Jack Smith on Wry
"Jack Smith on Wry," on display at the Huntington Library through May 12, 2008, focuses on the life and works of columnist Jack Smith, an institution at The Times from the 1950s to the 1990s. I asked his son Doug, a colleague for many years, to contribute a piece on the exhibit and he graciously agreed. --Larry
By Doug Smith
Times Staff Writer
These were the photos that framed my childhood: my dad at his Underwood typewriter, smiling smartly; my dad interviewing starlet Jayne Mansfield, a glass of sherry in one hand; my dad in street shoes scribbling while running the indoor track at the downtown YMCA; my dad in Fleet Street finery, aping the visiting Beatles; my dad at the rewrite desk of the old Los Angeles Daily News, ready to grab the headset of his black stanchion phone.
I was the only child I knew whose father had the city’s best photographers on hand to record his every posture and visual gag along with some very serious moments that documented the rambunctious and irreverent life of a newsman in post-World War II Los Angeles.
Now I am revisiting those memories -- sharing them, rather -- with the other Sunday visitors at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Since high school art appreciation, I’ve associated that stately institution in San Marino with the icons of high-toned portraiture, "The Blue Boy" and "Pinkie."
How unexpected then that these remnants of a more recent era we may now rightly view as cynical and crude hold a place of honor in the Huntington’s Library West Hall, in the company of Chaucer, Gutenberg’s Bible, Shakespeare and the Founding Fathers!
And how rewarding that the shoe box we kept for so many years at the bottom of a closet is helping to preserve the story of an era that, for better or worse, was already disappearing when its lighter moments were being captured in these quirky images.
Alone among the hotshot journalists who carried on L.A.’s "Front Page" tradition after the war, my father evolved with his craft into the age of cold type, word processing, color photography and ever more stringent professional standards. His elegantly phrased, humbly introspective columns continued to hold a devoted audience until the week before his death in early 1996.
But one unfortunate habit my father carried from those formative years on the city beat was the daily journalist’s penchant for clearing out all the cobwebs of yesterday’s news at the start of each new day. He never saved anything until well into the 1980s, when he began to carry on published dialogues with readers, requiring that he file their letters away for future reference.
So I felt like something of a sham when my brother and I approached the Huntington soon after our father’s death wondering if they’d have any interest in his "papers." Of course they would, head curator Sara S. "Sue" Hodson said, not realizing that there were really no papers to speak of, just a room full of plaques, civic commendations, books, computer disks, hokey gifts acquired over the years and those old photos.
I suspected that some of that detritus (one of my father’s favorite words) might have a value, but which particular things? And what value? I dreaded the necessity of going through them. What to keep? What to discard? Would I become a foolish pack rat of precious nothings or be guilty of brutally sending my own heritage to the landfill? The answers had to wait another eight years. Despite our unanimous commitment to the Huntington, Curt and I soon learned that our mother didn’t want anyone poking around our father’s Mount Washington sanctum on her watch. Until her own death in 2004, she left the den as he had, working at my dad’s computer, but keeping his every pencil pot and bookend in place.
When the time finally came, Sue and two assistants spent days, including weekends, digging through things that in some cases may have gone untouched for decades. Time after time they filled their cars: a life-size laminated picture of my dad, notepads, shreds of paper, cartoons, plaques, statuettes, awards, photos of the unidentifiable and several quite beguiling paintings by representatives of Mount Washington’s long-established arts community. (Those they photographed and returned to us.)
And, after all, there were papers. They took away several stacks of file folders that contained mostly reader letters. It gave me a warm feeling to see that we had possibly provided something of value. But more important, when at last Sue said they were done, I had the confidence that every knickknack and faux artifact they didn’t take -- a cast plaster Maltese Falcon -- was, indeed, of minuscule value and could be discarded without remorse.
As time went on, we occasionally heard from Sue, who always spoke enthusiastically of the pleasure she and the other archivists were having poring over my dad’s things. She promised that once the tedious work of cross-referencing every item was complete, she would go to work on an exhibit.
My doubts persisted, especially after we got the news from the appraiser who evaluated the gift for tax purposes. Apologetically, he gave us a number that he knew was a lot less than we expected. He softened the blow to our egos by telling us that the collection contained some precious items, principally the reader dialogue and the letters my dad sent home from the Pacific during World War II. But, of those most sought-after records of a writer’s thought process -- marked-up manuscripts, drafts, rewrites and self-edits -- there were next to none.
In the tradition that shaped him, my dad was generally a first-draft writer, and, ironically, by the time he had been anointed a “Man of Letters” with an honorary degree from UCLA, he was writing on an electronic keyboard, obliterating his every first draft with whatever changes he typed over it.
So it was a little surprising when Sue called not long ago to say the exhibit was taking shape and gave us a date for its opening. Whatever could be in it?
It turns out a lot is in it, all intelligently tied together by those photographs that span my dad’s life at The Times, our life on Mount Washington, our adventures in Baja and the postwar ascendancy of our metropolis and its newspaper.
Jack and Denise Smith, sometime in the 1940s
The curators have reverently placed the exhibit at the far end of the Library West Hall, weaving a pathway to it through the most breathtaking collection of manuscripts and papers one might expect ever to see west of the Potomac.
Jack and Denise Smith, 1991
The lofty image of Abe Lincoln’s portrait gazing over the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, signed in the actual hand of the senators and congressmen who adopted it, is artfully segued to the "Front Page" by a coup de grackle. The oversized book of Audubon’s color engravings is opened to the one of that black bird, known only east of the Mississippi, that my father twice sighted in our Mount Washington yard, causing great consternation and fun in the birding community.
The bird joke is just the beginning of the fun.
Right away I find some of my dad’s good bad Hemingway and the amusing surprise of some bad writing in his own voice: “I’ll be as nervous as a pregnant nun,” he wrote my mother in August of 1945, imagining their soon-to-be reunion. There are some cards on which he scribbled thoughts both whimsical and serious: “Los Angeles is simply the freest city in the world.”
The exhibit’s strength, of course, remains the breadth of the public conversation he conjured out of the details of his personal life. Examples can be flip: Charlton Heston citing God as the source of the phrase “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” “I heard him as I was walking down the mountain.”
They give voice to unknown scholars: Barbara Bilisoly’s offering of a haunting poem by Catullus as the source of my father’s signature phrase, “Spend All Your Kisses.” And they’re hilariously corny: Jim Wade’s takeoff on the POSSLQ generation, writing on behalf of his AFOY (ardent fan of yours) wife on the need for a good “PN (proper noun) for people involved in PMH (pre-marital habitation).”
Sue assures me that correspondence comprises a substantial collection of diverse knowledge, wit and Southern California lore that will serve researchers for years to come. I’m glad for that. But I now see the real value of the exhibit in the connection it makes with those who still fondly remember my dad.
I watch with satisfaction as people work their way around the glass-encased displays that follow the phases of my dad’s career. Invariably they laugh out loud at the Baja station. It must be the story about the toilet in the living room that gets them.
To me, it represents my dad’s genius. Rising above a profession that too often tolerated embellishment in the telling of important events, he treated the smallest things in life as worthy of unwavering truth.
As I am about to leave, I spot a middle-aged woman standing over the Mount Washington case, absorbed in what is certainly the nuttiest photo in the exhibit. It’s a family portrait, my dad seated stiffly in white shorts and plaid shirt cradling a fisherman’s cap in his arm like a three-cornered hat. He’s flanked by my mother and my brother, both dressed in Akron wear but posed with the self-conscious grandeur of "The Blue Boy" and "Pinkie." I’m off to one side armed with baseball bat and glove. Our mutt, Gene Biscailuz, sits at our feet, gazing up at my dad in awe.
Doug, Curt, Jack and Denise Smith
I want to walk up and ask the woman, “Do you know that’s me in the Pittsburgh Pirates hat?”
I watch from a distance instead. I’m 50 years older now, and not the same person as the boy in that picture. Whatever our family meant to her, it’s her memory now, not to be encroached upon.
Doug says by way of autobiography: "I’ve been at The Times 38 years now. My dad was here 40, so I may actually overtake him on that stat. I started as a desk assistant in sports and graduated to suburban reporting. I covered school boards, city councils and society events all over Southern California. I wrote a column called Around the Valley for several years and then switched to Around the Foothills in the Glendale section, which, of course, no longer exists. I started doing data analysis in the mid-1990s and found that to my liking. My title today is Database Editor, which essentially means that I now conduct my interviews by asking questions of large bodies of data."