It was widely known in media circles that for many years, Liz Smith's column was written by her assistant and associate and much, much, much more of many years, Denis Ferrara. It is he who was the Madonna champion, and it is he whose wit and insight and precision prose have kept the Liz Smith brand going for quite a long time now.
But they were a team, and quite close, and it is Ferrara's remembrance of the “bawdy, laughing, fiercely intelligent, infuriatingly impatient, always curious blazing sun” that is the most impactful and whole ...
Writing in the New York Social Diary — where the Liz Smith column ended up after the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Post and wowOwow.com — Ferrara echoes a sentiment a friend of mine texted me when Smith died. My friend had written he didn't actually think Liz Smith could die. Denis writes:
... in the 36 years I’ve known Liz, I was sure, beyond anything I was sure of, that she was literally immortal. It was a long-running joke between us that she would most certainly out live me, despite the 30-year gap in our ages. I begged her NOT to write my obituary. She won’t now, and I’m not feeling very good about it, actually.
Denis is an amazing person and character himself, and is a perfect stand-in for any gay boy who ever stared in awe at a star. He writes that Liz, to him, was one of those stars, and that it was his admiration for her and for Elizabeth Taylor that led him into Smith's her orbit:
Elizabeth Taylor was in town, with The Little Foxes. Since I was more or less able to make my own hours at the antique store (“broken down” hardly begins to describe it or my employers) I spent a good deal of my time hanging around the then Martin Beck theater (now the Al Hirschfeld), watching Miss Taylor come and go, running after her limo — something I’d been doing since 1973, actually — observing, listening. So, in my excellent hand — nowadays an unreadable scrawl — I wrote down all my “adventures” and what I’d heard was going on behind the scenes of La Liz’s big Broadway hit. I signed my name and put down my address. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen, I guess.
Signing his name to this letter, after having sent her anonymous missives for years, led to an invitation to call her. After all, Denis is one of the great writers — funny and with supreme powers of observation that extend into envisioning how the reader will react to each turn of phrase — so why wouldn't Liz take the bait?
In fact, when she printed his Elizabeth Taylor gossip, he asked her how she knew he wasn't lying, and her response could sum up why anyone and everyone loves Denis:
I can tell what's real.
You can certainly tell Denis's remembrance is real, and that he and Liz were family, because he remembers the good times and the bad:
We struggled mightily at times. I could loathe her at noon and be willing to die for her at six. Boredom was not an option. Quitting was an option, or so I thought. And when I did it lasted nine months. Like a Texan Corleone, just when I thought I was out, she pulled me back in. (It helped that she was pulling me back in from antidepressants and analysis — expensive time in which I talked about — her. Yep, she was a force to be reckoned with.)
I know I have written a lot about Liz lately, but this piece — this affectionate but resolutely unsentimental summary of how one, yes, queer life affected another — is not to be missed.