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Deep Dish

Who is Liz Smith? -- The queen of titillating tattle is making a big-bucks move

There is no greater need in society than that of gossip. It is the principal means of passing the time, which is one of the first necessities of life.
— Poet Giacomo Leopardi, quote starting Liz Smith's first column, Feb. 16, 1976.

Liz Smith hasn't even arrived yet at Le Cirque — Manhattan's preeminent power-lunch restaurant for Armani-suited, table-hopping, air-kissing celebs and socialites — yet Barbara Walters and gossip columnist Cindy Adams can already be overheard talking about her. Deep in conversation, their perfectly coiffed do's seemingly locked together, they whisper such words as ''Fox...Live at Five...Personalities'' — referring to the news-making TV deal Liz has pulled off.

Suddenly heads swivel toward the front door as Smith bursts into the room. This isn't hyperbole. She's decked in a bright yellow blazer, black pants, and yellow lizard cowboy boots — a big, happy bumblebee in Le Cirque's garden of hothouse flowers.

''Hey Liz!'' yells Walters from a table away. ''We were just talking about you!''

They aren't the only ones. In March, Liz made gossip-column history when she left the New York Daily News — where she'd toiled for 15 years — and went to upstart New York Newsday, the suburban Long Island paper that has barged into the big city, for $1 million a year, making her the most highly paid gossip columnist in America and, most likely, the world. At the same time, she jumped ship from WNBC's local newscast, Live at Five, to the nationally syndicated Personalities, a breezy magazine show, giving her exposure in every major market.

So at age 68, Liz Smith finds herself in a unique position. She is already the most powerful gossip columnist in the country. (Recent example: In her column on April 30, she broke the exclusive news about Julia Roberts' upcoming marriage to Kiefer Sutherland — a story that the tabloids might have paid six figures to get.) Now she's expanding her realm. Syndicated in some 60 newspapers and seen on 129 television stations, she's trying to extend her influence beyond New Yorkers and people in the entertainment industry to Americans of all persuasions.

The question: Will she stretch herself too thin? There's already concern she might. New York Newsday isn't as widely read as the Daily News; Personalities doesn't have the clout of Live at Five. By making her big move, will Liz lose her power base?

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