Friday, November 18, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Remembering Society's Saucy Suzy

Henri Gervex, Le Bal de l'Opéra, Paris,1886.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Remembering Society's Saucy Suzy —I Liked Her. (She Nodded to Me.)

“EXCLUSIVENESS is a characteristic of recent riches, high society and the skunk,” said Austin O’ Malley.
ONCE upon a time, back in the 1950’s, I, Liz, worked as a ghostwriter for a famous Hearst columnist, one Igor Cassini. After World War II, he had become the well-known social observer, code name, “Cholly Knickerbocker.”

I was floating from one crappy job to another, so being associated with this well-read column was terrific. I began to get around, doing whatever Mr. Cassini wanted. In my ignominious way, I met a few “crackles” from the Upper Crust. I was greeted at the exclusive doors of El Morocco and restaurants such as Le Pavillon and The Colony.
Liz at El Morocco with press agent Jim Mitchell.
These places, where Society and rich people reigned, were notorious for charming self-interest and avid for publicity. So I began having a quite good time, contributing to “Cholly,” but not answering for much. Igor Cassini took the bows, took whatever news or gossip we underlings could provide, and added his considerable knowledge.
Igor Cassini as “Cholly Knickerbocker.”
As I went along, I was aware that there was an appealing, new saucy columnist in Florida. She – Aileen Mehle – called herself Suzy.

This Suzy was causing quite a stir, because she was a humorous writer and she appealed to the so-called International Set. Also because she was sexy, and smart, with an eye-catching mane of red/blonde hair. (She was like an upscale Brenda Starr.)

I longed to meet this paragon and when she came to New York, I did. She was as appealing as I’d heard. But Mr. Cassini disapproved of her as one who had invaded his territory. I paid no attention to that.
Time flew and Suzy and I ran into each other from time to time. But I began to be not invited, or excluded from certain charity-philanthropic events. I was told, “We’d like to have you, but Suzy won’t come as long as you write for Cholly.” I got it. And I didn’t really blame her.

Many of the New York - Palm Beach hostesses and charity movers and shakers, ignored this petty veto. Many a hostess went so far as to apologize to me, up front, for why they had to not invite me to cover their event.   
But a number of them ignored Suzy’s dictum. C.Z. Guest, a social important name to conjure with, said to me,“ I don’t get it and I won’t put up with it. Let the chips fall where they may.” In time, her rich and cultured husband, Winston Guest, died and C. Z. told me “Did you know that Aileen didn’t want me to invite you to Winston’s funeral. But you came and you sat next to Roy Cohn like a very good sport. Nobody else wanted to sit by him. When Aileen objected, I just said to her, ‘For heaven’s sake, Aileen – Winston loved Liz!’ ”
So, as New York’s Society moved more and more toward the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll and celebrity sightings, even the dignified learned to do The Twist. Then socialites embraced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and I was just a natural at covering Hollywood movies and Broadway stars, so I did OK. And I didn’t complain about Suzy acing me out at the Opera and the Met.  What’s more, I had an admirer and teacher at the N.Y. Times.
Suzy at the Opera, 1991. Photo: Mary Hilliard.
The great Charlotte Curtis took me under her wing and told me where all the social bodies were buried and who was who and who was divorcing and marrying and stuff like that. I still didn’t voice my objection to being “not invited.” Suzy had “arrived” and her place was secure. I let my boss Mr. Cassini fume and fuss over the rise of the adorable Suzy. But then he flew off for a few months in the South of France.

Richard Berlin, who ran things at Hearst, then reached out to congratulate me on something that had appeared under Cassini’s byline, “The 30 Most Famous Women in International Society”, or words to that effect. I was startled by the phone call but Mr. Berlin just said, “Everybody knows that you wrote this. Cassini had nothing to do with it. Congratulations.”
Charlotte Curtis. Richard Berlin with his former Warhol superstar daughter Berlin.
But then Igor Cassini did himself in and had to resign from writing “Cholly” after all those years. (This “history” is too long to recite here. Just take my word for it.) I must say, my boss urged me to try to take over “Cholly Knickerbocker” for myself.

So I went to Hearst’s top man, Joe Kingsbury-Smith, and asked to be made Cholly Knickerbocker. He said no. “You have done a good job. You are talented. But you have no cachet, no image. We are giving the column to columnist Aileen Mehle, and we’ll call it Suzy Knickerbocker! Sorry.” I saw their point. And I saw that Lizzie Knickerbocker was not to be. My fate lay elsewhere.
William Randolph Hearst, Jr., left, Frank Conniff, and Kingsbury Smith.
Suzy then went to the New York Daily News, on their important page six.  I began working what would be a 19-year gig at this same newspaper. After I began in 1976, my column was moved to page 8, then 7, and then page 6. Suzy was placed slightly behind me. Since she hadn’t spoken to me again from the day I was hired, I’d gone on speaking and trying to be friendly. I admired her. I couldn’t blame her for not wishing me well. This made it slightly uncomfortable when I was seated near her at First Lady Nancy Reagan’s lunches.
When Suzy left the Daily News and went to W, she still flourished. She was petted by one and all because she was so attractive and witty.

When she went recently to that Big Party in the Sky, she was still tops. Passing by her last year when we met, just before Swifty’s closed down, I spoke to her. She nodded.

May she rest in peace.
Photo: Condé Nast via Getty Images
Contact Liz here.