all my old friends who didn’t have any money. As I said, I’ve always lived in two kinds of worlds. This other world, of these really important people and people with lots of money, I just lucked into, because, you know, I’m not in that class. They say, “Come in our helicopter to Vero Beach,” and I go. They’re great. I have a good time with them.
ES: So, professionally speaking, how long do you think that good time will continue? How long do you see yourself writing the column and playing the gadabout?
LS: I wouldn’t retire, but if my papers get bored with me or think I’m too old or whatever, I might be forced to. Right now I know I’m going to go on at least for two more years. If I quit working, I would just start reading, and then I would turn into a very sedentary person. I hope I don’t have to stop working. I don’t see any reason to.