"I am a garbage pail," the New York gossip columnist Liz Smith once said. "My best stories come from other newspaper people and media people. My best stories come from people at The New York Times and CBS and NBC and ABC and Time and Newsweek. People who are frustrated by what they know and don't have a place to print."
Her favourite foods were fried, her favourite exercise was none, and when she dined at restaurants, which was pretty much all the time, she left inordinately large tips, saying, "No one ever got rich stiffing a waiter."
Although she never won a Pulitzer Prize, Mike Wallace once said she was more widely read (and better paid) than almost anyone who did. She trafficked in gossip, but knew The Odyssey backwards and forwards. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, she regarded benevolence as an essential requirement of her job.
So when Smith was celebrated on February 2 at a memorial at New York's Majestic Theatre in Midtown Manhattan on what would have been her 95th birthday, it made some sense that people who appeared regularly in her columns were not cheering her death the way others had cheered fellow gossip columnist Walter Winchell's in1972, but were instead tearing up on stage, talking about her as a friend, confidante and mentor.
The crowd included people from virtually every sector of media and entertainment.
Speakers included actors Renee Zellweger (who described Smith travelling to Austin, Texas, in 2011, despite a hip injury, so she could accompany her to a film festival), Bruce Willis (who recalled Smith's habit of using her column for charitable causes) and Holland Taylor (who met Smith back in the mid-'70s and received a last email from her around November 5, a week before her death).
Had Taylor and Smith enjoyed a summer romance back at the beginning of their relationship?
Taylor alluded to that possibility from the stage, but said that what really endured between them was a friendship that "was for me the single safe harbour in what has always seemed a storm-tossed scattered life in, let's not kid ourselves, the mean old world."
Smith did have a few shortcomings. For example, Cynthia McFadden, a correspondent at NBC, said, "She was not good at keeping a secret. Professional liability, I guess."
Yet she rarely lost friends. "If she did, she would woo them and get them back," Lesley Stahl said.
I can attest to both of these things being true. For many years, Smith was a close friend of my mother, Nora Ephron.
In 2012, my mother came down with leukaemia, and told almost no one about it.
The day my mother went into a coma, about 24 hours before she died, I began calling her extended circle of friends, so that they wouldn't find out about it when obituaries began appearing.
Smith was among those I called.
We had a lovely talk. Having known her for at least 30 years, it never occurred to me she would scoop my mother's death. But that's what she did. Hours later, she uploaded a "tribute" to my mother on her website. As someone pointed out on the web, it was about the weirdest obituary that had ever been published given that the subject wasn't dead yet.
I'm sure Smith was devastated by the loss, but her claim that she thought my mother had died when she posted the piece made no sense. In the piece itself, she said my mother hadn't died.
But I couldn't stay mad at her.
She was too kind. She was too smart. She was too much fun.
And it was precisely the sort of thing my mother would have found amusing, had it happened to anyone else. (I could almost see my mother saying: "Well, what did you expect?" A scary thing about storytellers is that their central allegiance is to the story.)
So seven weeks later, I called Smith for help on an article and stayed friendly with her until her death.
Bygones. The world was a better place with her in it.
New York Times
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