Philosophy 101 From an Octogenarian: New York, New Life, by Liz Smith

Our Gossip Girl shares her memories of her Big Apple beginnings, with the publication of My First New York.

It’s both instructive and horrifying to look back on one’s callow and naïve youth. I thought this in reading a new book, just published. It is titled My First New York, edited by David Haskell and Adam Moss. In it, 56 famous New Yorkers tell all about “the first time” – their first times in NYC as it were.

Dan Rather, Liza Minnelli, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Lorne Michaels, Parker Posey, Chuck Close, David Dinkins and Diane von Furstenberg are just a few who remember it well. And they have written fascinating word pictures of who they were then and what they did. But reading my own contribution, I was quite horrified to realize that, in my 20s, I was narrow-minded, provincial, even backward, intolerant, hopelessly stage struck, uninformed in spite of just having enjoyed a first-rate college education.

But I know David and Adam won’t really mind if I show you here the total degree of my helpless younger self. Perhaps you will recognize some of yourself as a stripling. If not – congratulations!

“Gossip columnist. Arrived 1949″

New York had gone dark for the war – they had thought the city was going to be bombed during World War II – but by the time I arrived everybody was relieved and the city was electric with things. “South Pacific” and “Kiss Me, Kate” were opening. The theater was just booming. Of course, everything was new to me.

I had just gotten out of the University of Texas, having gone back to school after getting married and divorced. I arrived on a train, and at Penn Station a wandering vagrant tried to get into the phone booth with me. I was pretty staggered and thought, What the hell? What great beginning is this?

It was absolutely idiotic that Scotty, my friend from Texas, and her boyfriend, Floyd, were not there to meet me. Instead, I made my way to the hotel, and I remember how dark and unwelcoming the East 20s streets were and wondering if I had made a mistake. The next night, though, Floyd brought his car in from New Jersey, and we all drove up into Times Square. That was one of the most thrilling things that had ever happened to me.

I had been a terrible wife and the first in my family to get a divorce, but I arrived in New York and nobody even noticed. Scotty and I rented an apartment on 81st and Central Park West. We realized immediately that we couldn’t afford it, so we looked in the newspapers for a roommate. We didn’t like the one we found – she was just some nebbishy kid, I don’t remember her name – poor thing – and three months later we were making enough money to throw her out.

I went to work as a typist for the National Orchestra Association. I only had about $50, but you could ride the subway for a dime and buy a ticket for a Broadway show for $2.50. I saw Carol Channing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” one of the first months I was here. Still, I was bent on survival and went everywhere applying for better jobs. I showed them what a fabulous writer I was and what I’d done at the University of Texas, and they couldn’t care less. I couldn’t even get arrested.

Three months into this insane effort I saw an item that Zachary Scott, a Hollywood actor from Texas whom I’d profiled in my college paper, was in New York. I found him in the phone book, and he said, “Liz! How great that you’re here!” He said go to Modern Screen magazine at 11:00 AM and tell the editor he sent me. That guy hired me cold. (That editor, Chuck Saxon, went on to be a cartoonist for The New Yorker.)

Floyd, Scotty and I would go out to bars in the Village. One night we were in a place called Seven Oaks, and a very nice man came over and bought us drinks. Scotty and I went to the ladies room and she said, “You know, Liz-O, I think that guy is as queer as a $5 bill.” And I said, “Scotty, $5 is not queer.” But then I realized she was right: We were in a gay bar and didn’t know it!

Gay men in those days wore suits and little narrow ties – and they were very elegant. When my brother Bobby came to the city, he worked as a waiter at a gay restaurant. He was beautiful, like a movie star, and he enjoyed having to fend them off every night. I was more narrow-minded. I had never seen any gay people before, and it was fascinating.

The most dreary thing in New York was to go to a female gay bar. They were just awful. But they were safe, since they were run by the Mafia and the Mafia was very rigid about good behavior. A guy I knew used to take me there because he thought it was funny. I was too stupefied to be understanding.

I couldn’t stand having a hangover, but Bobby didn’t know what one was. We lived for a time in one big room with two beds. We didn’t have any money so we’d go to the Automat and eat crackers and catsup. I remember walking around the city with $3 in my pocket and lucking into things – going into bars and nursing a drink and seeing some great nightclub act perform. That was one of the happiest times of my life, before I knew Bobby was an alcoholic.

After Scotty and Floyd got married and moved on, my roommate was a wonderful Jewish girl named Shirley Herz. I hate to say that all my friends were Jewish, but they were. I absorbed all their culture, both racial and theatrical, and by the end of the year I spoke a little Yiddish. When my father came to visit me, his racism just astonished me. We went to the Women’s Exchange, a very elegant Episcopalian place where women brought their embroidery, and he said, “This looks like the first civilized place with white people that we’ve seen in New York.” I was outraged. He thought I was a Communist. I didn’t even know what a Communist was.

I was a kid through my first marriage and college and I was a kid when I first got here. I wore bobby-sox and little filmy blouses you could see the brassiere through. I was much like “Mad Men’s” Peggy Olson, who I think is so awful. (I dislike remembering how callow and stupid I was.) But once Mike Wallace hired me at CBS radio, I just grew up. I began to have enormous respect for hard work, and I made a study of famous, important people. I learned how to dress, how to act, how to eat properly. I had my first artichoke in New York.

About 12 years after I arrived, my mother and father came to visit again. I had killed myself taking them around to theaters and restaurants, but they couldn’t wait to get back home. They had no concept of my real life, and couldn’t imagine anybody wanting to live in a small apartment and go to work every day. Then one night I took them to the Metropolitan Opera to see Leontyne Price in “Aida.” My parents were blown away. Even my father thought it was great; he didn’t object to a black woman playing an Egyptian. I remember that night well because it was so glorious, and it was the only thing I ever did that impressed them.

***

OK, that was then. Now is a lot later with much water over the bridge. I must say the other writers’ memories in this book get high marks for brevity, wit and trenchant looks back at themselves. I hope you’ll read the book itself. It’s just great.

But I get agita that I was so long-winded, so silly, so immature. I hope I’ve learned a lot of lessons since 1949.

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