Apr/May 2014 Spotlight

A Belated Postscript to Some Obits for C. Page Smith

by Jascha Kessler

Photograph courtesy of Jascha Kessler

The obits in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for an eminent American historian, Page Smith—who died of leukemia on August 28th, 1995, just two days after his wife Eloise Pickard Smith had succumbed to cancer—startled me. Their faces rose immediately before my mind's eye. They were a striking pair when I met them in 1961 at some UCLA departmental bash. Page loomed from a height of at least 6'4"; his shy brown eyes gazed through tortoise shell-framed glasses perched on the sharp bridge of a hawk's nose, a hank of straight, dark-brown hair fell to one side over his forehead. Eloise was a blue-eyed, buxom blonde whose round head came only up to his chest. I recall her warm, square and rough artist's hands. His calm baritone was inflected with a humorous Harvard drawl; she seemed always brimming with mellifluous, mocking laughter. They were a loving, utterly devoted couple: he, a scion of the Smiths of Long Island and Pages of Virginia; she, as she put it, merely "po' white trash" who remembered herself as a girl sitting rocking beside her grandmother on a ramshackle porch at the wrong end of a small town in North Carolina, their best entertainment Saturday nights watching for the occasional passerby who would stoop to retrieve from the sidewalk and pocket guiltily a little parcel of brown paper they'd tossed out earlier done up with a shiny red ribbon to make it appear like a wad of money. Hugging each other, they would suffocate with anticipated glee imagining that fool's face when the lucky find turned out to be a little mess of chicken guts.

Of course one doesn't think one's friends old enough to die. The Smiths had left Los Angeles 30 years earlier in 1964 to help found Cowell College, the first part of the new campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. (Page had long been teaching at UCLA, latterly even fooling about with a lecture course taped for simultaneous replay to several large classes.)

It was in 1972 or so that I drove north to stay with them at their quiet, seven-acre place in Bonny Doon; by then Page was into administration in his own inimitable style: riding the eight miles up to campus on horseback, where he'd dismount around 10 a.m., put in necessary calls, sign a few papers, and ride off again by 1:00. Whatever talk that gave rise to he shrugged off in his patrician way. We both agreed most people were fools to put in any more time than a few hours at an office desk: most such work can be done by an organized, decisive head in a couple of hours on any given day, and that went for desk jobs anywhere since busy work was counterproductive; moreover it corrupted both mind and soul. What was this American cult of the obligatory 40 hours? Especially when as a campus job it made for vain and hypocritical self-importance.

Deans served no one really, and most were escaping the tedium of teaching. The money was good, was what he thought of it. Vintage Page Smith. Real work was research, true work was thinking and writing. His first success years before in 1962—those hefty Book-of-the Month Club volumes of his now famous John Adams biography—confirmed him in his opinion, and he was soon to receive even greater renown for those tomes, the People's History of the American Revolution, that came along in 1976 and 1980: Page certainly knew how to do good scholarship efficiently—and write it out in a prose distinguished for its grace and clarity.

Even more startling than those sad notices of Page's passing was, to my mind, the absence in both necrologies of one book: A Letter From My Father: the Strange, Intimate Correspondence of W. Ward Smith to his Son Page Smith, edited by Page and published by Morrow in 1976. I wondered why it had been omitted, and having forgotten its title, I checked the catalogue of UCLA's library, only to find it listed not under Page's name, but in this manner: W. Ward Smith (1893-1968). More surprising, though amusingly enough, its subject category was given as "Erotic Literature"! From this curious characterization hangs my brief tale.

I was aware during the first years of our acquaintance that Page avoided talking about anything to do with his father's side of the family. Eloise gave me a clue when she said more than once that she was always, "to this very day, y'all should know?", amazed to think a Smith had ever married someone who came from her end of town and her side of the tracks (never mind the Internet plaque asserts she was born the daughter of a civil engineer!). It just went to show what a truly fine sort of man he was, if it needed showing at all. Page himself remarked once, when he heard I'd lived on West 85th Street off Central Park during the mid-1950s, that he'd been shocked once when visiting New York on reading break from Harvard, to walk smack into his father strolling down towards Broadway along that very street. Years had gone by since last they'd met: Page was earlier away at Dartmouth, and then there was the fighting in Europe with the 10th Mountain Division. The man had a "fast lady" on his arm, and they were both rather, well, "tipsy." Page was awfully embarrassed by that encounter, though his debonair dad carried it off with his usual flair, while certainly his current floozy seemed greatly amused. His father had insisted on taking him to dinner with them and seeing him off later from Grand Central Station. The whole thing had been damned disagreeable, Page let me know. He was—and I took that implication—a staunch defender of his mother who many long years before had returned to ensconce herself among the Pages of Virginia, a refugee exiled from New York, and to live out her days a grass widow. But Page never said anything to me or anyone concerning who or what his father was, either from reticence or perhaps repressing memories of him. That repression was later to return—and how!

On the day I vividly recollect, I'd spent the morning schmoozing with Eloise, as I am a late riser, especially after a night of food and wine and faculty party rounds. Page had hours earlier ridden off somewhere exercising his horse. He returned clopping back out of the surrounding redwoods around 11 and dismounted at the front door to stop in and greet me. Afterward, we walked up to the barn, where the horse waited still saddled for him. Page seemed preoccupied, so I stood by until he had taken off the saddle. Finally, he came out with it: he wanted to ask my opinion on something that troubled him.

It seemed that his father, who'd died a couple of years ago, had for the last decade of his life been regularly getting in touch with his famous son, which made Page rather less than happy. It seemed moreover that he kept telling Page that he was preparing a legacy for his son the great historian. What was that? Nothing more or less than the story of his life. As we walked out of the bright, warm, coastal light into the cool of the stable, Page took my arm and turned me to look at the wall to the right where there was a hanging loft, a wide shelf carrying several trunks patched with ship labels from everywhere in the world that stood ranged side by side.

"My father left to his secretary—all right, his last mistress, I suppose—his Estate. To me he willed his autobiography. That's what I thought I'd ask your advice about."

Which nonplussed me, to say the least. Page continued, gazing beyond me and down the hill towards the house, "He was failing for about ten years: heart, the consequences of a career of—well, it doesn't matter—I guess you could call it dissipation. And all that time he was dictating the story of his life, having it typed up, bound in chapters, indexed and all. Can you imagine! There it is," he said, pointing to an elegant, leather steamer, the kind of trunk that used to be sold by Abercrombie, the kind one had seen being packed for folks crossing in First Class Cunard suites in 1930s movies. "These arrived a few months ago after his affairs were settled. There must be 50 or so notebooks, I haven't counted them all. I wonder what you'd make of them.

"All that?" I asked indifferently. One gets to be leery of unknowns all-too eager to fend off the "books" they spent years scribbling, spewing out "the story of their lives," like that con artist Mike Romanoff did around Los Angeles, going around town asking (but never paying) for literary advice, insisting their adventures would make for a terrific movie.

"Depends," was all Page would say, adding, "I did take a quick look at some of it when it came. Now I'm inclined to think the best thing for me now is to just burn the damned lot."

"That boring?"

"Boring? Not really… He had rather a life; but really, it was just so damned…"

Page's thin smile was inscrutable; but there was a pained, perhaps haunted look in his eye. He was a most upright man, reserved, tending towards prudish, a type I'd never met except in fiction—a Jamesian character.

We hauled that steamer trunk down. I brushed some dust and cobwebs from it. Page stood by as I tugged at the straps and unclasped the buckles. Raising its lid, I saw dozens of black binders, each fat and holding a hundred or so pages. I picked one up and opened it in the middle. White sheets, flawlessly typewritten.

"You have yourself a look," he said, "while I go and rub down the horse."

I did take a look, more than a look. In fact, I sat and read avidly for an hour, flipping the pages of several of those manuscripts, taking in whatever I could manage, surprised as I was, and simply stunned. Henry Miller had nothing on Ward Smith, not even in his Tropics. Fitzgerald's Long Island aristos, his Tom and Daisy Buchanan and their notorious set, Nick Carraway's beautiful golfer, Jordan—they were insubstantial, mere wraiths imagined by an outsider—compared to what I read fleetingly, all written straightforward by a deadpan narrator who often sounded like Edmund Wilson's protagonist in his grungy New York novel, I Thought of Daisy.

I heard Page slap his horse on the rump when he was done, and looking up saw it turned out to pasture. Then he came and stood over me where I sat flabbergasted on a chopping block in shade by the barn door. He looked somberly down at me and said, "So, you do agree it ought to be burned. All of it."

My jaw must have dropped like an idiot's, dumbstruck as a clown, because Page laughed bitterly. "After what he had done to us, to have the gall to send me this, this..."

"Page! You, of all people! A historian! You'd destroy this mass of true stories, this witness to the unknown life of the Twenties, and the Thirties! Dos Passos can't hold a candle to Ward Smith! New York, San Francisco, L.A.! Government high life, low life! Who knows what else! How could you even...!"

"It's so... scabrous. Call that a life? He disgusts me."

"Give it to me, then!" I cried. "Put the whole trunk in my car, if you can't stand to read it. I'll take it home. I'll take good care. I am dying to go through it! It's marvelous. My god, at least for a novel, what source material! You can't simply incinerate his life! It's your father!" I gasped a last appeal, to what I thought must be his conscience: "Page, goddammit! Page!"

Page hummed a noncommittal hmn hmn hmn. He took the half-dozen loose-leafs I had on my lap and set them down in the trunk. We strapped it shut, lifted it, and together heaved it up between the others on that shelf.

That was the last time I knew anything more of Ward Smith's legacy until a few years later when I received a publisher's card, sent by Page, I supposed, announcing A Letter from My Father, 472 pages, including an introductory essay by Page Smith. He had composed a good historical summary of the nature of the selected passages from his father's diaries, an essay that touched, albeit with the tongs of cool "objectivity," both on the "scabrous" and the scandalous, the wild sexual escapades, the 1920s boozing; but also on the politics of his father's times, and the vicissitudes of a life of which Page severely disapproved. W. Ward Smith had after all been New York Governor Al Smith's secretary; he was privy to the post-War political scene of Tammany Hall and New York State; he was a leading advertising executive in the days when advertising was going big time; he was a Lothario; he was a snob, an Episcopalian, a WASP anti-Semite whose ancestors were on Long Island before it ever was Long Island; he was a Republican; and, well, in the end, he produced and stage-managed that infamous America First Madison Square Garden rally, tied up with Father Coughlin and the German-American Bund, Nazi-run and supported, that fought Roosevelt's drift toward abandoning neutrality and entering the war on England's side. No wonder Page was disposed to dispose of that whole damned and damning boodle of loose-leaf binders.

Of what he left out, I have no idea. I never wrote Page about the book, except to say I thought he had done the right thing, had saved something remarkable, and that I liked the "judicious" Introduction he wrote. I hope the whole corpus is deposited somewhere, in the Page Smith Library at Santa Cruz, at least. I fear it was not done. I regarded it then, from what I gulped down in that hour, as a fine literary and historical trove. It may not have pleased W. Ward Smith's son to be a Smith of that Smith, but it certainly gave me a glimpse of a reality neither social history nor contemporary fiction afforded.

I was gratified that in the end, intellectual integrity won out over shame and prudence, over embarrassment, humiliation, and anger, Ward Smith's son's personal legacy from that outsized reprobate, that handsome, powerful, and unregenerate father, that Smith of Smiths whose life had been nothing short of incredible. And of course Page had it both ways: he had excerpted what he could bear of that rascal's life and published it. After he died, he had, if he had anything at all, obituaries that mentioned only his triumphs: those works of fine, narrative historical prose. Perhaps the last irony of all is that librarians should classify his father's fascinating book, all-too short at 400-plus pages, as "erotic" literature. Shades of Giacomo Casanova!


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