YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jack Smith, Urbane and Wry Times Columnist, Dies

Journalism: Self-effacing writer was 79. His musings on daily life entertained readers for nearly 40 years.

January 10, 1996| From a Times Staff Writer

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."

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.

"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.

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."

Los Angeles Times Articles