Renowned Gossip Columnist Liz Smith Dies At 94

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — Gossip columnist Liz Smith, whose mixture of banter, barbs, and bon mots about the glitterati helped her climb the A-list as high as many of the celebrities she covered, died Sunday.

CBS News confirmed that Smith died in New York on Sunday at the age of 94. She died of natural causes, literary agent Joni Evans told the Associated Press.

MORE FROM CBS NEWS

Mary Elizabeth Smith was born on February 2, 1923 in Fort Worth, Texas. According to her publicist, Smith would often say one of her greatest pleasures was sneaking into the neighbor’s house while the other kids played outside and reading the family’s New Yorker magazines.

She told the New York Times she also spent her childhood listening to the legendary gossip Walter Winchell.

Smith married high school sweetheart George Edward Beeman – a World War II bombardier – in 1945, but they divorced two years later, her publicist said. She went on to enroll at the University of Texas, and boarded a train for New York City after graduating.

Smith came to the old Penn Station with a suitcase and a smile, and also a degree in journalism and an impressive typing ability, according to her publicist. But she also had only $50 and no job, according to the Times.

Still, she found work as a typist and proofreader and soon became a producer for Mike Wallace – later of “60 Minutes” fame – back when Wallace was on CBS Radio.

For nearly 30 years, Smith bounced from job to job: publicist for singer Kaye Ballard; assistant to Mike Wallace and Candid Camera creator Allen Funt; ghostwriter for Igor Cassini’s “Cholly Knickerbocker” gossip column.

Smith ultimately wrote for nine New York newspapers and dozens of magazines, but it was a stint writing for Cosmopolitan that led to her break. While establishing herself as an authority on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Smith attracted the attention of the New York Daily News.

Smith’s famed gossip column, titled “Liz Smith,” began at the New York Daily News began in February 1976. During a newspaper strike in 1978, she appeared on WNBC-TV, NBC4’s newscasts – and continued there for 11 years. She won a local Emmy for her reporting in 1985.

Ten years later she jumped to Fox, and she later did work for the cable channel E! Entertainment Television.

Smith’s column later appeared in nearly 70 papers around the country as she became known as the “Dame of Dish.” Her reporting on now-President Donald Trump’s divorce from Ivana Trump divorce made front-page news.

In the Trump divorce, she chose the side of Ivana — the wronged woman. Her coverage was so well-known that she became highest-paid columnist in the country. Trump said he would buy the Daily News just to fire her, The New York Times reported earlier this year.

“I was swept up in the scandal of Ivana wanting a decent settlement from Donald. And I became a featured player in the story, which I came to regret,” she told the Times.

Afterward, she signed a deal with Newsday and became the highest-paid columnist in the country.

Smith’s publicist noted that gossip was “news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” In addition to the rich and famous and their activities, she also wrote about books, movies and theatre.

And unlike Winchell and his imitators, Smith succeeded with kindness and an aversion to cheap shots. Whether reporting on entertainers, politicians or power brokers, the “Dame of Dish” never bothered with unfounded rumors, sexual preferences or who’s-sleeping-with-whom.

“When she escorts us into the private lives of popular culture’s gods and monsters, it’s with a spirit of wonder, not meanness,” wrote Jane and Michael Stern in reviewing Smith’s 2000 autobiography, “Natural Blonde,” for the New York Times Book Review.

By 2005, Smith had left Newsday for the New York Post – where she continued until 1989. The Liz Smith column subsequently appeared online in the New York Social Diary, where she shared her byline with longtime collaborator and friend Denis Ferrara until her death, her publicist said.

She was married a second time, but it was also short-lived.

In between all the parties, movie premieres and late-night soirees at celebrity hangouts like Elaine’s, Smith found time to host an ever-widening array of charity fund-raisers.

Smith’s publicist said the columnist found herself horrified 40 years ago to learn that 750,000 New Yorkers could not read or write at a fifth-grade level. She raised $37 million over the years for Literacy Partners, which has helped more than 27,000 adults learn reading, her publicist said.

Smith also raised millions to help fight AIDS, and raised funds for the NY Landmarks Conservancy, the Police Athletic League, Maria Droste Counseling Services, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Mayor’s Fund when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor, her publicist said.

She also wrote numerous books, including “Dishing” – a humorous book about gossip and food, as well as her autobiography, “Natural Blonde,” which on the New York Times bestseller’s list for many months.

In her 2000 memoir “Natural Blonde,” Smith came out as bisexual. She told “60 Minutes’” Wallace that she fell in love with a woman when she attended the University of Texas in Austin.

The incident led to a temporary rift with her own parents, and she labels it “unfortunate.”

But she has no embarrassment about her love affairs over the years with men or women.

“I’m not ashamed. I’ve had a wonderful time,” Smith told Wallace.

Smith held a lighthearted opinion of her own legacy.

“We mustn’t take ourselves too seriously in this world of gossip,” she told The Associated Press in 1987. “When you look at it realistically, what I do is pretty insignificant.

“Still, I’m having a lot of fun.”

As CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer offered some thoughts about Smith’s legacy at a news conference on another subject Sunday.

“Liz Smith always looked for the positive in people, and probably we need some Liz Smiths today – given how negative some of the columnists and some of the things on the internet are,” Schumer said.

In relatively recent years, Smith spoke on “Larry King Live” about her career and how the industry has changed.

“I think we can’t deny that times and morals have changed enormously,” she said. “There’s a lot more you can say now, and I guess people just keep pushing the envelope.

Late Sunday, Smith’s subjects reversed roles and wrote about her on social media.

The cause of Smith’s death was not known late Sunday, though she had recently suffered a stroke.

Smith’s publicist said she is survived by a large and loving group of nieces and nephews. A memorial service for Smith will be held in the spring.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

More From CBS New York

CELEBRATING 50 YEARS
Get Our Morning Briefs
Bloomberg WCBS Tri-State Business Index

Watch & Listen LIVE