Damn, she was something. A true renaissance woman. She tried her hand at everything and built an impressive, multi-faceted empire along the way. But when she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers in her late 50s, she shared her struggles with the world so we would know and understand and so her insights might help other families.
This short summary of the life of B. Smith, who died this weekend from Alzheimers, hardly seems adequate. How do you capture a whirlwind in just a few lines? Maybe the best description of her accomplishments and spirit came from Smith herself: “I think that if Martha Stewart and Oprah had a daughter, it would be B. Smith.”
Barbara Elaine Smith grew up busy. The daughter of a steelworker and a part-time maid, she was already an entrepreneur as a child—working a paper route, selling magazines and lemonade in her hometown of Everson, Pa. She went to modeling school on money she earned babysitting, and in a few years, started landing on the cover of magazines, including Mademoiselle (remember Mademoiselle?) in July 1976, the second woman of color to be its cover girl.
After her modeling career waned, her drive and smarts impressed the owners of the Manhattan restaurant where she worked as a hostess and floor manager, and they launched her in her own establishment, B. Smith’s. It became a place that brought people together. “Like a well-whisked beurre blanc, the races here mingle without separating,” the Washington Post wrote about her restaurant location in Union Station in Washington D.C. (She also had a location in Sag Harbor, NY.) The wildly successful restaurants became the springboard of her empire. From there, she wrote books on entertaining, hosted a TV show, created her own brand of bedding and furniture collections.
It all came to an abrupt halt after she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, a terrible fate for such a productive, imaginative person. She was a role model for many, showing the possibilities awaiting those who pushed hard and blew through obstacles. She was often called the “black Martha Stewart,” but that moniker seems unfair. She was simply and elegantly her own self: B. Smith.