Jack Smith (columnist)
August 27, 1916|
Long Beach, California
|Died||January 9, 1996
Los Angeles, California
|Occupation||Journalist, writer, reporter|
|Notable credit(s)||Los Angeles Times
the Joseph M. Quinn Memorial Award
Jack Clifford Smith (August 27, 1916–January 9, 1996) was a journalist, author, and newspaper columnist who wrote about Los Angeles during its period of greatest growth and increasing influence. His Los Angeles Times column, which ran for 37 years, chronicled or poked gentle fun at Los Angeles, his family and himself in an urbane, witty style that became a defining voice for the booming city. Throughout his long tenure as a Times columnist, he came to be closely associated with the city, as Herb Caen was to San Francisco or Mike Royko to Chicago. He was the author of 10 books, many of them based on his columns, and won the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' Distinguished Journalist award in 1981.
Smith was born in Long Beach on Aug. 27, 1916, grew up in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, and spent some time in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the United States Merchant Marine at age 21. He went into journalism, first for the Bakersfield Californian, then for the Honolulu Advertiser, United Press, the Sacramento Union, the San Diego Daily Journal, the Daily News, Independent and Herald-Express, before joining the Los Angeles Times in June 1953. He remained with the Times until his death.
He got to the Honolulu Advertiser by working his way there on a passenger ship. In World War II, he joined the Marine Corps and was a combat correspondent who took part in the assault on Iwo Jima, going ashore with his rifle but without his typewriter, which had been lost at sea.
At Belmont High School in Los Angeles, Smith served as editor of the student newspaper, the Belmont Sentinel. He said later that was the highest position he ever reached in his career.
"The Black Dahlia"
It was as a rewrite man for the Daily News in 1947 that Smith had what he later called "perhaps my finest hour as a newspaperman": his stories on the infamous Elizabeth Short murder case.
The police beat reporter phoned in the bulletin to Smith, who recounted the moment this way in his book Jack Smith's L.A.: "Within the minute I had written what may have been the first sentence ever written on the Black Dahlia case. I can't remember it word for word, but my lead went pretty much like this: 'The nude body of a young woman, neatly cut in two at the waist, was found early today on a vacant lot near Crenshaw and Exposition Boulevards.'" His editor added one adjective, making Short "a beautiful young woman."
"Our city editor, of course, no more knew what the unfortunate young woman had looked like than I did," Smith later wrote. "But the lesson was clear. On the Daily News, at least, all young women whose nude bodies were found in two pieces on vacant lots were beautiful. I never forgot it."
Smith also believed that he was the first to name Short "the Black Dahlia" in print. After a Daily News reporter learned that Short had frequented a certain Long Beach pharmacy, Smith phoned and spoke to the pharmacist, who said the kids at the soda fountain called her the Black Dahlia "on account of the way she wore her hair." But Smith acknowledged that Herald-Express reporter Bevo Means had also been credited with getting the name into print first.
Jack Smith, columnist
At the Times, besides his duties as a rewrite man, in which he would quickly assemble stories based largely on information from reporters who phoned in from the field, Smith began writing humor pieces for the op-ed page. He was awarded his own column in 1958 and continued it until his death.
"He was a hard drinker, prone to three-day binges that not only jeopardized his health but his job. When the Times gave him a column it probably saved his life. It also gave Los Angeles a voice and gave him a voice," wrote Rob Leicester Wagner in Red Ink, White Lies (2000), a history of Los Angeles journalism. Smith's "witty, literate, and urbane" columns observed Los Angeles as the city was making its postwar transition to a metropolitan center on par with New York and Chicago, Wagner wrote.
Rather than write about issues, Smith's columns chronicled small moments. He might write about the birdbath in the backyard of his Mount Washington home, his wariness of cats, a visit to the Getty Museum's garden, the contradictions of the English language or the thoughts that flitted through his mind while driving the freeways. He also defended the city against all slights, although usually with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
A series of "Baja Diary" columns concerned a weekend getaway cabin in Baja California that took years to build. This became the nucleus of Smith's book God and Mr. Gomez (1974), highlighting his interactions with Gomez, his landlord and partner in the project.
At their height of popularity, Smith's columns were distributed to almost 600 newspapers worldwide by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. For most of his career he wrote five columns a week, a pace later eased to four per week. In 1992, he went into semi-retirement, writing one column per week. In his later years, his columns often concerned his declining health and the infirmities of age.
Smith had quadruple bypass surgery in 1984 and a heart attack later that year, a second heart attack after prostate surgery in 1994 and a final heart attack in late December 1995. His last column appeared on December 25, 1995. He died on January 9, 1996.
His columns "had sly elegance, genteel self-mockery and keen observations of the life he loved in ever-surprising Southern California," then-Times Editor Shelby Coffey III said.
"In many ways, Jack served as the country's first – and most enduring – columnist of postwar suburbia," fellow Times columnist Robert A. Jones wrote. "With his minimalist, non-intrusive style, he fit superbly with his era. He functioned almost as a diarist of the time when modern L. A. was being built."
His papers were donated to the Huntington Library in 2005. An exhibit, "Smith on Wry: Jack Smith, Columnist for Our Times" was on view at the Huntington in 2008. It featured original newspaper columns, drafts and galleys of his books, and other materials.
Smith won the Greater Los Angeles Press Club's highest honor, the Joseph M. Quinn Memorial Award, in 1991. According to his Los Angeles Times obituary: "He occasionally joked that he had come close to winning a Pulitzer Prize but that 'one can't talk about having won second place in the Pulitzer Prize.'"
In Westways Magazine, Smith wrote about driving down the Los Angeles River: "As we came out of the river I saw the Queen Mary. I thought that it was fitting to have a ship without engines sailing up a river without water."
"I've heard it said that men first begin to realize their youth is over when policemen begin to look like college boys. That's true, but there's a much more alarming sign, and that's when a man's doctors begin to die."
Describing a book publication party in 1973 for Norman Mailer's Marilyn: "[Mailer] stood in a slight crouch, feet apart, toes in, like a fighter; a good middleweight, over the hill, but game. His pale-blue eyes seemed alternately to burn and disconnect, as if his circuits were overloaded...They [Mailer and Monroe] had never met in life, and here was now, revealing himself as her last, most passionate, most hopeless lover...They seemed an odd couple: Mailer so open, Marilyn so closed. He should have called their book The Naked and the Dead."
Defending Los Angeles from Woody Allen's remark that making a right turn on a red light was Los Angeles' only contribution to culture: "What about the drive-in bank, the Frisbee, the doggie bag? What about our Hansel and Gretel cottages, our Assyrian rubber factory, our Beaux-Arts-Byzantine-Italian-Classic-Nebraska Modern City Hall? What about the drive-in church?"
On his Baja house: "When we reached the house, the rain had stopped, but the wind off the ocean was like wild organ music in the roof tiles. We lighted lanterns and I built a fire; that is to say, I put an ersatz log from the supermarket in the grate and put a match to it."
On why his 50th high school reunion was better than his 25th: "[The 25th] catches everyone at midlife crisis. It throws vulnerable people together in a kind of brutal encounter at a moment when they are already abraded by regrets, bewildered by uncertainties, and tormented by resurgent fantasies. Women are anxious about menopause and fading beauty, about empty homes and errant husbands; men look in the mirror and no longer see Charles Boyer or Charles Atlas. Jealousies are sharpened; spouses measure their mates against the ones that got away; infidelity is contemplated if not accomplished, and almost everyone goes home only slightly disenchanted....[But after 50 years] we have banked most of our fires; our passions are subdued; our regrets blurred, our demons exorcised. We are rather surprised to be here at all, and not entirely discontented."
On the Universal Studios Tour: "When you're all set for God, it's a letdown to hear some tour guide give the command, 'Part, Red Sea!'"
- Three Coins in the Birdbath (1965)
- Smith on Wry or, The Art of Coming Through (1970)
- God and Mr. Gomez (1974)
- The Big Orange (1976)
- Spend All Your Kisses, Mr. Smith (1978)
- Jack Smith's L.A. (1980)
- How to Win a Pullet Surprise—The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Our Language (1982)
- Cats, Dogs, and Other Strangers at My Door (1984)
- Alive in La La Land (1989)
- Eternally Yours (1996)
- Smith On Wry: Jack Smith, Columnist for our Times, Huntington Library, 2008
- Los Angeles Times obituaries, January 10, 1996
- Jack Smith's L.A. (1980)
- Rob Leicester Wagner, Red Ink, White Lies (2000)