A Window on the World : Oddities, Celebrities and Just Plain Folks Fill His Room With a View
Jack Smith is describing how two girls with autograph books once came rushing toward him on the Paramount lot. As they drew close, “One put her hand on the other one’s arm and said, ‘He’s nobody.’ ”
Smith smiles, relishing that long-ago moment. “I’ve always remembered that.”
Although he insists that he’s still not a celebrity--"I’m just a person"--he is not just one of the L.A. Smiths.
For 30 years--that’s about 6,000 Jack Smith columns--he has delighted, titillated and sometimes infuriated readers of The Times over their morning coffee. Now, he is retiring, sort of. Starting next week, he is cutting back from four columns a week to one, appearing on Mondays.
“At 75,” he deadpans, “I may turn senile overnight.”
But for the moment, he says, “I have a feeling of surging freedom.”
“I may take up some violent sport, like lawn bowling,” he says. “And I’ve always wanted to try writing a detective novel.”
Or maybe, he muses, “I can get Maureen O’Hara to have lunch with me at the Polo Lounge.” After all, they did meet once. As he recalls, he said something “quite stupid” to her about how beautiful she was.
“I never knew what to say to celebrities,” he admits.
But, over the years, he met them by the bushel--many during the years when he was a reporter who was “getting a dollar an inch extra for the column.”
There was Marilyn Monroe (July, 1958), returning to Los Angeles to film “Some Like It Hot” after two years in New York. Smith noted in a column that she seemed to have put on a bit of weight and was displaying “ample hips.”
“Ample hips? Did I say that?” He laughs now, 33 years later.
There was Sophia Loren (lunch, April, 1963). He wrote: “I was about to tell her I loved her, but it didn’t seem a good time, when she was eating a hamburger. . . .”
He smiles now at the mention of one-time blond bombshell Mamie Van Doren: “She sort of whizzed through Hollywood.”
There was Joan Crawford, who was to be interviewed by Smith in her dressing room at Fox. When he arrived, he recalls, “the door opened. There was Joan Crawford in her slip with a trayful of dirty dishes and a cigarette right in the middle of her mouth, so she couldn’t talk. We both stood there laughing.”
There was Olivia de Havilland. Smith had written about astrology, and “she wrote and invited me to have lunch with her to discuss my sign. We had lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was very charming. Of course, I don’t believe in astrology, but I believed in her.”
The quintessential Jack Smith has always had less to do with celebrities than with the foibles and failings of Everyman and Everywoman. The battle of the back yard barbecue. Taking the DMV test. Male baldness. Dripping spigots.
And over the years, he’s also had “a lot of fun exploiting my family and myself.”
Early on, when his sons, Curtis and Douglas, were young, and he “didn’t think they could be damaged socially,” he wrote about them. Later, “I exploited the hell out of my French daughter-in-law.”
But, he adds, “I’m always the butt of the jokes. It’s true--I am the joke in this family.”
Readers--who send him about 100 letters a week--feel right at home with Smith, who has lived in Mt. Washington with his wife, Denise, for 41 years. On the other hand, he says, “People write and tell me I must be looking in their windows.”
He has shared with the world his idiosyncrasies, such as his refusal to shave on weekends. But, he says, “I still have a private self. I admit my faults, but my real bad, terrible faults I don’t admit. They’re still secrets.”
In writing those 6,000 columns, he figures he’s had to scratch for inspiration for “about 5,900. You spend half your time pacing.” There have been many days when he’s “absolutely hit rock bottom. I’ve said, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
But he did.
He did it so well that he came close to winning a Pulitzer, he’s been told. But, “one can’t talk about having won second place in the Pulitzer Prize.”
Some columns were brilliant; a few were embarrassing.
“Every time I try to write about science, I founder,” Smith says, “and I get letters from other scientists who say the scientists I quoted are stupid. I don’t know one from the other.”
He acknowledges that the greatest response has been to those columns “in which I’ve said something stupid.”
If he’s “trampled,” so much the better. Therein lie the bare bones of another column. Then, he says, “I write one ingenuously excusing myself for all of my errors, the mea culpa column. I have plenty of those.”
Some letter writers have become friends. Others are simply a continuing annoyance. He mentions a “senile intellectual” who regularly writes to the editor. “He calls me Mr. WordSmith. He finds picayunish, pedantic faults with everything I write.”
Smith hesitates to bring him up, actually--"I don’t want him to think I read his letters.”
Ultimately, Smith says, “I’m just trying to be amusing. About the only person you dare to make fun of is yourself. This politically incorrect thing is really getting me down.”
He has always tried to be a bit provocative. Not long ago, Smith informed readers that he had taken to urinating in his yard, to save water. “I got a lot of mean letters over that.” But he found an ally in Charlton Heston, who said: “Every morning I go outside with my dog. I take the tree on the left, and he takes the tree on the right.”
Although he regards himself as a proponent of women’s rights and was among the first to buy and read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Smith does enjoy tweaking the feminists just a bit.
In columns, he has led them to believe that his wife is some poor drudge whose joy--or fate--is to be his servant. The truth is that she is a successful career woman as administrative director at Southern California Counseling Center, and she happens also to be an efficient homemaker. And, Smith adds, “she doesn’t feel oppressed.”
Although he has long waged a battle for proper grammar, he acknowledges, “We purists object to a lot of the changes, but most of them in the long run won’t matter.”
In 30 years, there have been a lot of changes in Jack Smith’s L.A. But he isn’t ready to write it off.
“The city seems to me to still have a lot of vitality, and I like being here. I’m not afraid to walk down Hollywood Boulevard.” He mentions “the wonders of Los Angeles"--its theaters, its museums, the Dodgers. Kosher burritos.
“Los Angeles is overcrowded, surely, you see the freeways clogged, murder in the streets, yet life goes on. Wonderful things happen here. . . . I don’t think we’re dying.
“I’ve never contemplated moving away to a more idyllic neighborhood. I don’t want to go to Palm Desert or Palm Springs. I just wish the Rams would do better, but they’re Anaheim Rams anyway.”
Smith brings out one of the big scrapbooks into which he’s stuffed loose letters.
“Here’s a note from Fred MacMurray. . . .”
There are others, many others. Bing Crosby. Groucho Marx, a self-described “avid reader” of Jack Smith.
And there is one from Henry Miller, dated April, 1976.
“He sent me a piece he’d written on how to get rid of cockroaches. And it works.” (Boric acid around the floorboards.) “We’ve never had them since.”
Smith flips through the letters. “A lot of memories,” he says. “I saved these for when I got old. And now I’m old.”