Monday, November 13, 2017

Remembering Liz

Liz surrounded by friends and admirers: Peter Rogers, Casey Ribicoff, Alex Hitz, Elizabeth Peabody, Adolfo, and DPC. This photograph is a permanent fixture on my bookshelf.
Monday, November 13, 2017.  Cold, this past weekend in New York. Last Thursday night was such a quick freeze that Friday morning looking out the window (or from the terrace with my camera) we saw this.

The trees whose leaves hadn’t even begun to show signs of turning the day before, had all fallen to the ground leaving this beautiful green carpet along the sidewalks and the roadsides. It was odd. I don’t recall that kind of speedy defoliation before. It  warmed up a little on Sunday night, into the 40s.
Liz Smith. Sunday afternoon about 4:30, my friend Colette Harron called to tell me about Liz. We were expecting this although it still seemed a shock. This was a woman who had lived all but two or three of her almost 95 years going full blast in life. And enjoying just about all of it with total commitment.

I knew her long before I met her. I was an avid reader of her column when it first appeared in the Daily News and later in the New York Post. In those early days of the column, the early 1970s, I was doing business in the garment district one weekday when I spotted her on the corner of 39th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Photo: Harry Benson.
It was about this time of year. I could see from her presence that she was a friendly woman and so I went up to her, and interrupted her and her friend (who turned out to be one of the great Broadway stage managers, Ruth Mitchell), just to tell her how much I loved her column.

“Well, you made my day! Thank you!” she exclaimed in a way that I had to believe she meant it.  Years later, knowing her, I often saw that side of her.
Liz and her good friend Joel Schumacher at his California home with all his dogs. Photo: Harry Benson.
Liz and Tracy Lord putting on lipstick! Photo: Harry Benson.
After that single encounter, I never saw her again until about twenty years later when I’d begun writing the New York Social Diary in Quest magazine, to which she occasionally contributed an article. We got to know each other in that social way that occurs in New York where you find yourself at the same event or party or dinner or lunch and you get to talking. She read me and was very encouraging. At one point she took it upon herself (without asking or telling me) to go to the three major newspapers, Times, Post, and Daily News and suggest they hire me to write a social column. All three — Murdoch, Sulz. and Zuckerman — were not interested. (That didn’t surprise me, incidentally).

What struck me about all of it was her extending herself and her influence on my behalf.  A very great gift even if it doesn’t materialize. Ironically it was after they dropped her column in Mr. Murdoch’s Post  that I had the opportunity to offer her column on the NYSD. The Huff Post had been carrying it but it was buried there. I knew we could give it a more alluring home with JH’s exquisite yet dishy art direction, along with a very broad national and international audience.
Liz with her partner in crime Denis Ferrara.
I was highly flattered by her interest and generosity. And there was that rare thrill one can have in life when you meet someone you admire, look up to, or even idolize, and they become your friend. She always reminded me of my eldest sister Helen who died just a year ago this month at age 89.  She was a big sister in life; it’s an attitude that some generous souls are born with, and which quietly touches man.

There’s much than can be said and will be written about her long and eventful life. She had many friends who knew her well. She was a kind of bon vivant in her approach to her work and the worlds she covered. She was also a reader, quite literary, and loved theatre, films and everything that came with it. And she loved Walter Winchell and that whole great world of New York columnists that reigned over our culture from the 1920s up into the 1980s. Winchell, Kilgallen, Sullivan, Cholly Knickerbocker (whose column she ghosted for years under its "writer" Igor "Ghighi" Cassini). These were stars in the American media. Thirty million read Winchell everyday! It was they who drew her to the Big Town.
Liz and Elaine Stritch trying to make it big in the big city, 1956.
A girl from small town Texas, one of those readers, a college grad, she came by bus with her suitcase and a heart-full of dreams. She lived the consummate New York single professional life from 1949 (she was 26) right up to age 90. These last two or three years presented her with difficulties she’d never faced before. All physical, and taxing.

She bore it all matter-of-factly for those who saw her.  Her close friends Cynthia McFadden and Elizabeth Peobody looked after her care. Probably no amount of  discomfort or pain troubled her as much as missing the world out there that was always host to her. She loved people. She loved her friends. She laughed a lot, big, bursting guffaws when she heard something deeply ironic and hilarious.
Liz with Joan Ganz Cooney, Cynthia McFadden, Elaine Stritch, Sheila Nevins, and Joni Evans. Photo: Patrick McMullan
Liz with Elizabeth Peabody. Photo: Patrick McMullan
Life had been good to her and she gave it back in spades. She made a lot of money at one point in her career — at one point more than a million a year — and paid more than a few rents for friends who were having problems making it. She started Literacy Partners with Arnold Scaasi and Parker Ladd to raise money to help adults learn to read — a huge  problem in America today.
Liz with Arnold and Parker at an Evening of Readings to benefit Literacy Partners. Photo: Patrick McMullan
Up until a couple of years ago, she was the down home, witty hostess of the Living Landmarks evening of the New York Landmarks Conservancy where I was honored two weeks ago. She was a great emcee, fulla beans Texas style with that Noo Yawk touch to give it sophistication. She’d sometimes sing a song with Peter Duchin accompanying her. The whole point was for everyone to have a good time. Quite a serious lady herself, she had a natural talent for having a good time, and one way or another she shared it with many of us.
Photo: Harry Benson.

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