The business-lunch crowd was beginning to trickle in around 12:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon at El Rio Grande, the Murray Hill restaurant where the gossip columnist Liz Smith is a regular (she lives upstairs). Ms. Smith, who is 85, has been writing gossip for nearly 32 years, and recently helped start a Web site for women over 40 that is, perhaps, where the mothers of the saucy lasses of the women’s blog Jezebel might hang out online. The site, Wowowow.com, stands for Women on the Web, and Ms. Smith’s partners in the venture read like a Who’s Who of the well preserved and the powerful: advertising guru Mary Wells; Joni Evans, who used to be the president of Simon & Schuster; Lesley Stahl, the 60 Minutes reporter; and Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist.
“We had hundreds of meetings and lunches. Well, not hundreds, but a lot,” said Ms. Smith in her slight Texas drawl. She wore a white button-down shirt tucked into khakis, a pink cotton sweater tied around her neck country-club style, and a western belt. Her hair is very blond, her lipstick very pink. She has bright blue eyes, one of which has a ring of green around the pupil. “It’s taken almost a year or two to launch. We had to design it, and then we wanted it to look very classy and different.
“We also got three major advertisers—Tiffany, Citigroup and Sony,” she said. “We got classy, upscale advertisers. We didn’t have any advertising director. We did all of that personally. So that’s why it took so long.”
The site is not dissimilar to an online version of The View, with posts by the site’s boldface contributors (Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Marlo Thomas and Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, among them); “Conversations” (icon: a coffee carafe), which feature the site’s contributors weighing in on a topic (“Age, Sex and the Sometimes Single Girl”) or interviews with prominent women of a certain age (Anjelica Huston, Diane von Furstenberg); and a Question of the Day. One of last week’s questions, “Should Silda Spitzer Stand by Her Man?”, generated almost 500 responses. Each of the Wow women has her own bio on the site, encapsulating what’s naughty and nice about being an older gal with gusto. In HBO producer Sheila Nevins’ bio, she writes: “I Respect: People who make it on their own. … I Use: A vibrator.”
Ms. Smith ordered a frozen margarita and an enchilada with chili. “And don’t put any of that green stuff or any of that white ricotta cheese on the top,” she said. “And refried beans. My life is refried, so why not?”
In her best-selling 2000 memoir, Natural Blonde, Ms. Smith describes her starry-eyed arrival in New York in 1949 with $50 in her pocket, after a small-town Texas upbringing and college at the University of Texas. Within three months, she had landed a job at Modern Screen, a fluffy movie-fan magazine, and from there she would work for, among others, Igor Cassini, who wrote the pseudonymous gossip column Cholly Knickerbocker for Hearst Newspapers; Candid Camera; and NBC. She would be the entertainment editor at Cosmopolitan and on contract at Sports Illustrated. (“They had guys writing for them who were the peer of every great writer in the past,” said Ms. Smith. “They gave them lots of money. They gave them incredible expense accounts. We used to go around the world, first-class! Three or four of us, on assignment!”) Meanwhile, she was making friends with the likes of Barbara Walters, Elaine Stritch, David Frost, Lee Bailey, Dominick Dunne, Robert Benton, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Mike Wallace.
In 1976, the Daily News hired her to write a gossip column, and in 1991 she left for the now-defunct New York Newsday for a reported $900,000 salary. When that paper folded in 1995, her column shifted to Newsday on Long Island, as well as the New York Post. Newsday declined to renew her contract in 2005, and since then she’s been pumping out three Post columns a week from her home office, where her longtime assistants Mary Jo and Dennis come in every weekday.
“So I’m having another career,” Ms. Smith said. “On top of all the other ones.”
In some ways it’s surprising that Ms. Smith would choose to launch a Web site as her latest venture; she freely admits to feeling “completely daunted” by the Internet, and Dennis even takes care of the tech aspect of filing her Post columns. Still, she is savvy enough to know what she doesn’t know. “I think the Internet is difficult,” she said. “It’s hard to use, hard to deal with. Nobody agrees with me. I guess I just don’t know how to do it. I’ve had lessons and everything. I’m always going back to bed with a book.”
Except on the nights she goes out! Ms. Smith still steps out several nights a week, particularly if her charities—Literacy Partners, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Police Athletic League, and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City—are involved. (Otherwise she stays in and watches the local news, then Jeopardy!) “But I know there’s still an enormous, youthful nightlife that I’m just not a part of,” Ms. Smith said. “Until the end of Studio 54, I was still doing it a lot! And I was already older than everybody else on the dance floor! It was great. I loved going out. And I loved the era, the ’50s particularly, when there were what they call supper clubs, like the Blue Angel. That was wonderful, because you go in and you see people like Mike Nichols and Elaine May and all kinds of cabaret performers. You got all dressed up and men had to wear coats and ties.