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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2005

Gossip columnist shares some of her best stories

BY JENNIFER DAY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

DISHING: GREAT DISH - AND DISHES - FROM AMERICA'S MOST BELOVED GOSSIP COLUMNIST. By Liz Smith. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $25.

The morning after the big story broke, I was at the gym, listening to two women chat over bottled water and weight machines. The conversation wrapped up with this pronouncement:

"I think it will be good for Toledo."

They weren't talking about the Pentagon's decision not to close the 180th Air National Guard Fighter Wing. They were talking about Tom and Katie - Cruise and Holmes, that is.

While many Toledoans have taken to protesting any interest TomKat - yet surreptitiously keeping their eyes peeled for Tom Cruise sightings - I've come to realize, thanks to Liz Smith, that celebrity gossip can be a lot of fun if it's done right. (Her column appears in The Blade's Peach Section.)

Ms. Smith's latest book, Dishing, is a breezy, energetic look back over the columnist's career and best meals. Ms. Smith's taste buds developed in lock step with the sophistication, humility, and shrewdness that allowed her to break into the upper strata of the social universe. It's this savvy blend of know-how and know-who that makes Dishing ideal companionship for a lazy day on the beach.

Raised in Gonzales, Texas, Ms. Smith's mother was less than enthusiastic about cooking - and even less enthusiastic about the messes that come with indulgence: The children ate watermelon in the bathtub so they could be hosed down efficiently, and when Pa Smith was away, dinner was served out of cartons for quick clean-up.

As Ms. Smith's career progressed, she befriended folks who would hone her palate and sand down her Southern edges. Under the tutelage of Henri Soule, who introduced New York to French cuisine first at the 1939 World's Fair and then with his restaurant, Le Pavillion, Ms. Smith developed a love of caviar and a thirst for good wine. By luck, she befriended a waiter who would go on to be Le Cirque restaurateur Sirio Maccioni.

Ms. Smith's roots on the celebrity beat are deep, which is part of what makes Dishing such a romp.

The highlight of the book is a story Ms. Smith wrote for Cosmopolitan 43 years ago chronicling the heights shared by the original glamorous duo, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. It's a tale of opulence and, oddly enough, chili (Taylor's favorite). It's equal parts American pop culture, history and flat-out fun.

At the time the Taylor-Burton piece was written, it was a unique look inside the pantheon of celebrity. Unfortunately for us, this kind of reporting is fast becoming a relic of an earlier era, blissfully innocent of all that Us Weekly and direct-to-fan marketing has brought us.

Folks worthy of boldface mentions in her column throw her a lavish 80th birthday party at Le Cirque. Nora Ephron writes part of a chapter correcting Ms. Smith's seriously overactive imagination.

The reporter-source boundaries blur and sometimes vanish as Ms. Smith ages. Although Ms. Smith regards herself as a plucky reporter, it may be that the oxymoron that is "celebrity journalism" is deserving of a new designation altogether - one that allows for puffery and embellishment without pretense.

My main worry now, though, is less about Ms. Smith's journalistic pedigree and more about what we will do when we don't have her at the table to regale us with stories of supping with Katharine Hepburn and drinking with everyone who's anyone at Elaine's.

Or giving us the scoop on TomKat.



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