Famed New York tabloid gossip columnist Liz Smith died this week at age 94. She made it her business to get the scoop on other people's personal lives, but in 2000, Mike Wallace turned the tables: He wanted an in-depth look at the gossip girl herself.
Jay Kernis, who now produces for CBS Sunday Morning, produced the piece, and in doing so, developed a friendship with Smith. Here's his tribute.
Liz Smith once worked for Mike Wallace, booking guests for one of his radio shows, and decades later, when I worked at 60 Minutes, Mike asked me to produce a profile of her timed with the release of her memoir, Natural Blonde.
We taped a raucous lunch with Liz and former Texas governor Ann Richards, but it never made the piece — all laughter, and stories you couldn't repeat. She also told Mike that her first great love was a woman at the University of Texas. That did make the story, as did footage of Liz's wax sculpture being made at Madame Tussauds in New York.
When we screened the story for then-executive producer Don Hewitt, it originally ended with Mike telling Liz that he loved her, and Liz returning the sentiment. Don said it wasn't proper, but Mike said it was true. Mike wrote another ending, but you can still see their affection on the screen.
After it aired, Liz phoned me and said, "We're going to be friends!" I said, "I adore you, but you're friends with people like Barbara Walters." Fact is, TV producers rarely see the subjects of their stories after they are broadcast, unless we're updating a piece years later.
Turns out, since that conversation in 2000, Liz and I had an average of two dates a year, with my wife's permission, of course. Liz would invite me to parties, dinners, or just have lunch in the Mexican place below her apartment. And she sent me books to read all the time.
She truly cared for people, and I really cared for her. To have your own Auntie Mame in Manhattan was a special lesson in how to live.
And she knew how to live.