Jack Smith -- Mount Washington Favorite Son
by Layne Murphy
Many Los Angeles kids, growing up in the 1960s, made the transition from reading kids’ lit to material written for adults with the daily Los Angeles Times columns of Jack Smith, who lived in Mount Washington and wrote for the Times for nearly forty years. Smith spent his early childhood in Long Beach and Bakersfield and in his late teens moved to Los Angeles where he attended Belmont High, editing the school paper. He served in the military as a reporter, with beats including Iwo Jima. After working at a number of local papers, including the Honolulu Advertiser, he signed on at the Times as a newsman and later began to contribute columns, while still maintaining a heavy reporting schedule. Many of his columns were written in the El Camino Avenue house, buzzing with kids or grandkids and pets of nearly every species.
Smith was droll and self-deprecating. He never maligned anyone, except himself, and he was unflinchingly honest and often hilarious about his own missteps and lapses in judgment. Without syrup, Smith ruminated on the flora and fauna of Mount Washington, the pleasures (and displeasures) of family life and his own bemused grasping for the meaning of life. Many of Mount Washington’s 40 and 50 somethings, who were born in other parts of Los Angeles, undoubtedly learned about Mount Washington from reading Smith’s descriptions of the funky little hill community only four miles from downtown Los Angeles. Tales of Mount Washington, with its natural beauty and idiosyncratic neighbors appeared on breakfast tables all over Los Angeles, as evocative as the idealized neighborhoods and neighbors of Hooterville or Mayberry.
Smith wrote often of the Mount Washington Elementary School which was attended by his sons Curt and Doug and where his wife of 65 years, Denise, served as the president of the PTA. One particularly vivid column was one written after a long and difficult hospitalization. Jack returned to Mount Washington to be greeted with a banner made by the children of the school welcoming him home. Smith recounted how this lifted him out of a morass and inspired him to return to his typewriter. An ambitious new multipurpose center at the school is being named in honor of Jack and Denise and framed copies of his columns are displayed proudly at the entrance of the main building. How fitting and wonderful for our offbeat hamlet to have a local hero who wasn’t an athlete or a politician.
The Jack Smith Mount Washington Walk, a nature walk through the hills, is led annually, a tribute to our beloved observer of all manner of Mt. Washington’s natural resources. Smith never referred overtly to any connection with organized religion, except to mention that he had refused the rite of baptism when it was proffered to him at any early age due to a horror of being submerged in water. Yet, Smith’s descriptions of a bird’s nest in his eaves or the exquisite ballet of a feral cat chasing a gopher are informed by a large, palpable spirit that Smith never failed to respect as too awesome to name or to codify.
Smith’s column started when his boys were attending elementary school and he wrote five times weekly, and then in semi-retirement, once weekly through his grandchildren’s college graduations, until three weeks before his death at age 79 in 1995. Sons graduated, enlisted, married and had children of their own. Smith became a self-taught bird expert and identified several species rare to the Southern California area. Dogs came and went. Gene Biscailuz, Shaggy, Blaze, Beau, Jolie and perhaps one of the naughtiest, most wonderful Airedales in history, Fleetwood Pugsley, were all memorialized in columns. Most of Los Angeles must have wept over coffee the morning they read that Pugsley had died peacefully in his doghouse of old age.
In his declining years Smith recorded the humiliations of hospitalizations, the frustration of growing more and more frail, and the experience of facing death. He pondered the hereafter and decided that heaven would be too boring for him and he felt compelled “to keep on living to see what happens next.” What a gift it is to have this life recorded. Smith wrote in an old-fashioned way and always referred to people as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” He was skeptical about women’s liberation, rock music and trendy hairdos. He recorded his own regular consumption of beer and gin with a naturalness which would be unlikely today. Yet, his commitment to conservation and preservation rang loud before this movement became popular. He was vocal about preserving Mount Washington’s natural integrity. He and his wife assisted and financed a complicated program to capture and spay feral cats.
The Packard Grille, where Smith lunched often in his later years, is now a dental clinic. Sycamore Park is still the same as he described, colorful with birthday party piñatas and fruit vendors. The big construction project on Eagle Rock Blvd. might have reduced traffic to Hal’s Pet Store which dispensed advice, bird cages and various pet products to the Smith family for years, but the neighborhood store soldiers on. The memory of Smith will never fade from our hamlet, what with an annual walk and a huge auditorium. The prevalence of Smith’s name throughout the neighborhood will perhaps encourage readers of all ages to seek out to his writings. Smith’s admirers know that his writings provide no finer lesson on how to see the world, or simply, how to be.