On an overcast Thursday afternoon, B. Smith answers the front door of her modern home, “Casa Del Soul,” with apprehension behind her eyes.
“Hello,” she says timidly, her face completely bare — a departure from her days as a young cover model to, later, her cookbooks that established her as a chef and restaurateur. She is still striking, her beauty only accentuated by her graying hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Can I help you?”
Once her husband, Dan Gasby, and two Italian mastiffs — 7-year-old Bishop and 1-year-old Sansa — give the okay, she instantly relaxes. “Nice to see you,” she beams, letting down her guard and flashing her famous smile. “Please come in.”
She opens the door wider, exposing a colorful home full of artifacts hinting at a life well lived and absorbed — artwork, countless photographs and, of course, a spacious kitchen, though she doesn’t use it much these days. Large windows at the rear of the house overlook Sag Harbor Bay.
Ms. Smith makes herself comfortable on her leopard-print couch, her husband not far from her on a slate-colored sofa.
Two minutes later, she is back on her feet, headed for the adjacent room.
“My wife, she has a short attention span,” Mr. Gasby explains. “She gets up and walks away.”
He added, “But she’s moved millions.”
In 2013, Ms. Smith was diagnosed at age 64 with Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out simple tasks. Of the 5.2 million people living with Alzheimer’s today, two out of three are women, and African-Americans are twice as likely to suffer from the disease. With all the odds working against Ms. Smith, she even fell into the early-onset category — a diagnosis prior to age 65.
Ms. Smith and Mr. Gasby spoke candidly about how they would proceed, and one decision was certain: it would be in the public eye, as her life had been thus far. She would be a spokesperson for all Americans struggling with Alzheimer’s, but especially for black women.
To help raise awareness, they have released their grippingly honest book, “Before I Forget,” which hit bookshelves on Tuesday, with the hope that it will help others recognize symptoms sooner and seek help, jump-start serious funding for treatment and prevention, and address the uncomfortable truths associated with the disease.
“The book reflects having a wonderful relationship that transitioned through a tough period because of things that we didn’t understand,” Mr. Gasby says. “And that was the impact that Alzheimer’s has on a person. You’ve gotta deal with reality.”
He sighs. “I just wish it was me and not her.”
The Meet Cute
Mr. Gasby remembers what Ms. Smith was wearing the first time he saw her: “a fire-engine red bustier and a red hostess gown.” She was busy socializing at her Manhattan restaurant, B. Smith, on 8th Avenue and 47th Street, and Mr. Gasby was on a date with his then-wife. It was Valentine’s Day.
But he wasn’t lost on her, either.
“I saw him. I liked him,” Ms. Smith recalls. “I liked everything I saw about him. Yes. Still do.”
They would be friends for about three years before dating in 1991 — Dan, the broad-shouldered, up-and-coming ad sales guru from Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Barbara, the daughter of a poor black family from white working-class Everson, Pennsylvania, who left home at age 17, shortened her name to B. and tried her hand at modeling in Manhattan.
It wasn’t long before the lovebirds were inseparable. He was her “Big.” She was his “Sweetie.” They were married 18 months later on December 23, 1992, at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on 46th Street, and their relationship was a dream. They rarely argued, discussed their every thought and worked together in harmony — Mr. Gasby the other half of his wife’s brand and eventual empire, which included restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., and Sag Harbor, and handling business behind the scenes.
“I always tell young people, ‘You’ve gotta like who you love,’” Mr. Gasby explains. “So many of us get enamored and love what we like, but what we end up liking is not the person, it’s the things that attract us.
“And, so, through the ups and downs of 23 years — but most importantly the last three, four, five years — we always liked each other, even as Sweetie was going through this transition and I was dealing with it,” Mr. Gasby says.
Their book tells their love story, wrapped with honesty and humor, he continues. “It’s not a made-for-television reality show. We laugh about everything, including Alzheimer’s, but it’s not a sitcom where everything is nice and neat at the end of 30 minutes. This is our life.”
In 2010, Mr. Gasby began noticing oddities in his wife’s behavior. Always organized and tidy to a fault, she began leaving used dishes around their apartment in Manhattan and their home in Sag Harbor. Food would spoil in the refrigerator — a huge no-no, considering her place in the food industry. Sometimes, it would be an unopened container of milk, because she forgot she’d already purchased four or five.
She became absent-minded — once leaving her husband’s wallet on the roof of their car and driving away — and her kind-hearted nature became volatile, her emotions swinging from high to low.
It was her stepdaughter, Dana, who first accurately diagnosed Ms. Smith, after they had the same conversation four times over the span of two days.
“Dad, I think Barbie has Alzheimer’s,” Ms. Gasby had said, fondly referring to Ms. Smith by her nickname. “I see things …”
“What are you talking about?” her father had responded, annoyed and nearly chastising. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mr. Gasby was in denial, he later realized, while watching his wife’s guest spot on the “Today” show one morning in 2013. She was demonstrating recipes for a Labor Day picnic on a set she had graced many times, with a cast and crew who knew and loved her — undoubtedly, in part, because she was known to only need one take.
When she froze on live television for more than 10 seconds, everyone was horrified. And her family knew what they had to do.
“I thought she was tired or burnt out or just out of it, but this said there was something deeper,” Mr. Gasby says. “Dana is a pretty astute person, even if sometimes I don’t want to admit it.”
Ms. Gasby smirks from the kitchen, giving her dog, Sansa, a pat. “When I told my dad that day, I was okay with it. I wasn’t emotional about it, because I only knew what it was like in text,” she says. “But now you know, as you’re living with it, what it really encompasses. The bullet points are fact, but it doesn’t ever show the feelings of those bullet points — for her and for us.”
The Big Scare
On November 25, 2014, Mr. Gasby went to the American Hotel — one of his favorite local haunts — to pick up his wife from the Hampton Jitney bus stop. She had boarded in Manhattan, with the help of her stepdaughter, and a promise from the driver to make sure she got off at the correct location.
When she did not come walking down the stairs, Mr. Gasby bolted up them, frantically searching for Ms. Smith.
She was nowhere to be seen.
“It was the scariest thing in the world,” he recalls. “At the end of the day, you know that a bad day with that is she never comes back. When people go missing, there are only two outcomes: they’re found or they’re discovered.”
Ms. Smith, who had left the conversation, returns asking, “You’re looking for something?”
Mr. Gasby burst out laughing. “See what I’m saying? We’re like a sitcom. It’s like a comedy here. You can’t make this up. We have sentences that start and stop. We have mixed metaphors.”
“What can I get you?!” she asks saucily, clearly realizing her mistake and laughing with her husband. “What are you talking about? When?”
“When you went missing.”
“Oh, that,” she says with a shrug, throwing her hands out in front of her with a flick of her wrists. “That was nothing.”
“We call it ‘The Event,’” Mr. Gasby says. “It was scary, but I’ve been around enough where you know you have to reach out. And the people of the East End, people I never knew, called and said they were driving around, looking for her. The Southampton Police and the Sag Harbor Police were great.”
“When I look back now, it said to me she has made a difference in lives, because they know she’s genuine,” he continues. “They wanted to find her because they wanted to know she was okay. I still well up when I think about that.”
Both the local and national media latched on to the story and its, ultimately, happy ending — Ms. Smith had disembarked early and walked the city for 18 hours, unharmed but for the blisters on her feet from her high-heeled shoes. And out of the horrific scare came the unbridled truth, as well as a heightened sense of awareness, which is exactly what Mr. Gasby wanted, he explains.
“You can run and hide, and you can let other people define you. Or you can stand up and own it,” he says. “I put a lot of stuff out there and I have some people say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and I say, ‘Because if I don’t tell the truth, then there will be another generation or another two, three, four years where people won’t have a reference point of what this is like.’ I want this to end. We have the means and the mechanisms to be the start of that end. It takes its toll, but that’s what we do. We’ve always done that.”
For now, Ms. Smith is comfortable with talking about Alzheimer’s — “Yes. Always have been,” she says — even though, most days, she does not realize she suffers from the disease.
“No, not at all,” she says. “I like basic things, like hot dogs and this and that. And, also …” she smiles sheepishly and laughs, a little embarrassed, before getting back on track. “I know that something is wrong. I might take it to somebody, a doctor. So it kind of just depends. But it hasn’t been bad, at all. So I’m happy about that!”
She looks to her husband for reassurance, and he meets her with a wide smile.
The New Normal
Their day has gotten off to a rocky start. The previous night, Mr. Gasby heard Bishop making a ruckus, only to see his half-asleep wife trying to leave the house.
“We got up today, we talked about it,” he says. “Sweetie has difficulty remembering things — right, honey?”
“Sometimes, yes,” Ms. Smith says.
In the morning, she went to Studio 89 in Sag Harbor with her stepdaughter. She was easily the hit of the class, but when she returned home, her mood spiraled. Mr. Gasby decided to take her for a long drive — down to Sagg Main Beach to look at the ocean and through the side streets, peeking behind the hedges that have shed any semblance of privacy.
“We do a Siskel and Ebert,” Mr. Gasby says. “‘Oh, that looks great.’ ‘Hey, they got a lot of money, but that’s no style.’ ‘Do those little cherubs pee?’”
“Dan Gasby!” his wife exclaims.
“We go out and we laugh. And it gives her a chance to just change the subject,” he says. “Then we stopped by our favorite place, Bobby Van’s. We know everybody in there. Sweetie had a ginger ale and I drink what I am: a dark and stormy.”
During their drive along the ocean, Ms. Smith broke out into song, harmonizing perfectly with Sam Smith as he sang, “Stay With Me.”
“It was like being in a movie,” Mr. Gasby says, noting she once sang in a reggae band with Debbie Harry before she became Blondie. “It was beautiful.”
Ms. Smith is even considering a transition from the kitchen to the recording studio — “I’ve always sung over the years,” she says — especially because she rarely cooks anymore.
“From time to time I do. I don’t love it as much as I used to, though,” she says. “It’s interesting. I always cooked and always went home from school, cooked our dinners. My mother worked, my dad worked, my brothers worked, so that’s what I did.”
Currently, many of Ms. Smith’s long-term memories are still intact, while her short-term memory suffers, placing her in the moderate stage of the Alzheimer’s trajectory. “I’m looking for that Hail Mary,” Mr. Gasby says. “Medicine is getting better and better. I’m hoping we’ll find something over the next 18 months that says, ‘We need to jump on that,’ instead of just being a trial.”
The thought of leaving the B. Smith brand behind does not rest easy with Mr. Gasby, who has lived the majority of his life in tandem with his wife. But he does acknowledge that it is a reality.
“All things come to an end. I’m not insecure about that,” he says. “I’ll tell you something that I would like, want to hear something really outrageous? When I look out there over the landscape of life and society, I think they should replace Aunt Jemima with B. Smith. Because what she has done and what she represents as a black woman, who brings people together, and what Aunt Jemima is and historically wasn’t … I think they should put B. Smith on the pancake boxes and raise money for Alzheimer’s.”
Ms. Smith placed both hands on her hips playfully and states, “I think you’re right.”
“Who’s hungry?” her stepdaughter calls out from the kitchen, drawing Ms. Smith and Mr. Gasby to the center island.
Just a few bites into their Mediterranean-inspired meal — the status quo these days — Ms. Smith pauses, interrupting her husband mid-thought, and walks away.
Mr. Gasby and his daughter lovingly watch her go, as Bishop trails faithfully behind her.
Winner of Best Feature Story, first place, New York Press Association, 2016
As published in the Southampton Press