Monday, February 5, 2018

A farewell fit for a queen

Childlike wonder. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, February 5, 2018.  Chilly, cloudy in New York with rain coming in late morning and moving for a moist end of the weekend. Daytime temps from the mid- to low-40s.

Last Friday noontime there was a Memorial for Liz Smith at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street. Cynthia McFadden, who opened the tribute, told us that Liz herself had always said she never wanted a memorial. Sometime in the last year or so, however, she changed her mind and actually planned it herself. With a thorough sense of image, she had also requested that it be held in a Shubert Theater.

It was an apt coincidence that, like the show — “The Phantom of the Opera” that has been occupying the Majestic for the past 30 year — Liz’ career too had a very long run. Friday would have been her 95th birthday, and she never really totally withdrew from the activity until physical infirmities cut back on her schedule a little more than two years ago at age 93.
The Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street, the location of Liz's memorial.
Liz loved people. She had a generous spirit, an enthusiastic curiosity, and no one was too big or too small to appeal to her sensitivities about life. She was also very generous with many friends. She made millions in her career and much was used to provide for the needs of friends.

She came to her career as a syndicated columnist — and television personality — comparatively late; she was in the late 40s when she got her own column. None of it was new to her. She had years of preparation including ghostwriting the “Cholly Knickerbocker” society column for Igor (Ghi Ghi) Cassini in the now defunct New York Journal American in the 1960s.

Actually, when Cassini left the job (because of legal problems he was having with Attorney General Robert Kennedy over registering his public relations representation of a foreign country), the editors gave the space to Aileen Mehle writing as Suzy Knickerbocker eliminating Liz’ job. Ironically Mrs. Mehle was pointedly never cordial to Ms. Smith for the rest of their days. Three years later, someone had the very bright idea of giving Liz her own column in the New York Daily News in 1976.
Liz front and center at the Majestic Theatre.
By the time she came to the job, she knew the whole world of Broadway and Hollywood and what we now call Media, and they knew her. She’d written for years for her friend Helen Gurley Brown in Cosmo  as well as for many other magazines and newspapers. Because she also had the gift of friendship, her life was constantly expanding and she was constantly learning.

She also had a gift for enjoying herself, a talent for having a good time. Her enthusiasm about life, events and people never seemed to wane. As she matured in job and life, she never lost that. She was obviously a very sophisticated woman in that New York way of having heard it all, seen it all, and maybe “done” it all. Yet she kept her down-home “Texas gal” personality; it remained an authentic touch.
The crowd settling in.
Memorials are a big crowd getter in New York. No doubt this reality did not escape this great entertainment maven Ms. Smith. They are public events about private lives in retrospect. Because they often involve the famous, as well as the rich. And they all have a production quality to them beginning with the speakers, along with those attending doing so out of respect for the departed, but also for the show — the celebrities in the audience as well as those at the podium. It’s a New York community sort of thing.

Friday’s event had all of that and The Majestic which has a seating capacity of 1645 is beautifully maintained. You feel like you’re on Deep Broadway sitting in that theater where entertainment history is still being made. I couldn’t determine how many were in the balcony but the orchestra was full up, so there was well over a thousand in the audience.
"Make sure it's a Shubert," advised Liz.
The speakers included Cynthia McFadden’s son Spencer Hoge, Liz’ godson who affectionately recalled Liz babysitting him when his mother was working, and reading to him at night. Barry Diller, who also shares the February 2nd birthday with Liz , told us how he once spent it with Liz and Elaine Stritch who also shared the birthdate. Stritch, he told us, had asked that they go to “21,” which she hadn’t been to in some time. Once there and seated, Stritch decided she hated the place and insisted they leave. So they eventually ended up celebrating their birthdays at a 3 Guys on Madison Avenue. I’m sure Liz found the whole ordeal very funny.

Tommy Tune took the stage to tell us how after being out with him dancing one night, Liz asked if he would sing at her funeral. And so he did: Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ The Way You Look Tonight, which was originally written for Fred Astaire to sing to Ginger Rogers in Swingtime.
Cynthia McFadden.
Barry Diller.
Spencer Hoge.
Billy Norwich gave us a  thumbnail autobiography of his career. Liz was foremost in the story because she had taken him up when he first came to New York out of college. She advised him in making his way with introductions and counseling. Why did she go to all the trouble? Because she liked him, and as he developed professionally, she could see she was right.

Billy’s experience with Liz’s care and generosity was not unique. She often went out of her way, unrequested, to help others she believed in. You didn’t have to ask for favors — she naturally provided them. Lesley Stahl outlined that quality further, telling us about Liz’ impressive contribution to philanthropic projects such as.

Joni Evans recounted her long relationship with Liz trying to convince her to write a memoir. On two different occasions over a period of ten or more years, she was able to offer Liz first $100,000 with a $10,000 advance — which Liz declined insisting that she would never write a memoir, returning the ten grand. A second offer of $200,000 with a $20,000 advance was also turned down.
“She was the mother of my invention,” said Norwich.
Liz again insisted that she really did not want to write an autobiography, that she didn’t have time, and that she wouldn’t. Fine. A few years later when Joni had become a literary agent herself, she found a publisher that would offer $1 million. When Joni phoned Liz to tell her, the first question Liz asked was: “You didn’t turn it down, did you?” And so “Natural Blonde” was written and published to best-selling acclaim.
Holland Taylor.
Holland Taylor recalled meeting Liz years ago and making an instant friend who thereafter became a big supporter of Taylor’s career. And Renee Zellweger recalled that she and Liz kept up a correspondence in letters and emails describing Liz as “the most wonderful person in the world.” Liz’s niece Karen Smith Williamson (daughter of Liz' brother James)) recalled Liz's other brother Bobby telling about accompanying Liz on the trip when she made her big move (by bus) from Texas to New York. On arrival, they were standing in the road off the curb waiting for the light to cross when a cabbie going by yelled, “Get back on the curb you hicks!” Bobby Smith turned to Liz with a look of surprise and asked quite innocently, "How did he know?!"
It should be noted that many of the photos behind each speaker were provided by Patrick McMullan.
Renee Zellweger.
The recollections were brief but thorough and ran from laughter to tears, and interspersed by Tommy Tune’s song and then a video clip of Liz and former Governor of Texas Ann Richards, both got up in cowboy gear, singing “I’m An Old Cowhand ... From the Rio Grande.”

Liz loved to get up in public and sing. When she emceed the annual gala of Literacy Partners (which she founded with Parker Ladd and Arnold Scaasi — for which she personally raised $40 milion), she often opened the evening at the podium with a song from a Broadway show; usually a classic. She did the same with Peter Duchin accompanying on the piano when she emceed the Living Landmarks gala, which she did for years.
Ann and Liz singing “I’m An Old Cowhand ... From the Rio Grande.”
The last speaker was Bruce Willis who was especially somber because of the loss of his friend. He too told a story about Liz using her influence to help a project — in his case, helping his daughter sell Girl Scout cookies. She was nice to him; he never forgot it. It should be noted that she was like that with everybody. Liz was a humanitarian through and through.

She would have loved Friday’s production because it was all Show Business — the business where she made her name — from stage, screen, radio, TV, books and of course gossip. The Majestic is a beautiful theater and one had a sense of  being there for a real Broadway Baby. She saw everything, knew everyone, encouraged it all.
Bruce Willis.
It should also be noted that celebrity, fame and fortune aside, hers was a real life with a cornucopia of one-to-one relationships on all levels. For many years, the core of her daily life were her assistants Mary Jo McDonough and Denis Ferrara and the late St. Clair Pugh (who retired in the late 1980s).  They worked with her in her apartment (which was also her office) on Third Avenue and 38th Street.  Denis, who now writes his own column for us on the NYSD, actually wrote Liz’ column for the last 20 years including her last five years where Liz was published on the NYSD. Her work was her life was her work. Her house was her office and therefore Liz Central. There were no dull moments but always momentum to keep the engine running, learning about the new, not forgetting the old, always keeping up with the world, with friends, with family, and getting the scoop.
Exiiting the Majestic onto 44th Street.
The line outside Sardi's where the reception was held.
The crowd inside Sardi's. Liz would have gotten a kick out of the fact that the elevator was out and everyone had to walk up the four flights. Or maybe, just maybe, she planned that, too. That’s Patrick McMullan in profile in the lower left hand corner.
Peter Duchin and Roberta Fabiano entertaining the guests.
She was a child of tabloidal/Broadway/Hollywood media, the heiress to a well-populated list of 20th century characters such as Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson and many more. With the single exception of the remaining veteran Cindy Adams who is still turning it out for the New York Post, Liz Smith’s departure marks the final ending of that brand (and style) of journalism, often referred to as Gossip.

Liz explained it succinctly: “Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”
 

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