“IS IMMORTALITY theoretically possible?”
When I opened up my email just minutes after receiving word that my friend Liz Smith had died, the above words were the first thing I saw. It was from Quora Digest. I don’t even know what that is, really, and automatically delete such messages.
But something about the possibility of immortality struck me as very fitting, at that moment. You see, in the 36 years I’ve known Liz, I was sure, beyond anything I was sure of, that she was literally immortal. It was a long-running joke between us that she would most certainly out live me, despite the 30-year gap in our ages. I begged her NOT to write my obituary. She won’t now, and I’m not feeling very good about it, actually.
She enjoyed talking about her “great age” as she put it, and predicting it was all soon to be over. At every significant birthday—65, 70, 80, 90–she’d suddenly become a woeful priestess lamenting a descent into Hades.
I would be obliged at that point to remind her that in fact she was in disgustingly robust health, had a fabulous career, was enjoying a great life, and was worshipped by almost every human she knew. She’d cheer right up. That’s exactly what she wanted to hear. Then she’d fall snugly into her proper place as an undeniable life force—a bawdy, laughing, fiercely intelligent, infuriatingly impatient, always curious blazing sun—a sun around which so many circled and flourished. For sure, that was my experience.
I will dispense with boring you all about my own life, Before-Liz. (You think B.C and A.D. are significant markers of history? Forget it. B.L. and A.L. are the real deal in my book.) It is enough to say that I was not professional in any way, or inclined to work. One half year of high school was enough for me. But I read a great deal. Good books, the Great Works, trash and everything in-between. It was the in-between that introduced me to Liz Smith. Because, of course I read Cosmopolitan! How I enjoyed Liz’s saucy celebrity interviews, how much more did I enjoy it when she became a gossip columnist in 1976? And then—the unexpected but ridiculously juicy cherry on top of the sundae–she joined the slap-happy gang on “Live at Five” during the newspaper strike? Like everybody else, I thought I “knew” Liz—surely she was writing and talking just for me, to me!
While I dozed through my life, working at a broken down antique store in Hoboken, New Jersey, I also amused myself by writing long letters to Liz Smith. Handwritten. I had many opinions about stars, scandals, what Liz wrote and said. Sometimes I chastised her and told her she was just all wrong about this or that. I even passed along little bits of gossip, culled from friends who worked on the peripheries of show biz. This went on for several years, with no reply from Liz. Well, she couldn’t rely, because I never signed my name or put down a return address! Passive aggressive to the max.
But one day during the summer of 1981, I changed my life. I decided to look directly at the sun, without blinking.
Elizabeth Taylor was in town, with “The Little Foxes.” Since I was more or less able to make my own hours at the antique store (“broken down” hardly begins to describe it or my employers) I spent a good deal of my time hanging around the then-Martin Beck theater, watching Miss Taylor come and go, running after her limo—something I’d been doing since 1973, actually—observing, listening. So, in my excellent hand—nowadays an unreadable scrawl—I wrote down all my “adventures” and what I’d heard was going on behind the scenes of La Liz’s big Broadway hit. I signed my name and put down my address. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen, I guess.
Two days later a small, neat envelope arrived with Daily News letterhead, and “Liz Smith” typed above the name of the paper. Well, this was it. I was about to be told how truly insane I was, how annoying. She was gonna sic the cops on me if I didn’t cease and desist. I almost threw the note away, unopened, so sure was I that exposing myself had been a pathway to my eventual residence at a mental facility. Of course, reader, I opened it: “Dear Denis, at last! What has taken you so long to sign your name? I think you are smart and funny. Stay in touch. Call my office! If I’m not in, speak to St. Clair Pugh. Do not be afraid of him. Call!”
I called. I spoke to St. Clair and was indeed properly terrified. “Liz says come in to see her tomorrow after she’s done with ‘Live at Five.’ Wait for her in the lobby of the Murray Hill Mews.” He paused and added “Certainly took you long enough.” Click! (St. turned out to be a doll, and was perhaps the first and only gentleman I ever knew. But he did enjoy his fearsome reputation.)
Ah, but the day of meeting turned out to be far more interesting than I’d even imagined. Because when I got up and opened the Daily News to Liz Smith’s column, there were all my words, all about Miss Taylor! Well, my words neatened up, grammatically corrected, written to flow; written as a column. But it was unmistakably “my stuff”—two words I’d use endlessly, and often peevishly, in years to come. I was shocked.
When we met up in her lobby, after I’d given her frosted lips and frosted tips the once over, and she likewise my tatty sneakers, jeans and tee-shirt, I blurted, still clutching the paper: “You put it in print. I mean, how could you? How do you know I’m not crazy? Maybe I made it up?” She laughed, cackled, really. “Oh, honey, I was just waiting for you to sign your name. I can tell what’s real. But for God’s sake, you have to learn how to type. Your thoughts will flow much better. I’ll pay for it. You are old enough to drink, right? Come with me to the El Rio Grande. It’s right here in the building. We’ll have a margarita. Good thing they don’t have a dress code. Hold these things for me. I have a book for you upstairs.”
I had a drink, I held her things, and she gave me a book. I learned to type. I did not allow Liz to pay for it, although she would later say she did. She would also say in “The Tale of Denis” that she’d put an item in the column urging her “anonymous fan” to please sign his name. Liz was the sun, remember, and in telling her story—and yours!—she had to be the life-giving force–the source of your energy. (She was that, but she was also a star that couldn’t help gilding her own lily just a bit.)
To be honest, I thought my little adventure in journalism, my tequila tete a tete with Liz, was just one of those things, something amusing to dine out on, at a cheap diner. I hardly imagined she’d really stay in touch. She did. She sent me books, she sent me to movies, to plays, and she asked me what I thought about this or that. And she urged me to keep on writing. I saw what she did with what I sent. I learned how to compose an “item.” I tried to learn where to put the commas. I learned her voice—which luckily coincided neatly with the one I already had, in rough, unpolished form. (That we had much in common— politics, films, favorite and un-favorite people, a passion for history and for reading in general–was a tremendous help. It was the glue that would hold us together, personally and professionally for three decades.)
In time, she would also send my mother, dying in a hospice, gifts and encouraging notes about a wayward son. “You don’t need to worry about him anymore” was one message, which accompanied a gift basket of fruits and chocolates. My mother couldn’t believe it when I told her I was surprisingly OK. She believed Liz and was greatly comforted.
She sent checks (“Darling, you have been so helpful…”), she introduced me to her friends, she tried to get me decent work. This was not easy. I fled in needless terror after a few hours with the Broadway agent Shirley Herz (“I’m going out to get a bagel” were my last words. Later, when I knew her, “I’m going out to get a bagel” could always make Shirley laugh.) But I managed to hang on for the six months that Joe Armstrong’s magazine The Movies lasted, courtesy of Miss Smith’s talking me up to Joe. I didn’t do much but run errands and collect what seemed to me an impossibly handsome salary.
After that debacle, Liz called me to El Rio Grande yet again. “Honey, my friend Iris Love, the archaeologist is coming in from China. She’ll be staying here for a while. She needs help, she needs an assistant. She can be difficult, but I can’t seem to find you any other work. And you can help me out a little too, if you want.”
“If I want.” Poor Iris. While I did act as an assistant to the estimable Miss Love—not very ably, truth be told!—my real job was for Liz. I became, finally, in the spring of 1984, “Liz Smith’s assistant.”
With my mother gone, no siblings and the rest of my family too dysfunctional to carry on with, I found another family with Liz at 160 East 38th Street, apartment 26-A. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Liz became a mother figure—and one with whom I would have an even more tempestuous relationship than I did with my own. And there were siblings, at last!—St. Clair, Diane Judge, Rachel Clark, Iris Love, Mary Jo McDonough.
In the early years, Liz never asked me to do anything. She told me—cover that damn show, go here, write that, improve this shit if you can. She knew that given a chance to dither or think too much, I’d falter–or flee! Later, when I had enough confidence to tell her what I wanted—and what I didn’t want—she was both pleased and unnerved. As Auntie Mame said, “Why the hell did I buy him those damn long pants?” We struggled mightily at times. I could loathe her at noon and be willing to die for her at six. Boredom was not an option. Quitting was an option, or so I thought. And when I did it lasted nine months. Like a Texan Corleone, just when I thought I was out, she pulled me back in. (It helped that she was pulling me back in from antidepressants and analysis—expensive time in which I talked about—her. Yep, she was a force to be reckoned with.)
Save for one person—my guy Bruce, who has put up with me since 1976—everyone I know and love today, I met through Liz, or my work with Liz. Because of Liz I saw London, I saw France. I saw Madonna’s underpants! I even got to formally interview Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who sort of started it all. Taylor was vastly unimpressed by me but that hardly mattered. I forged ahead, during the course of our uninspired chat, and told her of my “Little Foxes” letter and what it had wrought. One of Taylor’s perfect circumflex eyebrows moved slightly, and her freshly painted mouth uttered “Cute.” The best part of the Taylor experience was telling Liz about it, over fried chicken wings, laughing.
I’ll miss the laugh most of all. The energy. When you sat with Liz and she focused all of her attention on you, you existed only to please her, to impress her, to make her laugh. They should retire the word “Charm” now that Liz is gone, or put her photo next to it in the dictionary.
Ditto for Curiosity because right to the end, she never stopped wanting to know more, and was always willing to change and expand her mind, to hone her outlook. She never went anywhere without pen and pad, three newspapers, a book, and the latest issues of Vanity Fair and The Week. There was always something new, interesting, funny or horrible to write up or just tell you about.
There would also have to be a Liz portrait next to Impatience. Once she knew you, Liz believed you could read her mind. That precise words were sometimes necessary and that her thoughts traveled faster than the speed of sound—and certainly faster than your own!—was a burdensome thing. But she handled most of the mental sloths in her life with pretty good grace.
We will never exchange books again. We will never spend a lunch hour pondering the Tudors or the unhappy lives of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette. (Which could then morph into stories about Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave or Norma Shearer.) We will never…oh, all the little things. The big things are nothing. Like Blanche DuBois’ beauty, they are transitory, and Liz knew it.
She worked hard, and made something unique, human and powerfully instructive out of a mere “gossip” column. But she knew she also lived under a lucky star, that she’d been blessed. She never took her blessings for granted, or coveted the power of her column for the sake of power. In fact, she laughed at the concept of herself as a fear-inducing dragon of the old Hedda/Louella days. She enjoyed her fame innocently, like a child. It was fun! A “zest for life” doesn’t begin to cover it. She didn’t even care much about gossip. She’d interview the big movie star because it would be good for the column. But she’d rather sit at the table with writers and philosophers. And she’d rather her readers knew what those writers and philosophers were saying.
It’s too soon for me to attempt to be eloquent. In fact, I doubt I ever will be, on Liz. And I won’t be sentimental. Love, respect and loyalty aside, we didn’t have a sentimental relationship. It was more “if-your-blood-pressure-gets-any-higher-you’re-going-to-have-a-stroke” kind of thing. Liz herself wrote, in her autobiography, “Natural Blonde”: “I want to remain, not sentimental, but full of sentiment. So I still cry at the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and at the movies.” Me too! So I’ll still cry when the deer is shot in “The Yearling” but I won’t cry over Liz. I know for sure she’d rather I have a drink.
Liz had a great life; she lived it more than fully; with incredible energy, intelligence and self-awareness. And she allowed me to live my own life far more expansively than I could have possibly imagined as a 7th grade dropout and teenage runaway. You don’t weep when such a gift is inevitably taken. There is only gratitude that you were wise enough—most of the time–to appreciate what was being offered, so generously.
In fact, the best last word on Liz is by Liz. It is the final chapter of her book, in which she looks over her life, what she wanted (everything!), what she got (almost everything!) and contemplates, as she puts it, “The End.” Pages 441 to 445 to be exact. I urge all who admired Liz to check out this last chapter. It is as perfect a summation of a life richly lived—and with almost twenty more years to go!–as I have ever read. Liz will have the last word, circa 2000:
“When the Fates ladled out their stuff, they said: ‘We’ll make this one insecure and give her an inferiority complex. She’ll end up behaving as if she has a massive ego, so no one will know the difference. Let’s also give her lots and lots of luck.’
“They did; so far.”