The inner Liz

Gossip columnist Liz Smith loves celebrities and, she now reveals, other women. So why can't she love herself?

By Amy Reiter
September 27, 2000 11:56AM (UTC)
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OK, look, I know what you want to know. As far as I can tell, the answer is yes: Liz Smith is gay. And yes, she kind of outs herself in her tell-some memoir, "Natural Blonde." Kind of.

After sprinkling hints like bread crumbs throughout the book's first few chapters, in which she relates her Texas childhood ("Daddy bragged about me. 'My best boy!' he'd whisper, holding me between his legs ... Hello, Dr. Freud!"), the gossip columnist serves up her big self-scoop. Having divorced her husband after a little more than a year of marriage -- "long enough for me to know it wasn't working for me" -- Smith arrived at the University of Texas to study journalism. She writes:

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Then -- bang, something incredible happened. I fell in love. My actress friend Holland Taylor says that falling in love is like being hit by a truck. Well, that was me. I was flat. The only problem was ... the object of my affection was a woman.

What follows is poignant and sad but, given that this was the Bible Belt in the 1940s, not particularly surprising. While Smith says neither she nor her lover "stopped to feel guilty, just a bit confused," the love affair was abruptly aborted when the women's families discovered the steamy mash notes the lovers had secretly been sending each other.

The scandalized families sprang into action and Smith's lover, "shattered by her loss of face with her fine, upstanding, beloved good Christian family," left school without so much as a goodbye, refused to speak with Smith again and quickly married. "In time," Smith writes, "I came to see that as a good pragmatic move."

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Her own mother upbraided her for committing "a sin, a blasphemy against nature." Smith felt that if she could just convey "how strong and pure my feelings were, she'd understand. But the more she wept and prayed, the more I saw how useless it was -- hopeless." Her father refused to speak with her for months.

They'd patch things up, but nothing would ever be the same. "I don't believe I ever said an unfettered, open, frank or totally honest word to either of my parents again," she writes. "I told them what they wanted to hear. I was careful with their feelings, their prejudices, their beliefs and value systems."

Slam went the closet door.

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Not only did Smith studiously avoid mentioning female lovers to her parents again, she never again acknowledged any to her readers -- or even any interest in women beyond friendship. In fact, she spends pretty much the rest of the book describing all the Hollywood men she has fallen for -- Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty, even Rock Hudson ("I would doodle 'Mrs. Rock Hudson' on the pad by my bed") -- in what seems like a somewhat desperate attempt to minimize the truth she has shared about her college love affair.

Is Smith simply treating her readers like her parents, telling us what we want to hear, being careful with what she perceives to be our feelings, prejudices, beliefs and value systems? Does she ever say another "unfettered, open, frank or totally honest word" to her readers again? And just how aware is she of her slipperiness when it comes to further self-revelation -- is she merely eluding us or actually deluding herself?

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You gotta wonder. Based on the evidence in "Natural Blonde" (which Smith, by the way, isn't), it's hard not to conclude that Smith barely exists outside her connection to celebrities. She defines herself through them, lives her life surrounded by them, makes her living as their conduit. But just who is she?

Smith's version of her adult life often reads like a big screwball comedy. After college, she escapes her parents' small town and small minds and takes off for the big city: New York, USA, where a little lady from Texas who thinks she's silent-film star Tom Mix is about the most wholesome thing going and where struggles with sexual identity, family expectations, religion and morality give way to adventures a go-go.

Working a string of jobs in journalism and TV, she meets star after star and endears herself to them all by inundating them with self-effacing flattery. Here she is gushing to Tallulah Bankhead, there to former President Truman and there to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Even years later, spotting author James Jones on a plane, she kneels down (!) beside him and whispers, "Mr. Jones, your book 'The Thin Red Line' is the greatest war novel ever written. I am a big fan." The actors, politicians and writers all eat up her abundant admiration, deem her "smart" and "refreshing" -- and she basks in the bits of attention they throw her way in return.

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(The only star impervious to her compliments, it seems, is Woody Allen, who once stopped her midburble. "Now, look," she recalls him saying, "your comments are nice, but a total waste of time. Tell me things I don't know. Talk about yourself, your life ... But don't talk about me and my past work. I don't get anything out of that!" Smith takes a little poke at him for resisting her blandishments, but Allen has just risen back up a few whopping notches in my book.)

By abasing herself -- or erasing herself -- and worshiping (a word she often uses) at the altar of celebrity, Smith has gained access that has carried her far in her gossip career. She has become the ultimate insider, hanging out with Liz Taylor, Barbara Walters and Julia Roberts one minute and writing about them the next. Happy to stretch out in the aisle of an airplane when Walters invites her on an overbooked charter flight or to lend Elaine Stritch the best of her wardrobe and leave herself with the dregs, she portrays herself as the perpetual "Indian" to her circle of "chiefs" and "superchiefs." She is, she says, "happy just 'to be along for the limousine ride' of others who were famous" -- apparently even if it occasionally means riding on the fender.

Regardless of their treatment of her, she views her celebrity friends through a scrim of love, and knowing this, they've given her access -- and exclusive after exclusive. ("My column was not very critical of celebrities," she writes. "I tried to give everyone a break.") It was access that would bring her the biggest scoop of her career -- the Trump divorce -- which she dined out on for many months and eventually parlayed into a six-figure raise.

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"I didn't question my ethics," she writes. "So far as the philosophy goes, I have always felt that the chief thing for a columnist to have is access. Then after you get it, you can weigh how far you want to go, whether you need to blow the connection by telling 'the truth -- the whole truth -- and nothing but,' or whether you can straddle a true middle course in reporting."

Although she admits to having a hard time taking stands and making enemies, Smith's love scrim does have its snags, through which she is intermittently revealed. She takes a dim view of famous folks who dis gay people (Lee Radziwill, film and theater critic John Simon, Mel Gibson) or women (Sinatra, Sean Connery, Allen Funt) or her friends. But she's quick to forgive.

Take what she has termed her "love affair with Frank Sinatra." Offended by "Sinatra's chutzpah, his hubris, his attitude toward women, his laxity in regard to the Mob [and] his volatile temper," Smith bravely allowed herself to dub him a "bully" in her column after he called a female reporter a "two-bit hooker." Sinatra immediately began braying to the world that Smith was "fat, old and ugly" and that she "preferred Debbie Reynolds to Burt Reynolds."

But when a mutual friend brokered a dinner between the two, Smith agreed and dressed for the meal as if she were "a girl on a first date." Next scene? She's admiring his "soft blue eyes," his "beautiful French cuffs, a fantastic silk tie, wonderful hands with clean strong nails and sexy wrists," and telling him he's the greatest singer of his time. "I tried to stop myself, but I couldn't," she writes. "I loved him. I had a feeling for what it would be like to be in his strong and capable arms ... I was Sinatra's slave."

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So much for making enemies.

But for all her "love affairs" with famous men -- she says Beatty, Norman Mailer and Artie Shaw have all made passes at her -- and her over-the-top descriptions of them (Mike Wallace, for instance, is at one point called "impossibly sexy ... testosterone in motion"), here's how she describes the woman with whom she had a 15-year live-in relationship, archaeologist Iris Love: "Her intelligent face had a simian cast, as if she were some glamorized character from 'Planet of the Apes.'"

Ouch!

But here's the really sad part. Although Love and Smith's relationship was well-known in New York circles for years, Smith refers to Love only as a "friend" and a "pal" in "Natural Blonde." Describing their "friendship" midbook in five short pages, Smith contends that Love moved in with her because her apartment-office was "more convenient to Manhattan occasions." She traveled with the professor as "her pupil" and portrays their relationship as all business. "I paid her bills, handled her mail, social calendar, clippings, photos, her archaeological library and her burgeoning family of dogs," Smith writes. Love eventually moved out because Smith "simply didn't want all that responsibility on top of [her] own rather demanding career." No mention of sexy wrists and strong and capable arms -- or of love.

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Smith does refer to Love several times later in the book, but it's never in particularly warm or flattering terms. And of Kitty Kelley's "fantastic aside" in her Nancy Reagan book that Smith had been "living openly for years with another woman in New York," Smith says, "I didn't quite get this stupid and arcane implication."

In instances like these Smith comes across as something of an unreliable narrator. Yet it's never quite clear from the book just how aware of this she is: Has she gained access to herself and then decided she doesn't want to tell "the truth -- the whole truth -- and nothing but," or has she denied herself access altogether?

It's possible that Smith withheld information for Love's sake, but in a recent interview in New York magazine, she admits that she didn't deal with the relationship "straightforwardly" in the book and that Love was hurt by her portrayal. For someone who has made her living by being careful not to step on the toes of people she worships from afar, allowing herself a full-booted stomp on the feelings of a woman she was involved with for more than a decade seems strange -- in fact, it seems a woeful skimping on the love she dishes out so lavishly to almost everyone else.

And that makes "Natural Blonde," for all its good-time celebrity adventures and half-baked bravery, ultimately sort of sad. This book is Liz Smith's memoir of the woman she wants to be -- who is apparently not quite the same as the woman she is.

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At the end of her book, Smith writes, "When the Fates ladled out their stuff, they said: 'We'll make this one insecure and give her an inferiority complex. She'll end up behaving as if she has a massive ego, so no one will know the difference."

But we do, Liz. We do.


Amy Reiter

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