The dish on Liz Smith

Why she celebrates her birthday in a room packed with friends -- and Matt Drudge probably celebrates his all alone. Plus: The Time AOL wars are over, and everybody lost.

Published February 6, 2003 11:49PM (EST)

Jack Welch said to me the other night that he loved living at the top of the Trump Building because every time he looked out the window at night and saw the lights of Manhattan, "I felt I had the world by the ass."

New York City is good at providing such moments, even in its battered state. Big-time birthday parties, for instance, are designed to be power-packed, full-blown, grape-draped, world-by-the-ass Roman triumphs. Liz Smith's 80th birthday bash at Le Cirque classifies as one of these, distilled to a small, intense scale. The social warriors of Manhattan hate giving up their Sunday nights in front of their plasma TVs. But they all showed up for the game Texas blonde whose big, glamorous pumpkin face and megawatt smile have become the symbol of Big City glitz. I mean everyone from Tom Wolfe to Tommy Tune. Victoria Gotti, incidentally, now has that Jocelyn Wildenstein look, which was apt since her dinner partner was Dr. Dan Baker.

It was the kind of party where you collide in the ladies room with Bette Midler freshening up her war paint and Liza Minnelli fiddling with her shoe. (Bette later sang "Happy Birthday" and Minnelli, in full Liza freak-show drag of spiked black hair and minidress, got Liz up to the mike for a duet of "New York, New York.") Mike Bloomberg read out a spoof proclamation making it Liz Smith Day. In his toast, the indefatigably clever Mike Nichols did one of his synaptic leaps, this one between Liz's largeness of spirit and Mary, Queen of Scots. You get the idea.

Liz Smith's great scientific breakthrough was the discovery that gossip can be nice, a concept from which British newspapers are genetically free. Liz figured out how to be nice long before magazines like Hello! and InStyle came along. She uses niceness the way Walter Winchell used to use nastiness. Winchell relied on fear to keep the juicy items coming. Smith relies on gratitude. Winchell loved to reveal that this or that celebrity couple were, as he used to put it, pfft! But celebrities call Liz directly to announce their divorces. That's why, as the banker Vernon Jordan put it in one of the toasts, Liz Smith celebrated her birthday in a room packed with friends and Matt Drudge probably celebrates his birthday in a hotel room alone.

Niceness doesn't always make you powerful, though. It can get you taken for granted or despised. That's why Winchell preferred fear. Liz's niceness comes with just enough barbecued Texan censure that it makes celebrities who catch it feel they had a bad phone call from their mom. ("She's right! I shouldn't have married him!")

Every so often Smith's Rooseveltian liberal values are offended and she rises up and puts the boot in. (She tore into Bush's fundamentalist pieties the other night on "The Charlie Rose Show.") It takes time to know how to read her column for the subtext of city life. Sometimes the niceness is a useful index to just how badly everyone else may be trashing the person mentioned. I came to dread her encomiums about me when Talk magazine was on its last legs.

There were other reasons too for the warmth in the room on Sunday night. With the question of "whether war" suddenly gearshifting to "when war" -- and with the space shuttle shockingly disintegrating over the heartland -- all these hardy, hearty partygoers were feeling shaky. Most of the 125 guests, including the maitre d', were old friends who came to New York a long time ago to make it -- fellow travelers in success, failure and eyelifts. They are not used to feeling scared.

Toward the end of the night, a young crooner called Michael Bublé, who has a voice like the early Frank Sinatra and was flown in by Warner Bros. Records as a birthday surprise, serenaded Smith at her table with "The Way You Look Tonight." It was a moment of unapologetic Manhattan schmaltz, but there was a kind of rapt hopefulness in the room when this spangled and seasoned New York dame slowly rose to join him in a dancing embrace that ended in a lingering lip-lock. Liz is 80. Liz is a self-confessed lover of women. But, baby, it's cold outside -- so can't we all play let's pretend?

The New York Times did another huge takeout on the shambles left by the AOL Time Warner deal over the weekend and Ted Turner has been letting it all hang out on "60 Minutes II." Now that the esteemed CEO Dick Parsons is the last man standing, business journalists are going to miss covering the antics of the gang of four who created all this mayhem. Abrasive Steve Case. Machiavellian Gerry Levin. Flash Bob Pittman. Motor-mouthed Ted. Forget the finances, forget the game plan; these personalities were never going to share anything. How could Case, the die-hard Republican with the Pizza Hut sensibility, ever fuse his company with the Time Warner culture of bicoastal country club liberalism?

Mergers are fraught with what corporate lawyers like to refer to as "the social issues." Ted Turner, for instance, still smarts from the slights at the time of the first merger in 1996 between Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting. In the press, Levin had done a lot of talking about how he and Ted were "partners" and even "best friends," yet Levin had never invited Turner to his house for dinner.

It might seem surprising that Turner, a craggy giant of a man who is the largest land holder in the United States after the federal government, would care if small, ferrety Gerry asked him 'round for dinner. But Ted did care. He felt dissed. He used to honk away about it like a frog on a lily pad.

Perhaps the very concept of a "merger" is a business myth that inevitably leads to feelings of disappointment and betrayal. It might be healthier to talk about conquest. In order to be functional, one company has to chew up and swallow the other. Then a new dictator has to be found to run it. "Merger" is just a euphemistic weasel-word like "compassionate conservatism." Time AOL was a corporate war where everybody lost.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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