It must have sounded irresistible to the publishers: the Queen of Gossip finally sharing long-suppressed secrets about the endless celebs she’s encountered — and, as a bonus, giving shocking details of her own wild life. But anyone expecting a scandal-rama obviously has never read Liz Smith’s daily syndicated column. Unlike predecessors such as Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, Smith has few axes to grind. And while the book might have been an opportunity for settling grudges and sharing confidences, La Liz avoids easy temptations.
Similarly, reviewers must avoid the easy temptation of dismissing the book as frivolous. Smith is too easy a target and, at 77, has achieved something unusual: In a tabloid-y world, she’s found success by being nice.
Endless names are dropped in this autobiography — from JFK, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna to lesser-known lights such as Princess Hohenlohe, Joe Tankoos and Saint Clair Pugh — but “Blonde” is less of a tell-all tome than a hint-a-bit book.
Smith emerges as star-struck, even fawning — a self-promoter, but insecure and extremely private. In short, she’s a good ole gal from Texas, and as she spills her tasteful guts, seldom is heard a discouragin’ word.
As a former publicist and a syndicated columnist, Smith knows every story needs an angle. But, bucking trends, Miz Liz avoided the obvious.
It could have been a coming-out tale. Growing up in Texas, she wanted to be movie cowboy Tom Mix. Her “masculine but dandified” father shaved under his arms and favored her over her two brothers: ” ‘My best boy!’ he’d whisper, holding me between his legs …”
But other than a discreetly told tale of “an ill-fated same-gender love affair” in her 20s, she is mum about her sex life.
It could have been a dishy, down-and-dirty scoop fest.
Instead, she seizes the opportunity to defend people who rarely get good press. Mike Wallace is “one of the sweetest human beings I have ever known”; Norman Mailer has “a heart even bigger than his talent”; and as for Barry Diller: “Oh, he’s sexy! … He has a divine body, and great wrists and ankles.”
It could have been a tale of a late bloomer achieving long-delayed success.
While she’s not exactly the Grandma Moses of Gossip, Smith was 53 when her self-titled column bowed in 1976, and was 67 before her scoops about the Trump divorce put her on the tattler throne. (“The anger between Ivana and Donald became like over-boiled coffee and now little dollops of creme de la Marla appeared in the gossip column.”)
By 1991, a year later, several people estimated that she was the highest-paid print journalist in the world.
Smith certainly has a Zelig-like quality: She is present for early Texas school integration, on hand for atomic testing in Alamagordo, N.M., at the ready for the beginnings of Gloria Steinem’s feminist movement — and even in the pool for the birth of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
But after covering celebs for decades, she seems more comfortable writing about others than about herself.
At nine or 10, “I had been ‘molested,’ I suppose (by an older cousin) … But I had rather enjoyed it,” she shrugs, and the subject is dropped.
On page 61, she gets married; by page 65 she’s left him, with few details about the union.
Years later, in N.Y., she meets archaeologist Iris Love. However, their “15 years of close companionship” earn only six pages, none very revealing; in comparison, Malcolm Forbes gets nine pages, and the Trumps get 14.
While Smith’s affairs are ignored or skimmed over, her heterosexual fantasies are given full vent: “I let myself daydream of being Mrs. Rock Hudson”; looking at Frank Sinatra, “I had a feeling for what it would be like to be in his strong and capable arms.”
Smith seems determined to live up to the legacy of her “cultured and ladylike” mother, who believed “that the best-mannered person in the room was the one who never made others uncomfortable.”
It seems an odd mandate for a gossip maven. In “Natural Blonde,” she doesn’t deliver the goods, but evidently she doesn’t want to. She considers gossip a “social history,” and that’s evidently her goal when she tells anecdotes about Robert Redford inviting her to his motel room for Kentucky Fried Chicken, or her passing reference to cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden getting her fingertip bitten off by a racehorse.
It may not be juicy. It may not even be “social history.” But, hey, ya gotta love anybody who, within one page, cites Homer, Shakespeare, the Phoenicians and Joan Rivers, then defends gossip as “one of the great luxuries of a democracy.” Who knew that “Blonde” ambitions were so lofty?