Liz Smith tells on herself – Interview
Getting the goods on others is one thing, but reporting truths about yourself takes a lot of courage — as America’s favorite celebrity columnist has discovered. Here’s how she’s dealing with what she’s done
THE LATE-MORNING FOG hangs like a sullen mood around a Tex-Mex restaurant on 38th Street in Manhattan. Eleven flights up, Liz Smith leaves her famous home office and begins the descent to her favorite eatery–where I sit waiting and worrying. This meeting and interview is long overdue. Sitting down with America’s most powerful media columnist has been a goal of The Advocate’s for more years than Smith would ever believe. Unfortunately, sitting down with the gay press has never been high on her list. Then, six weeks ago Smith’s memoir, Natural Blonde, was published and the landscape shifted forever for the unexpectedly shy goddess of gossip.
While it’s true that Smith (and her assistant Denis Ferrara) have occasionally written glowing pieces about various Advocate cover stories over the years, there’ve also been those less-than-pleasant times when she’s objected vehemently to our investigative reporting on the lives of Ricky Martin or the late Barbara Jordan. Why, she wondered, did we have to ask those questions? And yet, as the preeminent scoop detector of all time, she knew. Just as she knows today that talking to Mike Wallace or 20/20 or New York magazine will not be the same thing as sitting down with the gay press–certainly not after her revelations about two same-sex relationships in Natural Blonde. And yet she said yes.
The waiters and I are alone when Smith–right on time, hands in pockets, head slightly bowed–strolls dutifully around the side of the restaurant and in through the glass doors. “Oh, they’re not open,” she notes, holding out a warm hand. “Sit over here with me.” We sit staring out at the fog for an awkward moment. She glances at me sideways and asks nervously, “So? Will this work for you? Are you taping this? Do you need me to sit …?” I move my chair close to hers, protectively. At 77, Liz Smith–though she would be the first to pooh-pooh it–is a brave woman. After enduring years of attacks and outings by gay activists (and mean-spirited celebrities), she has managed to find her way through one of the most complicated lives and careers this magazine has ever examined.
A Texan who grew up worshiping the movies, Smith went to college, got married, got divorced, went back to college, and fell in love. “The only problem was, the object of my affection was a woman,” she writes in her book. The year was 1946. Unable to express her feelings to anyone, including her parents, she buried them and threw herself into her lifelong journey in journalism. She was an editor at a movie fan magazine, a proofreader at Newsweek, a typist for Blue Cross, a Broadway press agent, a producer for CBS Radio, a producer for Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, a producer for NBC live TV, a ghostwriter for Hearst society columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, an entertainment editor for Cosmopolitan, even a writer for Sports Illustrated. And, of course, today her Liz Smith column appears daily in Newsday and is syndicated to millions of readers in over 70 newspapers.
“Maybe you better roll your tape back,” she says as a waiter leaves us some tea. “I think these interruptions won’t make for a good beginning.” I tell her that I haven’t turned it on yet and pull out my questions. Her powder-blue eyes take me in carefully. She draws a deep breath and smiles. As if on cue, the sun begins burning away at the fog outside. Her hands tremble imperceptibly as she folds them in front of her like the “well-bred girl” she is at heart. “OK”, she whispers, more to herself than to me. “Here we go …”
Did you know that The Advocate is 34 years old?
Good God. You’ve become so established.
The whole movement is moving in that direction, though some don’t like it.
That’s good. You can’t be in a revolution your whole life.
I know you don’t like labels, Liz, but …
It’s OK for you to say anything you want. I just don’t want to label myself, because I have never gotten my act together. It’s just not accurate for me to label myself. I don’t care what other people say; other people have said such terrible things. You know Frank Sinatra called me a big dyke from the stage of Carnegie Hall?
Was that terribly frightening for you?
No. I wasn’t frightened; it just made me feel bad. He meant it in such an insulting way. And it was just evidence of the general homophobia and name-calling. Look, every gay person sleeping with someone of the same sex is not, you know, a ridiculous faggot or big dyke. That kind of talk is just an insult. It’s like saying “nigger.”
Of course, but that’s not the kind of labeling I mean. But let’s first talk about gossip. Weirdly enough, I worked for a magazine called Rona Barrett’s Hollywood years ago.
Oh, my God, did you really? Rona was a real entrepreneur by then. I knew her, but not well.
You’ve described gossip as “news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” When I was working on movie magazines, the editors made it clear that “Rock Hudson is married!” and in general you were supposed to take care of the stars back then. It was more about making them look good.
Yes, that’s all it was about. Rona was much later, and I’m sure it was much more realistic.
No, not at all. You still take pretty good care of the stars in your column.
But, look, let’s discuss the Rock Hudson thing, because I became friends with him when I was doing Modern Screen. I loved Rock, and I was very attracted to him. I mean, every, woman who met him was. He was just very sweet, charismatic, flirty, and really smart. So I knew him for years without knowing anything about him. Then I went to Rome with Elaine Stritch as her secretary when she was making A Farewell to Arms. So I saw hun again, and he was very good to me and took me out to dinner and everything. And then he started taking Elaine out to dinner, ’cause she was lots of fun. And she started getting oozy-goozy about him. So did I.
This is when you were writing out your name as “Mrs. Rock Hudson” on pieces of paper?
He caused a lot of crushes, I’m sure.
Oh, yeah! So I came back to New York, and I got married again. I didn’t see Rock for a long time. By the time I saw him I had heard all these stories about him. I decided, well, maybe he is gay; yes, I guess he is. Because I also heard some things about him in Rome, that he and another man were, you know, picking up guys and so forth. But he was married then, so I was confused. And then many years later he called me. He said he was being blackmailed by a lady who wanted a lot of money or she was going to sell a nasty story about him to the tabloids. I was just flabbergasted. I knew this woman. So I sent him my file on her. He showed it to her. And she backed off.
Were you trying to protect him?
My purpose wasn’t to try to heal his image. I just didn’t approve of somebody blackmailing him. In the first place it’s a crime and it was evil. He would have been washed up. It’s one thing for everybody to talk about him being gay, but it was another have it be printed. He could not have gone on working in the movies. But, of course, the end of his life was so tragic. And he really never addressed AIDS, you know. He never really said “I’m gay” or “I’m homosexual” or “I like guys” or any of those things.
Did you ever confide in Rock that you’d had an affair with a woman?
Oh, no. I was relentlessly heterosexual at the time. So I never even thought of doing such a thing.
Did you report on his getting AIDS?
You know, Rock didn’t know what getting AIDS meant. He didn’t know what he would do for the movement, for activism against AIDS. He didn’t have to cooperate. And he didn’t. But he didn’t lie. So he became the poster child for the fight against AIDS. And so many people left him. And you know, honestly, I’m not bragging, but I think we were the first column ever in a popular periodical to write that there was this disease. I think it was in 1983.
I have questions about your second marriage. You don’t have to answer, but was Freddie Lister gay?
Well, I don’t know. Yeah, maybe. I never did discuss it. He wasn’t the type that would tell me. Maybe it was part of our mutual attraction. He was like a kid, really. He was so wonderful and sweet to me. But I never once fooled myself that I was in love with him. I was just having a good time. It was a very strange interlude. I’ve been attracted to a lot of gay men.
You sure write about a lot of them in your book, although you don’t always say they’re gay.
I think gay men are very attractive and they’re fun and wonderful. I lived with Joel Schumacher for a while. I knew he was gay. He was the sexual outlaw, because he was living a very bisexual life when I met him.
How do you feel about Natural Blonde these days?
I’ve been pretty honest in this book. Oh, yes, I didn’t tell all those romantic details in my relationship with Iris Love. And, yes, this has caused lots of people to just jump all over me. Well, I’m not going to write that. She’s a sort of semiprivate person. I’m not going to reveal chapter and verse about every woman I’ve known. It’s ridiculous. You can do that about the men, because you’re not going to ruin their lives if you do. It’s up to the women to say if they want this told about them.
Perhaps this is why when I read your book it felt like you were very lusty toward the men you were attracted to but very cagey about the women.
I felt that if you didn’t understand what my relationship with Iris was, you were really stupid. I thought you had to be a moron not to get it.
Well, I think it bothered people when you called her your “friend.” They wished you could have said “lover.”
I probably wouldn’t have said that!
What would you have said?
I’m just too Victorian to say that.
So what do we call our partners?
[Laughing] “My life’s companion.”
That sounds worse.
It’s bullshit. It’s like people using the expression “friends.” Now I never refer anyone as a friend because it’s a gay term for lover. I have thousands of friends I’ve never been lovers with.
So what do we call our lovers?
Nothing. Maybe it will get to a point where we don’t label. But I wish I had been a little more specific about my … about Iris. But again, it was my reluctance to be nailed into a box.
But your book is full of your male affairs. It is clear this is a big, complex box.
Yeah, but honestly, I’ll tell you I had a reluctance to be bragging on how many relationships I’ve had. Because I have had a lot. I had a long relationship after Iris. With a man. And I just couldn’t bring myself to put that in the book because it sounded like I was trying to say, “I’m not gay. Let me out of this gay label.” So I thought, I won’t mention it. I won’t say anything. [Sighs and runs her hand through her hair] Yes, now I wish I’d said more. Because, I mean, I think I mystified some people.
How does Iris feel about it?
Iris doesn’t care. That’s different. You know, um, she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t live in the real world. She’s an archaeologist and sees her sexuality as a given through history.
Oh, I like that.
Yeah, so she doesn’t care, and she doesn’t care what people say about her. But there are other people who are private people who, you know, now are married; they’re grandmothers. I’m not going to tell all of that. If they want to write a book all about their affairs with the infamous Liz Smith, that’s OK.
Did Iris like what you wrote about her in the book?
I don’t think she thought I gave her her due. I read her what I was writing, and she kept giving me things from her curriculum. [Laughing] And I said, “Iris, this book is not about you; it’s supposed to be about me in relationship to you.” So she read it and said, “Well, I don’t like it; you make me sound like I’m just some busy little kid or something.” So I went back and tried to make it more to her liking. I think she still feels it’s rather dismissive. But that’s why I say to you, I wish I had said more.
Well, you thought she was important enough to talk about even though it meant revealing more about yourself.
Yes, I think she is secretly pleased. She is a remarkable, fabulous character. I always said that I never had to have children because I have Iris.
Well, that happens …
I think a lot of female relationships embody that. One of them is the parent; the other one is the child. And, of course, there are a lot of heterosexual marriages too that are like that. I hope I’m more grown-up now. I don’t want to be Iris’s parent. I don’t want to be anybody’s parent. Now I want to be an independent person.
One of the most moving moments in your book is after your first affair with a woman in college [in 1946]. You try to tell your raw feelings to your parents so that they can understand you, and …
I couldn’t talk to them. And I realized it wasn’t ever gonna change. So we got into this “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And that just wasn’t about women; that was about men too, because they were horrified when I got a divorce. They almost never forgave me for that. So I really never told them about anything. As far as they knew, I didn’t have any boyfriends or girlfriends. Whether I was living a celibate life or not, they just didn’t want to know.
They shut you down, so you shut yourself down. I wonder if this affected how you dealt with other people in your life. Did you feel that in order to have access to friends or celebrities, you had to do what you did with your parents–not share your whole self?
It certainly affected my relationship with them. As I say in the book. I don’t think I was ever really myself with my parents again. It took me a long time to get over that. But I just told myself, Well, that affair must have been an aberration. So I went to New York, and I got married again. I immediately had an affair with some guy I met in New York. You know, it was not a tune for revealing yourself. Times change, things change. I’m 77 now. It’s all academic what happened in the past. I’m not living with anybody and don’t know if I will be ever again.
That’s what is so important about your life. It represents so many half-hidden lives lived at a time when there was no visible support anywhere in society for wondering about and exploring your sexuality. It’s one thing to be a 15-year-old lesbian today who walks across her living room while Ellen DeGeneres is beaming out of a piece of furniture, a television, announcing, “I’m gay.”
And her mother is supporting her!
Yes, these are different times. It’s easy for people today to look at you and say, “How come she didn’t tell more about her gay life”?
Well, another reason why I didn’t tell more is that I didn’t know what I wanted to tell. I mean, I had been accused of being hypocritical for writing about the private lives of other people without revealing my own life. Bullshit! I don’t see reporters stating their sexual preferences before they write something. And look, I’m not writing any gossip that’s so torrid and sensational that I thought that my own personal life was important to it.
Let’s talk about gay and lesbian struggles from your point of view.
There are those who still want to be in the streets with guns fighting and soul-kissing in a parade–things I don’t like. But I am an old-fashioned person. I was born in 1923–before public behavior became an art form. I’m not crazy about any displays of physical intimacy. I don’t like it.
Well, Liz. I think you were pretty brave to be in college with no reference points at all and to realize that you were in love with a woman.
That was a really emotional, romantic, unrealistic experience for me. And it wasn’t unrealistic because it was a woman. It was unrealistic because she was engaged to be married and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in the middle of getting divorced. I was stunned by it. And blown away by it. It took me about two years to get over it. And I didn’t have any help getting over it. I didn’t know where to go. It didn’t occur to me to see an analyst.
It happened to me too. I fell in love with a friend. She wasn’t gay. Suddenly I was left all alone with my gay feelings. This was back in 1971 …
Well, try 1946 or 1947!
I can’t imagine. That’s why you’re amazing. One thing each new generation has to ask is: “How did people do it back then? How did they figure out how to live and love?”
Well, remember in my book I had met those nurses [in Ottine, Tex.] who were older than me, and they were gay.
Did you think they were gay at the time?
I didn’t know until later, after I met gay people. I knew that those nurses were having a perfectly wonderful time. But I was just ignorant. They liked me. I was like a pet or mascot or something. None of them ever decided to “enlighten me.” They weren’t attracted to me, and I wasn’t attracted to them. I was just so interested in them because they were so vital and grown-up and kind of cynical and they had been places. I was mostly fascinated by their philosophy about how they approached these poor people in the war who had been left paralyzed. They kept trying to get me to give up my emotional approach to working there, because it was so hurtful for me. I was so full of pain and empathy. And they kept saying, “That doesn’t help the patient.” But they were the first gay people I’d ever seen. Later I went back in my mind and identified them as gay. And I do remember that they had kept using this expression, “Gay, gay, gay.” That was a long time ago. That was 1945.
What about when you got to New York in 1949?
When I came to New York, I went to a gay bar on the second night I was here. My friends Scotty and Floyd took me to this really famous gay restaurant, but we didn’t know that. We just thought that everything in the Village was like that. I was just interested as a social phenomenon. And it was all men.
Well, women must have been totally invisible back then.
There were never any women. The guys were so great-looking. But I didn’t think much of gay bars.
Did you think back on the woman in college?
I felt that the experience I had in college was a really … I don’t mean it wasn’t real, but it was a delayed adolescence on my part. I had already been married. He was a wonderful person and still is. But I didn’t want to belong to somebody else. I didn’t know who I was. I was yearning to be free. I couldn’t stay married because he wanted to immediately have children. And I was going, “Wait a minute! I didn’t get into this for that. I got into it because it was exciting.” He was gorgeous and a wonderful person. But I wasn’t really ready.
Do you think you’ve ever felt like you belonged to someone?
Oh, yeah, I have–I’ve gotten better through the years. I think I’m a serial breakup artist.
You mean a serial monogamist?
Is that what I am? Maybe so.
What did you feel when you gave yourself to someone else?
Well, I don’t think it is a good idea for me. I think I am more apt to get into a co-optive relationship, where the person is too important to me. And I think some of them never knew what I was talking about. In other words, I loved them, and maybe they loved me, but it wasn’t the same for both of us. I had to go to therapy to get over all of that, to get over all of my romantic ideas about two people becoming one. Two people better not become one!
Well, we’re fed a lot of stuff about romantic relationships …
Yeah, I was raised in the movies and books. I was thinking that my romantic interlude in college was right out of Romeo and Juliet.
Yes, that extra spice of the forbidden.
And the person is not gay and went on to be happily married–I’m told. [Looks around the restaurant]
Am I drilling you too much?
No, no. I’ll tell you something. I think one of the bad things about the whole gay experience is that it jerks everything out of perspective. People only perceive that, and they think you don’t have any other life. You don’t have any other intellectual life. You don’t have any spiritual life. You aren’t interested in history. You’re only interested in gay history. It’s like you’re not a fully realized person. And I’m always trying to be fully realized person–in spite of my sexual confusions, which I thought were the least interesting thing about me. The great fallacy about ever sleeping with a woman is that people think you are attracted to every woman you meet. I hate that. It drives me nuts. I’m not; I’m attracted to very few people. Oh, and they think that you’ll corrupt children. That’s my favorite!
Do you think there is ever a good reason to out someone?
I do think there is the hypocrisy factor. If Barney Frank had stayed in the closet pretending he was straight and voting against gay rights, that would have been the reason to out him. But he’s a really brave and fabulous person. And he even survived, you know, a scandal about himself–not the scandal of his homosexuality, but something else. And he’s a remarkable, fabulous person for it. Also, think of the Larry Flynt campaign to bring down the Republicans because he felt that they were so hypocritical about Clinton. Larry will never get the credit for doing this really incredible thing. He saved Bill Clinton from being thrown out of office. The whole Republican arm just backed off. They saw that he was going to really let them have it.
You were outed.
Well, let me tell you something about my period of being outed by Michelangelo Signorile [in his Gossip Watch column in OutWeek magazine in 1989 and 1990]. He said he had all of this so-called information on my life, and he would write whole columns where he said, “Fuck you, Liz.” And he carried on for about a year. And honestly, what do you get if you out somebody who’s extremely confused and maybe they haven’t made up their mind yet? I mean, I wasn’t going to just throw my private life into the public arena because somebody said I should. I was still–and still am–living a very diverse kind of life. I didn’t feel I had to do what he said.
They say if you throw somebody into a swimming pool before they’re ready, they don’t learn to swim very well and they are afraid of the water forever. [Liz laughs] If you out somebody, they will never be a strong, confident role model or spokesperson.
Yes, he was determined that I would become some sort of poster child for gay liberation.
Well, this came at a very angry time in gay history. People were dying of AIDS and no one was coming forward to help, including lots of closeted gay people–which made activists like Michelangelo furious.
I couldn’t imagine that somebody with two of the most beautiful names from the Renaissance could be such a jerk. I kept thinking, What would I do if I were going to declare my sexual preference? Would I write it at the top of my column every day? [Laughing] I don’t like labeling. I hate that stuff. I mean, as soon as you get somebody in a little box, in America they slap the box shut on you. A person’s capabilities are intensely limited. I’ve said this before, but I loved when my friend Rita Mae Brown, on her 40th birthday, stood up at her big party in Virginia and said, “I want to announce that I’m resigning from being a professional lesbian.” I didn’t go to this party, but later I said to her, “Why did you do that?” She said, “I’m just sick of being described as a lesbian writer. I’m a writer who happens to be a lesbian.” I thought that was really great. She had real regrets, I think, that she outed herself and outed other people–whom she made very unhappy. And she feels, I think, that maybe she limited her own career and limited theirs.
But we constantly label ourselves. I say I am a woman, a writer …
Saying someone is gay is not the same as saying that she has red hair.
Because there is so much homophobia in business, in government, in international affairs, everywhere. So why do that? Let people define themselves. I’m not living my life to be an inspiration or a role model. This is not something you should do until things improve.
But how will we improve them without visibility?
Things are improving. They are improving in spite of all the people who drag their feet–like me. [Laughs]
Thank you for saying that. But what if Ellen hadn’t come out?
I don’t know that I think Ellen changed anything. I think things were just changing.
But she pushed it along further. You know, Liz, when The Advocate did a cover story on congresswoman Barbara Jordan after she died, you were upset with me for printing the facts of her personal life.
I don’t remember.
And yet we got mail from young black lesbians saying, “Thank you for giving me a reason to live and courage to be out. If I’m not out, people won’t know I exist.” That’s the other side of it.
I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that there is another side of it. But I still don’t think that anybody has the right to call somebody something that might ruin them or their family, ruin their children, cause them to be discriminated against. You have to let them do it themselves. If Ellen changed a lot of things for a lot of people, great. I admire her very much; I think she was very brave. But God, occasionally she must wish she could get in a hole someplace.
[Laughing] Oh, yes, she does.
Whatever her real identity is, there is also a more complicated identity to her. Diane Sawyer said to me the other day, “Don’t you feel that you gave up something private that you can never get back?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. And I’m not so happy about it.” But maybe in the end it will be a good thing–if you really believe that people are only as sick as their secrets. Psychologically it is good to “dare to be true.” I always thought that was the greatest motto. But I never felt I could live up to it.
But you’re doing this interview.
OK. But I’m, you know, half-dead with old age here.
What about all the women who are in their 70s who’ve read your book and can now say, “I exist because you did this.”
What’s really great is this congenial, generally tolerant reception I’m getting. I haven’t had–so far–a single bad question, bad comment, any sort of negative, moralistic, preachy “aren’t you ashamed of yourself” thing said to me. And I fully expected that I would. [Shrugs] Next week, tomatoes wherever I go.
I don’t think so.
I mean, I’m amazed that these ordinary, wonderful Americans are just sitting, just dying laughing at everything I say about myself and this book when I go on tour. And I seem to be beguiled. There’s no fool like an old fool, I guess.
Perhaps dialoguing with these “ordinary Americans” is giving you the one thing your parents robbed you of: the chance to share Sour whole self.
Maybe that’s true. [Smiles] If so, that’s very good. That’s great. And if it happens that my doing this is any kind of inspiration to anybody, great. Although I admit it’s late.
It’s never too late to tell.
[Stares out the window a minute] I’m thinking back. I’m trying to think about this Barbara Jordan thing you brought up. I guess the thing about Barbara Jordan was that she’s such a hero to me politically and ideologically. I didn’t know anything about her private life. I didn’t care. I thought she was a great woman. And my impression is she never said anything about her sexuality …
She didn’t, not publicly.
She didn’t say anything? I suppose her friends knew.
And her partner, it was reported, was at her funeral.
So I guess maybe I felt she should have been left alone, but … well, I mean, she was dead. She couldn’t be hurt anymore by anything. And nothing could damage her great reputation. So I suppose if she became a great role model for these young black women, well, maybe it made sense.
We felt the same way about doing a story on Dusty Springfield after she died–although, of course, we tried to talk to her while she was alive. I felt we needed to tell her full story because otherwise we lose a part of her–and our–history. I’m happy you wrote your book because …
No, I’m glad that I went through this whole thing too. I would say to myself, What should I do about this thing about my private life? I’m not that certain about what I really think.
When you look back on your relationships, which ones do you think were the best for you? The ones with men or with women?
Well, this is just a cliche, but I think that my relationships with women were always much more emotional and more emotionally satisfying and comfortable. And a lot of my relationships with men were more flirtatious and adversarial. I just never felt I was wife material. I always felt that I was a great girlfriend.
And you didn’t have to feel like a wife with another woman?
No. I didn’t have to play that role. And so maybe that was more natural for me. But, you know, men are a lot easier to have relationships with than women because men will seize these occasional opportunities and go forth. Women are not–at least the women I’ve dealt with–like that.
So it’s more complicated to get together with a woman?
I can’t really say. I never … [Laughing, embarrassed] As I say, I’m a serial failure at maintaining a relationship.
Now, when you say failure, are you saying that you would prefer it if you did have a relationship?
I mean, four years was about as long as I ever stayed with anybody, except for my 15 years with Iris. And Iris became like my child, and she still is. She has very a childlike nature. And we are still companions and friends. We travel and so forth. Sex was the least of it.
Is it any different for you to know that you are talking to the gay press versus all the other press you’ve done?
No. You’re just as cute and nice as Mike Wallace any day.
[Laughing ] But you’ve never talked to the gay press before.
That’s true. Well, I hadn’t written my memoir either. And the great thing about this is, the pragmatic thing about this is that it’s created a sensation. I thought it would just sort of pass, like people would say, “Oh, well, I already knew that.” But it created an enormous sensation, which I suppose has sold the book. But it’s not a book about my sex life. Maybe I’ll go back and write a whole book on my sex life. [Laughing]
Then we’ll have to do another interview.
I don’t want to act here with The Advocate as if I think I have all of the answers, because when you made your argument a while ago about why it’s important for people to come out, I understand the point. I just think my own nature prevents me from going hog-wild or from being any kind of role model. So they can call me whatever they like. I just don’t want to call myself anything. I think I have really bent over backward to try to help victims of injustice in my columns. I’m trying to right wrongs whenever I can. The column has helped to raise millions of dollars for AIDS. On the other hand, it irritates me when people say I use the column to promote all kinds of gay causes. You bet I do.
Speaking of your causes, it was very interesting to me to read in your book how your heart went out to black people while you were growing up in Texas. You’ve always been for the underdog.
I think I was always sort of a soft-hearted sap. I hated that intolerant thing that was all around me when I was growing up.
You probably already knew yourself, knew something about your own uniqueness and what the world was going to do to you for it.
I like your suggestion. A unique person. [Laughing] I take that as a compliment.
Certainly your parents weren’t like you.
They had a natural barrier around them, which was from the Southern Baptist religion. [Sighs] I really wish everybody would leave everybody else the hell alone. I know that’s a stupid thing for a gossip columnist to say, but I’m not a very good gossip columnist. I think I’m a pretty good social barometer and observer, though.
You say to leave everyone alone because you have been hounded and outed. At The Advocate we constantly struggle about what to say or not say about someone’s sexuality.
I think it’s perfectly logical for you all to try to encourage people to talk about themselves. That’s what you should do. The Advocate in particular is in this ethical dilemma all the time. But, you know, if you went around outing people, I think you would suffer. The magazine wouldn’t be the icon and responsible thing that it is. And others can become role models if they want to. I think a lot about Ellen. I wonder if she wanted what ultimately happened to her.
She couldn’t tolerate being a lesbian and lying about it.
Hmm, that’s pretty special.
Remember when you wrote that some TV icon talk show host was coming out and all hell broke loose?
You know, we printed that item in the column, and it caused us a lot a trouble. I would have never printed that until I was absolutely certain that it was going to happen. We didn’t say whether it was a man or a woman. We had about seven people nominate themselves as this person and tell us in the most irate tone that they weren’t going to come out. And we said, “Great, we never said you were.”
Did the person that you were talking about decide not to …
They also called me [laughing] … Yes, decided not to come out.
Why did you think they were?
Somebody so close to them told us. And it was so dumb of us to do that. It was dumb, very damn foolish. I don’t know why I did it. Don’t do blind items.
In your book you talk about an unknown man who kept calling your office and insisting you and Barbara Walters were lovers.
Yes, I’d tell Barbara about it, and she’d die laughing. It’s true, heterosexual people have so much certainty about themselves. She enjoyed it. The other night at this birthday party, Barbara stood up and made this speech. The room was full of different celebrities, including Matt Drudge and Prince Edward of England. It was a very eclectic group. Barbara got up and said that I was not a natural blond and that we were lovers. And the audience started laughing. It was very funny and defusing. Then I got up and said, “Actually, I’ve slept with everyone in this room.” There were 400 people. So you know, you have to have a little sense of humor about it. And nobody cared.
Why do you want Hilary Swank to play you in a movie?
If you ever see her outside of Boys Don’t Cry, in her real-life self, she is very voluptuous and adorable and really pretty. But they’ll never make a movie of my book. [Laughs] It doesn’t have any ending. I’d have to end up with Ellen or with Rob Lowe. We need a socko ending to the Liz Smith story.
Find more from The Advocate’s exclusive interview with Liz Smith at www.advocate.com
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