B. Smith made everyone a little starstruck
Model, businesswoman and restaurateur, she was always turning heads
I’d often see B. Smith and her husband Dan Gasby at a gym in Midtown Manhattan. It isn’t unusual to exercise beside a famous person in New York. But few celebrities could turn heads like B. Smith, the fashion icon and lifestyle maven, when she’d glide past the front desk, smiling at the staff before heading to the elliptical machines.
It was impossible not to get a little starstruck, even for someone like me, at the time an editor at Essence, a magazine where Smith had been featured several times. But B. Smith was something special. Slim, long-limbed, with shoulder-length dreadlocks, Smith was more than a pretty brown face. She was an empire builder, a savvy businesswoman and an elegant reminder to black women everywhere that we really do rock.
On Feb. 22, we all got the heartbreaking news. Barbara “B.” Smith had died at her Long Island home at the age of 70 after battling early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, according to her husband.
“Heaven is shining even brighter now that it is graced with B.’s dazzling and unforgettable smile,’’ Gasby and her stepdaughter Dana wrote on Facebook.
The elegance. The grace. The style. May God rest and bless her soul. #BSmith was one-of-a-kind.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 23, 2020
Social media blew up with tributes. “The elegance. The grace. The style,’’ wrote director Ava DuVernay. “May God rest and bless her soul. #Bsmith was one of a kind.”
Actress Viola Davis wrote on Twitter, “You epitomized class, true beauty and dignity …”
The daughter of a Pittsburgh steelworker and a part-time housekeeper, Smith burst onto the modeling scene in the 1970s, eventually gracing 15 magazine covers, including Essence, Ebony and Mademoiselle. After leaving the runway, she wrote cookbooks, launched a magazine and hosted a nationally syndicated television show. She became the first black woman to debut a home product line at Bed Bath & Beyond in 2001.
But she was best known as a successful restaurateur. If you’re black in America, you likely know someone who has been to a wedding dinner at B. Smith in Washington’s Union Station. I recall being a young reporter in the late 1990s in Minneapolis dreaming about visiting her restaurant in the theater district in New York, where “the who’s who of black Manhattan meet, greet and eat,’’ according to Essence.
By the time I moved to New York, I had heard she opened a spot in Sag Harbor, in the Hamptons on Long Island. During a day trip there, my husband and I had a late lunch at her restaurant. It was buzzing, mostly with a white, affluent clientele. A true businesswoman, Smith moved from table to table, asking people if everything was all right, touching a shoulder here, adding a wink there. She stopped by a table where Earl Graves Sr., the legendary president and founder of Black Enterprise, was sitting with his family. Observing the two icons was memorable, but seeing Smith in her element was unforgettable.
Maybe what hurts most now is that we all were eyewitnesses as things drastically changed for this phenomenal woman. One day, while Smith and her husband were on the Today Show, she froze like a deer in the headlights as she discussed how to marinate a dish. ‘What I’m … I’m throwing myself off here,’’ she said. Typically unflappable, she didn’t seem like herself. The moment was so atypical that she went to see a doctor, who diagnosed her with the disease in 2013. There would be other public moments. In 2014, she went missing for 17 hours and was found in a cafe in New York City. By the next year, all of her restaurants had closed.
Despite it all, she stood brave and became an advocate for Alzheimer’s patients, though seeing her nearly break down at a U.S. Senate hearing was hard to watch. “It’s been a tough time for me,’’ she said. “Because I do have,’’ her voice catching, “… early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.”
Rightly or wrongly, many of us let out a collective groan in 2018 when Gasby revealed that he was in a relationship with another woman while continuing to take care of his ailing wife, and that the woman often lived with them. Gasby was criticized, but pushed back, explaining that he loved his wife, but he still had to live. Gasby had obviously stood by Smith through a hellish journey, but it didn’t sit well. Women struggled with seeing the normally well coifed B. not look like herself. And, it hurt to witness the whole dynamic play out on television while Smith stood around seemingly unaware of what was going on.
I choose to remember that perfectly made up face and the brilliant mind that could pull the right words out of thin air. For example, as she built her empire, Smith was sometimes called “The black Martha Stewart.” She didn’t mind it, but she was acutely aware of the difference. “Martha Stewart has presented herself doing the things domestics and African Americans have done for years,” she said in a New York magazine interview in 1997. “We were always expected to redo the chairs and use everything in the garden. This is the legacy that I was left. Martha just got there first.”
Ah, Black Girl Magic at its finest.