By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If you're looking for an expert on this spring's Broadway plays, then start with Liz Smith. Not because she wrote the scripts or designed the costumes, but because she knew the people the plays are about and because she's probably having cocktails with the actresses who play them.
Smith is an institution of celebrity reporting and gossip. With almost 60 years' experience---including her current work at The Huffington Post, NewYorkSocialDiary.com, and Wowowow.com---she's gotten to know almost everyone there is to know. That gives her a unique perspective on two Broadway plays: Ann, which was written by and stars Holland Taylor as former Texas governor Ann Richards, and I'll Eat You Last, which stars Bette Midler as legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Smith was close with Richards, knew Mengers, and is friends with both Taylor and Midler.
In other words, she can answer questions that plenty of other people can't.
For instance, how might Richards have felt about her life being turned into a play? "I think she would have enjoyed it, but I think she would have thought Holland was totally insane," Smith says. "Because Holland knows more about Ann than anybody in the world now."
It's easy to see why Richards---who shot to fame after her fiery speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention and went on to spend a term as Texas governor---would make for good theatre. "She was so energetic!" Smith recalls. "[Her boyfriend] and I would go with Ann to the theatre, and she would leave us! We'd be back at the light, creeping along like we were 85, and Ann would be two blocks ahead."
Her wit matched her energy. Smith, who is also from Texas, recalls being invited to speak on a panel for comic women in the 1980s. Richards, who was then the Texas state treasurer, was also there, and Smith says, "She was the person who was funny. The rest of us were supposed to be funny, but we weren't funny at all."
Shortly after 9/11, Richards moved to New York City, and she and Smith became much closer friends. She kept her flair, and Smith fondly remembers performing with her at a benefit for the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative.
But of course, there was more to Richards than feistiness. Even after she lost the governor's office to George W. Bush, she continued to fight for political causes she believed in. Smith recalls, "I said to her one time, 'Ann, why are you working so hard?' And she said, 'Liz! I don't want to have to go back to Austin and live in a trailer in Ellen's driveway!' Ellen was one of her children. She said, 'Ellen just loves old people, you know. The poorer, the sicker: She just can't get enough of them. And I don't want to be one of those people.'"
Smith sees that dedication reflected in Holland Taylor, who has poured herself into Richards' life and legacy. (This is the first play Taylor has written, and she has performed it several times en route to the Vivian Beaumont Theater.) "It isn't that she is so like Ann physically, but she gets to the truth of Ann," Smith says. "She researched Ann to the end of the earth. She knows people that I've met once and don't remember." Laughing, she adds, "Her all-or-nothing immersion into what she's doing is very irritating to me, because I like to live a superficial life."
That one-liner that might be perfect for I'll Eat You Last, which was written by John Logan and opens next month at the Booth. The play charts the rise of fall of Sue Mengers, who made her name as the agent for superstars like Barbra Streisand. "She was smart and funny and quick, and people enjoyed having her for an agent because she was fearless," Smith says. "She would say anything: 'Oh, I f***ed him. It wasn't worth it.' She was hilarious." Smith adds, "She was also snarky and disdainful to the rest of us peons. She liked me okay, but I wasn't important. Even after I became important, I wasn't important."
Still, Mengers reached out to Smith with plenty of juicy tidbits. "She would call to give me news and say, 'You don't know who Mr. So-and-So is? Are you in the business, Liz? Get in the business!' She was always chastising me and saying, "Don't tell people I called you! Don't say that you even know me!'"
These days, of course, Mengers star doesn't shine that brightly, especially with people outside the entertainment industry, and that's why the play needs a star like Bette Midler. "Now, the roles are reversed, and it's Bette Midler's name that will sell the Sue Mengers story," Smith says. "If Bette is witty and good enough and gets it---which she will---she will make Sue more famous than she ever was."
Smith has been friends with Midler for a long time, and she's glad to see her in this play. "I can see that it presents a wonderful challenge to Bette. She gets to play somebody other than Bette, and she hasn't gotten to do that much. Her public always wants her to be this outlandish thing, and she is not. She's a real dichotomy. Sometimes, when I've been with her, she's putting out kilowatts of charm, and the next time you see her, she'll be shy and removed. And you can never tell which Bette Midler she'll be."
Midler, then, may bring balance and humanity to Mengers' outsized persona. And of course, she can rely on Smith for research: "I sent her all my letters from Sue," Smith says. "And I told her who to see in Hollywood."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of Mark Blankenship and Liz Smith by David LeShay