..Lese Dunton..

Natural Blonde
Excerpts from Liz Smith's memoir. And the scoop on her upcoming website and novel.

She's a fair-haired, fair-handed gossip columnist, known for her quick-witted insights and reliable sources. For more than four decades Liz Smith has been covering the rich and famous with unwavering accuracy and charm. Her column is featured in the New York Post and is syndicated to millions of readers in over 70 newspapers.

In 2000 she wrote her memoir, Natural Blonde, which immediately flew onto the New York Times Bestseller list. (See excerpts below.)

She's also one of the founders of a new website for women over 40—"who weren't born yesterday"—which will be launched in a few months. Her co-founders are advertising genius Mary Wells Lawrence, book agent extraordinaire Joni Evans, and bestselling author and Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan. In short, a powerhouse group of women, all the best in their business.

"Women don't retire. They always go on working," said Liz. "There are going to be a lot of older, mature women, who we feel want to be in touch with what's going on in the world.

"This is a coming market that's sort of a path. In a year and a half, 78 million people are going to reach retirement age in America," she continued. "Most of the women won't retire, and a lot of the men won't either. They'll go on working in other ways, at different jobs or things, but there are going to be twice as many older people in America as there are right now...So America's going to look like Florida soon, and this is a big, big group of people, a group needing their own interests addressed."

In the midst of this venture, plus her column, Ms. Smith is writing a comic novel about life after death. "If I would have an ideal of who I could emulate, it would be Joseph Heller who wrote Catch-22. So, it'll be a satire," she said. Liz's working titles have included "Sex After Death" and "The After Party."

While anticipating her heavenly humor, and the women-not-born-yesterday website, enjoy this sample from her memoir, Natural Blonde (Hyperion Press, 2000):

From the Prologue:
Is it possible that gossip can be good for you? Yes. It's been very good for me. I've made enormous amounts of money and had a lot of fun from gossip. It beats a hardworking news reporter by a country mile.

But that's not the larger question you're asking, is it? Well, surprise, surprise! Many academics have asked this same question. There have been papers written, theses explored, studies made. The findings are that gossip is cathartic. It is useful. It serves a number of purposes. Gossip relaxes you, establishes you and makes you feel better; indeed, one such scholarly paper posits that it makes you live longer. Gossip is an enormous way of exchanging information, thereby exchanging power. There is power in telling something you know or think you know.

...People crave news. Houses in early New England were built close to the road so that passersby might give the latest: "Hey, didja hear? They shot Lincoln two months ago in Washington!" And a little gossip makes it even more so. "And I hear Mrs. Lincoln forced him to go to the theater that night!"

...Gossip is based on a common impulse: Let me tell you a story. This makes it a basis for studies of history, biography, autobiography, memoirs, romans à clef, novels, diaries and letters. Everything is grist for history's mill, even—or perhaps, especially—gossip.

From Part Six. The Truman Show:
...At some point in my freelance career, I asked Truman [Capote] to give me an interview for a piece I wanted to write on Jackie Kennedy and invited him to come to lunch with me at Lee Bailey's house on Sagg Pond. I'd made chili. Truman drove up in his convertible with a big Isadora Duncan type scarf flying in the breeze. But he didn't like the saltines I served with my chili. He said, slyly, "I do see some lovely little Carr's Water Biscuits peeping out of the cupboard. May I have those?" Truman was very observant.

The interview was a flop because Truman didn't want to talk about Jackie. He was besotted and smitten with her sister, Lee Radziwill. He'd gone so far as to secured a starring role for her as "Laura" in a David Susskind-produced TV drama of the movie classic. Truman wrote the teleplay on the condition that his Lee would star. (It was old-fashioned Hollywood-writer blackmail at its best.)

While I tried to steer him to Jackie, Truman told me how fragile, ethereal, lovely, smart, beautiful and witty Lee was. "Compared to Lee," he said, "Jackie is just a cow." Well, okay, I filed that away, but I couldn't get Truman off of Lee and onto Jackie.

Truman decided to befriend me. He was very nice to me but I feared he thought I was gullible. (I often felt that way around him, for he had a quicksilver mind and tongue.) But I had something he wanted: popular access in the media to newspaper, magazines and TV shows. So he thought nothing of using me as a conduit to get out whatever he felt might accomplish this or that. And he was full of gossip—mercy, was he ever full of it? The only problem was to differentiate between his many imaginative lies, and the truth. (I did think he wrote in an almost mythic manner about people and as in most history, the myth becomes the reality, so maybe his writing in the imaginative romanticized way didn't matter in the end. It's the myth people remember.)

I was later present at the creation of Truman's downfall. In 1975 he published a section of his long-awaited book Answered Prayers in Esquire magazine. It created a social firestorm, in Manhattan at least. "La Côte Basque," as the story was called, contained thinly disguised real people doing and saying embarrassing things. Some of these people were hardly disguised at all. William Paley, a man with the most devastating social ambitions, certainly recognized himself as the person "with the mouth-watering cock," and others such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Anne Woodward and Slim Keith recognized themselves as well. Some of them had been Truman's nearest, dearest, most intimate friends. The intimacy was over the minute the printing press turned.

People in New York couldn't talk about anything but how Truman had shot himself in the foot and whether what he wrote constituted Genius, à la Marcel Proust, or just plain betrayal, à la The National Inquirer. Truman was sure he had written social history of literary import and he thought the fuss would blow over. But no—Babe Paley, Bill Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Slim Keith and many others stopped speaking to him. Only C-Z Guest, his longtime socialite pal, stayed the course, saying, "Truman is a great writer. Writers write what they know. These people knew Truman was a writer when they began telling him all their most deadly secrets."

But C-Z couldn't talk the Paleys into not being angry with Truman and I didn't have any luck either, though I approached Gloria Vanderbilt's husband, Wyatt Cooper, and went directly to Slim Keith to beg her to reconsider. No dice!

Truman had gone to Hollywood to escape the tempest. He was staying with Johnny Carson's ex, Joanne. I flew out to interview him for a New York magazine piece on the controversy. Truman was indignant. He couldn't see that he'd done anything wrong. "Hadn't these people ever heard of a-r-t?" He was an artist. They were the paint on his canvas. And he wouldn't believe me when I told him people were up in arms, finished with him. "What did Diana Vreeland say?" he asked of the Vogue high priestess. I said I didn't know. So Truman called her in my presence from the El Pedrino bar of the Beverly Wilshire. She fended him off with a typical switch-play detour.

"Oh, Truman, you do write so fetchingly abut the little tiny vegetables served by the rich!"

Truman handed me the phone, triumphant and vindicated. I wrote my piece for the February 9, 1976, issue of New York magazine. The article became in itself something of a classic, having as it did a fabulous Edward Sorel drawing of Truman as a bulldog biting the wealthy bejeweled hand that had been feeding him.

After that everything went downhill for my friend Truman. He began to drink and drug and I was alarmed at his physical condition. He started going every night to Studio 54 with the Andy Warhol crowd and he'd dance around in an old porkpie hat like some demented teenager, roaring with delight every time the mechanized man in the moon raised the Studio's coke spoon to its nose.

* * *