Liz Smith has had a lifetime to perfect the art of digesting and dispensing other people's secrets. She has learned to be judicious. She has made mistakes.
It must be a relief to her, then, to be writing, for a change, about herself.
To be sure, "Natural Blonde," Smith's memoir about her 70-odd years, is brimming with celebrities, and Smith has had to handle them with care. Her own secrets, though, are hers to do with what she will. And boy, does she have a ball.
Smith was telling stories a long time before she began her famous gossip column, which appears in The Buffalo News. Her early career took her to Cosmopolitan magazine; Sports Illustrated; television, where she worked with Alan Funt on "Candid Camera"; and CBS Radio, where she worked with Mike Wallace. She serves up her life in snappily titled chapters, "High and Low Society," "The Bad, the Bad and the Ugly" and, most memorably, " "Go ---- Yourself.' "
Even as a child, Smith saw and appreciated scandal. Her WASP family was happy and loving (a hilarious chapter later on deals with how her mother tried to convince Smith to get a Jewish friend to convert to Christianity, "because I want to see him in heaven"). Still, Smith recounts how a childhood chum's father was killed at a lover's lane with a woman who was not his wife, how her nanny's husband died in a knife fight.
Revealing her own secrets, she is generous with the details. She talks candidly, for instance, about an early lesbian relationship, after her first divorce.
The details are ordinary. I believed down deep inside that such an amazing thing had never happened before to anyone and so did she. . . . To make matters more complicated, this fellow student was engaged to an Army officer still overseas. Part of the time we were fixated on one another. Another part of the time, she was planning her wedding, wondering if she'd recognize Mr. Right when he got back?
The affair ended when their parents read their love letters and separated Smith and her girlfriend.
"She suddenly left school and went home," Smith writes. "She was so shattered by her loss of face with her fine, good Christian family that she instantly capitulated. . . . After a few abortive tries, she refused to speak with me or even to say goodbye."
Smith's beloved father didn't speak to her or look at her for months. While that story stands out for its sadness, most of Smith's romantic escapades are hilarious.
Consider the fascinating chapter "Marry Freddie?" that chronicles her short second marriage to a man named Freddie Lister. "I decided maybe I'd like to marry again even though I certainly wasn't swept away," Smith writes.
Later, Lister would become rich, but he wasn't rich yet, and Smith didn't seem to have money in mind. (After his death, she admits with that lovable candor, she called his lawyers "to ask, just maybe there might be something in it for me?" There wasn't.)
Why would any woman marry under such circumstances?
Smith seems to be inviting us to read between the lines, so it would be my guess that, for all her offbeat adventures with men, she is gay. She recounts no affair with a man with the same fire accorded that early lesbian romance. And there seems to be no other explanation for the series of men in her life, men with whom she shared warm friendships but no discernible passion. (The "love of her life," for instance, was one Lee Bailey, who had graduated from design school, "knew a lot about flowers and food," and lived to create elegant gardens and houses. "We were loving, loyal compadres," Smith writes. Let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.)
Smith doles out a formidable list of men who made light-hearted passes at her over the years. These include Artie Shaw ("Come on, girl - you're going home with me," he commanded), Norman Mailer ("Why haven't we ever slept together?" he asked her) and Warren Beatty.
Late in the '80s, a Warren observer told me that he'd said there was one particular woman in the world he wanted to sleep with. He was "just curious." It turned out to be me. I laughed at this ridiculous fiction, but . . . I liked the idea.
In Smith's book, the famous and the less famous collide, often in wild ways. Once, for instance, Smith invited "a P.R. friend," Harvey Mann, to a gathering where he'd get to meet his idol, Ethel Merman. Disaster ensued:
We were passing the egg rolls when she made a big entrance, saying so that they could hear her all the way up in Harlem, "I see you've started without me, you ----s!"
Harvey pointed his egg roll right at Ethel, carefully holding it in chopsticks like any trained Jewish person on Sunday night. He began to sing in tribute, "Have an egg roll, Mr. Goldstone!" His imitation of Merman was staggering. But Ethel was not amused. She began to scream: "How dare you? ... You insane queen - get lost. How dare you sing my very own song from "Gypsy'!" Harvey threw down his egg roll and rushed out of the apartment, sobbing.
Smith isn't afraid to play the fool herself. Memorably, she tells how, in the '70s, she tried synthetic marijuana pills. She was in East Hampton, invited to a party held by a couple named Pines.
I took the pill. We set out in a Jeep for the Pineses' house and just as we arrived the pill kicked in. I felt very warm and cuddly and terribly amorous. Seated at dinner next to a man I'd known for ages - the film producer Marty Bregman - I came onto him. He must have thought I'd lost my mind. He even said to me, "Liz - no - look, my wife is here at another table." I went on trying to smooch with him and fondle anything I could get my hands on.
I don't know how Marty, a well-known producer/adviser to Al Pacino, got rid of me that night at the Pineses' but I guess Joel (Schumacher) . . . saw that I was making a nuisance of myself and took me off his hands.
No detail is too small. Smith tells us how Ava Gardner wore a sweatshirt that read "Southern Comfort," how Joan Crawford's children behaved stiffly, like marionettes. Former bosses aren't immune from her scrutiny. About Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, and her husband, David Brown, she writes:
For years David has insisted that Helen go behind him picking up his tips to bellhops and waiters. For years, David has given her diamonds, rubies and emeralds, but Helen mixes them in with a $200 junk bracelet I once bought her in Paris. After David became a multi-millionaire from "Jaws," Helen wept, asking if now he'd leave her for a younger woman? He didn't but she has continued to pinch pennies and scorn excess.
Smith's constant name dropping could strike many as annoying - but it's her business, and besides, her dealings seem to have a certain integrity.
"My column was not very critical of celebrities," Smith writes. "I tried to give everyone a break."
She wound up with inevitable sticky situations. With Donald Trump, when Smith took Ivana's side in their big split. With Lee Radziwill, who refused to "get involved" to help out Truman Capote from the disasters that followed his tell-all magazine article that angered many celebrities. She had problems with Frank Sinatra, too. "I began to be offended by Sinatra's chutzpah, his hubris, his attitude toward women, his laxity in regard to the Mob." Sinatra, she added, "attacked me with great bouts of venom from the concert stages in New York, from Carnegie Hall itself."
Eventually, though, a friend arranged a meeting. "I think he's softened up," he said.
I dressed seven times that afternoon. I threw my clothes around like a demented debutante. I was scared. Finally, I managed some demure outfit and climbed into the limo with Sidney. "Just be yourself. ... He's going to love you!"
... Here was Francis looking at me intensely with his soft blue eyes, ordering another gin and tonic. He began asking questions. ...
Next day, Sinatra sent flowers. They were friends. "I stopped being a real journalist when it came to Frank Sinatra," Smith writes. "Love is funny that way."
Luckily, her powers don't desert her as she tells her own story. Smith shares her goofs as well as her scoops. And the yarn's not over yet, as she hints when she talks about a 40-ish guy who asked her recently for directions, and then out for a drink:< I looked at him. He was very attractive. But it was now pretty dark. Maybe if I had been 50 years old - or even 60 - or, heck, even only 70, I'd have been tempted to say yes. But I had a vision of ordering drinks and having him realize that he had picked up a woman who is - in the words of my pal Pete Peterson - "no spring chicken." "Thanks," I said, "but I'm waiting for my ride. Maybe some other time."
Listen, folks, as Mehitabel the cat said to Archie the cockroach: "Maybe there's a dance in the old dame yet!"
And, with luck, maybe the rest of us will get to hear about it.