Liz Smith’s Complicated Relationship With the Closet

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Liz Smith’s Complicated Relationship With the Closet

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Liz Smith, the grande dame of New York’s gossip pages, played down the juiciest bit of information about herself when promoting her memoir, “Natural Blonde,” in the pages of New York magazine in 2000.

“All this crap about ‘coming out’! Honey, I don’t think I have ever really been in,” she said.

In truth, Ms. Smith, who died Sunday at 94, was private for years about her interest in women. (Even in the book, there was only one blatant confession of an intimate relationship with a woman, from 1946.)

Iris Love, the classical archaeologist who was a romantic partner of Ms. Smith’s between 1978 and 1996 — and who lived with her between 2010 and 2016 — said Tuesday that she was not sure why the gossip columnist, who was twice married to men and twice divorced, preferred to keep quiet about her relationships with women.

“She had a huge following and maybe, I’m just hypothesizing, maybe she thought that this might turn some of her readers away,” she said.

At the height of her influence, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Ms. Smith covered for still-closeted celebrities like Malcolm Forbes and promoted conservative socialites like Pat Buckley, whose husband, William F. Buckley Jr., the editor of National Review, had written that people with AIDS should be tattooed.

For those reasons, she came under fire by the columnist Michelangelo Signorile, who during the run of the magazine OutWeek named and shamed closeted gay celebrities whom he saw as hypocrites in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“My feeling was that at that point in time, we were in a national emergency, a health emergency, and government wasn’t doing anything,” Mr. Signorile said in an interview Monday. “All these people were in the world with the same people who were ignoring the crisis.”

At the time, he said, Ms. Smith was “promoting the people who were hurting us.”

In an era when few celebrities were openly gay, Mr. Signorile’s columns created an uproar and led to the coining of the term “outing” in a 1990 Time magazine story. Though OutWeek’s ire was directed toward public figures, the idea of being outed suddenly became even more stifling for an aging community already battered by AIDS and anti-gay violence.

“People were a combination — not just afraid of being outed, but afraid of dying,” said Michael Adams, the chief executive of SAGE, an advocacy organization for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults.

Sandy Warshaw, 84, was a private citizen working for the city of New York during that time. She considered running for a City Council seat but decided not to, partly because she was concerned that she might be outed were she to become a public figure.

She told her family that she dated women in 1993, after leaving the government. But she said Tuesday that, even now, coming out was a continual process, and that her privacy around it is related to her age.

“I do know some people who are still estranged from their families,” Ms. Warshaw said. “I do know some individuals who bear the scars of what they grew up with. I didn’t. I just knew it wasn’t safe.”

Coming out “remains very hard for older generations,” Mr. Adams said. “The mantra of L.G.B.T. people and communities has been ‘come out, come out,’ and at the same time you have people who lived through generations where for the most part, the only way to survive was to hide and stay closeted. People for whom it was literally a matter of life and death.”

He said that the difficulty of coming out could be multiplied by where you were from; it was one thing to come out in San Francisco and another in Biloxi, Miss.

And so it was for Ms. Smith, who was born Mary Elizabeth Smith in Fort Worth in 1923 to a strict Baptist mother.

Ms. Love, 83, said that Ms. Smith had been less at ease with her sexual orientation than she was. She said her own family was open-minded, and her studies had made her comfortable with a broader realm of human sexuality.

Ms. Love, who was still grieving when reached on Tuesday, called Ms. Smith “an angelic, courageous, tough tiger,” adding that “she carried on with her writing until recently she could not hold a pencil.”

Even after “Natural Blonde” came out, Ms. Smith kept relatively mum. Speaking to The New York Times at the age of 85, she said: “I don’t think I owed gay people any explanation. I don’t know that anybody ever wins discussing the most intimate part of their life.”

But in an interview in July, Ms. Smith said she regretted having waited so long to come out.

“It sounded defensive to protest that I thought myself bisexual, like I wouldn’t admit that I was a lesbian,” she said. “I wasn’t a happy convert to any particular sexual thing. But I eventually got tired of defending myself and said, ‘Say whatever you like.’”

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