Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Celebrating a Friend's Great Life

Most of the Texas contingent at El Rio Grande. In the foreground, l. to r.: Elizabeth Chapman, Sarah Chapman, Roxanna Chapman, and Diane Judge. Background, l. to r.: Blossom Bennett, Witt McCall Featherston, Mercer Aplin, Liz's niece Karen Williamson, and her son Arak Avakian.
by Denis Ferrara

“GET a Shubert Theater!!”

That’s what my friend, mentor and employer of 36 years, Liz Smith, jotted down, in a note titled, “Exit: Ta Da!”

Liz had always insisted she didn’t want a fuss after she shuffled off her mortal coil. She’d always come back from a memorial service or funeral, seemingly ever more insistent on this. (And somewhat caustic about both the dead and the living involved.)
Liz and me enjoying one of our last happy hours at El Rio Grande.
I never believed her.  Liz loved to be recognized.  She loved performing.  She loved getting up on stage and utilizing the full force of her personality to guide a charity event.  She loved being Liz Smith and she loved a good compliment on the many facets of her evolution from raw, wide-eyed, ambitious Texas girl to the premiere gossip columnist of her era, a Manhattan institution, read around the city, the country and — it always astonished her — the world. (“Honey, this letter/email is from Berlin ... Australia ... London ... Canada!”).  So, it was good to know that I was right.  Liz had, indeed made a few plans, toward the end of her life.  And a Shubert Theater was on the top of the list. 
Funnily enough, many who read the New York Social Diary on Monday thought that David Patrick Columbia’s very good piece on Liz’s memorial was my work.  (I actually wrote that day about my long bout with the flu and what I was able to watch and read while abed. Penned in advance, because I wasn’t sure at that point I’d even be up to attending Liz’s celebration.) 

“But, she recovered,” as Judy Garland’s caustic aside goes in “A Star is Born.”  And so I sat away from Liz’s friends and family, in the Shubert’s Majestic Theater, just in case I began coughing or otherwise felt overcome.  That did not happen.
I was somewhere in the back of the theater. JH took this pic thinking he might find Waldo.
I knew, in varying manner of intimacy, all who spoke onstage — Cynthia McFadden ... Barry Diller ... Liz’s niece, Karen Williamson ... Spencer Hoge (Liz’s adored, adoring and beautifully composed godson) ... Tommy Tune (warbling “The Way You Look Tonight”) ... Lesley Stahl ... Billy Norwich ... Joni Evans ... Renee Zellweger ... Holland Taylor ... Bruce Willis.

I appreciated every amusing, poignant reminisce.  But there was nothing new for me to learn about Liz. Given the way she ran her office and her life, I knew all in about two years!

I would go home at night and exclaim frantically, “This can’t be normal. It’s too personal.  It’s crazy. I think I’m going to have a stroke!” Gently advised to remove myself from the tsunami at 38th Street and apartment 26-A, I would counter, “And do what?”  I couldn’t do anything else, and I really didn’t want to. I learned to live — and lived to learn! — in the eye of a “natural blonde” hurricane.
Liz with her office staff in apartment 26-A back in 2001.
I was particularly grateful about the references to Liz’s intellect, her tremendous curiosity, her compulsive love of reading.  If there was ever somebody whose exterior life and perceived interests were at odds with the person she was, that somebody was Liz Smith.  Not that Liz didn’t enjoy and value a good piece of gossip, but that sort of thing was rarely a main subject of her conversation.

I was also lifted up by the wonderful selection of photographs and film clips, complied, designed and edited by Jake Whitman. That dazzling movie star smile, utterly embracing and seductive, the laugh — a raucous cackle that was all-inclusive.  It was a Greatest Hits afternoon, reminding me, over and over again of all the good times, what a great life she’d had, how eagerly she embraced it and how she enriched, enlivened and even ennobled the lives she touched.
It was “mercifully brief,”  a phrase Liz and I would often use after being blessed with a night in the theater that knew its limits and just how much a backside could take in an uncomfortable seat.  I got up, and well — felt cured!  Had I ever been sick?

I felt quite good enough to attend the reception at Sardi’s after, to drink and nosh. The place was almost ridiculously packed — and un-mournful networking was rife.  I had to laugh, reminded of Holland Taylor having just read a note to Liz from her beloved friend Mike Nichols: “When we meet at the next rat fuck! ...”

At Sardi’s Lots of people came up with sad-type faces and commented how terrible I must feel. I’m afraid I distressed quite a few by saying I didn’t feel bad at all, that the afternoon had brought back the good, erased the tumult and left me feeling proud to have known her.  No tears. We all live and die.  Few make the profound personal impact of Liz Smith.
"When we meet at the next rat fuck!...” 
(The next day, Saturday, the Smith family, along with me, Mary Jo McDonough, Diane Judge, Iris Love, and Rachel Clark, celebrated Liz’s life at her old stomping grounds, the El Rio Grande restaurant, downstairs from her office/apartment of nearly half a century.  Guacamole was devoured, wings were gnawed, margaritas were hoisted in her name. It went on for eight hours!)
 Denis with Liz's niece Roxanna Chapman.
Karen Williamson, Liz's niece, with her son, Arak Avakian.
Arak Avakian with Liz's nephew Sloan Smith.
Mary Jo with Sloan Smith.
Rachel Clark and Iris Love.
Iris Love and Diane Judge.
Sloan and Roxanna, hoisting to Liz.
Mary Jo, Sloan, Roxanna, Iris, and Denis eight hours later!
Her professional life was a triumph, but it was a puny thing compared to approaching her in a ballroom or a living room, surrounded by hundreds, or alone together.  Her face — solemn, even stubborn, in repose — suddenly, radiantly creased with apparent joy to see and talk to you, and only you, “Honey, come sit here!”

Liz, darling, I’ll never sit by you again.  But you are with me, always. 

P.S. Bruce Willis, who Liz adored and vice versa seemed especially somber in his recollection.  Perversely, this reminded me of an afternoon some years back.  Liz had interviewed Bruce, and wrote up their meeting. Reading it over, this sentence jumped out:  “He wore just three items of clothing, a white linen shirt, white linen pants, and sandals.” 
“Liz,” I said, “How do you know he was only wearing three items of clothing?”  Liz looked up from her book. (Yep, she’d done her work and had moved on to more interesting matters.)  “You know, Denis, you’re not the only person here who can tell if a man isn’t wearing underwear!” 

Another day in the office; another reason I stayed 36 years.
Contact Denis here.