Gregory White Smith dies at 62; co-wrote Jackson Pollock biography

 Gregory White Smith dies at 62; co-wrote Jackson Pollock biography
Gregory White Smith, pictured, and Steven Naifeh won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga," which was published in 1990 and spurred the 2000 movie "Pollock" starring Ed Harris. (Robert Clark)

Gregory White Smith, a Harvard-trained lawyer, businessman, philanthropist and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who raised hackles in the art world with an intensely psychological examination of the life and work of Jackson Pollock, has died. He was 62.

Smith died Thursday at his home in Aiken, S.C., of a rare brain tumor diagnosed nearly 40 years ago, said his spouse and co-author Steven Naifeh.


Naifeh and Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga," which was published in 1990 and spurred the 2000 movie "Pollock" starring Ed Harris.

It was one of five best-selling books the two men wrote together, including "Van Gogh: The Life" (2011), which drew international attention with its debunking of the widely held theory that Van Gogh's death at 37 had been a suicide. The authors offered evidence pointing to an accidental shooting by some troublemaking youths.

The Van Gogh biography, which took 10 years to write, was praised by many critics as a magisterial work, rich with insights into the personal and intellectual underpinnings of the tortured artist's influential paintings.

"What Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith capture so powerfully is Van Gogh's extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds, to keep painting when early teachers disparaged his work," Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times. Time magazine called it "this generation's definitive portrait of the great Dutch post-Impressionist."

The Pollock book, based on eight years of research and 2,000 interviews, was commended for a narrative style that made it read "like a novel, only better," critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in Elle magazine.

But a number of Smith and Naifeh's major points—including information about Pollock's sexual orientation and an "obsession with urination" that may have contributed to his famous drip technique of painting--were widely disparaged by critics, who dismissed much of the book as gossip and reductive Freudianism.

One of these was leading Pollock authority Francis V. O'Connor who, in a blistering 1991 essay for the New York Times, wrote that the award of the Pulitzer Prize only proved that "pop psychologizing and amateur art criticism are now acceptable methods of cultural discourse." In an email last week O'Connor said, 'I have no reason today to disagree with myself."

To O'Connor and others, one of the most egregious parts of the book was the authors' obsession with Pollock urination anecdotes: Smith and Naifeh reported that the artist peed in flower pots, Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace and on the Prometheus statue in Rockefeller Center, a pattern of behavior that dates to a childhood memory of seeing his father relieve himself on a rock in a field.

"People seem to think we dreamed up this notion of relating urination to the drip painting," Smith told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, "but the incident of watching his father urinate on a rock existed. All we really are saying is that, for Jackson, it made a connection and that the act of dripping paint on a canvas had that psychological resonance—by his own admission."

The authors attributed much of the criticism on a tendency toward "puffery" in the art press and an anti-biographical bias in art scholarship.

Although Smith was best known as a biographer, his writings with Naifeh range from self-help titles such as "Moving Up in Style: The Successful Man's Guide to Impeccable Taste" (1980) to works of true crime, including "The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit and Death" (1988).

He was also an entrepreneur, partnering with Naifeh to launch businesses connecting consumers with top legal and medical services. They published "The Best Lawyers in America," first issued in 1983, and "The Best Doctors in America," in 1994.

Born Oct. 4, 1951, in Ithaca, N.Y., Smith grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His parents, William R. and Kathryn White Smith, ran a small chain of hotels in the Midwest.

Smith began to regard himself as a writer when he was in grade school. At age 8, he was dictating short novels into his father's Dictaphone. As editor of his high school paper in the late 1960s, he wrote an editorial about Vietnam that offended some readers, including the headmaster, who ordered all copies of the paper burned.


At Colby College in Maine, Smith earned a degree in English literature in 1973. He went on to Harvard, where he met Naifeh on the first day of law school. They both received law degrees in 1977.

Smith went to work in San Francisco for Morrison & Foerster, where he was quickly assigned the task of editing the writing of other lawyers. He quit after two months because he wanted to "write something that would be read by a lot of people," Naifeh recalled, not just people who read legal briefs.

By then Smith was already struggling with cancer. In 1975, shortly after starting law school, he was diagnosed with hemangiopericytoma, a rare and aggressive brain tumor.

Over the next four decades, Smith underwent 13 brain surgeries in a medical odyssey that took him as far as Russia and the Netherlands. In 1987, doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him he had only a few months to live, but he opted for a risky operation that saved his life. He chronicled his and others' experiences beating formidable medical odds in "Making Miracles Happen" (1997), one of 16 books he wrote with Naifeh.

In 1989 he and Naifeh moved to Aiken, where they had bought a rundown 60-room cottage anomalously named Joye Cottage, which had been built in the late 19th century as a winter retreat for members of the Whitney-Vanderbilt clan. Smith and his partner took several years to restore it and dedicated part of the space to Juilliard in Aiken, an artist-in-residence program that brings in students and faculty from Juilliard School for performances and education outreach.

In addition to Naifeh, whom he married in New York in 2011, Smith is survived by a sister, Linda Hirata.

His illness and treatment damaged his hearing, vision and facial nerves. He was in constant pain. The only time he didn't notice the pain, Naifeh said, "was when he was deeply involved in writing a paragraph."