Liz Smith was once a name virtually synonymous with New York media. She most famously wrote a gossip column in the New York Daily News that was much kinder than its counterparts, thanks to Smith’s access-affording cozy relationships with her celebrity subjects. In 2017 however, the 94-year-old’s public profile is noticeably diminished, per a New York Times profile titled “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice” by John Leland.
The piece opens with Smith recovering from a stroke (“I can’t walk. I can’t talk as well as I used to, but I’m relatively healthy otherwise”) and soon launches into Smith’s meditation on the state of media, which she says no longer has a place for her:
“I don’t think my name could sell anything now...It used to mean—bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”
“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.
“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”
The piece delves into Smith’s history as a journalist whose aspirations for more “serious” work were dashed when she realized it wouldn’t pay the bills (or at least, the bills that would result from the lifestyle she aspired to). Covering celebs did pay the bills, though, and her route to access was kindness. It paid off big time when Donald Trump and his wife Ivana Trump split in 1990—Smith had been close to Ivana and was afforded the scoop that was splashed all over the New York tabloids for weeks. As a result, according to the Times, “Smith was said to be the highest-paid print journalist in America. When Mr. Trump vowed to buy The News just to fire her, it made her only bigger.”
And now, she writes a column for New York Social Diary, a far cry from her days defining celebrity gossip in the nation’s most-read papers. She was fired from the Post in 2009, and says the Daily News rejected her subsequent offer to write for them for free.
She had a good run, nothing lasts forever, at one point you’ve got it and then you lose it and then it’s gone, etc., etc. While all that is true, Leland’s piece is a brutal reminder of how irrelevance can loom for even those who ascend to the very top of their fields, especially if that field shifts as constantly as media does. What struck me as truly heartbreaking in this piece, though, is that Smith is savvy and intelligent enough to understand just how irrelevant she is. It’s one thing to be outside looking into a world you could only dream of belonging to; it’s a far sadder thing to be outside looking in at your former home.