There was no one like her. Barbara Smith, known throughout much of the world simply as “B,” was a trailblazer, a risk taker and an enterprising gate crasher. But she did it all quietly, gracefully, always epitomizing respect for herself and others and a warmth that could melt butter.
“Our baby is gone,” said Audrey Smaltz, hours of after receiving the news that Smith died last night at the age of 70. The two women met more than 50 years ago, when Smaltz was an Ebony Fashion Fair commentator and Smith was a model strutting the traveling show’s runways at the age of 19.
Even then, Smaltz says, “She was a Lady, with a capital “L” – which is not to say she had always followed the rules. If she had done so then the beautiful brown-skinned girl from small-town Pennsylvania would never have pursued a career as a model. The Ebony Fashion Fair was, essentially, her college.
The daughter of a maid and a steelworker, would then move to New York City where she signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina Models agency. She would eventually grace the covers of 15 magazines, including Mademoiselle in 1976, where she was among the first African American women to do so.
While it was her physical beauty that would captivate you at first, it was Smith’s warmth and genuine kindness that would linger long after you’d met. It made her a successful television spokesperson for blue-chip brands such as Mercedes Benz, Colgate Palmolive Oxy and Verizon. That enormous charm also helped make her a star on New York’s restaurant scene in the 1980s and 1990s, where she began as a hostess and soon became a bonafide restauranteur.
Defying The Odds And The Naysayers
Her namesake restaurant in the heart Broadway’s theater district became the place to see and be seen. It boasted a diverse clientele but the Big Apple’s rising black urban professionals staked out a particular claim on its rooftop bar during summertime. B. Smith’s was featured in a 1997 BLACK ENTERPRISE article entitled, “Where Power Players Play.”
Smith laughingly recalled in an interview with me at the 2010 Women of Power Summit, how even friends and loved ones told her she was crazy when she opted to go into the restaurant business. But she always had a love for feeding people – she used to pretend on her dolls when she was a child — and the doubters never deterred her.
Although she had partners, the restaurant was a huge risk. It bore her name, after all, and it was in arguably the toughest and most competitive restaurant market in the world.
B, however, succeeded by defying the odds and the naysayers. She went on to open chic, successful restaurants in Sag Harbor – a sliver of the posh Hamptons with a historically African American summer enclave – and in Washington, DC’s Union Square Station.
Having known of her for years. it was in Sag Harbor that I finally met B. She owned a distinctive home on a quiet beach there, in the midst of a historically black neighborhood that she loved, where my in-laws, Barbara and Earl Graves, Sr. and her fellow Women of Power Legacy honoree, Susan Taylor, were neighbors.
Smith ran that beach often. I was always struck by how fit and lithe she was. Said Smaltz, who owns all three of Smith’s cookbooks: “I used to tease her and say, how could she cook and eat all this wonderful food and never gain a pound?”
Smith clearly worked at it, but there was something about her running the beach and how peaceful she appeared doing it that made it seem as if it was about more than fitness, it was about wellness and selfcare.
In partnership with her husband, Dan Gasby, Smith leveraged her brand as a consummate hostess, chef, and tastemaker to create a full-scale lifestyle brand. Appearing as a contributor on Good Morning America and The Today Show, she would ultimately host her own syndicated show, B. Smith with Style. She later leveraged that to create the B. Smith with Style Collection. It debuted in Bed, Bath & Beyond in 2001, becoming the first homegoods line from an African American woman to be sold at a nationwide retailer, according to her website. From bedding to bath products, she coined a signature “Afrasian” design concept that buyers flocked to.
Bringing Attention To Alzheimer’s
I am so grateful that Black Enterprise honored Smith with a Women of Power Legacy Award in 2010. She joyfully accepted, and gave a candid and rousing interview before a captive audience. Just a few years later, in 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 64.
Despite the devastation and the closing of her popular restaurants and sale of her beloved Sag Harbor home, the disease never robbed her of her deep kindness, her open heart, the grace and care with which she treated everyone who approached her, and that megawatt cover girl smile.
Her signature tagline, “Whatever you do, do it with style!” has been on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and she participated in co-writing her final book, Before I Forget, in 2016. A memoir of her and Gasby’s battle with Alzheimer’s and their journey to acceptance, the book shined a much needed light on the disease’s unique impact African Americans, and black women in particular. Her broad legacy will include the heightened awareness she brought to the disease with her willingness to be open about it, and having gotten it so young.
Smith lived well, she did well, she did good – and she did it all with style! She earned her rest and her eternal peace. May her great legacy live on and on.