Liz Smith: I Remember More Than “60 Minutes” With Mike Wallace. (Let’s Try Fiftysomething Fabulous Years!)
“I love you, Mary Elizabeth” — “And I love you Myron!”
This is the manner in which the great Mike Wallace ended an interview with me on “ 60 Minutes when he was in one of his lovable moods and not playing at being the king of “gotcha” TV. Naturally, his producer Don Hewitt wouldn’t let the interview end on such a note with private and personal exchanges. But both Mike (Myron) and I (Mary Elizabeth) hoped Don would leave it alone.
In the meantime, when Mike did the interview, he still managed to ask me a lot of penetrating and unexpected questions that I didn’t particularly want to answer. But I was plugging my memoir Natural Blonde and the word ‘friendship’ never occurred to the demon reporter who had made 60 Minutes largely in his own image. Then, at the end, he got sentimental. Otherwise, he was his own tough, relentless, demanding self, after the truth and nothing but.
Mike Wallace, who left us over the weekend at age 93, went against his own demanding ethics when he decided to put me on the air as a kind of gossip classic. I think he did it against his better judgment.
I had worked for him for a year round about 1953 before he was the Mike he became. He was then in an early marriage to the would-be actress Buff Cobb … he was already rising in the firmament of New York theater society with the likes of Kitty Hart, Harry Kurnitz, Nedda and Josh Logan, Arlene Francis and Martin Gabel … he was doing commercials for cigarettes to make a living … and he was a radio star for the Big Man — Bill Paley.
Mike was on his way, attractive, sexy, dynamic — and he had to contend with this green kid, Liz Smith. He often said in later years: “I never thought you’d amount to anything. But look what you became, Mary Elizabeth! You were a really good booker, but I can’t get over it, your success. Nevertheless, I want you to become a real journalist; you can’t get away with this gossip stuff.” (He never stopped giving me a hard time about not becoming a killer investigator.)
My early friendship as pal/admirer/employee and booker for Mike Wallace paid off my whole life long. Having him recommending me as “ethical and upstanding and ambitious” didn’t hurt me a bit. And I was recruited right after that to go to NBC as a line producer for a big live show called Wide, Wide World. Mike then became like a proud parent, one who always had a perfect right to criticize, prod and bemoan.
The CBS radio show we’d worked on ended because he and Buffy got a divorce. Mike then made a real name for himself on Night Beat where he created the first of his “tough” reputations.
CBS was then a natural to go “all the way” with a rugged news juggernaught like 60 Minutes, the apex of TV journalism in the three networks mode. It had inherited its values from a man TV history seems to have disposed with — the giant Fred Friendly.
So far, now, I have written of Mike Wallace as tough and dynamic and ruthless, etc. But personally, he was one of the sweetest, most thoughtful men I ever met. He liked doing silly unusual things like ringing me and saying, “Guess where I am? Here, speak to my friend just a moment.” Then Nancy Reagan would come on the phone, introduce herself as First Lady and ask me to tell her all I knew about her good friend Mike Wallace. Later, she had to chide him on the air when he tried to nail her feet to the floor about Iran-Contra, on making too much money post-presidency.
Mike loved and needed women. He married four times. But the reality was that in those misogynistic sexist days, he was still a lover, a teaser, a delighter in women. He has been rightly criticized as a bra snapper and maybe even a mild harasser — but at the core he was just a guy of the Mad Men 60’s era and really good at heart, in spite of it.
And, that said, I think he was actually virtuous and naïve about women, sex, romance and male dominance. As years went by he would secretly turn to me, asking questions about what women like and want and what they mean and intend and he was in actuality shocked by some of the things that the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s revealed.
He once asked me if I’d ever had a “threesome” and what did it mean and how did one cope? I pretended an answer which was that it was “showing off for kicks” and then he came back to the idea over and over. “Look, Mike, I’m no sex expert. But you’re a prude!” I said. He said, ruefully, “I guess I am.”
When I got on a column roll with the Ivana and Donald Trump divorce, Mike gave a party. He said, “You’re the star of this party; you’ll see. But don’t say anything and I won’t either.” He invited the crème de la crème — New York Timesmen, biggies from the three networks, social climbers, the whole lot. They all asked me questions and urged each other to “pipe down” when I answered. It was incredible; these people were my superiors but they wanted the hot gossip. And Mike knew it, thought it was absurd, but reveled in it. He did a lot for my social life — the ethicist-killer Mike Wallace.
But what I remember best about Mike, after he rid himself of wife no. three, is that he happily married Mary Yates, the widow of a former newsman friend who had been killed in Israel. Then, one saw how much Mike Wallace relished the family bequeathed to him by Mary. He wanted his own children, his step-children, their children, your children and “the old maid,” as he called me, to gather round.
Thanksgivings were orgies of fun, eating and gossiping. He couldn’t know too much about anything he heard or thought he knew.
The last time I was with him, the wonderful Sheila Nevins of HBO and I, took Mike and Mary out to dinner at La Grenouille. He was subdued, rather quiet, but he still looked like the same dashing Mike Wallace. He sat listening to us gossip and wisecrack, but he was largely silent — this man who had never been silent.
And he kept saying throughout the meal, either to me or to Sheila: “You know, you two are so beautiful.”
We demurred. We told him, “Shut up. You have lost it! Get real!”
“No, no,” he insisted, “ I never realized how beautiful the two of you are. I’ve known you for years; you are both so great looking.”
Sheila and I preened. We didn’t believe a word.
But we accepted the compliments for all the women in the world who he had teased unmercifully, castigated as immoral, or tormented because he was the boss and a perfectionist. And he just wanted to have fun and still dominate. But, by then, we were dominating him.
There’ll never be another Mike Wallace. But one was enough for me.
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 4/11/12