Liz Smith claimed to have invented Donald Trump, and in a powerful and enduring way, she did.
Trump’s rise to celebrity was the product of an energetic injection of tabloid journalism into New York’s media bloodstream in the 1970s and ’80s, and it was Smith who turned Trump into one of the main characters in the city’s soap opera.
The legendary gossip columnist, who died Sunday at 94, started delivering her daily dish about New York celebrities in 1976, the same year the brash Australian press lord Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post and transformed it into a British-style splash of lurid headlines, crime-drenched reporting and juicy gossip.
Smith’s column ran in the competition, the Daily News, and the two tabloids tumbled into a classic newspaper war. One of the bloodiest battles centered on the dissolution of Donald and Ivana Trump’s marriage.
Smith and Trump were made for each other. She was a kinder, gentler gossipmonger, winning access to celebrities by telling the stories they wanted told rather than the more slashing tidbits that turned some columnists into personae non gratae among the boldface names. And he was a young real estate mogul hungry to establish himself as one of the city’s biggest names.
Trump had been schooled in the art of manipulating the news media by his mentor Roy Cohn, the New York lawyer who had launched his own career in the 1950s by enlisting the 20th century’s greatest gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, as a booster for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist-hunting crusade. Now, Cohn was guiding Trump toward tabloid fame as a means of gaining power and greater fortune.
From the start of Trump’s career as a builder of hotels and apartment towers, Cohn had urged him to cultivate the gossip columnists, to make appearances at the right nightspots, to make certain that he was being seen and recorded with the hottest models and rising stars on his arm.
Trump loved the attention. He started his day, then as through the ensuing decades, with a file of clippings about himself. At times, he served as his own press agent, sometimes calling reporters and columnists under his own name, sometimes pretending to be a PR man named “John Miller” or “John Barron.”
Trump used the tabloids to establish himself as a champion of the little guy. “When we would talk particularly to immigrants, recent immigrants who were the readers of the Daily News, they would always want to know about Donald Trump,” said News gossip columnist George Rush. “He embodied the American Dream to them. Excessive conspicuous consumption is not a bad thing in New York to a lot of people.”
Excessive conspicuous consumption was pure oxygen to Smith’s gossip page. And Trump provided unending fodder. Smith socialized with Ivana and Donald, traveled with them on their private jet, attended their anniversary and birthday parties, even referred to him in her column as “my pal.”
Trump “was the king of hyperbole and he had just the requisite touch of Elvis vulgarity to endear him to the common man,” Smith later wrote.
Trump in turn would hug her for the cameras, calling her “the greatest.” Smith declared herself embarrassed by the attention, but she also allowed that she found Trump’s hugs endearing since his germ phobia made public touching a rarity for him.
Smith later claimed that “I put my tongue firmly in cheek in everything I wrote about the Trumps,” but at the time, her copy read like a ceaseless celebration of the builder, his buildings and his ego.
In late 1989, someone sent a photo of a blond model named Marla Maples to a reporter at the New York Post, along with a note declaring that she was dating a prominent married businessman. The Post’s Page Six gossip column published the picture, along with a cryptic story about Maples having an affair with a “business tycoon.”
But the story went no further at the Post, in part because the owner, Peter Kalikow — to whom Murdoch had sold the paper — was a friend of Trump’s who had ordered that his paper not be the one to break the story of trouble in the Trump marriage.
Smith also heard about the affair and asked Trump to give her an exclusive. The story might be embarrassing, she argued, but at least she’d handle it sensitively. “Give me this story or you are going to be in someplace a lot worse than the Liz Smith column,” she wrote to Trump. He didn’t reply.
Soon thereafter, Ivana Trump took matters into her own hands, and while her husband was in Japan on business, she summoned Smith to her apartment and told her the story of the marriage’s dissolution, including details of her plastic surgery and the decline of the couple’s sex life.
“Exclusive! Love on the Rocks,” the News headlined Smith’s column. The tabloid war was on, as Smith wrote about nothing but the Trumps for several months, trading scoops with the Post’s Cindy Adams, who took Donald’s side as Smith became an advocate for her own source, Ivana.
“If this isn’t a tabloid story, then there are no tabloids,” one of Smith’s editors told her.
The Daily News plastered Trump split stories on the front page for 12 days in a row; the Post responded with eight consecutive Trump headlines on Page One. A one-fact piece stating that Donald and Ivana slept in separate beds at their Mar-a-Lago estate qualified as a lead story.
Another day, the headline in the Post was “Trump: Fire Liz Smith.”
But of course no one involved in the whole sordid chapter wanted that to happen. The stories were a bonanza for the newspapers, and Trump later said that the divorce episode put him on the celebrity map, despite any pain that may have stemmed from having his personal life exposed. “Liz Smith used to kiss my ass so much it was embarrassing,” Trump wrote in one of his books.
Late in her life, Smith said that she had been mistaken to take sides in the divorce story, but she argued that she had no choice but “to be nice to them for a while to get access to them.”
The Ivana and Donald story made Smith a star, establishing her as the highest-paid print journalist in the country. And it lifted Trump to a new level of fame and infamy. He relished the idea that he was the talk of the town, both in the boardrooms from which he’d always felt excluded and in the barrooms where, he believed, middle-class New Yorkers aspired to be like him.
Smith recounted going to a cocktail party at which CBS reporter Mike Wallace shushed a room full of media executives: “Be quiet so Liz can tell us everything about the Trumps!” And out on the streets, Smith accompanied Ivana through a crush of photographers and a crowd of everyday Joes, some of whom shouted, “Get the money!”
“People couldn’t get enough of the Trumps,” Smith wrote in 2015. And: “I was a star.”