Dave Smith, 64; Helped Usher in Literary Journalism at The Times
Dave Smith, a stylish and often elegant writer who covered a number of high-profile stories for The Times--including the trial of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan and the hunt for the Zodiac killer, has died. He was 64.
Smith, who retired from The Times in the mid-1980s, was found dead in his Tucson home on Feb. 20. According to his friend and executor, John Flynn, the cause of death was a heart attack. He is survived by a brother, Jeff Smith, who also lives in Arizona.
Former colleagues of Smith recalled him as one of the finest pure writers to ever work at The Times.
A complex man--sensitive and vulnerable with a nervous disposition, who also could be extravagantly ebullient and witty--Smith came to The Times in 1968, when the paper began to experiment with more literary journalism, allowing some of its writers the luxury of months-long deadlines, ample space and license to write like novelists, with dialogue, narrative form and other devices not usual to daily journalism of the era.
One of the first of those takeouts, as they were called in the newsroom, was Smith’s piece on Benny Smith, a young man who walked calmly into a beauty parlor in Mesa, Ariz., on Nov. 12, 1966, ordered several women and two little girls to lie in a circle and then shot each of them. Two survived.
Smith’s piece, which ran nearly 8,000 words, was a psychological profile of the killer’s troubled, lonely youth, his sense of alienation and his motives for committing the mass killings, which then were still rare in American life.
His opening paragraphs signaled that this was a different kind of newspaper story:
“When he was 13, Benny Smith began to experience an identity crisis.
“It was not the fashionable sort of identity crisis that people discuss over cocktails, nor the sort that moves writers or film directors to create the existential art of the 1960s.
“Instead, quietly and quite unnoticed, Benny went insane.”
(For the full text of the story, go to latimes.com/davesmith.)
Benny Smith was sentenced to death, but after a series of legal maneuvers and a retrial in which he pleaded guilty to all charges, he received a life prison sentence.
Smith’s report on the killings created a stir in the newsroom and in the journalism community at large. There were sharp divisions within the staff on whether the piece belonged in the paper at all.
William F. Thomas, then the paper’s Metro editor, who later became the editor of The Times, believed strongly that it did. He had hired Smith and was intrigued by the kind of stylish, almost poetic prose writers like Smith brought to the paper.
“He was in that group that included [the late] Charles Powers ... who were hired because they could write,” Thomas said. “They all had unique style.”
Born in Presque Isle, Maine, David Mortimer Smith grew up in Arizona, graduating from Tucson High School and later the University of Arizona. While in college, Smith worked for the Tucson Daily Star, writing feature stories and film reviews that were so polished they went immediately into the paper.
After graduate work at UCLA, he worked at the Culver City Evening Star-News and the Venice Vanguard before landing a job with Associated Press, first in its Los Angeles bureau and later the New York office.
Smith came to The Times in January 1968, and his piece on Benny Smith ran in the Monday, April 15, edition, taking up most of the second section.
The story, which received a variety of prizes, demonstrated to top Times editors that there was a place in newspapers for literary writing.
From then on, Smith was assigned to a number of high-profile stories and become known for his work on mass murder cases, including the Zodiac killings. An adept daily deadline writer, Smith would pound out stories with incredible speed when the gods of creativity were with him. But his strongest work came in the longer story form, where he could use his keen observations to paint fascinating word pictures.
A strong voice in the paper through the mid-1970s, his creativity was later hampered by abrupt mood swings and other inner demons. He returned to the Tucson area after his retirement and lived a quiet life, collecting regional art and antiques and participating in some choral singing.
Despite his penchant for dark subjects in his most productive years, Smith could also write with sly humor, as evidenced in these opening paragraphs from a piece on the founder of the First Church of Satan:
“The high priest and founder of the First Church of Satan pours another generous round of bourbon that is, God help us, out of this world, then calls up the staircase:
“‘Diane, c’mere a minute, honey. What was that phone call again--the one from Orange County?’
“‘I can’t come down now,’ she wailed. ‘I’m setting my hair.’
“But she does anyway, bouncing pertly into the room in bare feet, black slacks and a blonde head bristling with plastic curlers. Slim, petite and 27, Mrs. Anton Szandor LaVey takes a seat in an antique wire-and-walnut potty chair.
“So there we are--as American as crabapple pie--Mr. and Mrs. Anti-Christ in their parlor, he magisterially enthroned in an old barber’s chair, discussing the trials and tribulations of the religious life.”