Goodbye, Mr. Smith : He wrote about it all. Column after column, year after year. Through hime. we got to know about the city we love most, about him, about each other. : On Dentists, Rome, Aging . . . and Saving Water


Back in the ‘60s, Victoria Kling, an eighth-grader at Florence Nightingale Junior High, won second prize in an essay contest on “My Most Interesting Neighbor.” Her subject: Jack Smith, who lived next door on Mt. Washington:

Among Victoria’s anecdotes about Mr. Smith, whom she described as “odd” but “sincere”:

“Last Christmas he put a star up on his roof and he hit himself in the thumb with a screwdriver. My mother says you shouldn’t say things like he did when you’re putting a star up on your roof.”

Smith liked the essay so much that he asked her permission to use it as the preface for his 1965 book, “Three Coins in the Birdbath.”


Victoria, with the wisdom of a 13-year-old, had Jack Smith right: He was Everyman--with his foibles and failings, with kids and goldfish and hamsters. With a garage cluttered with castoffs and a penchant for doing silly things like slamming a car door on his finger.

Upon his semi-retirement in January 1991, Smith reflected on 6,000 columns--maybe 5 million words. What was it all about? “It is about me and living in Los Angeles. Consequently, I hoped, it would be about everybody who lives in Los Angeles.”

Herewith, some Smith on Smith (the italicized passages are excerpted from his writings):

* I sleep with my watch on because I like to know what time I dream a particular dream. The trouble is, though, that I can’t tell what time it is without my glasses, and it’s no good sleeping with your glasses on.

* On his attempts to avoid having a wisdom tooth yanked:

I tried changing dentists, never going back to the same one twice. But they caught up with me. They have a conspiracy.

* On aging:

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.

* Sometimes Jack Smith took perverse delight in being outrageous. He delighted in the outraged reaction to the column in March, 1991, in which he suggested an innovative way of conserving water in the Southland:


I have hit upon a perfectly simple solution to this problem, one that I recommend to all men. Instead of going to the bathroom, I simply go out on the terrace and use my wife’s garden. It is not only easy, it gives me a refreshing moment in the outdoors, and there is the added bonus that it irrigates the flowers.

* Some Jack Smith columns were provocative, some funny and, by his own admission, “Many, of course, were dreadful”--the price of a daily deadline.

* Acquiring a French daughter-in-law, Jacqueline, was a boon. “I exploited the hell out of [her],” he acknowledged in an interview. Once, he described her plundering his garden for escargots. Here, he explains her taste in electronic entertainment as a newcomer to America:

[She] liked soap operas because everybody talked slow and said everything twice.

Horror movies were Jacqueline’s favorite TV fare. Her English still wasn’t quick enough to pick up all the thrusts and parries of fast dialogue, and in that regard horror movies are even better than the soap operas. They have very little dialogue at all, and it runs to freak and creature talk, which is quite slow; or to Fay Wray screams and hoarse cries of “My God, Dr. Peabody, it’s come back!”

* When his sons, Douglas and Curtis, were young and he “didn’t think they could be damaged socially,” they, too, were fair game.

I have discovered that the teenager’s natural affinity for leisure reaches its zenith when he is first infused by that phenomenon known as the intellectual awakening. Overnight they drop their playthings and pick up such bright baubles as Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Salinger. . . . Once the muses have kissed the lad’s brow it’s hard to get him to do any manual labor around the house at all. The spark that ignites the higher brain centers seems to paralyze the back. . . . What father could summon his child from a romp on Olympus with Whitman, Hemingway and Edna St. Vincent Millay to mow an earthly lawn?


On enlisting Doug and Curt to recycle a sofa that was so disreputable it was even rejected by the Salvation Army:

I offered the boys a dollar to get the ax and crowbar and dismember the monster. They ripped it apart with demonic glee. We burned it in the barbecue. It saved us on our charcoal bill, too, although some said the hamburgers tasted like a chaise lounge. Anyway, it wasn’t a complete loss. We found 93 cents inside the sofa, plus four sticks of gum and a Smith Bros. cough drop in medium-good condition. Also, later on the boys made a bird cage out of the springs.

* Although Smith considered himself a proponent of women’s rights, and his wife, Denise, is a professional woman, he took great glee in play-acting the role of male chauvinist. Consider this excerpt from a piece describing his short-lived fantasy of moving to Rome. Denise had been hesitant, explaining, “I don’t have anything to wear.” Smith tells her:

You don’t have to have any clothes, especially. You can stay home and wash and sing out the window and make lasagna.

Ultimately, they decided not to move to Italy. Instead of writing “Three Coins in the Fountain,” a novel about Americans in Rome, he would stay on Mt. Washington and pen “Three Coins in the Birdbath.”

* Although Smith himself was, undeniably, a celebrity in his chosen hometown, he was ill at ease among celebrities and “never knew what to say” to them. Here, he describes a party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in 1973, celebrating publication of 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 he 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.”

* Jack Smith, born in Long Beach, loved Los Angeles. With all its warts, it was to him still a city of “wonders.” Frequently, he found himself defending it from its detractors, among them Woody Allen, who in his 1977 film “Annie Hall” claimed that the city’s main contribution to culture is that one can turn right on red.

What about the drive-in bank, the Frisbee, the doggie bag? Smith replied to those who sneered at L.A. and its gifts to the world. What about our Hansel and Gretel cottages, our Assyrian rubber factory, our Beaux-Arts-Byzantine-Italian-Classic- Nebraska Modern City Hall? he asked.

What about the drive-in church?

One can say a great deal for the Second Vatican Council, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Billy Graham crusades and the Jesus Movement, but I suspect that the drive-in church will be seen from the perspective of history as the greatest spur to the mid-20th-century revival of Christianity. . . . Once it was demonstrated that we could do business with God without getting out of our automobiles, there was no reason to believe we couldn’t also do business that way with Mammon.