“Well, I know y’all are probably on a deadline,” said newspaperwoman Liz Smith on the phone. She was, as she nearly always is, about to rush out the door of her office.
Ms. Smith, now 82, originally of Fort Worth, Tex., has lived in New York City since 1949, but she still retains a thick, honeyed twang. She has written her column since 1976; it runs in the New York Post. Frank Sinatra once famously called her “a dumpy, fat, ugly broad.”
And this September, on the retirement of Variety’s Army Archerd after 52 years, instead of hiring some young punk, the Hollywood industry rag began a new institution: a weekly “In New York” column by Ms. Smith.
So what’s she up to? “I write all the time,” Ms. Smith said. “I think that people who have their health, who like to work, still get up every single morning just like everyone else. They’re still ambitious; they live in a state of attention, like everyone else, that the world is coming to an end and ‘Am I going to be fired?’ and ‘Will I cut the mustard today?’
“Peggy Lee said, ‘Success is loving your work,’ and I believe that’s true. If you love your work, you want to go on working. Retirement is just anathema as an idea to me. My whole identification with my own ego, my personal life and whatever my place is in New York City’s recent history is tied up in my work. I can’t imagine not getting up every morning and reading all the papers and magazines and trying to catch up on what’s going on,” she said.
Her columns seem, from the outside, a daunting feat. “It’s sort of like riding a tiger,” Ms. Smith said. “You can’t dismount. I think the routine of deadlines is very healthy for intrinsically lazy people like me.
“Also,” she added, “I’m very much aware that my energy is just a gift that I didn’t deserve. You know, anybody can get sick or have a heart attack or a stroke—even young people.
“And I think older people are all younger now than they used to be: 60 is like 40 now—though I won’t say 80 is like 60.” Ms. Smith laughed. “They do the same things that young people do—they just don’t stay out all night dancing in Tribeca. I don’t do that anymore.” Instead, she confines her nightly activities to the only slightly earlier-ending charity circuit.
In the decades that Ms. Smith has been writing, both the presentation and the manufacture of gossip have evolved.
“The celebrity craze has engendered a lot of interest in gossip, but I don’t think gossip ever changes that much—it’s just very hard for the standard print media to beat the bloggers,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t read the blogs, because I’m afraid I’ll believe them.”
Ms. Smith rarely plays the nasty heavy in her column, though she confesses to having thrown her weight around now and then. “I don’t need to do what everyone else is doing,” she said. “I’m not talented at doing that anyway. Besides, in my paper alone there are other places you can read that. And in the Daily News, and the 5,000 weekly magazines that have inflicted themselves on us every Monday, with all the same story. And they all look so much alike! You can’t tell People from Us Weekly or Fame Weekly or whatever the names are.
“I try to keep up,” she said, “but I confess I can’t. Half the time, I don’t know who people are talking about. I read Page Six, but I would say I don’t know 40 percent of the people they’re writing about.”
It’s true that, for anyone with a sense of history, today’s gossip landscape makes very little sense. “The studios used to manufacture someone like Clark Gable or Joan Crawford, and you didn’t know much about them, and what you did know probably wasn’t even true,” she said. “They had mystique. There are so many venues now for writing—and that’s why they all get written about, and you get so sick of them. The public has developed a very short attention span for real news. Four days later, they’re ready to junk it and move on to the latest tragedy, tsunami, accusation or whatever.
“Technology is driving us all over the edge—I can’t imagine what’s going to happen,” Ms. Smith said. “The only reason I’d like to just keep living on and on, if I had my health, would be just to see what’s going to happen. I’m enormously curious—which I suppose is why retirement wouldn’t suit me. I’d just become an insatiable news junkie, and I’d die somewhere hunched over the keyboard. So I would much rather be working and going out and dressing up.”
Speaking of which: “Honey, can I go? I just put on some lipstick and everything,” Ms. Smith said. “If you need something, I’ll be writing at home over the weekend about Truman Capote for Harper’s Bazaar.”
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