Often called the black Martha Stewart, Smith wrote books on cooking and entertaining, had a syndicated television show, and created a line of products.
By Danny R. Johnson/Entertainment News Editor
New York, NY – Barbara Smith, a fashion model who created a business empire by catering to the tastes of aspiring black professionals with her restaurants, television shows, bedding and furniture collections and books on entertaining, died on Saturday at her home on Long Island. She was 70.
The cause was early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, her family said. Smith had waged a long and public battle with the disease, which was diagnosed when she was in her 50s.
Smith was best known for her popular Manhattan restaurant, B. Smith’s. Located at the edge of the theater district, it opened in 1986 and almost immediately attracted a following among affluent black New Yorkers, who welcomed it as a stylish gathering spot. Essence magazine, in 1995, described it as the place “where the who’s who of black Manhattan meet, greet and eat regularly.”
Smith opened a successful offshoot in Union Station in Washington, D.C., in 1994 and four years later in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where she and her second husband and business partner, Dan Gasby, maintained a summer house.
Often called the black Martha Stewart, Smith translated her sense of style into a series of books on cooking and entertaining; a syndicated weekly television show on NBC, “B. Smith with Style”; a bedding, tableware and bath products collection for Bed Bath & Beyond; and a furniture line for the La-Z-Boy company that mingled African and Asian elements.
Her ventures achieved crossover success, attracting customers beyond her core black clientele. The Washington Post wrote that her restaurant in Washington “manages to transcend racial lines,” adding that “like a well-whisked beurre blanc, the races here mingle without separating.”
In an interview with National Public Radio in 2007, Smith said: “What B. Smith’s brand is about is bringing people together. I think that if Martha Stewart and Oprah had a daughter, it would be B. Smith.”
Barbara Elaine Smith was born on Aug. 24, 1949, in Everson, Pa. Her father, William, was a steelworker. Her mother, Florence (Claybrook) Smith, was a part-time maid with a flair for interior decorating that she had once hoped to make her career.
From early childhood, Smith was a whirlwind. “I inherited a paper route, I sold magazines, had lemonade stands, I was a candy striper and into fund-raising,” she told The New York Times in 2011. “I’ve always enjoyed being busy.”
With her father, a Jehovah’s Witness, she went door to door distributing copies of the magazines The Watchtower and Awake! and learned valuable lessons along the way. “One thing about being a Jehovah’s Witness,” she often said, “you learn to talk to people.”
When she was barred from joining the Future Homemakers of America because of her race, she started her own home-economics club and named herself president.
In high school she saw an advertisement for the John Robert Powers modeling school and pestered her father to allow her to attend. When she convinced him that it was a finishing school, he relented. She raised the tuition money by babysitting.
After graduating from high school, Smith modeled for department stores in Pittsburgh and got a job as a ground hostess with TWA. Her first big break came in 1969, when she won a place at the Ebony Fashion Fair, a show that traveled to 77 cities across the United States. Along the way she shortened her first name to B.
Two years later, she was signed by the prestigious Wilhelmina agency in New York and began appearing on magazine covers and in print ads, her fresh, girl-next-door looks ideally suited for products like Oil of Olay and Noxzema. She appeared multiple times on the covers of Ebony and Essence, and in July 1976 became only the second black model to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle.
As her modeling career waned, Smith began looking for other outlets. She sang in nightclubs and tried her hand at acting, without much success, although she would later take a role in the off-Broadway play “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” by Nora and Delia Ephron, which had a short run in 2011.
In the 1980s she worked as a hostess and floor manager at America, a large restaurant near Union Square Park operated by the Ark restaurant group. The management, impressed, agreed to help her start her own restaurant, and B. Smith’s, the restaurant, was born. After parting ways with Ark in 1999, she moved B. Smith’s from Eighth Avenue and 47th Street around the corner to 46th Street.
It was at her Manhattan restaurant that she met Gasby, a marketing executive who helped her develop her television show. Her first marriage, to the HBO executive Don Anderson, ended in divorce. Besides Gasby, survivors include her stepdaughter, Dana Gasby; and two brothers, Ronald and Dennis Smith.
Buoyed by the success of her restaurants, Smith wrote two books on home entertaining, “B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends” (1995) and “B. Smith’s Rituals and Celebrations” (1999). A cookbook followed, “B. Smith Cooks Southern Style” (2009).
In her late 50s she began showing the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. When it was formally diagnosed, Smith publicly announced that she was suffering from the disease. She had closed her Sag Harbor and Washington restaurants a year earlier, and in 2015 the original B. Smith’s closed.
The late Unita Zelma Blackwell was an American civil rights activist who was the first African American woman to be elected mayor in the U.S. Blackwell was a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize voter drives for African Americans across Mississippi. She wrote these poignant words that can best describe the extraordinary life of B. Smith:
“You don’t have to think about courage to have it…Courage is the most hidden thing from your eye or mind after it’s done. These is some inner something that tells you what’s right. You know you have to do it to survive as a human being. You have no choice.”