It’s been said that the late Liz Smith was a different breed of gossip columnist. Where others rolled around in the muck and reported on who was sleeping with whom, Smith preferred to take a different tack with her insider knowledge. But that didn’t mean she didn’t break some big news.
1. The Donald’s first divorce
Possibly her most famous gossip get was the 1990 split between Donald Trump and his then wife, Ivana. Smith had become friendly with the couple through New York social circles, gaining invites to family events like anniversary and birthday dinners, even going so far as to travel with the duo. And then Ivana confessed to Smith that all was not well between her and the Donald. In the midst of her relationship drama, Ivana invited Smith to meet with her at the Plaza Hotel, which Donald owned at the time.
“When I got there, she threw herself in my arms and told me that Donald didn’t want her anymore,” Smith told NPR in 2009. “And I tried to give her some motherly advice. I said, ‘Get yourself a PR person who’s respectable and defend yourself against him.'”
Even though the Texan tried not to write about it at Ivana’s request, the heat was on, and Smith was forced to call Donald for a comment. “He said, ‘I like Ivana; I might get back with her.’ I couldn’t believe it: ‘I like Ivana,’” Smith told the New Yorker. “Everyone had misjudged Donald. People thought he would be alarmed if it was revealed that he was having an affair [with Marla Maples, whom he later married]. But it turned out he didn’t give a s*** if people knew.” She broke the story in the New York Daily News and wound up covering it for three months solid. Donald reportedly threatened to buy the newspaper just so he could fire Smith. (He was into firing even then.)
Smith did something shocking in her reporting of the Trump split though: She took sides — and supported Ivana through the coverage. At the time, she wrote, “She still wants to be his wife… But the bottom line is, she won’t give up her self-respect to do it.” And she added, “Intimates say she had every chance to continue being Mrs. Trump by allowing her husband to live in an open marriage.” Smith was candid about her support of Ivana in those days, telling the New York Times that she was “horrified” by how Donald was treating her, but that defending her was a “mistake.”
“This is always fatal for your aspirations to be taken seriously as a reporter,” Smith said. “But I had no choice. I had to be nice to them for a while to get access to them. I didn’t particularly approve of them. I didn’t like or dislike them, and I met his whole family and they were charming. So 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.”
2. Elizabeth Taylor’s star-studded wedding at Neverland Ranch
Smith’s rise to fame reportedly came on the heels of becoming the foremost authority on actress Elizabeth Taylor and her on-again-off-again beau and husband, actor Richard Burton, while Smith was working at Cosmopolitan. Smith spoke fondly of the late actress in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last year, saying that not only did she love Taylor, but that the actress was “just snarky and funny and crazy. Selfish and tremendously generous at the same time.”
She reportedly traveled with the couple (“I practically lived with them in Rome and Paris,” Smith said), and often broke some delicious scoop around Taylor. For example, there was the story related in Smith’s 2000 memoir, Natural Blonde, detailing how Taylor arrived in Leningrad, the former name of Saint Petersburg, Russia, for the filming of The Bluebird with 2,800 pounds of luggage — including food for the picky actress, who also demanded to bathe in ”bottled distilled water” because she though the city’s supply “often ran bright green and smelled of sulfur.”
But Smith’s best Taylor moment came in 1991 when the actress was marrying her eighth and final husband, Larry Fortensky. Taylor was attempting to make the wedding a press-less affair, but Smith made Taylor a deal: In exchange for attendance, she’d donate money to Taylor’s charitable passion, AIDS research. Taylor accepted, and Smith was granted entry, which gave her unprecedented access to the festivities — held at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch — and all the celebrities who were there.
Her attendance was notable enough that the New York Times called it out in its coverage of the wedding — and cited Smith’s quote from Taylor about the event, in which Taylor shared, “Well, I’ve been single for 10 years. I always thought, knowing my nature as a ‘marrying kind of woman,’ that I would try, just one more time, before I die.”
3. Madonna’s controversial first pregnancy
Smith, who was one of the first gossips to start covering Madonna, was also responsible for officially breaking the news of Madonna’s pregnancy with her now 21-year-old daughter, Lourdes Leon, in the New York Post. At the time, Smith was a columnist at the paper, and said, “Madonna wanted the news released in as low-key a manner as possible” – which, for the pop star, meant it was Page 1 news.
Smith later defended Madonna amid a brouhaha surrounding her marital status, pointing to her divorce from Sean Penn as her impetus behind not marrying Lourdes’s father, trainer Carlos Leon. Said Smith, “Madonna can’t do anything right as far as most of the press is concerned. I think if she took the veil it would be criticized.”
Years later, Smith said of their friendship, “She’s an extremely talented, deeply complicated woman. We were close for a while, or as close as anyone can get to her. The first time we met, she glowered at me and said, ‘Aren’t you scared of me?’ I just laughed. We got along real well after that.”
4. Patti LuPone’s dressing room meltdown
Smith was also known for enraging another powerful songstress: the legendary Broadway star Patti LuPone. As LuPone recounted in her memoir, Andrew Lloyd Webber was messing with her over her role in Sunset Boulevard. Meryl Streep was considering the role of Norma Desmond, Barbra Streisand recorded a couple songs, and then after LuPone opened the show in L.A., Glenn Close took over in the Broadway production. LuPone reportedly received a massive settlement for the drama, but not before creating some of her own. It was Smith who announced Close as LuPone’s replacement in the show — and LuPone didn’t take it well.
“I took batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp,” LuPone wrote. “I swung at everything in sight — mirrors, wig stands, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, everything. Then I heaved the lamp out the second-floor window.” (This was years after Chris Brown tried something similar at Good Morning America.)
5. Her boss Rupert Murdoch’s divorce announcement
As if one high-profile divorce drama wasn’t enough, Smith found also herself in the middle of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s divorce from his wife Anna, to whom he’d been married for 31 years. Smith broke the news in her New York Post column — as the paper was owned by Murdoch at the time. The New York Times reported Smith had shared Murdoch’s side of the split. Of the split, Smith wrote, “It is with some personal sadness that I announce the amicable separation of Rupert Murdoch and his beautiful wife Anna after 31 years of marriage and three children.
“The Murdochs say their situation is very painful and leaves them torn but they are attempting to work out their differences,” she continued. “Mrs. Murdoch, a novelist and philanthropist, will remain on the board and continue in the Murdoch businesses.”
Years later, Smith spoke to THR about her experience working with Murdoch, who eventually fired her when she was 86 years old.
“I was more shocked than anyone. I thought I was indispensable. Looking back, I just wasn’t what the powers that be wanted. And I don’t think it had anything to do with Murdoch himself,” Smith shared. “He liked me well enough and I had been nice to his family when they were virtually unknown here. I went to see him after they fired me and I asked for my job back. He was very sweet and complimentary and finally he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s an editorial thing, Liz. I can’t interfere with the Post‘s editors.’ I burst out laughing. I said, ‘Of course you can!’ And then he started laughing too. But then he said he was sorry and kissed me on the cheek, and that was that. But the whole thing hurt my feelings and my stature as a columnist. I’ve had to struggle to make an adequate living since then.”
Smith’s struggles in her later years were well documented, casting a somber mood over the gossip guru’s final days. But with scoops like these in the annals of the Gossip Hall of Fame – and a friend list including Tom Hanks, Liza Minnelli, and many others — her legend will live on.
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