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Remembering Syndicated Gossip Columnist Liz Smith

Smith, who died Sunday, started her daily column for The New York Daily News in 1976. In 2000, she told Fresh Air: "I always held back from writing things that were intentionally hurtful."

19:32

Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2017: Interview with Mindy Kaling; Liz Smith obituary; Review of the film 'Mudbound.'

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest is Mindy Kaling, who this week concluded a five-year run as star of her own TV series titled "The Mindy Project." Before that, she played Kelly Kapoor on the American NBC version of "The Office," where she also served as a writer and producer. On "The Mindy Project," she was the show's creator, executive producer and star, playing an OB-GYN who is quite accomplished at work but somewhat adrift when it comes to personal and especially romantic relationships.

"The Mindy Project" started out on the Fox network, then was picked up by the Hulu streaming service in 2015 and concluded its sixth and final season this past Tuesday. Here's a scene from the show's premiere, which introduced Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri. She's in the doctors' lounge at the hospital preparing for a date. She's wearing an outlandish sequined top she thinks is flattering, but it gets a thumbs down from Dr. Danny Castellano, a young doctor with whom she has an antagonistic relationship. He's played by Chris Messina. And she dismisses his opinion of her blouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MINDY PROJECT")

MINDY KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) OK, thank you.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) Sure.

KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) I'm just going to take fashion advice from (imitating deep voice) Danny Castellano.

MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) You're welcome.

KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) 'Cause Danny Castellano, he really gets women, you know?

MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) I do, don't I?

KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) Just ask his wife - oh, I'm sorry, his ex-wife.

MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) You know what would really look great?

KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) Yeah, what?

MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) If you lost 15 pounds.

KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) What? Do you want to get smacked?

MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) No, I don't want to get smacked, Dr. Lahiri, not at my place of work. I want to peacefully go about my day.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Mindy Kaling in 2012, the year "The Mindy Project" premiered and the year after the release of her best-selling memoir "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?"

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: One of the things that happens to your character, who's an obstetrician-gynecologist, is that a woman who seems to be a newly arrived immigrant and she's Muslim and is wearing a veil and is nine months pregnant comes to the hospital and wants you to deliver her baby. But she doesn't have health insurance, and you have to figure out what to do. And you manage to get comedy out of that.

KALING: Yeah, I mean, because the character eventually does take on the patient, I think what's really fun about her is that she has to struggle to do the right thing. And in the show, she ends up taking on this patient against her will 'cause she's an up and coming doctor and she would, in her mind, she would like to have ritzier patients who can pay and things like that. And I think if someone kind of eventually does the right thing, seeing them struggle to do it is actually enjoyable.

And there's something else where I don't know whether this is because I'm a minority, but I've always really found the prejudices that minorities have against other minorities to be very enjoyable comedy area.

GROSS: No, she also tells her associate she wants more white patients (laughter).

KALING: Yeah, she's sheepish about saying that. I mean, that's one of the things we sort of tackle. I didn't want to play a character who's just deeply good all the time. Like, that's not fun for me to write. And especially with working on "The Office" for so many years with Michael Scott, you know, Steve Carell's character, who is so flawed, you just thought, that's much more fun to watch, that's much more fun to write. And so, yeah, she ends up taking on the character, so why don't we make it hard for her to do the right thing?

GROSS: Now, I think you've made her pretty professionally competent, unlike Michael Scott in the office, though, actually, he turns out to be a good salesman. But he has no knack with managing people. But your doctor, the doctor you play, seems to be pretty good at being a doctor, although she's not very good at having a love life.

KALING: I think that was important. There's almost a certain comedy percentage you learn with a lead character of how good they have to be at their job because it redeems them. And if the character was, like, kind of a terrible surgeon in addition to being selfish and un-PC (laughter) and sort of then she becomes a hateful doctor...

GROSS: Right, if, like, women died in labor (laughter)...

KALING: Right, right. It becomes...

GROSS: ...And ended up with infections. Yeah, it would be terrible.

KALING: It becomes a huge bummer, and nobody wants to watch that. But it is - it's a really fine line, I think. I decided my rule of thumb was I want her to be as good of a doctor as I believe I am, like, a comedy writer. And I, you know, I feel pretty confident in my talents as a writer so that why not just make her be good? That's helps - that exonerates bad behavior, too.

GROSS: So when you became the showrunner of your own show starring you, written in part by you, produced by you, what was it like to basically be the boss, to be the final word, to have to make a lot of decisions?

KALING: Well, it was - that was the thing I was kind of the most excited about about doing the new show. I mean, yes, I was thrilled to be acting in the show, but I was really excited to be the boss. Like, anyone who has kind of gotten that promotion, you have, OK, well, this is the time now when I can correct any of my pet peeves from my previous job, which, by the way, I didn't have that many because I loved my old job. But, you know, I came into the new show thinking, oh, let me have this democratic way of doing the show 'cause I remember what it was like being a staff writer.

And I remember thinking like, oh, I get to manage the time now. And it was very funny how at the beginning, I started at the show being a little bit too democratic. And then I was just fearful that I was like, oh, everything's getting out of control and I just didn't want to, like, overcorrect and become, like, the Saddam Hussein of my - the new job. But it was - I had to really - it was a really interesting learning experience deciding that I have to just be very decisive and not take everyone's opinion because I had thought coming from "The Office," like, that'll be great.

I'll really listen to all of my writers and everything they have to say. And then about five weeks into it, being like, you know what? That was a mistake. I am sorry. I have to revoke me asking you guys for all your opinions all the time, which is a hard thing to do when you've given that freedom to people, especially because my personality is to be chatty and talk to people and hear people's problems. And it's been interesting at my show 'cause I've had to both want to do that at times and then kind of shut down that side of me unceremoniously, which I think can hurt people's feelings a little bit.

And that's been a weird thing to have to learn how to do.

GROSS: Well, when you wanted to be boss and your boss actually disagreed with you on "The Office," what would happen?

KALING: Well, that's the thing is I was known as, like, a big fighter on "The Office." And Greg Daniels, who is very professorial and actually encourages debate, loved it. So I would exhaust myself arguing and arguing and taking on different tacks, and he was very open to it. Like, he would often, if you argued well enough, he would be won over. So it was kind of worth it a lot of the times. But on this show, it's weird. When you have that will to fight in you and you've spent eight years learning how to argue, sometimes I have more argument in me than I'm even allowed to because sometimes I'll start on this path and one of the other executive producers will say, yeah, you can have whatever you want.

You're the boss now. And I'm like, oh, well, I have seven more arguments I wanted to use.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KALING: It's - which is a wonderful thing. But it's weird 'cause I feel like the - I have an underdog spirit in me. And now I'm like, it feels weird to kind of get my own way more often than not.

GROSS: There's a scene that reminds me of in your new show where your character's putting on some clothes for a date. And you put on this incredibly, like, spangly (laughter) top. And the Chris Messina character, your fellow doctor, says, that's something, like, your girlfriends will love. That's not something, like, the man you're on a date with is going to like.

KALING: Yes, yeah. That's something that I've observed in life is that there's, like, a list of 15 things that tend to - women tend to love and men tend to not like, fashion-wise, which ended up being true. Any guy who I show that scene to is like, yeah, that's a terrible outfit.

GROSS: So you said that there were 15 things in fashion that girls like that guys hate. What are some of those 15?

KALING: Oh, did I say 15? Wow, that's specific - so confidently specific. There's some things, you know, I've learned over the years. I think men - these, by the way, are all generalizations that are - many people listening to these will disagree with them. I have found it to be true that men tend to not understand or like sequins very much. Men don't like sort of the wedge shoe. I have noticed men don't like - tend to like the statement necklace or chunky tribal jewelry. These are all the things, by the way, that I love. So the overlap in the Venn diagram of things that men hate for women to wear and the things that I love to wear, it's almost a full overlap on the Venn diagram, which is unfortunate for me.

What are other things? Capri pants, I've noticed that men tend to dislike. This is not clothing but I adore a short haircut. I don't know a single man - including my own brother and my own father who if I cut my hair shorter than my shoulders, they think it's a huge tragedy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KALING: Which is, again, too bad because I would love to have, like, that Audrey Hepburn short sort of hairstyle.

GROSS: So does the fact that your research shows that (laughter) men don't like these things prevent you from wearing them?

KALING: No because I, like most women, I dress for other women, I think. If I was going to dress for men, I think in general, I would be just wearing, like, a fitted black T-shirt and tight jeans every day. I mean, this is very - of course, this is my unscientific research done by working with male comedy writers for the past eight years. They tend to just really like, this specific group of guys, really simple, clean lines, things like that. But I don't. So I dress for women. I wear all of those things because I - I like looking at it. It makes me feel happy and excited to wear it.

BIANCULLI: Actress, writer and producer Mindy Kaling speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's interview from 2012 with actress and writer-producer Mindy Kaling. Her sitcom "The Mindy Project," shown on the streaming site Hulu, just concluded its sixth and final season earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, you've made your character an OB-GYN, which is what your mother was. Why did you want to give your character your mother's profession?

KALING: Well, my mom had a very different job than my job, as a comedy writer and actress on a TV show. But I found that we had really similar lifestyles because both jobs are very time-consumptive. I would often be leaving work at 11 o'clock at night in LA and call her in Boston and she would still be awake waiting for a baby to be delivered. So we would have weirdly similar hours and our lifestyles became really similar. And I thought, this seems like a very fun job.

You're surrounded by women for - especially for someone who is single and wishes she was married, it's fun to be surrounded by women in all different stages of their lives - some who are married, some who are expecting babies, some with families. It seemed like a good board for a character to bounce off her own neuroses.

GROSS: So in writing the character, did it make you think a lot about your mother's life?

KALING: You know, the character is very different than my mom. Her job and her workplace was a big inspiration, but my mother was a very glamorous but very practical-minded and serious surgeon. If you met her, she had a very - she's very opinionated and funny. But she wasn't in love with love the way that my character is on the show. And she wasn't kind of frivolous and foolish and my character's very flawed and interesting. And my mom - I mean, I'm biased, of course, because she's my mom - but was just a really, like, a sophisticated and, yeah, like, a serious type of person. So they're very different.

GROSS: Your mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last year and died about eight months later. You moved back home to be with her when she was sick. There's something you write in your book, your memoir - or your collection of personal essays, "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?" Something you write about her that I related to so much - you wrote that whenever she cried, you cried. Like, you couldn't help yourself. If she cried, you started welling up. And it was always that way with me, too.

You know, and my mother, like your mother, didn't cry very much. But if she had a tear in her eye, I would just, like, totally lose it. And I think I understand why, but I don't know that I really (laughter) understand why.

KALING: I think it's because - well, I'm not, like, happy that you can identify with that, but I'm glad that you say that. I think it has to do something with my mom was a very strong person and was not a very outwardly emotional person. She was very empathetic and things, but she wasn't, like, a big - you know, she didn't fall to pieces or anything and she was not theatrical in terms of expressing herself. So when she would cry, I think the reason why I would start to cry is it's a little traumatizing to see someone like that cry.

And so I think it's - there's one thing, which is, you know, empathizing or sympathizing with my mom for whatever she's going through but also it is traumatic to see that when you see it so infrequently. And she was such a pillar and such a rock in my family that seeing that kind of happen would kind of move you to tears, in a way, 'cause it was just so unusual.

GROSS: So if it was so difficult to just watch her cry, were you able to bear watching her suffer when she was sick?

KALING: I mean, the answer to the question is, no, it was not bearable. It was - her personality completely changed. And, you know, I was talking to my father about this because we have a little perspective now 'cause it's been some months. But you have to struggle - and anyone who's lost someone to cancer will say this - that you have to struggle to try to remember the person before the diagnosis happened because they really do change, as anyone would change. So you, for the first period of time, even now, the thing you remember most vividly is how the disease changed them.

And then, like, now I'm beginning to remember my mom from when I was, you know, 28, which is a real gift. But it was just - it was such a short amount of her life that it seems unfair to her memory to let it cloud most of my memory of her, if that makes sense.

GROSS: Oh, I understand that completely. And I experienced kind of the same thing when my mother was sick.

KALING: You know, you sort of think...

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause they're physically transformed, too.

KALING: And their demeanor and everything, I mean, it is unimaginable to hear news that you have an illness that is going to end your life within the year. And so that really changed her. And - but, again, it's like, I always have to struggle to remember, like, there was this person that I knew for more than 30 years before that, who was so different.

GROSS: You know what's really nice? Your book, which came out last year before she was sick - at least it was written before she was sick - it's dedicated to your parents. And in the acknowledgments in the back of the book, you write, I guess I'm just one of those weird kids who likes their parents too much (laughter). And so it's great that, you know, she got to see all that.

KALING: You know, she was so into it. She was so - she followed every - any interview, anything, I mean, she - for instance, this show. And I would call her up. And she loved you, Terry...

GROSS: Oh, that's so nice.

KALING: ...And would have parts of it memorized. Or I would go on "The Daily Show," and both my parents were confirmed because they were Republicans. And they even would watch "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart. And they thought he was like a trouble maker. And they would love it. I mean, they followed every aspect of it and with such detail.

I mean, that's been the one thing that's been hard is that she was - selfishly - was my biggest champion. And I could always call her the way after you, you know, finish a successful sports game and you can, you know, talk to your coach or your parents about how great it was. And they can kind of go over the victory with you. And to not go through this with her has been a little - I've been missing her a lot lately with the show coming on.

GROSS: Sure. Sure. Well, thank you for talking about her a little bit with us. And I'm going to...

KALING: Of course, yeah.

GROSS: ...I'm going to change the subject to something much, much lighter now.

KALING: That's OK. I could talk about my mom all day. I mean, you mentioned a little bit about your parents. It's like, she's such a source. I've been surprised at how my relationship with her has continued even though she's passed away, which is a weird thing to say. But people who've lost a parent, I think, or anybody - I think they might be able to relate to that.

GROSS: In the sense that you find yourself still talking to her?

KALING: You know, I knew her so well. Like, you know, we knew each other so well that there were times when I know the answer as I'm asking the question. So it - I can still have conversations with her if that - yeah, I can. And I still find it kind of rewarding. That makes me sound a little crazy.

GROSS: No. No. I think lots of people will understand that. So here comes the changing it to a lighter subject part.

KALING: Yes.

GROSS: Shopping. So here's my incisive question. And that is, you know, for me, nothing fits me. And so, for me, it's like, oh, boy, I think I'll go shopping today. I need some clothes. And I come home, and I'm just like - I'm so angry. And I have such a bad headache because like there's been nothing that fit me. And the one thing I need...

KALING: Wait. Why do you say nothing fits you? Terry, I've only seen photographs of you, but you seem like a tiny person. Like, what is - you don't have to...

GROSS: I'm small. I'm narrow-boned. And like I don't know if you've ever shopped petite style, but...

KALING: So, Terry, what you're describing is the most insufferable thing I've ever heard. I know that it is in fact a struggle for you, but to hear someone say - to complain about being narrow-boned - I mean, I think on "30 Rock," they literally don't joke about this with Emily Mortimer. She had Avian bone disease, which made her birdlike - birdlike, I think. You are what we call humble bragging.

GROSS: No, no, no, no. What I am is like really short. And when you see like jackets with the shoulders drooping off of you and, you know, pants that are just like way too like tight in one place and loose in another place, it's not a good thing. And the petite styles there - excuse me to all the petite designers out there - so many of them are just like hideous, you know. You want to go to like the great clothes stores and buy something nice and nothing in that store is ever going to fit - nothing.

KALING: I'm so charmed, by the way, hearing this because in my mind - and everyone has their imagination of what Terry Gross must wear - it's like you are just wearing like a slouchy like, you know, Jil Sander cashmere sweater and a pair of like perfectly fitting jeans and flats. And like you just bounce around like Audrey Hepburn or something. So that's nice to hear.

GROSS: Doesn't shopping ever like drive you crazy?

KALING: I have to say, I never thought I would say this aloud but because on the show I'm allowed to largely dictate the style of the character, and I have lost my interest a lot, at least in clothing shopping. I am still interested in gadgets. I've always had that side of my personality, if someone on my staff gets a new car or a new pet. I love consumerism. I'm just - I really do love that. I have a very new-money aesthetic. And it's always been - I am the child of immigrants who came with new money. I mean, that's very much - I'm cut from that cloth.

GROSS: Well, Mindy Kaling, congratulations on your new series. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

KALING: Oh, thank you. It's been such a fun time. Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: Mindy Kaling speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. Her Hulu sitcom, "The Mindy Project," completed its sixth and final season earlier this week. After a break, we'll remember Liz Smith, the long-running gossip columnist who died this week at age 94. And film critic Justin Chang will review "Mudbound," a new movie released by Netflix. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN PATERSON'S "LUCKY SOUTHERN")

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Liz Smith, one of America's most famous and enduring gossip columnists, died this week. She was 94. We're going to replay part of an interview she conducted with Terry back in 2000. But first, we'll put her particular approach to gossip in context. She was a more benign, less aggressive and destructive presence on the gossip pages, a stark contrast to what came after her on the Internet and on television. But she also was nicer in her approach than those who came before her.

Here's a clip from what is still regarded as the best movie about the gossip columnist business, the 1957 film "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 are interrupted by a man with a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS")

WILLIAM FORREST: (As Sen. Harvey Walker) May I ask you a naive question, Mr. Falco? Exactly how does a press agent work?

BURT LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) Why don't you answer the man, Sidalee? He's trying to take you off the hook.

TONY CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) You just saw a good example of it, Senator. A press agent eats a columnist's dirt and is expected to call it manna.

FORREST: (As Sen. Harvey Walker) But don't you help columnists by furnishing them with items?

CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) Sure. A columnist can't do without us, except our good and great friend J.J. forgets to mention that. You see, we furnish them with items.

LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) What, some cheap, gruesome gags?

CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) You print them, don't you?

LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) 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 world. Now I make it out you are doing me a favor?

CURTIS: (As Sidney Falco) I didn't say that, J.J.

LANCASTER: (As J.J. Hunsecker) 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.

BIANCULLI: In her memoir called "Natural Blonde," Liz Smith said that when she got started in the '50s, gossip was a nasty business. She began working for a theater press agent trying to get items about their clients into columns by Walter Winchell and others. She started writing a daily column under her own name in 1976 at the New York Daily News and ended her career at the New York Post 33 years later. When Terry asked her in 2000 how she decided what to print and whom to trust, Liz Smith said it all depended on the source.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LIZ SMITH: 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 going to happen? I 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.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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?

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, where they need drug treatment or they need alcohol, need to go to AA or 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 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.

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 going to 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 you think she wanted it in your column? How would it have helped her?

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'd 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, they should go on being married together.

GROSS: Now, you've - 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?

SMITH: No. They gave me really free rein 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.

SMITH: Well, I think 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, in Moscow.

GROSS: What was one of your favorite stories about them?

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.

BIANCULLI: Liz Smith speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. LONNIE SMITH'S "TALK ABOUT THIS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2000 interview with longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith. She died on Sunday at age 94.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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?

SMITH: Well, I assumed that's what it was. 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, but 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?

SMITH: Well, I didn't know what I could do. I was appalled. I don't think - 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 I found - lo and behold, I 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.

GROSS: You knew Rock Hudson was gay, right?

SMITH: I didn't know it for many years. I 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 a 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 him.

GROSS: When you did find out that he was gay, did you consider printing it or...

SMITH: Oh, no. Of course not. Why would I help him stop somebody else from printing it if I would have printed it?

GROSS: No, why would that qualify as something that you wouldn't print, whereas, say, somebody's divorce is something that you would print, like...

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 it's a very - 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 try 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.

SMITH: (Laughter).

GROSS: And it says, if you can call this coming out, it is one of the weirder coming outs in the history of the genre.

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: 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 called it?

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 are 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.

SMITH: Well, I had already been married when this...

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: ...Other incident happened. I - 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: No, 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.

SMITH: I think they...

GROSS: Here's my question.

SMITH: (Laughter).

GROSS: Wait, I'm going to ask you my question. My question is, is it any of...

SMITH: OK.

GROSS: ...Our business? And so...

SMITH: No, I don't - I think if they (laughter)...

GROSS: As someone who's a gossip columnist, is it any of our business what the nature of that relationship was?

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 yourself.

GROSS: Oh. So the answer is, then...

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 would know that from reading the book.

GROSS: Did anyone ever try to blackmail you during your years, you know, just to say that you had had or that you were having a relationship with another woman? And did you worry about that possibility? You'd seen it happen...

SMITH: Yes, I...

GROSS: ...To other people.

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're, 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?

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: I guess here's what I'm wondering. What was it like, or what has it been like to be in the 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?

SMITH: Well, I wanted to keep private because it was - 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 yourself.

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: 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?

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 tried - always tried to be fair - 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: Now, in your book, you call gossip the tawdry jewel 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?

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 in - 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. Do we approve when we're gossiping? Are we approving, or are we disapproving, or 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.

BIANCULLI: Gossip columnist Liz Smith speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. Liz Smith died on Sunday. She was 94. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Mudbound," a new film produced and released by Netflix. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The writer-director Dee Rees made her feature debut with the 2011 teen coming-out drama "Pariah," followed by her 2015 Emmy-winning HBO movie "Bessie" starring Queen Latifah. The latest feature by Dee Rees, "Mudbound," unfolds in the American South during World War II and features an ensemble cast that includes Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A sweeping epic of racial discord set in the Mississippi Delta during the 1940s, "Mudbound" is easily one of the year's most ambitious American movies, though it's unusually restrained and telegraphing its ambitions. The director, Dee Rees, adapting a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, doesn't announce her weighty themes at the outset.

This sad, sometimes unbearably violent story about what happens when ingrained prejudice and wartime trauma collide feels so true and irreducible that it might've welled up from the very landscape itself. It's a beautiful landscape but a terrible one, too, a harsh, unyielding world where blinding sun alternates with pounding rain, where cloudy skies stretch ominously over acres of dust, grass and, yes, mud. Crops are scarce, money even scarcer.

A wife and mother named Laura McAllan, soulfully played by the British actress Carey Mulligan, describes the everyday hardship of life in the delta in all its tedium and brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Laura McAllan) Violence is part and parcel of country life. You're forever being assailed by dead things - dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard. You smell them rotting under the house. And then they the creatures you kill for food. Chickens, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels. Pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat, start again, kill.

CHANG: Laura is one of many narrators we hear throughout the movie, which Rees wrote with Virgil Williams. If all those voices make for a somewhat unwieldy juggling act, they also give the film a rich, symphonic quality reminiscent of the multiple perspectives Faulkner used in "As I Lay Dying."

We hear from Laura about how she was uprooted from Memphis to live in a cramped Mississippi farmhouse with her sturdy but naive husband, Henry, played by Jason Clarke and her nasty, irredeemably racist father-in-law Pappy, played by Jonathan Banks.

But we also hear from the Jacksons, a family of black sharecroppers farming cotton on a small corner of the McAllans' land. Rob Morgan plays the hard-working, God-fearing Jackson patriarch Hap, while the R&B artist Mary J. Blige gets a quietly revelatory performance as his resilient wife, Florence. Jason Mitchell, so memorable in "Straight Outta Compton," is terrific here as Ronsel, the eldest and most outspoken of the Jackson children. The equal time we spend with the McAllans and the Jacksons is crucial to the scrupulous democratic nature of Rees's method, which gives black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight.

One of the movie's points is that war is the great equalizer. And in the heat of battle, death doesn't discriminate based on skin color. Shortly after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, Ronsel joins the war effort and is soon marching on Germany as part of the mostly African-American 761st Tank Battalion. Meanwhile, Henry's headstrong younger brother Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund, becomes a fighter pilot.

The military may be segregated, but "Mudbound" demolishes the gap cinematically, cutting between the two soldiers and also between their families as they toil alongside each other, anxiously awaiting news from overseas. After the war, Ronsel actually finds life more hospitable for a black man in Germany than it is back in Mississippi. Not long after returning home, he's exiting the local general store when he has an ill-timed confrontation with Pappy and Henry McAllan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUDBOUND")

JONATHAN BANKS: (As Pappy McAllan) You use the back door.

JASON CLARKE: (As Henry McAllan) Go on, son. We don't want no trouble here. Go on. Go on.

JASON MITCHELL: (As Ronsel Jackson) You know what? You're absolutely right. When we was overseas, they didn't make us use the back door. General Patton put us on the front line. Yes, sir. You know what we did? We kicked the hell out of Hitler and them Germans, while y'all at home safe and sound.

CHANG: When a black man tells off a white man in the Jim Crow South, you can expect that some grim consequences are in store. And Hap, who has learned to survive by keeping his head down, urges his son to apologize to the McAllans. But Ronsel's speech is still a hugely satisfying moment, the kind that can cause an entire theater to burst into collective applause.

"Mudbound," alas, is only opening in 17 theaters nationwide. And while that's considered a generous allowance for a Netflix release, it also does the movie a profound disservice. In an era of white nationalist marches and Black Lives Matter protests, a picture like "Mudbound" demands the kind of engagement that only a big screen and a packed house can confer.

It's only after the story has reached its harrowing yet graceful finale that you're aware of just how carefully Rees and her actors have worked out the different relationships between the characters. The movie's most significant and radical relationship is the one that develops between Jamie and Ron Ronsel, two PTSD-plagued vets who become surprisingly fast friends, in defiance of every social norm they know.

In these moments, "Mudbound" leaves us with a devastating yet powerfully consoling suggestion - when you've witnessed unthinkable horrors abroad, it becomes that much harder to endure them at home.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, oligarchs from Russia and former Soviet bloc countries who became business partners with Donald Trump. We talked with Jake Bernstein, whose new book is about the Panama papers, leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm that created thousands of offshore shell companies where corporations and wealthy individuals, including some of those oligarchs, hid their money. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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