Monday, July 31, 2017

The business of gossip

Summer sky. 7:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, July 31, 2017.  A beautiful bright and sunny day, yesterday in New York, with temperatures reaching up to the low 80s, with low humidity and a soft, cool breeze wafting around and about.

Today is Sherry Lansing’s birthday. If by chance you don’t know the name, Sherry is a glamorous Hollywood figure who was for a number of years the CEO of Paramount Pictures, and before that the President of Production of 20th Century-Fox. She was the first woman ever to achieve those plum posts in the industry.

Sherry Lansing: Then..
Sherry started out in the film business as an actress and in fact her first role was co-starring with John Wayne in “Rio Lobo.” Somewhere in there early on she decided there were more interesting things she could do in the film business and went to work in the production end.

I don’t know her, although by turn of fate she played a tiny but crucial role in my career as a writer. Back in the mid-'70s when I was in business (referred to in last Friday’s Diary), I spent all my spare time working on my writing.  Coincidentally, I had a friend who was in the film business, the son of an actress and a film producer. In his spare time he was writing scripts, looking to make his own mark. I decided I would write a script also, a story based on a murder in a family my father once worked for back in the 1920s.

After much self-haranguing, I finished it. A friend of mine, Beth DeWoody, gave it to her mother, Gladyce, who was married to an important Hollywood producer, David Begelman, and lived out there. Gladyce passed it on to "a friend" who worked at MGM. One night a few months later, I got home to the phone ringing. On the other end was a very cheerful voice who introduced herself: Sherry Lansing.

The world had never heard of her at that point, nor had I. I later heard that she had recently started a job as Vice President of Creative Affairs at MGM. In this surprise phone call she told me she’d received the script from Gladyce. And, she added: “you are so talented you should come out here (Hollywood) and write scripts.” 

After gushing a dozen thank you’s and bidding this very kind woman good-bye, I hung up the phone and said aloud to myself: “I’m going!!!” Several months later, I sold my business, packed up my belongings, and with a dog and five cats, I moved to Los Angeles. And so it began.

Sherry Lansing: Now.
Right now Sherry is the subject of a new biography “Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker” by Stephen Galloway. I haven’t read it yet but it has the potential of being a handbook on breaking through the glass ceiling in Hollywood.

A few months after that brief but fateful phone conversation in 1977, I read in Liz Smith’s column in the Daily News that Sherry had been hit by a car crossing Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, and badly injured. It came as a shock to many. I soon learned that within hours, scores of friends and associates rushed to Cedars to learn about their friend’s condition and fate. From that I learned that this young woman executive had a special quality that drew many to her. This is (or was) very unusual for a woman to experience in Hollywood which is famously competitive and cut-throat.

“I loved ya honey, but the show closed…”  I first heard that remark when I lived out there.  Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s now legendary choreography partner, used it in bemused delight in recalling a relationship with a famous Hollywood star. Hermes had repeated it with a healthy laugh, for it can be applied in a million different relationships.

I thought of that on Saturday afternoon when I was reading the New York Times and came upon a surprising interview with Liz Smith, who was 94 on her last birthday (February 2nd). The piece was entitled “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice.” Rise and Fall? I wondered.
Liz at home. Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times
This endeavor read like the Times’  limping along to ultimate tabloidalism. When I first started reading the Times back in the '50s, they had a slogan that was on the front page in the upper right hand corner:

All the news that’s fit to print.

These days, it often seems more like “print to fit.” I guess we can thank Donald Trump for that  — if you’re in a thanking mood — since he has become their number one getcha-gotcha and is even a topic of conversation in this piece.

Liz and Elaine Stritch in the Big Town in 1956.
The “Rise” refers to Liz’ ascension in the early 1970s as the major New York Broadway and Hollywood columnist. The writer left out important details about that “rise” — how Liz worked her way up, writing for others for years before she came into her own. She had brought with her a natural ability to “be nice to” people (not everybody, but just about). That brought a lot of fans. It always does. It brought a lot of credibility, and a lot of popularity in the Broadway-Hollywood where scoops were made. From there she had a long run on nighttime news television, not to mention frequent and sundry pieces in various magazines, including Quest of which this writer is E-I-C. In her glory as media royalty Liz was earning close to or as much as $1 million a year.

Today Liz’s column runs in syndication in newspapers, and in the NYSD four times a week. The“Fall” is obviously the writer’s reference to her career — a career which first launched in 1949 (!) when the little Texas girl got off the bus at Port Authority with stars in her eyes, and energy and gumption to let those stars light her way.

The actual real “Fall” in Liz’ story has to do with dogs, not columns. This occurred three or four years ago when she was walking her friend Iris Love’s little dachsies one night, and she got an ankle twisted up in the leashes, and ka-klunk, she fell on the pavement and hurt herself — to the hip-breaking-replacement point.

Until that moment in her by then long life (late 80s) the girl had been in perfect health all her life. The ultimate gift of the gods. That perfect health came with her very active ambition as a writer/reporter. At her peak, she had a large nationwide syndication as well as a daily local television spot, and a diplomatic personality that opened any door she might approach.

Liz at The Daily News in 1976.
In life, in the world, in the culture, there are many great “Falls” in process.  In the media business there are many notable and noticeable “declines,” not so much of careers as of public interest.  The “decline” of “gossip columns” had begun thirty years before after decades of daily popularity. In his heyday, Walter Winchell's Broadway column in syndication had 30 million (!!!) readers a day across the country. For years there was a plethora of journalists from Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Louis Sobel, Earl Wilson, Leonard Lyons, Cholly Knickerbocker, Eugenia Shepherd, Dorothy Kilgallen, and scores more including three other girls grinding it out: Liz, Suzy (Aileen Mehle) — who died at 98 last year — and Cindy Adams, the youngster in the trio and is still churning it out in the Post.

When Liz Smith first arrived in the Big Town seven decades ago, it was just about the peak point of “columns.” There were SEVEN daily newspapers back then, and every one of them had columnists. The Daily Mirror, the Daily News and the Journal-American were rife with them — three or four or five on each paper.

Liz was in the last big ride before the internet changed everything for the printed press, particularly in terms of influence. By the time she hit her stride, she and Suzy were the only two in the New York Daily News, and that was 45 years ago.

I started reading her avidly when she first debuted in the Daily News. I didn’t know her — although I saw her once on the street one day, and went up and introduced myself and told her how much I loved her column.

I met her twenty years later when I was first writing for Quest in the early '90s. When I started writing the New York Social Diary in the magazine, Liz without telling me, went personally to proprietors of the three dailies — News, Times, Post  (at various times obviously) and recommended that they hire me. The response I later learned, was that no one (readers) was interested in “social” columns anymore.

I felt honored by the gesture, and deeply impressed that this woman whom I barely knew and always admired, took it upon herself to help this writer. That move on her part, I’ve learned over the years, was not as remarkable as it seems, because that is just one of many examples, many many, of how she went out of her way to help others make their way (or even pay their rent when times got tough). This is a very unusual quality, as you know, and is and should be highly regarded.
Liz running for office at the University of Texas.
I wasn’t surprised by the lack of media honcho interest in me. Nor was I discouraged, obviously; this September JH and I begin our 18th year online. I’d been wanting to start a site for the NYSD from mid-'90s when the web first began to flourish. I knew from my own experience growing up in New England, that there is always great potential interest in the social life in New York because I had been a fan from early on: New York was a beacon. Society was another word for power.

The “Fall” in the New York Times interview with Liz mistakes the trees for the forest. There lies the “Fall.”

The internet changed everything for all mainstream media including film, radio, and television. The audience out there is engrossed in their cell phones, even to the point of risking life (crossing the streets, driving their cars). There are no more scandals that are whispered about; everything is mainstream to the point of irrelevant. These late, quieter years of Liz’s professional life, can’t compare with what’s happened to the paper of record and its competitors. It’s called: That’s Life.
Liz and Iris Love with one her beloved dachsies in 1991. Credit Catherine McGann/Getty Images
Liz, however, despite the Norma Desmond treatment she got from the Times piece, is still turning out a column on the NYSD. She gets a lot of daily assistance from her brilliant collaborator Denis Ferrara. Although the field of gossip has essentially dried up, they continue to spread the news and shed the insights especially on the world of entertainment. 

The piece in the Sunday Times did have some very good photos of  the girl right now. She looks a bit older than she looked when she got off the bus from Fort Worth all those years ago. But, she also looks a lot more glamorous and with it in her present day. Because she is. However, she is also encountering what all of us encounter as we get older. The process is far more challenging than any of us are led to expect. You can read statistics but they don’t tell you “what it feels like mentally.” Youth can pooh-pooh all that because they haven’t got a clue, and nobody ever did have a clue. That’s part of youth’s thrill. In Liz’ life, two things changed for her at the same time:  the world of the media and her own physical mobility. It’s a confrontation of the Self that we all encounter if we live long enough.
Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times

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