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Obituaries

Bernard Smith; Book Editor, Film Producer

January 02, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bernard Smith, editor of classic detective novels by such durable writers as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and producer of such films as "Elmer Gantry" and "How the West Was Won," which both earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, has died. He was 92.

Smith, who offered memories of authors and studio executives alike in his 1994 memoir, died Dec. 21 at the Beverly Hills Rehabilitation Center, said his son, attorney Frederic M. Smith of Pasadena.

The facile editor spent 24 years in Hollywood, first as story and script editor for Samuel Goldwyn beginning in 1947. An unabashed Marxist who never followed communism, Smith admired Goldwyn for many things, including the mogul's refusal to blacklist writers with communist leanings during the McCarthy era.

"He had no interest in a writer's politics; all he was interested in was their talent," Smith said in a 1994 interview.

Smith had no such admiration for his next motion picture employer, Paramount's Y. Frank Freeman, whom Smith referred to as "the Georgia bigot." Smith related in the 1994 interview that he "strongly recommended" that Freeman buy John Collier's treatment for the film "The African Queen" and suggested Gary Cooper for the lead. But Freeman, he said, rejected the treatment and dismissed Cooper as "an old man." Director John Huston snapped up Collier's idea and made the film with Humphrey Bogart.

Often considered a filmmaker's agent within the studio, Smith also defended George Stevens' delay in shooting the classic Western "Shane" after Freeman protested that his dallying would bankrupt the studio. Smith explained that Stevens was simply waiting for the grass to turn green. That time Smith won, and later declared Stevens' early rushes of very green grass "gorgeous."

In 1963, Smith joined director John Ford, whom he first worked with in the 1962 "Elmer Gantry," to form a production company that made Ford's last Western, "Cheyenne Autumn," starring Richard Widmark, in 1964 and Ford's final film, "Seven Women," starring Anne Bancroft, in 1966.

"What I wanted above all was to learn," Smith said. "[From Ford] I learned how to make a story curt. You got something to say, find a way to say it briefly, straight on."

After retiring from the film industry in 1971, Smith turned his attention to the memoir that he had always planned to write, "A World Remembered: 1925-1950," and finally published in 1994.

His book fairly burst with stories of leftist New York intellectuals, authors such as the sharp-tongued H.L. Mencken, who once called Smith "a Jew, and moreover, a jackass," and assorted Hollywood glitterati.

The son of a New York businessman and a homemaker, Smith attended the City University of New York and joined Alfred A. Knopf publishing company in 1928. Already highly respected, the firm was quite small, with an editorial staff consisting only of Knopf, his wife Blanche and four or five others, Smith recalled in his memoir.

"Whenever I strongly argued for something, he [Knopf] would accept it at once," Smith, only 21 when he began working for the publisher, said years later. "Even if he personally demurred, he believed that if it aroused that kind of interest it was worth publishing."

Smith, who as Knopf editor-in-chief also published Langston Hughes, became the first American publisher of the works of the reclusive B. Traven, including "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "The Death Ship." It was Smith who translated, and edited to the point of rewriting, Traven's original German manuscripts into salable English. Traven always approved his revisions, Smith said, and he in turn honored the author's request to reveal nothing biographical about him.

In addition to his memoir, Smith wrote and edited several other books, including "Forces in American Criticism: A Study in the History of American Literary Thought" in 1939; "The Democratic Spirit: A Collection of American Writings from the Earliest Times to the Present Day" in 1941; and "Books that Changed Our Minds" and "The Holiday Reader."

A lifelong supporter of liberal political causes, Smith was an associate editor of New Masses and The Nation in the 1920s. But as an octogenarian he told a reporter that leftists had always wrongly sentimentalized the American Dream.

"People come to America for one purpose only," he said in 1994. "Forget the idealists, forget the landless, forget about religious persecution. The bulk of the people that have come here have done it for economic reasons, and they're not going to throw that purpose away."

In addition to his son, Smith is survived by a brother, E.L. Smith of Los Angeles, and two grandchildren.

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