Thursday, February 2, 2012

As good as gold

Upper West Side sunset. 6:00 PM. Photo: JH.
February 2, 2012. Very Warm for February. 64 degrees yesterday midtown in the Sun.

Today is the 89th birthday of Liz Smith. Broadway's “Natural Blonde.” She got off the bus here from Texas I think in 1949 when she was about 26.

Little did she know one day she’d own the town. Hardly could she have imagined that 63 years later she would still be working it daily (five days a week),and now on the internet on as well as in papers across the nation.

I’ve been a fan of hers since before I knew I was reading her – when I was reading the Cholly Knickerbocker column in the Daily Journal-American – one of the two Hearst papers here in New York. The “real” Cholly who had the byline was Igor (Ghighi) Cassini (brother of Oleg).

The column we read on a daily basis was cooked up and laid out by La Liz, then still sort of a new kid in town but already toiling away in the big time.

During the 1960s she wrote a lot for Cosmo and other magazines. But when she started her own column in the Daily News she succeeded the fabled columnists we – including Liz --  were all weaned on: Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen, Earl Wilson, Leonard Lyons, Ed Sullivan, and then some. When her time arrived, Liz fit the bill that was established by those who came before.
Walter Winchell on his Sunday radio show in the 1940s and 50s had 20 million listeners delivering all kinds of info from marriages, pregnancies ("infanticipating") and divorces ("splitsville") to commies, the Mob (often his friends), kings and movie queens, saloon singers, sports stars and even the "Mystery Song" that would be played for the biggest across-America phone in prize on "Stop the Music" with Bert Parks.
If you mention any of those names to most of us under forty (or even fifty), they don’t know Who you’re referring to. Nevertheless, Walter Winchell had 30 million readers a day when the country had half the population it has now. This was in the papers, not TV, and then 20 million more on Sunday night radio. He was Mr. New York to millions and millions of Americans out there in the heartland. Twenty percent of the population of the USA read this one man everyday. To say he was powerful was an understatement. Hollywood made a movie about this phenomenon called “Sweet Smell of Success” starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

Winchell’s power was so great he couldn’t help flaunting it. His ego fell victim to it one too many times. If he didn’t like someone, he’d harass them in print. He did it to Jack Paar, then the sensation of nighttime television, and the “Tonight” show. Paar went on TV and plead his case with sufficient melodrama that made Winchell look like a bully and a paper tiger. Television and Jack Paar killed him. 
Your face on Time or Life, the two top Luce weekly magazines which were read by everybody in America was the top of the mountain of fame and celebrity. Winchell on the cover of Time was tantamount to being knighted by the Establishment. The cover of Life was the man of the moment, and in 1959, that was Jack Paar on the "Tonight Show." Winchell picked on him. Pinched and tweaked in his Broadway column. Made fun of him. Paar, much younger than Winchell, and very new to such national stardom, had a natural sense of self-defense. He made a show out of it. He talked to the camera as if talking to Winchell. He plead his case, which was basically to point out to the public what a bully and a crank Walter Winchell was. The time had come for the changing of the guard in media.
Kilgallen, besides her daily column in the J-A,  had a morning talk show on WOR radio with her husband Richard Kollmar (“Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick”)  It was live from their own breakfast nook of their East 68th Street townhouse, talking about what went on in New York the night before). Dorothy loved a good scoop and could be a bitch in print.  Frank Sinatra hated her (he wasn’t alone). He called her Miss No-Chin. “Everybody's here tonight, everybody but Dorothy Kilgallen. She's out on the town looking for her chin ...” he said to his audience on an opening night at the Copa.

Dorothy Kilgallen with Marilyn Monroe. Kilgallen was born with with ink in her veins. Her father Jim Kilgallen was a longtime editor for Hearst. Dorothy started out as a cub reporter. She was a go-getter. In her prime, she was feared because she could be tough and she could be very bitchy. But she was a pro with a strong voice directed to her readers. She didn't waste words in puncturing an ego publicly.
But Kilgallen was another Broadway baby. A charmer in her own way. She held forth every lunchtime at a big round table in PJ Clarke’s. The world came to have a burger and fries with her. She went out at night in evening gowns and furs. Not pretty but with a pen that could draw blood or plant poison, she was the Star Reporter at murder trials all over the nation.

Two years after the Kennedy assassination she wrote in one of her columns that she knew who killed JFK (not Oswald) and was soon going to reveal it publicly. People took Dorothy Kilgallen seriously. Many believed if anyone knew the secrets, it was Kilgallen and that she had guts to put it out there. However, she died a few days later in bed, of what was said to be a fatal mixture of pills and booze, late night. For years after there were not a few who found her death mysterious.

Leonard Lyons and Earl Wilson in the New York Post covered the New York nightlife with anecdotes and plugs, although unlike Winchell and Kilgallen, they weren’t feared or risky. There were many others whose footsteps Liz has followed – columnists in the New York dailies. Louis Sobel. Nancy Randolph, Lee Mortimer. John McClain, Lucius Beebe. By the mid- to late 50s, Eugenia Sheppard came to the fore and Aileen Mehle as “Suzy,” along with Joe Dever in the Telegram. There were lots of sports columnists and social commentators too. Damon Runyon who was Winchell’s idol, was succeeded by Jimmy Breslin in the Herald-Tribune.
Leonard Lyons standing (with Jayne Mansfield behind him) listening to Lee Strasberg -- founder of the Actors Studio -- talking to one his biggest boosters, Marilyn Monroe (who studied with him). Monroe's great friend Susan Strasberg who introduced the actress to her father. It was very prestigious, even intellectually, at the time, for an actor to be at the Actors Studio. It was The Method. Serious and anti-glamorous.
Ed Sullivan had a column called "Little Old New York" for years beginning in the 1930s in the Daily News. In the late '40s or early 1950s he began emceeing a Sunday night variety show on CBS called Toast of the Town from 8 to 9. By the mid-50s, all of America tuned in to Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (later The Ed Sullivan Show) every Sunday night at 8 o'clock. Sullivan, coincidentally had a run-in with Jack Paar along the lines of Paar's feud with Winchell. There was no victor, however, although it had the whole country talking (this was the '50s). Sullivan had a very popular TV show too, just like Paar. The Beatles made their first appearance on American television on Ed Sullivan. It was a sensation and make them nationally famous overnight.
But that was back when people read every morning, afternoon and evening. Some New Yorkers read five or six papers a day. A little here a little there. To the “average” New Yorker, the man on the street, this was his connection to that great big world of Society and the Great White Way (oh, and Hollywood too) that he was living in the middle of. These columnists were all characters on the Street of Dreams.

Whether she intended it or not when she got off the bus from Texas that day back in ’49, Liz went down that Street of Dreams -- this was the world she was going to conquer. She cut her professional teeth in that era of American journalism where the reader was informed, entertained and suffused with a  sense of belonging to this great big world he was reading about.
Another birthday for Liz at the Cafe Carlisle where her lifelong friend -- who also shares this birthday -- Elaine Stritch was performing. Top: Pete Peterson and Lesley Stahl. Middle: Mary Wells Lawrence, Liz, Stritch, Sheila Nevins, Joni Evans. Bottom row: Joan Ganz Cooney and Cynthia McFadden.
Bette Midler singing a tribute to Liz at a Literacy Partner's gala, with Arnold Scaasi looking on.
Liz personifies that journalistic sensibility that made all of the aforementioned (and I’ve named only a few in American journalism) famous with millions who took their word as gospel.

Her brilliant career has had a longer run than almost anyone who came before her. Perhaps because of the time, the Broadway baby, later in her life and career has become a clarion voice for charity and philanthropy here in New York.

When she had her 80th birthday she asked her readers and friends who might be thinking of sending her a gift, to send the money to the city for the Mayor’s Fund to help the citizens of New York. The fund received more than a quarter million dollars.
Another birthday at a restaurant in the West Village where they had real Southern (deep in the heart of Texas) food. With her friend Governor Ann Richards; with Iris Love and Paige Rense; at another event with Gillian Miniter; the cover of her memoir.
Liz was so surprised by the outpouring of generosity from so many people that she realized she could do that more often and do more good. Her charitable support has been frequent and widely distributed although Literacy Partners, which she founded with Parker Ladd and Arnold Scaasi, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy which has an annual tribute to New York Living Landmarks at a dinner which Liz emcees.

Liz of course is one of the greatest Living Landmarks in New York today. Am I enthusiastic about her? I should say -- At the end of her ninth decade, she is still covering New York (and sometimes Hollywood) daily. She manages to see all the shows, all the films, a lot of the concerts, many of television shows; reads all the papers, and the magazines – often writing pieces – many of the latest books, while she also conducts interviews, emcees lunches and gala benefit dinners, weekends in Connecticut, dines out almost nightly with all kinds of friends of all ages and stripes, and write letters and emails. On a daily basis. Whew! How does she do it, we wonder? It’s all she knows; the blessing in disguise. For us too. Happy Birthday our dear Liz, and Thank YOU!

Comments? Contact DPC here.