The Gossip Columnist Who Became the News

Liz Smith and Ivana Trump celebrate Trump's 40th Birthday at La Grenouille in New York City in 1989. (Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

“If you were a woman and wrote about politics and D.C., you were a Washington gossip. If you were a man, you were a columnist,” explained Rona Barrett, the television presenter and celebrity gossip queen of the 1970s and ’80s, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen last year. Gossip—he said, she said, who was there, who was he with, what did they talk about—is the official currency of the Trump Administration, and any reporter who thinks they are above it is going to lose the newspaper war.

The women who became the great gossip columnists of the late twentieth century knew they weren’t above it—a reporter merely reported what their sources told them, a gossip columnist psychoanalyzed them.

In a new profile of Liz Smith at The New York Times, the 94-year-old grand dame of gossip discusses her early education as a journalist. To be a woman, and to want desperately to be a reporter, meant you had to enter the game and almost immediately break the rules.

She had studied journalism at the University of Texas and wanted to be taken seriously, like the news reporters she admired. When she landed assignments for the first issues of New York magazine, which published the so-called New Journalism of writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, she thought about following their path. “I was still at their feet, slathering over them,” she said. Then she discovered that she could not make a living at it. Celebrities, on the other hand, paid the bills. Like the stars she wrote about, she did what was necessary to get ahead.

“I needed access to people,” she said. “And you’re not supposed to seek access. You’re just supposed to be pure and you go to the person you’re writing about and you write the truth. Nobody can do it totally.”

“But everybody gives up something to be able to do a job, a demanding job,” she added. “And being a reporter is a demanding, dangerous job. It may be glamorous or put you in harm’s way. I gave up being considered ethical and acceptable, for a while.”

Seeking access meant not only getting celebrities to talk to her, but also getting them to like her. (“We need someone who actually likes celebrities,” says Michael Musto, then the gossip columnist at the Village Voice. “We knock everyone down, and then she builds them back up.”) Smith’s friendship with Ivana Trump—and her coverage of the Trump’s high-profile divorce—led to scoops that looked less like column fodder and more like front page news.

Ms. Smith especially befriended Ivana Trump, who she thought was being unfairly shunned by high society. When the Trump marriage soured in February 1990, Ms. Smith chose sides cannily.

“I was horrified at the way he treated her, and I made the mistake of defending her,” she said. “This is always fatal for your aspirations to be taken seriously as a reporter. But I had no choice. I had to be nice to them for a while to get access to them. I didn’t particularly approve of them, I didn’t like or dislike them. And I met his whole family and they were charming. So I was swept up in the scandal of Ivana wanting a decent settlement from Donald. And I became a featured player in the story, which I came to regret…”

As Ivana Trump’s confidante, Ms. Smith channeled details of a divorce that filled not just the tabloids, but also the networks and the covers of Time and Newsweek. As the former gossip columnist Jeannette Walls noted in her 2000 book “Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show”: “A lot happened in the world that week. The Berlin Wall was toppled and Germany was reunited. Drexel Burnham Lambert, the wildly powerful junk bond company that spearheaded the 1980s financial boom, collapsed. And after 27 years in prison, South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela was freed. But for 11 straight days, the front pages of the tabs were devoted to the Trump Divorce.”

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