The last of the great gossip columnists

Liz Smith © Getty images
Liz Smith: they don’t make them like that any more

Think of gossip columnists and probably JJ Hunsecker in the 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success will spring to mind, or perhaps the real-life Hedda Hopper. From their example, you perhaps wouldn’t much regret their passing.

But Liz Smith, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 94, seems to have been genuinely well liked. She went from working “hard-scrabble nights writing snippets” for New York newspapers in the 1950s to “golden afternoons at Le Cirque with Sinatra or Hepburn”, she “captivated millions with her tattle-tale chitchat and, over time, ascended to fame and wealth that rivalled those of the celebrities she covered”, says Robert D McFadden in The New York Times.

Her style “was not the intimidating jugular attack of columnists who expose intimacies or misdeeds in the private lives of public figures, thriving on schadenfreude and sometimes damaging reputations”. Nor “did she seize upon ugly rumours or tasteless embarrassments”. Instead, she “offered a kinder, gentler view of movie stars and moguls, politicians and society figures”. 

As a result, many of her subjects “became her friends, people she genuinely liked and who liked her”, which enabled her to provide “the insider’s view”. While critics accused her of “a conflict of interest” and claimed the resulting columns “lacked edge”, she responded by reminding them that she was a gossip columnist “not a reporter operating on life-and-death matters”.

Still, this friendly tone didn’t prevent her from occasionally taking sides in the events she covered in her columns. Perhaps her most well-known sparring partner was Donald Trump. Indeed, her coverage of the breakdown of Donald and Ivana Trump’s marriage angered the tycoon so much he “vowed to buy the Daily News (her then employer) just to get rid of her”, says Sam Dangremond of Town & Country magazine. Naturally, such a threat ended up achieving precisely the opposite of what he intended – it “only made her more famous”.

Indeed, her column was so highly valued that, at her peak, “her annual contract was rumoured to be in the $900,000s – more than three times what industry scuttlebutt estimated her nearest rival was paid”, says Ben Widdicombe in Vanity Fair. However, in the end the declining economics of print journalism managed to achieve what The Donald could never do and she was “blindsided” when Newsday, which had been employing her since 1995, didn’t renew her contract in 2005. Part of the problem was that most people “thought Smith was a writer for the New York Post, which in fact only syndicated her column from its lesser-known Long Island neighbour”.

Smith would later work for a few years for the Post before being finally let go in 2009. Still, she continued to retain her influence up until her death. “This time last year I was invited to an extremely smart Thanksgiving lunch, which might well have been the most moxie gathering I’ve ever attended,” says Josh Glancy in The Sunday Times. It included “news anchors, financiers and film stars”, but the star of the lunch was “an old lady, well into her 90s”.

Indeed, “every time she spoke, the table went quiet with that reverential hush reserved for the icons of yesterday”. This old lady was of course Liz Smith herself. “It feels clichéd to say they don’t make them like that any more, but it really is impossible to imagine someone of such stature, with such a deep connection to a place and its community, emerging from the digital moshpit of modern journalism.”

Tabloid money… spreadsheet Phil and his “do-nothing” Budget

• The euphoria following Philip Hammond’s “do-nothing” Budget won’t last once voters grasp that it was more important for what it didn’t say than what it did, says Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror. Hammond said nothing about the plight of pensioners, nothing about ending wage austerity for millions of “dedicated” public-service workers, and nothing about introducing a cap on energy prices that was promised in the Tory manifesto only six months ago. “Spreadsh*t Phil may have pulled the wool over the eyes of his Tory pals with an hour of flannel and borrowed funnies… But it’s the people’s verdict that counts.”

• As the daughter of billionaire Formula One boss Bernie, Tamara Ecclestone lives in a £70m home and has 50 staff to help out around the house, says Saira Khan in the Sunday Mirror. “After all, with dressing rooms bursting with designer clothes and shoes worth about £5m, someone’s got to do the washing, ironing and hanging up, haven’t they?” But “poor Tamara may have more in common with us less fortunate mums than you may think”.

She’s losing sleep over the thought of her three-year-old starting nursery and going to the toilet on her own, Tamara told an ITVBe documentary. “Well, love, all I can say is, just wait till she gets ringworm, verrucas, chickenpox, and, best of all, nits. Yep, Tamara, reality bites.”

• Another Black Friday has come and gone and I still haven’t bought that Dyson V8 vacuum cleaner, says Camilla Tominey in the Sunday Express. “I’m sorry, but I cannot bring myself to splurge £350 on a cordless, even with £200 off. It’s the same with the hairdryer… For 300 quid, I’d like some magazines to read with it, a whole set of highlights and someone asking me about my holiday plans.”