Ultimate insider Liz Smith is a hob-nob magnet. For decades, she's been attracting glitterati, ruing restaurants with one hard stare, and air-kissing new high society arrivals onto guest lists. This is the autobiography of the world's most wined and dined gossip columnist. If you count at all, you'll be in the index.
Natural Blonde: A Memoirby Liz Smith
From Tallulah Bankhead to Truman Capote, from Joan Crawford to Rock Hudson to the Kennedys, from Frank Sinatra to Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise...Liz, the
Liz Smith, the "Grande Dame of Dish," has been covering the comings and goings of the rich and infamous for more than four decades from her privileged front-row perch on the front lines of celebrity journalism.
From Tallulah Bankhead to Truman Capote, from Joan Crawford to Rock Hudson to the Kennedys, from Frank Sinatra to Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise...Liz, the ultimate insider, has hobnobbed, air-kissed and lunched with just about everybody who's been anybody over the last half-century -- and then rushed back on deadline to tell the world all about it.
Now -- with the kind of humor, warmth and sense of fair play that made her one of the most widely read columnists in history -- comes the sensationally candid and down-to-earth memoir of a starstruck little tomboy from Fort Worth, Texas, named Mary Elizabeth Smith, who grew up to become the highest-paid print journalist in the world.
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Read an Excerpt
At age five or six, I learned you couldn't trust the ice. Not that I'd ever seen much ice in Fort Worth, a city with an occasional blue norther, but generally warm and pleasant weather. Still, I realized that the ice above Alaska to the North Pole could open up and swallow you. I saw it happen right up there on the movie screen to the actress Lenore Ulrich.
The movie was Frozen Justice and it must have been late 1928 or early 1929 because I was with Dott. She was our maid and the Depression hadn't struck us yet, so she was still with us.
Dolt and I were sitting in the colored balcony although she had tried in vain to get me to sit downstairs in the "white" section. Black maids with white children were allowed to exempt themselves from the segregation rules back in the late twenties. Otherwise, segregation was a rigid reality.
I still tried always to drink from the fountain labeled "colored." This wasn't my sense of justice so much as my insistence on showing off and being "different." Usually some indignant white adult would yank me away as if I were on the edge of a precipice.
Down deep in my bones, just as the flickering movie screen influenced me, so the all-pervading black-and-white question haunted my childhood. I was totally fascinated from early childhood with what the great jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow termed "The Race," in his famous book Really the Blues. When I read it later, at age sixteen, I feltvalidated. Black people were my secret passion. I wanted to sit separated with them at the movies. I was enthralled with how they looked, their talk, their humor, their food, their music, their laughter and the terrible way most of them had to live without seeming even to notice it.
The writer James Fox has noted this throwback to the Old South where people lived closely with their servants "treating them like subordinate relatives ..." living closely enough to "inherit the religious customs and diurnal superstitions of The Race ... to adopt their particular humor and sense of the ridiculous."
I was, of course, only a white princess in a paternalistic racist society, but I didn't know that. Black people were extra good to little white children. They seemed, actually, to like and really care for us. After all, we had not yet grown up to be monsters and masters.
Dott would always sigh and take me up to the balcony. "Your daddy wouldn't like this," she'd say. Dott herself wasn't black. She was coffee-colored and later, when I began to see Lena Horne on the screen, I would get Lena and Dott all mixed up in my head because my own fabulous "mammy" was such a lovely slim creature, very like Lena.
There were only three places I felt at home as a child: 1919 Hemphill where I'd been born, the Travis Avenue Baptist Church where I went every Sunday and the Tivoli Theater, which was a passion. It was a little neighborhood "picture show" and I have always assumed it must have been a backward Fort Worth theater owner who wrote the movie distributor, saying, "Don't send us no more of them movies where the hero writes with a feather!"
Frozen Justice is the first movie I remember. And so I encountered my first star. Lenore Ulrich was a Broadway actress who never quite translated to the silver screen. At the time, I only knew that she was an incredible creature up there in the light, suffering torments because she was torn between the bright lights of Nome and her Eskimo heritage. Lenore Ulrich looked about as much like an Inuit half-breed as I did. But she struggled womanfully through the snow in this, her first talkie, cracking her whip over the dogsled and getting up on the bar in Nome to drink and "carry on," as they'd say in Texas. Then she'd realize what degradation there was in "civilization" (downtown Nome) and she'd crack her whip and sled back to the ice floes where Momma was chewing blubber in the igloo and her step-Papa was out trying to spear a polar bear for dinner. Half-white Lenore was never satisfied anywhere. (There was a moral in this movie somewhere; there always used to be morals in movies. Now there are usually just explosions and car and plane crashes, and digital greed is rewarded.)
In the end, rushing between Nome and the ice floes of home, Lenore fell into a crack in the ice, the ice then moved and she and her dogs were crushed to death. I felt terrible about the dogs and howled all the way home, with Dott saying, "Shh. Shh. It's only a movie!" When we came in with me blubbering, my mother, Elizabeth, wasn't one to question her own wisdom in sending a five-year-old off to see whatever was playing. She was unconcerned that I might have experienced something tragic and unsuitable for a child. She just rocked me in her lap and described meadows full of flowers and little rabbits playing until I calmed down.
Good Christian WASP women of her day didn't have psychological qualms about child rearing. They had never heard of Freud, PMS, "having it all" or being "liberated." They knew that someday God and Jesus would sort it all out for us if only we all had the faith of a grain of mustard seed. (I heard so much about the grain that I have never become a big mustard fan.) Baptist teaching had a lot of good things just like the Boy Scouts law of being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. And I have tried to live by those verities to some extent, but a lot of religion just bounced off of me.
Even by late 1920s Jazz Age standards, it was lax of my mother to offer me up to the early cinematic baby-sitter just to get me out of her hair. But she wasn't much concerned with details of child rearing. She was Southern Baptist to the core, except when the core interfered with minor pleasures, which she did not consider a "sin." Movies were one of these (thank heaven!). Card playing was another, and ballroom dancing was her romantic passion. (She and Daddy were forever twirling around together, showing us just how it was done.) Honi soit qui real y pense might have been her motto had she wished to defend herself. But she didn't know it meant "Evil is to him that thinks evil," even though she had gone to college in Mississippi. She had enough innate class to find some of the narrow-minded hard-shell Baptist doctrines uncouth. She deplored the foot washers and snake handlers who spoke in tongues. "They are just showing off," she'd say.
Fanaticism was not for her. She didn't like it in a fundamentalist Baptist way, just as she disapproved of the pomp and panoply in the Catholic Church. And I believe she liked to irritate her mother-in-law, a woman who was determined to make everyone's life hell on earth. My "Big Mama," Martha Tipton Smith, didn't think that men and women should even go swimming together. This was too narrow-minded for my mother.
My father, Sloan, was too busy to worry about what messages we were getting at the movies. He could be an exacting personal taskmaster, but he had a sweet bent, and heartfelt cultural aspirations. (His fondest memory of his own youth was when he had gone to New Orleans to hear Amelita Galli-Curci as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto.)
Unlike my mother, he hated organized religion and thought most preachers were phonies and hypocrites. In spite of these dichotomies, I leaned more toward being a creature of the silver screen than of the Baptist church. Frozen Justice marked me for life. I could never forget it. And as I began to grow up (I won't say mature, for I never did), I found myself like Lenore Ulrich in the movie. I was forever to be pulled between my Southwestern roots (that absolutely wholesome and corny upbringing) and the bright light aspects of big city life (the glamour and glitter of show business). I can't blame Hollywood or Lenore or whoever wrote Frozen Justice. Most humans display divergent dual characteristics and most of us are torn between here and there, and this and that.
The Tivoli became and remained the epicenter of my early life. My parents exerted no censorship or interest in what we saw there. We children were simply allowed to go off every Saturday, when the program changed. There were no X or R ratings. (The Hays Office exercised certain cautions after 1934. For instance, couples were never shown in double beds. I thought twin beds were absolutely quaint; personally, I had never seen one except in the movies.)
As time went by, the Depression caused us to lose Dott, although she remained in our lives until she died in her ninetiesa successful Fort Worth restaurant owner.
After Dott, Bobby and I were allowed to go by ourselves to the movies. (James, five years older than me, was already living in another world.) We went to the Tivoli each clutching a precious dime and were treated to a cartoon, a serial, a travelogue, coming attractions, the March of Time, a newsreel, the feature. It went on and on and it was marvelous. We never missed a program change and sometimes we'd stay all day watching the whole shebang over and over again.
Our only other outing, aside from visiting relatives, was to go to Sundayschoolandchurch, always spoken as one word. And never to miss it unless we were at death's door.
So we hated Sundays, but Saturday was a very big deal. We'd get on our bikes and coast gleefully downhill to the Tivoli. The coming back uphill was tough, but it was a life lesson. You get something; you give something up. Sometimes we'd have fifteen cents, enough for the movie and a five-cent Rockefeller hamburger. Or we'd take peanut butter and jelly in a paper bag. I really don't recall any popcorn concessions in those early movie houses.
My mother never asked what we were about to see. She just trusted that those people in Hollywood wouldn't be releasing anything that wasn't okay. Sometimes we'd get the erotic John Gilbert nuzzling Garbo and a bunch of grapes ... or Nick and Nora Charles, of the Thin Man movies, and their dog Asta ... or Jimmy Cagney blazing away at the mob or being a part of it ... or the Marx Brothers and their mayhem (my Uncle Willie was once removed forcibly from a theater in Dallas because he laughed so loud at Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo that he disturbed people) ... or sometimes we'd find ourselves left with something really "cultural," like the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, Man of Aran or Nanook of the North.
Though disappointed at the thought of a Saturday without a big Clark Gable-type star, I realized I rather liked Nanook of the North. It reminded me of Frozen Justice and later, the only screenplay I ever attempted was about an overnight Ice Age, with an advancing North American glacier covering miles in days rather than years. This screenplay caused producer David Brown to warn me that movies about snow and ice are "never successful." I tried to argue that Howard Hughes had seen Ice Station Zebra repeatedly. But David wasn't convinced. When my cowriter Patty Goldstein and I pitched our idea to another producer, Jennings Lang, he growled: "You gals should write about something you know, something like what makes those Cosmopolitan girls tick?" We were so distracted by the fact that we knew Jennings Lang had once been shot in the balls by Walter Wanger, the irate husband of actress Joan Bennett, we could hardly pay any attention to his advice, or keep our eyes off his fly. When he said, "What do you two know about an Ice Age?" we both burst out laughing and assured him we knew zilch, zero, nothing. We left his office clutching our reject, titled Freeze. We were practically in hysterics. But Patty and I still think our movie idea was "high concept." (Man in Miami wakes to find his swimming pool has frozen solid overnight!) Anyway, nothing can pry me away from the impact made at age five by Frozen Justice.
I KNOW THIS DOESN'T MAKE me unique. Every American of my generation seems to have been marked by the movies. I simply realize that I wasn't interested in life on this planet until I became aware of the flickering screen, about age five. Soon, however, I replaced Lenore Ulrich with two other big personalities, Tom Mix, the king of the cowboys, with his hatchet face and big white hat, and his horse, Tony. I fell madly for both Tom and Tony and remained in this unnatural state until, later, I found Fred and Ginger, dancing "The Carioca" on a black glass floor in Flying Down to Rio. I have seldom recovered entirely from any of my movie crushes. And so stars have claimed my life and dominated my fantasies. I almost always and invariably dream of famous stars.
I used to leave movie theaters feeling I was the essence of Bette Davis or Carole Lombard or whoever. I could remain in this state for several hours until something distracted me and I returned to being myself. My mother spent an entire summer going mad while I marched up and down in our driveway shooting off my cap pistols and yelling over and over, "I'm Tom Mix! I'm Tom Mix!" (I still keep his photo up in my office and nobody ever does me the favor of recognizing him anymore.) Mother would jerk me into the house exasperated. "Stop this silliness. You are Mary Elizabeth Smith. Get out of those dirty coveralls, take a bath and put on a little dress before daddy comes home!"
I would crash down to reality and do as I was told. It would linger in my mind that I "might" be Tom Mix even as Dott was buttoning me up into some crinoline or pinafore. But I didn't go on with it. I was a horrible little coward and I did want to please Mother and Daddyup to a point.
WHEN I READ THE LIFE of Salvador Dali, I was flabbergasted to learn that his memory went back to the womb. I can't recall a single thing about babyhood except what I was told by others. Frozen Justice was actually my second memory. My first is of being spanked for taking a toy train away from Bobby. I must have been about five. I can see him his bright white hair, his merry blue eyes, his amazingly beautiful baby eyebrowsteetering around the room in a blue romper. Someone picked me up and paddled me. Mother? Daddy? Dott? My aunt Mary Eula, for whom I had been named Mary?
I quickly got over it because I adored him and must have known, down in my heart, that he would become the companion of my youth. He was to be my real life shining star, but this is the very first I even recall of his existence.
So why was my brain in neutral for the first five years of my life? I don't even remember Bobby's arrival in 1927. It is daunting to learn that others recall being in the womb, remember their cradles, their parents' faces, the life around them. It took Bobby, a toy train, a spanking and Frozen Justice to wake this sleeping beauty.
I remember a scratchy sense of alarm and yet, safety. Being lifted into a male aura, feeling his close-shaved face (he used a dangerous straight razor, "stropping" it on a worn leather strap that hung in the bathroom). He smelled mostly of tobacco and seldom had his hands free from opening Lucky Strikes, striking matches, puffing, putting out cigarettessometimes rolling his own if the mood struck him.
He was fastidiously clean, but hated soap and thought it was bad "to lather up your skin." He loved manicures, tubs, being fussed over. "Come and tweeze this hair out of my ear. It's twanging and driving me crazy!" He was masculine but dandified, affecting bow ties, Borsolino hats, fine-tooled boots, two-tone shoes in summer and straw hats with boater ribbons. He hated the hair on his body and clipped under his arms with scissors. When the safety razor became popular, he never stopped praising it. Now he could shave under his arms. I never knew any other man to do this until I saw Jeffrey Hunter in The King of Kings. His Jesus was clean under the arms.
My brothers convinced me that Sloan was crazy on this point and I realized early on that he was eccentric and no yardstick for what to expect of males in general. Yet he was testosterone-fueled. Woe to anyone who mistook his bantam size and courtly good manners, his generosity, and his fine cotton shirts and well-tailored suits for sissification. From his Irish mother he had inherited a molten center that could boil up and explode with volcanic force. He and his sister, Hassie, were so much alike that for them to even be in the same room meant an evitable fight. The Smith family reunions were testy affairs that broke apart and left factions not speaking for months.
Yet he had a deep abiding respect for women and courtly ideas about females. There were only two kinds, he'd say ladies, and the other kind. Yet he actually adored the entire female sex and often said that one good woman was worth hundreds of useless males. He frequently opined, "After I met your mother, I never looked at another woman." Well, he looked, observed and remarked on how women dressed, acted and behaved. But even my brothers felt he was the most faithful of husbands. When I would later ask how long he and Mother had been married, he'd laugh. "Honey, I don't remember a time when I wasn't married to your mother."
One had to admire his gentlemanly ways, which were simply the veneer that covered up his benighted and pinched background. He had been born into a family of eight children in one of the nongarden spots of rural West TexasPutnam, near Cisco. He had never had a toy as a child unless he made one out of a corncob. A great Christmas was one where he received an orange. He had gone to work at age eight as a Western Union messenger on horseback. He had quit school at the fourth grade and was totally self-educated, wrote in beautiful Spencerian handwriting and could do long division in his head. He demanded and deserved the respect he received.
He had been given a girl's name after a cherished aunt and had fought over being Sloan since childhood. He was as proud of his name as Lancelot with a maiden's scarf on his lance. He never tolerated a slur and usually refused to answer to any nickname, but he called my mother "Sweetie" and she called him that back. Still, he would chide others like my grandmother McCall for referring to her as "Baby." He detested small talk. "Canned conversation!" he'd remark.
He was big on behavioral advice"Be a man!" he'd say to my terrorized brothers as he rehung the razor strop after some butt-popping punishment. These spankings, for all of useven mewere rare, but memorable, given his incendiary nature. He was an autocrat very like the man in My Philadelphia Father.
If he didn't want to discuss something, a firm "Let's don't talk about that" was final. We learned early on not to sass him, or ask too many questions, not to complain about slights offered us elsewhere (he might spring to our defense). And, we never questioned his judgmentout loud.
Like all natural athletes, he was careless of his talents. He could run at a ten-foot fence, vaulting over it with one hand. He almost never drank and was an early health nut, ordering grains from Battle Creek, Michigan, urging us to eat prunes and beets and telling us that "too much ketchup thins the blood."
I constantly fell off, was bucked off, or raked off the horses he set me on. But I never saw a horse he couldn't ride. He loved all horseflesh; especially high-strung temperamental gaited ponies.
During the Depression he infuriated Mother by keeping a polo pony in the backyard and an expensive English saddle on the stairway in the living room. "Like a decoration!" Mother would complain. "We can't afford livestock!"
I loved everything about the Westcowboys, Indians, fringe and flash. He would say I had no taste. "Tacky!" he'd erupt. And he never sat in a Western saddle that he didn't make fun ofespecially the horn. "For tenderfeet to hang onto," he'd chide. He tolerated my worship of "cowboys" although he said they were low-class and not heroes like Tom Mix. He loved animals and from his travels was always bringing home raccoons, armadillos, terrapins, rabbits and wounded birds. But when we begged for a dog, or cat, he was contemptuous. He disliked domesticated pets. Their habits offended him. Dogs and cats were "dirty." His irrational likes and dislikes, his good and bad judgments, his prejudices and passions remain a kind of crown of thorns, even to this day.
He was beyond impulsive and impatient and when I find myself snarling because someone is too slow, I am always forcibly ashamed to find him still here inside me. He had a teasing side that could be hard on children. He would go get in the car and begin racing the motor in the driveway: "All you chillun who want to go with me, come now!" Where was he going? We would hang uncertain on the running board. "No, take it on faith. Go or come. Gamble." Mother would come to the front door. (I see her with a broom or a mop. She loved housekeeping, hated cooking.) "Sweetie, don't tease and torment them. Tell them where you are going." He would ignore her. We'd be torn as he put the Oldsmobile or the Model T or the V-8 into gear and slowly the car would move backward toward Hemphill Street.
If we went, sometimes we'd end up ceaselessly waiting in the car while he went to a mysterious house, parked us and did his "cotton business." But if we failed to go, the others came back burbling about delicious treats, or a trip to the zoo, or a boat ride. We learned to take our chances.
When he was home from his long auto trips buying cotton all over Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, life was so exciting we could hardly stand it. He would make plans to repaint the house all by himself and pay us a nickel an hour to help. One year, he covered the roof all by himself in asbestos shingles. "This house will never go up in flames," he would promise, daring the gods. (It never did and is still standing in Fort Worth's somewhat deteriorated South Side. Sloan's shingles are still intact.)
After a long absence, he'd come home and throw down his suitcases into which he'd tossed pennies and coins for us to count and divide. He'd bring us parrots, hats, serapes, spurs and baskets of tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, which he'd send us out to sell. He wanted to teach us the joy of entrepreneurism. We were thrilled, exhilarated, terrified, and all three of us hated going door-to-door. But he was implacable. Woe to one who came back laden with unsold produce. "I take all the risk and you chillun can keep all the profits. But you are too lily-livered to sell anything." Remembering the slammed doors and irritated rejections, it's no wonder I grew up almost unable to say "no" to anybody.
James and Bobby seemed able somehow to resist his horsey ambitions for them. But I know he must have tried and failed because I recall sitting paralyzed in many a saddle too big for me while he adjusted the stirrups, fiddled with the bridle and made mysterious talk about "choke reins." Cigarette smoke whirled around us as he stood muttering"And youyou are the only one-you are my best boy!"
ONCE, WHEN I WAS ABOUT six, a pony ran away with me in Forest Park where they had horses for hire. I was wearing my flannel shirt, my "leopard" chaps and my real cowboy boots given to me by my aunt Eula's beau, Frank Dye. Daddy was riding ahead when the pony realized he was in charge. He had already tried to reach back and bite me. Daddy had laughed. "Just show him who's the boss." The pony turned en route and took off for the feedlot. I held on for dear life with Daddy coming pell-mell behind me. He knew the pony would dig in its front legs to stop. Margaret Mitchell wasn't to write this Bonnie Blue Butler scene until 1936, but Sloan could just see me thrown over the pony's head with a broken neck. Blind with tears, I dug my sloped boots deep into the stirrups, heels down. I managed to stay on. Sloan dismounted in midair and struck the pony in the side of the head with his fist before dragging me into his arms.
The story of my triumph became embellished. I preened, but not too much. I was still a coward and knew it. I had failed to show my mount who was boss. My boy cousins and James looked on with veiled eyes as Daddy bragged about me. "My best boy!" he'd whisper, holding me between his legs, scattering ashes over everything.
Hello, Dr. Freud!
Meet the Author
Liz Smith was born in Fort Worth Texas, and began her media career in the 1950s as a pioneering news producer with Mike Wallace at CBS Radio in New York City. Known as the highest-paid female print journalist in the world, Liz's daily column is now syndicated nationally to millions of eager readers in over 70 newspapers.
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