Liz Smith would have been pleased to share the stage today with the Phantom, and it’s safe to say there were at least two ghosts at the packed Majestic Theatre, where a crowd comprising many of the folks who’d made bold-face appearances in her columns gathered to salute the late gossipeuse under the raised chandelier where, most nights, the Opera Ghost prowls.
After all, reported her friend Cynthia McFadden, Mary Elizabeth Smith left instructions that any memorial service had to take place in a Shubert theater. So barely three months after her November 12 passing, and on the day she would have turned 95, the beneficiaries of her inky beneficence (and occasional barbs) were there to celebrate the small-town Texas girl who’d boot-stomped her way to the top of the celebrity-news heap by virtue of gumption, gall, good will, a relentless work ethic and above all, an unyielding determination to have a good time and never take herself too seriously.
“Honey,” she would say – as she did to me on more than one occasion – “lighten up.”
An audience as varied as the worlds Smith covered – ICM Partners uberagents Amanda Urban and Boaty Boatwright; Beatles and Andrew Lloyd Webber stalwart Peter Brown; journalist-turned-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi; author Gay Talese; film producer Jean Doumanian; Jujamcyn Theatres owner and producer Jordan Roth; media journalist Ken Auletta; New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley, to name a few – nodded agreeably as Taylor, Renée Zellweger, Bruce Willis, television journalists Lesley Stahl and McFadden and Broadway’s own tall, timeless Texan, Tommy Tune, paid homage.
“I like gossip, ” Smith was shown saying in an introductory clip. “It’s good for you, makes you live longer, it’s a release…” McFadden welcomed everyone, “As Lizzie would have said, ‘Greetings friends, enemies and those of you who aren’t yet decided.”
Barry Diller shared Smith’s birthday (he is 76 today) and friendship. He told a tale-out-of-school from when, in 1974, he was appointed chairman of Paramount Pictures. Liz was on the staff of People magazine and called him “out of the blue” with word that a “really nasty” story was in the works about him. “But it isn’t true,” he said of the story. “And Liz said, ‘Jeez, kid, you’ve gotta grow up really fast.’ And she killed the story.” (Winning, it went without saying, a lifetime of loyalty, not to mention hot tips.)
Tommy Tune recalled being dragged onto the dance floor at Lincoln Center. “We became like one thing with four legs. We burned the floor and had a gay old time. We were exhilarated. We sat down and she turned on a dime and said, ‘Tommy Tune, will you sing at my funeral?’ I said, ‘What song?’ ” And with that, he delivered a lovely version of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ standard, “The Way You Look Tonight” – “by special request,” he added.
Stahl reported on Smith’s enduring work on behalf of amfAR and Literacy Partners. Billy Norwich told of being taken under Smith’s capacious wing as a tyro journo, and Joni Evans drew applause telling the story of failed efforts and returned advances when Smith proved reluctant to pen a memoir – until Evans had transitioned from publisher to agent and secured a $1 million deal for what eventually became the best-selling Natural Blonde.
There was a funny clip of Smith with her great friend, Texas governor Ann Richards, in full cowboy regalia, singing “An Old Cow Hand From The Rio Grande.” (The late firebrand governor had the better voice, but it was not a high bar). Zellweger and Holland offered poignant reminiscences and shared letters and emails. “This circle of life bullshit may be all well and good for those dearly departed, but for us down here it is just awful to lose the most wonderful person in the world.” She recalled their meeting at a Theatre District boîte, Tout Va Bien, and Smith telling her that she was off to vacation in the South of France but that when she returned, they would “begin our affair.”
“I allowed as that really wasn’t very likely to happen,” Holland averred, adding, “And if it did, it certainly wouldn’t go past Labor Day.” Labor Day, she added, saw the beginning of a friendship that always would be “a safe harbor” in “a mean old world.”
There also were remembrances shared by a younger generation, Smith’s godson Spencer Hoge and niece Karen Smith Williamson. The final speaker was Willis, who reflected back the feelings of many by then: He seemed overcome.
“She was my friend,” he said, haltingly. “I felt privileged to be with her every time I had the opportunity. I was able to sit down and talk with her, and laugh with her, and I loved her laugh.” He told of his daughter Tallulah selling Girl Scout cookies; “Liz managed to get 12,000 boxes,” he said. “Her idea was to send them to soldiers overseas…Liz wrote this wonderful article and when it broke I was able to get those boxes to the soldiers. Tallulah still tells that story. I miss you, Liz. I miss you forever.”
This having been a Shubert production, the program concluded at precisely the 60-minute mark, as their memorials always do, and every minute had been memorable. It ended as it had begun, with the clatter of typewriter keys pounding out a message. And then it was over.