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Jack Smith, Urbane and Wry Times Columnist, Dies

<i> From a Times Staff Writer</i>

Jack Smith, whose urbane Los Angeles Times column dealt gently with his absorption in almost everything and everybody around him, died Tuesday of severe heart failure.

Smith, 79, died at USC’s University Hospital in Los Angeles. He had weathered more than a decade of heart disease, including quadruple bypass surgery in May 1984 and a heart attack that December, another heart attack after prostate surgery more than two years ago, and yet another heart attack in late December.

“There will never be another Jack Smith,” said Otis Chandler, former publisher of The Times, who had befriended Smith when they both were reporters in the 1950s. “Over his long and distinguished careers as first a reporter and then a columnist for The Times, he has brought a unique flavor to the paper that cannot be duplicated.

“In many ways,” Chandler said, “he was like a Will Rogers in the way he could make almost any subject funny and interesting and instructive.”

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Times Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Richard T. Schlosberg III said Smith’s “impeccable use of language and his gentle, urbane style were flawless, and yet his manner was one of humility and great kindness. He observed and wrote about everyday life with humanity and humor, turning phrases with a style that is unmatched.”

Smith’s column “has been one of the abiding highlights of the Los Angeles Times,” said Editor and Executive Vice President Shelby Coffey III. “The column expertly reflected the key qualities that made the man beloved as a writer and colleague; it had sly elegance, genteel self-mockery and keen observations of the life he loved in ever-surprising Southern California.”

To say that “the saga of Jack Smith, told over these many years in the pages of this newspaper, will be missed is to sadly understate our loss,” said former Times Editor William F. Thomas.

“Jack wrote with unfailing grace and clarity, and did so with amazing consistency,” Thomas said. “His simple prose, unassuming and yet pointed, appeared effortless, but it was the result, like all fine writing, of very hard work.

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“Most of all though, was this: It was throughout a candid and funny and touching chronicle of his own life and, in these last months, of his approaching death.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen said Smith “was just like his writing: slightly crotchety, a bit put off by what is going on, always ready for an argument, extremely dry in the wit department--and yet, altogether lovable. As a columnist, obviously one of a kind.”

Smith’s column, which had appeared in The Times since 1958, was distributed to almost 600 newspapers worldwide by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. After about 6,000 columns over 30 years, bowing only slightly to declining health, Smith cut back in 1992 from four columns a week to one, which appeared on Mondays. For most of his career, he wrote five columns a week.

“I may,” he warned, “turn senile overnight.”

His use of the language was meticulous, his manners were graceful--both in print and in public--and his middle-aged fascination with the trivia of a changing world was a constant delight to his readers.

He could amuse them or stir a few to irascible letter-writing with a column on his lifelong wariness of cats. He could reduce them to idle daydreaming by a bit of nostalgia out of his pre-World War II days working his way to Hawaii on a passenger ship to write for the Honolulu Advertiser, or a piece about his rustic house on a remote Baja California seaside cliff.

“When we reached the house,” he wrote in one of his “Baja Diary” columns, “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.”

Smith was never dishonest enough to pretend that he had left all traces of civilization behind. He never seemed to be in awe of his own considerable talent and he could be self-deprecating without phoniness.

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He resented the presence on the planet of very few, and he was never cruel.

It was the Baja house columns that in 1974 formed the basis for his book “God and Mr. Gomez.” His other books included “Three Coins in the Birdbath” (1965), “Smith on Wry” (1970), “The Big Orange"(1976), “Jack Smith’s L.A.” (1980), “How to Win a Pullet Surprise” (1982), “Cats, Dogs and Other Strangers at My Door” (1984) and “Alive in La La Land” (1989).

The columnist’s love for the language with all its traps and inconsistencies led him to conduct charming written debates with college professors or elementary school children, treating each with equal courtesy and respect for personal opinions.

For all his intellectual concerns, Smith cared as much for some of the more earthy aspects of American culture. Pro football, for instance: “Intimate friends know,” he once wrote, ". . . that my love of football is not simply visceral. I see it as a more dynamic form of ballet.”

He was one of the few newspaper columnists who could write about the minutiae of daily family life without seeming desperate for material. His humility as the man of the house on Mt. Washington near downtown Los Angeles never had a fake ring to it. Readers came to know his wife, Denny (rarely mentioned by name); his sons, Curtis and Douglas; his two daughters-in-law, Gail and Jacqueline, and five grandchildren, Chris, Casey, Trevor, Adriana and Alison.

But he insisted when he went into semi-retirement in 1992: “I’m always the butt of the jokes. I am the joke in this family. I’m just trying to be amusing. About the only person you dare to make fun of is yourself.”

He also wrote about a succession of dogs and cats, which he tended to describe in terms of their personalities (a word he may well have accepted in their cases) or levels of intelligence.

In discussing an old cat named Gato that had run off, Smith wrote: “I don’t know why it is that I have so little luck in developing a warm relationship with cats, especially when so many men I admire very much have been fond of cats.”

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Revered in his profession, Smith received the Joseph M. Quinn Memorial Award, the highest honor of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club, in 1991. 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.”

Although Smith was the recipient of various honorary degrees from universities, his formal education ended with his attendance at Bakersfield College. His real education was received in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, in the scullery of that passenger liner, as a Marine Corps combat correspondent under fire on an Iwo Jima beach in World War II and on a succession of newspapers that began in the 1930s with the Bakersfield Californian, where he was a sports writer.

Perhaps it is not accurate to say that his newspaper career began there, for in the biographical information he long ago submitted to The Times’ public relations department, he noted that he was the editor of the student newspaper when he attended Los Angeles’ Belmont High School and, as only Jack Smith could, pointed out that it was the highest position he ever reached in his career.

Before he came to The Times as a general assignment reporter in 1953, Smith worked for the Honolulu Advertiser (often recalling in later years that he had “passed” on the story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because he was just getting to bed after a late Saturday night party and was not clear on what was going on), the United Press, the Sacramento Union, the San Diego Journal, the old Los Angeles Daily News and the Los Angeles Herald-Express.

He walked with the erectness of an ex-Marine, to be sure, always trim and neatly dressed. He usually wore a tie, correctly knotted. But there generally was a casual touch--perhaps a sport jacket easily visible at some distance, or a Greek fisherman’s cap.

If he talked at all about his time in the Marines, it was to recount the violent assault on Iwo Jima. He went ashore as a combat correspondent, with his rifle but without his portable typewriter.

A colonel suggested “that I send my typewriter in his jeep, which was scheduled to go in the eighth wave,” Smith wrote. “The boat was sunk. I never saw my typewriter again.”

The regiment’s other combat correspondent, a Marine named Barberio, “had gone by the book” and carried his typewriter ashore. Barberio was killed in the invasion, but a Marine found his typewriter and gave it to Smith.

“I used my knife to open the case,” Smith wrote. “There was no typewriter in it. It was full of canned goods.

“That’s what war is like. Only a thousand times worse.”

Although Smith’s boyhood roots were generally in Bakersfield, he was born in Long Beach on Aug. 27, 1916.

After some time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, he went to sea at the age of 21 and remarked in print later that the merchant marine “was the only other kind of work, besides newspapering, that I might have been happy in.”

But it was newspapering he went into, earning a reputation as a sensitive, facile writer in those days of street-edition sensations, low pay, hard work and hard-drinking reporters and rewrite men.

Among the street-sale sensations he worked on was the so-called Black Dahlia case soon after World War II. In fact, he probably coined the sobriquet for the brutally murdered young woman, despite claims of credit by others.

His newspaper jobs never seemed to last very long. Smith, like others of the era, had itchy feet. It was not until he came to The Times in June 1953 that he settled in. He began to write humor pieces for the op-ed page and before long was appearing regularly as a columnist.

Among his running topics was his fondness for watching the birds on the canyon hillsides of Mt. Washington. It was his contention--despite the protests of experts--that he was the first person in California to spot a grackle.

“It was unbelievable, of course,” he wrote, “and nobody believed me. I was soon vindicated, however, by a second sighting. This one again took place in my backyard and nobody believed me again.”

Nevertheless, something called the annual Jack Smith Bird Walk was instituted at Descanso Gardens.

As he grew older he took a patriarchal view of Los Angeles, defending the city in print against those who considered it a refuge for Philistines while speaking pridefully of it in private. One pleasant fall afternoon, as Smith watched USC and UCLA battle each other for the rights to the Rose Bowl football game, the blimp taking aerial photographs of the spirited contest flew over downtown, televising a panoramic picture of majestic skyscrapers framed by plush mountains.

“There is a there there,” said Smith in a barely audible paraphrase of Gertrude Stein.

His last column appeared in The Times on Christmas Day.

Following Smith’s wishes, there will be no funeral service. A public tribute to be organized by The Times is pending.

Donations can be made to the Jack Smith Memorial Trust, a fund created by his family to support things that meant most to him: newspapers, libraries and Southern California culture. Contributions can be sent to the trust at P.O. Box 41-412, Los Angeles 90041.

Jack Smith Coverage

* ESSAY--Jack Smith was the first columnist of postwar suburbia, says Robert A. Jones. B2

* GRACEFUL AND WRY--Fellow columnist Robin Abcarian, on what she loved about Jack Smith. E1

* JOURNALISM’S LONELIEST JOB--Paul Dean, on the columnist’s “deep and open-hearted kindness.” E1

* OF SONS AND CREEPY CRAWLIES--One of Jack Smith’s favorite pieces, from 1954. E1

* A WAY WITH WORDS--Beverly Beyette, recalling some classic Jack Smith lines. E4

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Jack Smith, 1916-1996

He loved his city, defending it in print, boasting of it in private. And in return, Los Angeles embraced Jack Smith. From the start in 1958, he was one of the few columnists who could write about daily life--whether with his wife, sons and grandchildren or as a combat correspondent in World War II--without seeming desperate for material. His use of language was impeccable, his manners flawless and his fascination with a changing world a constant delight.


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