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TOO SOON: Liz Smith was on the phone Tuesday afternoon saying she hadn’t broken a story in years. She was being interviewed by WWD about the evolution of the gossip trade. Online news goes up before it’s confirmed, she said. “Gossip writers can’t make a living anymore unless they’re willing to print anything, like the stuff that comes up on the Web,” she said, from her home in New York. “Nothing has time to develop.”
An hour later, Smith published a blockbuster piece of news. In a strangely worded, ambiguous appreciation, Smith suggested her friend, the filmmaker and author Nora Ephron, had died.
“I won’t say, ‘Rest in peace, Nora’ — I will just ask ‘What the hell will we do without you?’” she wrote on wowOwow, the Web site she has been writing for since she was dropped by the New York Post in 2009.
RELATED STORY: Nora Ephron, a Woman of Letters, Dies at 71 >>
The piece caught Ephron’s family and friends by surprise and unleashed a huge reaction online. On Tuesday afternoon, Ephron, though critically ill, hadn’t yet passed. The Washington Post confirmed the death late Tuesday evening.
In a rush to beat the news cycle herself, Smith, 89, had published her appreciation too soon. She told WWD Tuesday she was overwhelmed by Ephron’s state, which came as a surprise. “I wish I hadn’t broken this one,” Smith told WWD. “I was upset she was dying.”
Smith explained her piece was a reaction to a call from Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein, early Tuesday.
The two women had known each other for years. They are part of a regular luncheon group, the Harpies, that includes Barbara Walters, Cynthia McFadden and publicist Peggy Siegal.
As recently as a month ago, Ephron had appeared at a luncheon looking like her old self and news of her illness “stunned” Smith.
After Bernstein’s call and e-mails from her circle of friends planning a funeral service for Thursday, Smith assumed Ephron had already died, she said, and started writing an appreciation for wowOwow that would also appear on Newyorksocialdiary.com. She also prepared a similar remembrance for vanityfair.com, though publication hasn’t been set, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The piece triggered an instant, explosive frenzy on social media that sent reporters scrambling for information and correcting Smith in real time. Ephron’s publisher, Knopf, had to update the New York Times on Ephron’s exact state.
On wowOwow, the remembrance had to be quickly updated with a correction that stated more clearly Ephron is “on her death bed,” Smith said, though it was later taken down entirely.
Smith said she expected to be taken “to the woodshed” over her premature piece, though she dismissed the reaction from other reporters and social media.
“Twitter’s welcome to talk about it. I don’t Twitter. I don’t look at Facebook,” she said.
Early Tuesday, friends and colleagues mostly declined to comment on Ephron’s death and legacy. But at least one memorial is planned for Wednesday. At a previously scheduled luncheon for “Makers: Women who Make America,” a documentary project from PBS, Gloria Steinem will deliver a tribute. Ephron is one of the women featured.