Liz Smith Tells on Herself

The following article is reprinted from the December 5, 2000, issue of The Advocate. Liz Smith's last column runs Thursday in the New York Post.

The late morning fog hangs like a sullen mood around a Tex-Mex restaurant on 38th Street in Manhattan. Eleven flights up, Liz Smith leaves her famous home office and begins the descent to her favorite eatery -- where I sit waiting and worrying. This meeting and interview is long overdue. Sitting down with America's most powerful media columnist has been a goal of The Advocate 's for more years than Smith would ever believe. Unfortunately, sitting down with the gay press has never been high on her list. Then, six weeks ago Smith's memoir, Natural Blonde , was published and the landscape shifted forever for the unexpectedly shy goddess of gossip.

While it's true that Smith (and her assistant Denis Ferrara) have occasionally written glowing pieces about various Advocate cover stories over the years, there've also been those less-than-pleasant times when she's objected vehemently to our investigative reporting on the lives of Ricky Martin or the late Barbara Jordan. Why, she wondered, did we have to ask those questions? And yet, as the preeminent scoop detector of all time, she knew. Just as she knows today that talking to Mike Wallace or 20/20 or New York magazine will not be the same thing as sitting down with the gay press -- certainly not after her revelations about two same-sex relationships in Natural Blonde . And yet she said yes.

The waiters and I are alone when Smith -- right on time, hands in pockets, head slightly bowed -- strolls dutifully around the side of the restaurant and in through the glass doors. "Oh, they're not open," she notes, holding out a warm hand. "Sit over here with me." We sit staring out at the fog for an awkward moment. She glances at me sideways and asks nervously, "So? Will this work for you? Are you taping this? Do you need me to sit…?" I move my chair close to hers, protectively. At 77, Liz Smith -- though she would be the first to pooh-pooh it -- is a brave woman. After enduring years of attacks and outings by gay activists (and mean-spirited celebrities), she has managed to find her way through one of the most complicated lives and careers this magazine has ever examined.

A Texan who grew up worshiping the movies, Smith went to college, got married, got divorced, went back to college, and fell in love. "The only problem was, the object of my affection was a woman," she writes in her book. The year was 1946. Unable to express her feelings to anyone, including her parents, she buried them and threw herself into her lifelong journey in journalism. She was an editor at a movie fan magazine, a proofreader at Newsweek , a typist for Blue Cross, a Broadway press agent, a producer for CBS Radio, a producer for Allen Funt's Candid Camera , a producer for NBC live TV, a ghostwriter for Hearst society columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, an entertainment editor for Cosmopolitan , even a writer for Sports Illustrated . And, of course, today her Liz Smith column appears daily in Newsday and is syndicated to millions of readers in over 70 newspapers.

"Maybe you better roll your tape back," she says as a waiter leaves us some tea. "I think these interruptions won't make for a good beginning." I tell her that I haven't turned it on yet and pull out my questions. Her powder-blue eyes take me in carefully. She draws a deep breath and smiles. As if on cue, the sun begins burning away at the fog outside. Her hands tremble imperceptibly as she folds them in front of her like the "well-bred girl" she is at heart. "OK", she whispers, more to herself than to me. "Here we go…"

Did you know that The Advocate is 34 years old? Good God. You've become so established.

The whole movement is moving in that direction, though some don't like it. That's good. You can't be in a revolution your whole life.

I know you don't like labels, Liz, but… It's OK for you to say anything you want. I just don't want to label myself, because I have never gotten my act together. It's just not accurate for me to label myself. I don't care what other people say; other people have said such terrible things. You know Frank Sinatra called me a big dyke from the stage of Carnegie Hall?

Was that terribly frightening for you? No. I wasn't frightened; it just made me feel bad. He meant it in such an insulting way. And it was just evidence of the general homophobia and name-calling. Look, every gay person sleeping with someone of the same sex is not, you know, a ridiculous faggot or big dyke. That kind of talk is just an insult. It's like saying "nigger."

Of course, but that's not the kind of labeling I mean. But let's first talk about gossip. Weirdly enough, I worked for a magazine called Rona Barrett's Hollywood years ago. Oh, my God, did you really? Rona was a real entrepreneur by then. I knew her, but not well.

You've described gossip as "news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress." When I was working on movie magazines, the editors made it clear that "Rock Hudson is married!" and in general you were supposed to take care of the stars back then. It was more about making them look good. Yes, that's all it was about. Rona was much later, and I'm sure it was much more realistic.

No, not at all. You still take pretty good care of the stars in your column. But, look, let's discuss the Rock Hudson thing, because I became friends with him when I was doing Modern Screen . I loved Rock, and I was very attracted to him. I mean, every woman who met him was. He was just very sweet, charismatic, flirty, and really smart. So I knew him for years without knowing anything about him. Then I went to Rome with Elaine Stritch as her secretary when she was making A Farewell to Arms . So I saw him again, and he was very good to me and took me out to dinner and everything. And then he started taking Elaine out to dinner, 'cause she was lots of fun. And she started getting oozy-goozy about him. So did I.

This is when you were writing out your name as "Mrs. Rock Hudson" on pieces of paper? [ Laughing ] Yeah.

He caused a lot of crushes, I'm sure. Oh, yeah! So I came back to New York, and I got married again. I didn't see Rock for a long time. By the time I saw him I had heard all these stories about him. I decided, well, maybe he is gay; yes, I guess he is. Because I also heard some things about him in Rome, that he and another man were, you know, picking up guys and so forth. But he was married then, so I was confused. And then many years later he called me. He said he was being blackmailed by a lady who wanted a lot of money or she was going to sell a nasty story about him to the tabloids. I was just flabbergasted. I knew this woman. So I sent him my file on her. He showed it to her. And she backed off.

Were you trying to protect him? My purpose wasn't to try to heal his image. I just didn't approve of somebody blackmailing him. In the first place it's a crime and it was evil. He would have been washed up. It's one thing for everybody to talk about him being gay, but it was another to have it be printed. He could not have gone on working in the movies. But, of course, the end of his life was so tragic. And he really never addressed AIDS, you know. He never really said "I'm gay" or "I'm homosexual" or "I like guys" or any of those things.

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