DATE September 21, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Commedian Marc Maron discusses his career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Marc Maron is a comic who does what some people describe as
alternative comedy. He used to host "Short Attention Span Theater" on Comedy
Central. He's now off-Broadway doing his comic monologue "The Jerusalem
Syndrome." The show is about the search for some kind of transcendent
meaning. The review in The New Yorker said, `Maron is fully aware of all the
dubious idols that have replaced God in our culture, and he pulls no punches
in pointing them out. He leads the audience into purgatory and back as he
tries to find some kind of spiritual resonance in Hollywood fame, cigarettes,
"The Wiz," Coke and Israel. He may not be the Messiah, but he'd definitely
the guy to tell you where you won't find him.'
Maron's monologue begins with a story of being invited by a friend to go to
Israel. He accepts and buys a camcorder to take with him. I asked him why he
wanted the camcorder.
Mr. MARC MARON (Comedian): I don't know. You know, I never owned one. I've
always been sort of against the whole idea. I'm sort of even against taking
pictures because I think they're false representations of good times. For
some reason, I felt that it was necessary for me to take the camcorder in
order to have some sort of religious interaction. I just thought just in
case, you know, I was addressed by the Almighty that I should certainly have
the camcorder and be ready to tape any interaction.
GROSS: Did the Almighty converse with you?
Mr. MARON: No, he broke my camcorder. There's a lesson to be learned, you
know? It took me, you know, months to figure it out that, you know, I had,
you know, surrendered my will to this, you know, one and a half by two-inch
viewfinder. You know, I was walking through an illusion I could hold in my
hand. And, you know, there were, unfortunately, the moments where it wasn't
working. I was so consumed with getting it fixed that I had a hard time
enjoying the entire process of being in Israel. And oddly enough, I felt very
frightened when the camcorder broke because I was directly, you know, in
contact with the Israeli sort of situation. I really think I was planning on
taking it all in at home on my VCR in Queens in my building where, you know,
Muslims, Jews and Christians all live happily under one roof, you know, unless
there's a boiler problem. You know, then we rise up against the Dominican
But aside from that, it's a lot more manageable than, you know, really not
knowing, you know, where you are in the context of the culture over there
because there are so many towns that are now sort of, you know, up for grabs
as far as Palestinian territories and whatnot. And I am really not educated
in the dynamics of the Middle East that much. You know, I come from, you
know, sort of sofa Zionists, you know? My parents--you know, we were not that
educated in it, and I don't keep up with it. You know, my parents were just
people that sat at home and watched the news, and occasionally someone would
say, `Oh, no, there's something wrong in Israel. Get the checkbook. Where do
we write it?' You know, that was that.
GROSS: Although you're not religious in terms of Judaism, you do feel like
you have been part of the beatnik religion. What are the tenets of that
faith, the way you've seen it practiced?
Mr. MARON: Well, it's a spiritual system. There are sacred texts. You have
"On The Road" by Jack Kerouac for the ritual elements of the religion. You
have "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs for the morality and metaphysical
elements of the religion. And you have "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg for the gay
poetry elements of the religion. And I believe that all religions have a gay
poetry element. I defy you to read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament
with a slight lilt in your voice and you will find there most certainly must
be a gay man behind that poem. It just wasn't popular to be an out-gay poet
during the Bible writing.
Now the tenets are actually--it's a spiritual system built on searching,
embracing life, pushing the limits, you know, being awake and wasted to be
aware, being beat, questioning everything, freeing your mind, the path of
excess leads to the palace of wisdom, man. Nothing is true; everything is
permitted. To be beat is to be holy and to be holy is to be closer to God.
When Kerouac was on a late-night talk show, he once said that all he wanted
was to look God in the face. And then he threw up on himself during a
commercial. That--and there are rituals. Do you want to hear about those,
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. MARON: Well, once you assemble your bohemian crew which is, you know,
essentially 10 to 12 disenfranchised, upper middle-class white kids whose
parents can afford to spend $40,000 for them to spend four years sinking their
beatniks in college. The rituals are, you know, there must be beer and
cigarettes and coffee. You must read good poetry and write bad poetry and
read that out loud. You must, you know, smoke reefer and listen to jazz and
stay up all night. And there's also room within the beatnik religion to call
and ask your parents for money if you need it.
GROSS: So did you make pilgrimages?
Mr. MARON: Oh, absolutely. Of course, you know, any car ride with another
person, pot, music and no real destination, is officially a beatnik
pilgrimage. But, you know, some are more important than others. I made
pilgrimages. Sure, my buddy Jim and I used to--I think the most important
pilgrimage was the pilgrimage to Jack Kerouac's grave. You know, we went up
there, you know? It was a beautiful fall day, and, you know--you want to hear
GROSS: Sure. And who wrote this poem?
Mr. MARON: It's a piece from the show. `You know, we climb behind the helm
of a 1979 Honda, five-speed, a foreign car, a heresy, not really beat, but it
was my dad's and it was free. The mellow hum of Japanese machinery propelled
us towards our destiny. Boston to Lowell, all 45 miles, and we didn't fall
asleep once. We talked about art, philosophy, politics and what to have for
lunch. We jammed to jazz and beat our hands on the dash, and I think we made
it through half of Coltrane's "Love Supreme" when we pulled on to the path to
the Angelic Holy Hipster Cemetery(ph) and the tomb of St. Jack(ph).'
GROSS: That's good. Now you wrote this for the show?
Mr. MARON: Yeah. You know, the odd thing is that...
Mr. MARON: ...I actually found myself, you know, at that point in my life
after I did visit the grave of Kerouac, I wrote some sort of poem, you know,
of course. And I wasn't able to find it, and I think I'm thankful about that.
I'd rather this sort of parody poem than, you know...
Mr. MARON: ...the sort of earnest doodling of, you know, a guy who was just
in love with the beatnik idea.
GROSS: Now you've described yourself in the past as a paranoid agnostic. You
said, `I doubt the existence of God, but I'm sure there is some force
somewhere working against me.'
Mr. MARON: Yes. Well, that was--I was younger when I wrote that, and as I
get older, I'm trying to meet him halfway and hopefully, you know, not make
enemies forever, you know? You've got to pick which god you want to work for.
GROSS: Have you ever really envied people who did have faith?
Mr. MARON: I envy their ability not to be consumed with this sort of, you
know, indulgent worries of somebody who has no faith at all. I think I've
always been somebody who has had faith. You know, I think that it's never
been deeply rooted. You know, you have faith when you need it. When things
are going good, it's easy to go, `Man, you know, everything's working out, and
I believe.' But as soon as things get bad, I was never one of those people
that, you know, automatically--I was always the opposite. I felt that, you
know, my faith was paying off when things were going well for me, but when
they were going bad, I was just, you know, angry at the world and everybody
around me. So that's not real faith.
So I think that, you know, I resent or I envy people with real faith only
because they seem to have, you know, some sort of focus. You know, it may not
be healthy, but they do have some sort of focus. And it's usually restrictive
which I find annoying, but I think there's something about belief, whether
it's in God or yourself or, you know, a particular product or, you know,
there's something about the idea of belief as a human propelling force that I
GROSS: My guest is Marc Maron and he's doing his comic monologue at the West
Beth Theater in New York through the 30th of September.
Now some male comics do a lot of, like, sex jokes and a lot of it is pretty
adolescent and kind of sexist, too. Did you ever go through that period
yourself in your comedy?
Mr. MARON: I am a strong proponent--Is that the word?--supporter...
Mr. MARON: ...of sexual material. I like blue material. I like people to go
there. You know, I don't know--I never went through a necessarily sexist
period. I have spoken openly and honestly and sometimes graphically about
sex, but I think that's a very important part of stand-up in the way I see it.
I think it's always been one of the few hot spots with people. I don't think
people are ever above, you know, or can condescend to sexuality. And I think
that, you know, on some level, it is sort of kind of--you know, can be kind of
nasty. And I have no problem with that. I think it's great. I think it's a
vulnerable place. And it's a taboo place, and I think some of the best comedy
comes from those places.
GROSS: I'm wondering if there's some of the material you can do for us just
to show us what you mean that would be, you know, clean enough for radio.
What do you think?
Mr. MARON: Well, the joke that I did about, you know, getting older--you
know, I'm 36 years old which isn't old, but you realize you're getting old in
strange ways. Like, I realized recently that teen-age girls don't even
acknowledge me as a sexual being anymore, you know? And, I mean, I don't want
you to misunderstand me. I'm not saying I want to have sex with teen-age
girls; I'm just saying, you know, `Hey, throw me a bone. How about a smile?
Cute T-shirt. Look at me?' Nothing, unless it's to turn to their friends to
go, `Why is that weird guy looking at us? What's he doing at the mall?' I'm
lying, Terry. Of course, I want to have sex with teen-age girls. I mean,
doesn't everybody? I mean, that's why there's a law.
GROSS: Is that part of the joke to say that?
Mr. MARON: Yes.
GROSS: Right. OK.
Mr. MARON: That is the joke.
GROSS: That is the joke. OK. I wasn't sure that was a personal aside to me
Mr. MARON: You know, that is fairly lightweight. I find that my attitudes
toward sex in my act--I've always had problems with people who--not people,
but the criticism that stand-up is cheapened by sex, it's cheapened by blue
material. I just don't believe it. I believe that that's what stand-up should
be about. I believe that, you know, as a stand-up, you should go there because
that's why people come. That's what makes it exciting. That's what makes
it--you know, that's what pushes it to the edge. And I understand that, you
know, a lot of times it is approached adolescently, and a lot of times it is
sexist, you know, but on another level, you know, these are also the inner
voices of human sexuality that, you know, you can choose what you like and
what you don't like. You know, I think it's an important dialogue to have
within stand-up. I think it's one of the reasons that stand-up can be
exciting. And all of my favorite comics have backed it.
GROSS: Did you grow up being uncomfortable talking about sex?
Mr. MARON: No, my parents were, you know, very sexually inappropriate
people. They were very crass. They were very--my father's always sort of had
a robust, you know, sexual, you know, appetite both verbally and, you know,
otherwise. You know, I was not in any sort of repressive environment as a
child. So it was always, you know, around as far as conversations go and as
far as jokes go.
GROSS: My guest is comic Marc Maron. He's performing off-Broadway doing his
comic monologue "Jerusalem Syndrome." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is comic Marc Maron. He's currently doing his comic
monologue "The Jerusalem Syndrome" at an off-Broadway theater.
Were there moments during your early work as a comic that you found kind of
humiliating either because of the place you were playing or the reaction you
got from the crowd or the fact that there wasn't a crowd?
Mr. MARON: Of course. Of course. It's still humiliating sometimes. What?
Are you kidding? I mean, you know, that never goes away. I was recently
tackled on stage in Los Angeles, you know, by an audience member.
Mr. MARON: 'Cause I'd pushed his buttons. You know, I like to push buttons.
GROSS: What were you talking about?
Mr. MARON: What was I talking about? I was doing a joke that used `suicide'
in it, you know, which isn't funny by itself, but, you know, surrounded by
other things can be hysterical. The joke had nothing to do with, you know,
mocking suicide. You know, it was about--whatever the case, you know, maybe
I'll tell you the joke afterwards here...
Mr. MARON: ...but, you know, some guy in the front row said, you know, `Don't
do jokes about suicide,' and, you know, I said, `Well, I don't really think
this joke is about suicide. You know, that's just part of the joke. It's not
making fun of suicide by any means.' He says, `Just don't do any more jokes
about suicide or I'll take you out.' And, you know, then it really became
something different, you know? And, you know, I said, `You know, what is your
problem? Why do you need this attention from these people you don't know?
What's going on with you?' You know, `What is'--you know, and I really just
started to sort of, you know, fire my way into his psyche and I really made a
fool out of him, you know, for interrupting my show and threatening me
And people were laughing. People were on my side, and then I very sort of,
you know, arrogantly, you know, propped up after, you know, I had, you know,
succeeded in pummeling him comedically and said, `Are you still going to take
me out?' you know? And he got up on stage and he tackled me. And, you know,
it was really awkward. We stood each other off. You know, really by nature,
I'm not a fighter. You know, you have two options as an animal: fight or
flight. I come from a long line of fliers. And, you know, we were standing
off. And there was a music stand between us, you know? And I didn't know if
he was going to pick it up and hit me with it. And I really didn't know what
to do, but because I was on stage, I ended up just sort of, you know, hugging
him. I just sort of jumped up on him and grabbed him, you know, and he
grabbed me. And we went down. And, you know, the audience dispersed and four
people kind of, you know, wrenched him off of me. And they're holding him
down, you know, and I'm standing on a chair, you know, with the microphone
still. And the audience is--you know, everything is in chaos and this guy is,
like, you know, wrenching back and forth in the hands of these, you know, four
men, going, `Who's funny now?' you know. And...
GROSS: So how did that evening end? Did they throw him out and you went on
with the act?
Mr. MARON: Well, I was the last performer, and I had done about 20 minutes,
so it had actually turned out to be an excellent closing number.
Mr. MARON: What happened was--you know, I'd like to say that, you know, I
sort of made my stand and took the hit for, you know, comedy, but, you know,
what ultimately happened was, you know, they threw him out. And what made
this evening all the stranger was, you know, Vincent D'Onofrio was there.
GROSS: The actor.
Mr. MARON: Yeah, so, you know, I still to this day have a weird strange thing
with, you know, boundaries in Hollywood. Like, I get there and I'm never
really quite sure whether I'm in a movie or whatever's really happen is
happening. And then when stars show up, I'm like, `Oh, my God, you know,
we're in a movie.' But what happened was they kicked him out and, you know,
people were coming up to me. They were, like, `You know, you probably should
hang out for a while. Don't go outside,' or whatever. And, you know, I'm,
like--you know, I was really sort of shook up. My shirt was sort of ripped
open and whatnot, you know, but I felt proud of the whole thing. I'd really
been waiting for years to be, you know, attacked on stage given the nature of
what I do up there sometimes, you know? But eventually I had to leave the
club, you know?
So I walked out and a lot of people were out there, you know, in the street,
and they're all sort of talking about it. And I walk out, you know? And
D'Onofrio is there. And he was, like, `You OK, man? You know, do you need,
you know'--well, what happened was the guy came back around with his friend in
a car and pulled up out in front of the club when I was standing out in front
there, and everybody was around, you know, and gets out of the car, and, you
know, I'm being sort of held back by, you know, Vincent D'Onofrio. And he's,
like, you know, offering his assistance somehow, and a lot of people are
offering their assistance. And they're, like, `Just go back inside, Marc.'
And I'm, like, `You know what? Let's deal with this.' So this guy's walking
towards me and I'm, like, `What is it? What is it that you want? Do you want
to hit me? What do you need right now?' you know? And everybody was sort of
sitting there, and he's, like, `I've got to talk to you.' And I'm, like,
So I put my arm around the guy and I walk down the street with him by myself.
And he said, `Look, you know, I'm sorry. I'm not like that. You know, my
brother recently committed suicide, and, you know'--and I'm, like, `Well, OK.
I understand that, but I still feel that, you know, your behavior was
inappropriate.' He's, like, `Yeah, I know, but, you know, you understand,
right?' I'm, like, `Yeah, I understand, and, you know, it's cool, you know?
And I'm sorry about your brother,' and, you know, we hugged. And, you know,
he moved on into the night, and I moved on into my life. That's all.
GROSS: I would like to hear what the joke was that upset him so much.
Mr. MARON: I'm trying to think. How's that joke set up? Wait. Yeah. Like,
I was watching ESPN2. And I don't even like sports, and I'm watching, you
know, the second one. And all I have to say is that there is a shortage of
sports worth covering on television, because I was watching a miniature golf
championship, you know. And I didn't know who to feel bad for, you know, me
watching a miniature golf championship, or the guy who's got to be the
commentator, you know. Because he wanted bigger things, you know. You have
baseball, hockey, real golf, you know. And he was there, and he was trying to
make it interesting, you know. He's like, `Well, he's at the most difficult
hole. That's the windmill, of course,' you know. `Look at him out there,
like Don Quixote. Gee, what's a guy like that got to be thinking at a moment
like this. Let me take a crack at it. "Blade, space. Blade, space."
There's the shot. Oh, it hits the blade, and that's going to hurt him after
the bogey at the dinosaur. You know, I think if he would have went with the
red-handled putter and the blue ball, it would have been a different day for
him out there. I think it was that red-red combination that really screwed
him up, don't you?'
And then I get sort of crazy and go--and still in the voice, I go, `Did I
mention I was going to kill myself? Did I mention that? I mean, I'm covering
miniature golf. I'm going to go back home to the house I grew up in and into
my little room where my posters and my model airplanes are and blow my brains
all over a poster of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Does anyone care?
Well, we have a Web site here at ESPN2.' You know, that's basically the joke.
Mr. MARON: It's got nothing to do with suicide. It's sort of a sad portrait
of a bitter man. But somehow or another, occasionally, you don't know how
people are going to respond and what your powers as a performer--and I, again,
a lot of times, I create a sort of intimacy that doesn't allow much distance.
GROSS: But, you know, I'm thinking here, it's partly the difference, too,
between someone like you who's really verbal and who does everything through
words and someone who just, like, really doesn't know how to express
themselves except through, say, `You made me really angry, so now I have to
fight you. Now I have to hurt you.'
Mr. MARON: Yeah. Yeah. That would--but that was sort of what happened.
But you know, I--believe me, Terry. I mean, I've been doing this for years.
And I've been...
GROSS: Right. This doesn't always happen. Yeah.
Mr. MARON: I've been hostile. I've been provocative in a confrontational
way. You know, I've really pushed my luck on stage in more ways than I can
even remember, and it hasn't happened. And now at this point in my life,
where I've sort of leveled off and I don't need to do that--you know, when
you're younger, you really think you're angry about certain causes. And then
as you get older and you realize that you might just be angry, you know, you
have to make choices around that. So, you know, now at this point in my life
where I've leveled off and I think I have a certain amount of--you know, I'm
grounded up there, that this starts to happen. It's very happening.
GROSS: Well, Mark Maron, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. MARON: Thank you.
GROSS: Mark Maron is performing his comic monologue "Jerusalem Syndrome"
off-Broadway through the end of the month.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Gossip columnist Liz Smith discusses her memoir,
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Liz Smith is one of America's most famous gossip columnists. Before we meet
her, let's hear a clip from what is probably the best movie about the
business, the 1957 film, the "Sweet Smell of Success." Burt Lancaster plays a
ruthless gossip columnist. Tony Curtis is a press agent who will do anything
to get his clients into the column. In this scene, the columnist and the
press agent are talking at a restaurant when they're interrupted by a
gentleman asking this question...
(Soundbite from "Sweet Smell of Success")
Unidentified Man #1: May I ask you a naive question, Mr. Falco? Exactly
how does a press agent work?
Unidentified Man #2: Well, answer the man, Sidney, he's trying to take you
off the hook.
"SIDNEY": You just saw a good example of it, Senator. A press agent eats a
columnist's dirt and is expected to call it manna.
Unidentified Man #1: But don't you help columnists by furnishing them with
"SIDNEY": Sure. The columnists can't do without us, except our good and
great friend, J.J., forgets to mention that. You see, we furnish them with
Unidentified Man #2: What, some cheap, gruesome gags?
"SIDNEY": You print 'em, don't you?
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, with your clients' names attached. That's the only
reason the poor slobs pay you, to see their names in my column all over the
"SIDNEY": Now I make it out you're doing me a favor? I didn't say...
Unidentified Man #2: The day I can't get along without a press agent's
handouts, I'll close up shop and move to Alaska, lock, stock and barrel.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Liz Smith says that when she got started in the 1950s, gossip was a
nasty business, kind of like it was represented in the film. One of her early
jobs was working for a theater press agent trying to get items about their
clients into columns by Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen. Then Smith
ghostwrote Igor Cassini's society column, Charlie Knickerbocker(ph). She
started writing a daily column under own name in 1976 at The New York Daily
News. Her syndicated column is now carried in over 70 papers. Liz Smith has
written a memoir called "Natural Blonde." Some of her biggest scoops have
been about divorces. I asked about her ethics when she's publishing such
news. When she gets wind of a divorce, how does she check it out? She told
me it all depends on the source.
Ms. LIZ SMITH (Gossip Columnist): When Nora Ephron told me she was divorcing
Carl Bernstein, I didn't feel I had to check that out with anybody. But
ordinarily, I might call a lawyer, say, `Is this just a rumor, or is it really
in process? Is it actually gonna happen?' Might try to call the parties
involved or call one of them, depending on what the other one said. You know,
you want to give them both a chance to say their piece.
GROSS: If a person is involved with something or has a problem that they
really don't want to make public, and you know that they don't want to make it
public, but you've found out about it. How much does their desire to not have
it be public count for you? Or is that irrelevant because if you can prove
that it's true, you can just print it?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I never wanted to write the nastiest gossip column in
America, and I always held back from writing things that were intensely
hurtful, though some people don't think I did. But, you know, I don't
generally write items about situations where people are, obviously, ill, or
they need drug treatment, or they need alcohol--need to go to AA, or they--it
might be good if they checked in at the Betty Ford Clinic. I would sort of
hold back on that until--unless it became a matter of public behavior that was
so outrageous that there was no point. Just like I wouldn't be the one to
write about an extramarital affair because I just think that's too dangerous
and hurtful. It's too hurtful. I don't want the wife or the husband to read
about it in my column. I'd rather just pass the item up.
GROSS: Now Nora Ephron once gave you the story that she and Carl Bernstein
were divorcing. Then Bernstein called you and said it wasn't true and he
begged you not to print it. But you did print it. Tell me what went through
your mind in deciding whether to go with it or not.
Ms. SMITH: Well, I felt I had the facts from her. She intended to divorce
him, and she wanted it printed. And so I didn't pay much attention to his
desire not to print it. I printed that they would divorce. And he was
furious with me forever after. I mean, someone's desire that you not print
news is not totally germane to the process of getting correct news out. And I
felt Nora was a pretty good source as to whether or not she was gonna divorce
Carl. They had been, you know, written about quite a lot. I mean, he was
having an open affair with someone and it had been in the paper, not by me.
And so I knew she was serious. This was quite a piece of news to those who
cared about them.
GROSS: Why do think she wanted it in your column? How would it have helped
Ms. SMITH: I feel she wanted to not have to answer any more questions, and
she wanted it to be definite. And she wanted to put him on notice how serious
she was. I don't know that I thought about that at the time. But now I think
that's what it was. I think she used my column to make it permanent, to make
him see she was serious, because I guess he was arguing with her that she
should forgive him and forget it and they should go on being married together.
GROSS: Now you met Carl Bernstein at a party after that and he told you that
you had ruined his life.
Ms. SMITH: Yes.
GROSS: In what way did he think you'd ruined his life?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I didn't pay any attention to his protest. And I guess he
felt I was responsible in some way for his happiness. I mean, I thought that
GROSS: Did anyone ever talk you out of writing something? Did anyone ever
call you and say, `Please don't go with that...'
Ms. SMITH: Oh, my God, of course.
GROSS: `...it's really gonna hurt me.' Yeah. What are those conversations
Ms. SMITH: Well, I try to talk them into it. And in fact, part of my work, I
feel, is trying to talk people into agreeing with me that it would be better
for me to cover the story than to have it appear in page six of the National
Enquirer. And sometimes this works. If I say, you know, `This is all around
town, and everybody knows it. It's gonna be printed anyway. So why don't
you think about a way that I might be able to print it first and get it all
out of the way.' And this is a good argument to some people.,
GROSS: What do you tell them the advantage would be if you printed it as
opposed to, say, a tabloid?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I would have their cooperation in telling me the facts from
their point of view. And I might be sympathetic or I might not. But, I mean,
I wouldn't be out to try to drive them into the ground like a nail. And they
GROSS: Now you became friends with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when
they were married. And they were, I mean, among the most prized subjects of
gossip of the time. After you became friends, was it difficult to figure out
what was printable and what was private?
Ms. SMITH: No. They gave me really free reign and access to them. And I
followed them around. And I would stay with them in places in Europe and
observe them for, like, while they were making movies or one of them was
making one. And so I don't recall their ever asking me not to print anything.
They weren't that way. But they were performing for me, you know? They were
doing their married thing.
GROSS: Well, what a strange position to be in that people are performing
their marriage for you as opposed to actually living the marriage.
Ms. SMITH: Well, I think they were. They were very taken with their love
affair and the fact that they had married against public opinion and that
they'd been beleaguered by the paparazzi all over the world and despised and
denounced by the Vatican. So they wouldn't have stood still for publicity
without thinking it would, you know, be to their benefit. And I always
thought they put on a great show for me when I was around, and I got some
fabulous stories about them. I wrote about them in Rome, in Paris, in London,
GROSS: What was one of your favorite stories about them?
Ms. SMITH: My favorite story about them is a story about them eating. They
were great gourmands and they constantly were talking about what they wanted
to eat or what they would eat if it wouldn't make them fat, or what they had
eaten in the past. And I wrote a whole article on this, and I think it's
terribly funny and very revealing of them.
GROSS: My guest is Liz Smith. She's written a new memoir called "Natural
Blonde." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Liz Smith is my guest. And she has a new memoir called "Natural
Blonde." One of your biggest scoops, you say, is a story that you say put you
on the map, was shortly after you got your own column in The New York Daily
News. And this was, I think, in 1976. Kitty Kelley had leaked you
information from the forthcoming Woodward and Bernstein book, "The Final
Days"--their book about the last days of the Nixon administration. Now a
couple of--a newspaper and a magazine had paid a lot of money to excerpt this
book before publication and you got some of the tidbits in it for free before
they got a chance to excerpt the book. Why did Kelley leak it to you? How
did she get it, and why did she leak it to you?
Ms. SMITH: She was one of Carl Bernstein's authentic truth sayers. A lot of
people do like to tell you what's going on and what they know. It's amazing.
But they're not press agents anymore, they're just ordinary people who like to
GROSS: But she's a professional gossip--I mean, she's written very gossipy
memoirs about celebrities.
Ms. SMITH: Well, that's true. But, I mean, she was in no position to do
anything with this...
Ms. SMITH: ...very fragile, briefly newsy information which was going to be
published any second in The Washington Post and in Newsweek. So she decided
she'd give it to me. And I got a big scoop. It went around the world. It
made me famous. We described Nixon and Kissinger praying on their knees.
And, oh, it was an incredible story. The paper called me--The Daily News
telephoned me and said, `You don't know what you've given us. This is so
great.' So it was a big scoop and it infuriated Newsweek and infuriated The
Washington Post. And I don't blame them.
GROSS: Did you owe Kitty Kelley big time after that?
Ms. SMITH: Well, she already owed me big time. So I thought we were even.
I had given...
GROSS: What did she owe you for?
Ms. SMITH: I had given her all of my files on Jacqueline Kennedy.
GROSS: Oh, for her book on Jackie.
Ms. SMITH: Yes. And I had always tried to help her and I had helped her or
would--the sequence of events here might be a little wrong, but I did help her
a lot later on her book on Frank Sinatra.
GROSS: Is that part of how the game is played, people owe each other favors
and they pay back with information?
Ms. SMITH: No. I think, again, it's more the truth-saying impulse. I mean,
if I knew something and somebody was writing a book, I would offer to help
them, if I liked them, thought they were a reputable writer. When I gave
Kitty my files, I didn't know what kind of writer she was. I just thought she
was a very amusing and funny and dishy girl.
GROSS: In your book, you write about how you helped Rock Hudson cover up
something that he was being blackmailed about. Was he being blackmailed by
somebody who was trying to out him?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I assumed that's what it was. I said the other evening on
"60 Minutes" that when he called me, he told me this woman was going to print
a story about his homosexuality. But in retrospect, I'm not sure that that's
exactly what happened. I'm beginning to try to remember that we may have just
had the conversation without any mention of what she was trying to reveal
because it really wasn't necessary. He knew that I understood.
GROSS: What could you do to help him?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I didn't know what I could do. I was appalled. I hate
blackmail, and I knew that this kind of story would really effectively ruin
his career as a romantic leading man. Those were very different times than
now, though not totally different. And I said I'd call him back. So later, I
thought a little bit about this lady who was going to reveal the story, and I
looked through my files and, lo and behold, I'd found a file on her. She
wasn't a star or a public person, but she was someone that I had known
slightly and I had some information on her that wasn't too savory that I would
never have printed. So I sent the file to him, and I said, `I suggest you
show this to her,' and he did, and she dropped her plan to go to the tabloids.
So he had a few more decades of peace, I guess. The poor guy, he finally died
in a most horrible way.
GROSS: You knew Rock Hudson was gay, right?
Ms. SMITH: I didn't know it for many years. I'd met him early in the '50s,
and I knew him a long time before I heard that he was gay or thought that he
was. He never acted in any way to make me think he was and, in fact, I was
around him a lot on the movie location in Rome, where he was making "For Whom
the Bell Tolls," and I didn't know then that he was gay. I had a big crush on
GROSS: When you did find out that he was gay, did you consider printing it
Ms. SMITH: Oh, no, of course not.
Ms. SMITH: Why would I help him stop somebody else from printing it if I
would have printed it?
GROSS: Now why would that qualify as something that you wouldn't print
whereas, say, somebody's divorce is something that you would print? Like...
Ms. SMITH: Well, people live over divorces, but people used to absolutely
hardly live over being revealed as gay. I still don't write that people are
gay unless they are self-avowed and openly gay. I think outing people is a
very cruel thing. And I don't write about the children of celebrities either,
though I get a lot of news about a lot of them; but I never wrote about John
and Caroline Kennedy. I just didn't think--they didn't ask for their
notoriety, so they're just things I tried to stay away from.
GROSS: Now a question a lot of people expected you to address in your memoir
is whether you're straight, gay or bisexual? Time magazine has a
review--you've probably seen it--where the headline is `Liz outs self, sort
of.' And it says, `If you can call this coming out, it was one of the weirder
coming outs in the history of the genre.'
Ms. SMITH: Well, it's OK with me. I mean, it's OK with me that they think
that. I have spent a lifetime of conflicting experiences and I try to tell
that in the book, and I just am not going to categorize myself, so it's OK if
other people want to categorize me. I don't care what they say, but I'm not
going to do it myself. I might change my mind tomorrow. I have changed my
mind many times.
GROSS: But you do write about a brief romance when you were in college with a
woman student who was engaged, and the relationship ended after your parents
read your love letters. You refer to this in your book as your `ill-fated
affair' with the, quote, "wrong sex," which is, I guess, what your parents
Ms. SMITH: That's right. Boy, at the time, that was really a fact. I'm
writing that in the context of the time. It was certainly considered the
wrong sex, and it certainly made them unhappy and made me unhappy. I had a
very unhappy experience, so I try to tell about that to sort of illustrate the
conflicts that young people go through when they think they're madly in love
and can't live without somebody and the person doesn't seem suitable.
GROSS: Then the next relationship you had was with a man, the way you
describe it in the book.
Ms. SMITH: Well, I had already been married when this...
Ms. SMITH: ...other incident happened. You know, I mean, I'm just not
settled in this. I'm not going to nail myself in the box. It's OK if
somebody else wants to.
GROSS: Now, you know, what a lot of people are trying to figure out, too,
reading your book is whether the 15 years that you lived with a close
companion who was a woman was an intimate relationship or not. Now I'm not
asking you to answer that question.
Ms. SMITH: I was going to say I...
GROSS: Here's my question. Wait, I'm going to ask you my question. My
Ms. SMITH: OK.
GROSS: ...is it any of our business? As someone...
Ms. SMITH: No. I think the...
GROSS: ...who's a gossip columnist, is it any of our business what the nature
of that relationship was?
Ms. SMITH: I don't--it's OK if people want to make it their business, but I
think I was pretty straightforward about that. I think if you read my book,
you don't have to read so much between the lines. You can figure it out for
GROSS: Oh, so the answer is then?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I had a very intense companionship with this wonderful
person, who's still a very good friend of mine. I guess the answer is yes,
but, I mean, I think you'd know that from reading the book.
GROSS: My guest is syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith. She's written a
new memoir called "Natural Blonde." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our conversation with gossip columnist Liz Smith.
When we left off, we were talking about how she's tried to keep private the
fact that she had a 15-year relationship with another woman.
Now did anyone ever try to blackmail you during your years, you know, to say
that you had had or that you were having a relationship with another woman?
And did you worry about that possibility?
Ms. SMITH: Yes. I did.
GROSS: You'd seen it happen to other people.
Ms. SMITH: Yes. I worried about it mainly because it would reflect on
another person who wasn't a public person, and this is something I guess all
people in the public eye worry about their significant others, if they are,
you know, embroiled in anything controversial or so forth. It makes you worry
about the private person you're involved with. Yes, I was constantly being
attacked by the underground gay press and by people sending anonymous letters
and things, but I managed to live through it.
GROSS: Attacked by the gay press for not coming out?
Ms. SMITH: For not coming out. They wanted me to be a role model for a gay
life, and I wasn't always leading a gay life. I wasn't ready to be their role
model, and I'm still not.
GROSS: Did anyone threaten you in such a way that it could have, like, ruined
your career? Did anyone threat...
Ms. SMITH: I don't think it could have ruined my career. I was very popular.
For the first seven years I wrote my column, I couldn't do anything wrong, and
then I made a joke and said for the next seven years, I couldn't do anything
right. Now my column has always been very popular, and I've been in demand.
I've worked for nine newspapers in New York City.
GROSS: I guess here's what I'm wondering. What was it like or what has it
been like to be in a position where you're always interested in reporting on
celebrities' private lives, but you have or had something in your private life
that you really wanted to keep from the public, and it's the kind of thing
that the public would have been real interested in hearing about?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I can't account for the public's taste. It's like the
reaction to this book. As soon as you even say the word `sex,' you don't have
to say `bisexual.' You don't have to say `gay.' As soon as you say the word
`sex,' everybody thinks I've written a book about sex. And I think it's the
least part of my book. As for your question, I just went my way and continued
working, and an awful lot of people swirled around me who seemed to want to,
you know, do something to damage me, but I think that's perfectly normal, and
I don't really object anymore to people responding against gossip columnists
any way they please.
GROSS: But again, just in terms of what it was like to have something you
really wanted to keep private, something really central to your life...
Ms. SMITH: Well, I wanted to keep private because it would be hurtful to
someone else. I didn't think I would be fired or anything. I wasn't, no
matter what people wrote and did.
GROSS: So you were more worried about your partner than you were about
Ms. SMITH: Right. And other people, my parents and my brothers, my nieces,
my nephews. I had a wonderful family. I didn't want to embarrass them.
GROSS: But again, I'm wondering if that was an odd burden to be carrying
around while you were in the business of writing about other people's lives
and private lives.
Ms. SMITH: Well, let's don't kid ourselves. Every person who has any kind of
deviant sexuality in their life or sexuality described as deviant is carrying
a burden. I don't think that--you know, even openly gay people are still
beaten to death and bad things happen to them sometimes. This country has an
extremely puritanical streak and still has it. It's very Victorian in certain
GROSS: I guess--let me put this more bluntly, did you ever feel like it was
hypocritical of you to know that there was something in your life that you
really had to protect while, at the same time, you were trying to make public
things from other people's lives that they might have wanted to protect?
Ms. SMITH: Well, maybe it was hypocritical, but I don't think hypocrisy is
anything new in any stratification of society, so I just did the best I could
and I always tried to be fair to whatever I was writing. I tried very hard to
be fair, to give people a chance to answer, to tell two sides of things, if
it seemed to me there was one, and to not complain too much about what people
said about me.
GROSS: How long do you think you want to keep your column?
Ms. SMITH: Well, as long as it seems viable and it works and people like it
and there's a demand for it and the papers keep renewing my contract and I'm
healthy and able to work. I'm--knock wood--in very good health, and I'll go
on, I guess, till I drop in my tracks or they throw me out.
GROSS: Now in your book, you call gossip the tawdry drool in the crown of
free speech. Gossip is often used as an almost dirty word. It's just gossip.
What do you like about gossip?
Ms. SMITH: What do you like about it? Don't you like it? Or are you too
pure to like it? You know, I mean, I think that gossip is absolutely endemic
and, I mean, substantive in human nature. I think we're all constantly
talking about each other and about what we think we know or heard or saw,
overheard; and we use this sort of medium of exchange between us to enhance
the human condition. It helps us figure out what we think. It helps us sort
out our ideas morally. Did we approve when we're gossiping? Are we approving
or are we disapproving? Are we trying to figure out what we think? And I
think that a lot of gossip is just this idea of `Let me tell you a story.'
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SMITH: Thank you.
GROSS: Liz Smith has written a new memoir called "Natural Blonde."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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