1923-02-02

LIZ SMITH, American gossip columnist, born; Smith married her high school sweetheart, Scottie Vaccaro — a World War II pilot — in 1944, but she left him after one year to enroll in college. She graduated from the University of Texas in 1949, then moved to New York where she worked as a typist, a proofreader and a reporter before she broke into the media world as a news producer for Mike Wallace at CBS Radio.

In the late 1950’s Smith worked as a ghostwriter for the hugely popular Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column that appeared in the Hearst newspapers. After leaving that column in the early 1960’s she went to work for Helen Gurley Brown as the entertainment editor for the American version of Cosmopolitan magazine later working simultaneously as Sports Illustrated entertainment editor as well. Twice-divorced, she acknowledged her sexuality only recently.

Smith was the quintessential gossip columnist of the old school She often asserted that she liked celebrities and it showed in her writing about them. She is largely if not solely responsible for the ascendency into celebrity of Donald Trump.

As Ivana Trump’s confidante, Ms. Smith channeled details of the Trump 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.”

For months, Ms. Smith wrote about nothing else, often on the tabloid’s front page, and even appeared there in a photo, ushering Ivana Trump past a horde of journalists and gapers in front of the restaurant La Grenouille. She repeated her stories or added new ones on the 5 o’clock news. At the time, Alexander Cockburn in The Nation called the story “Manhattan’s answer to Götterdämmerung” and wrote that “its Wagner is Liz Smith.” If her universe was one in which the Trumps and Marla Maples were the brightest stars, she was the one handing out the glow.

“I just tried to be fair, and most of these other columnists weren’t,” she said of her rivals. “I like to think I was better than them. I’m probably miscalculating.”

Smith lived alone in an apartment in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. She was a good friend of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, and helped her to acculturate to New York City society after Richards left Texas. There were rumors of a romance.

She died in 2017 at the age of 94 and is survived by her long-time lover, archaeologist Iris Love of the Guggenheim family.