B. Smith lived by the motto, “Whatever you do, do it with style.”
Her loved ones would argue that she also did it with poise, charm, elegance and graciousness. She was a shrewd businesswoman, yet generous; accomplished, yet approachable.
She was joy.
The pioneering fashion model, who helped pave the way for African American entrepreneurs by building an empire in restaurants, television shows, books on entertaining, bedding and furniture collections, was — with good intentions, but perhaps shortsightedly — nicknamed the “black Martha Stewart.” Still, it was a title that Ms. Smith accepted with nothing short of grace.
“When people say I’m the African American Martha Stewart, I know what they’re talking about,” she told The Southampton Press in 2011, in an interview at her restaurant, B. Smith’s, in Manhattan. “We do similar things.” But, she added, “I would like people to think of me, period.”
This past week, Ms. Smith has dominated the thoughts of her admirers around the globe, chief among them her family, friends and the young black women she inspired over the last five decades. She showed them what was possible — that they, too, could change the world.
Late on Saturday, February 22, Ms. Smith died at home in East Hampton with family nearby. She was 70 and had succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease after a challenging number of years since her diagnosis in 2013, according to her husband, Dan Gasby.
“Thank you to all the friends and fans who supported B. and our family during her journey,” he shared on social media. “Thank you to everyone for respecting our privacy during this agonizing time. Heaven is shining even brighter now that it is graced with B.’s dazzling and unforgettable smile.”
Barbara Elaine Smith was born on August 24, 1949, to a poor black family in white working-class Everson, Pennsylvania. Her father, William, was a steelworker, and her mother, Florence, was a part-time maid with a keen eye for interior design.
From them, the young girl learned the meaning of hard work, inheriting a paper route, candy striping and even selling lemonade before saving up her babysitting money to attend the John Robert Powers modeling school.
At age 17, after high school graduation, Ms. Smith left home to model for department stores in Pittsburgh, ultimately leading to her big break in 1969: winning a spot in the Ebony Fashion Fair, a show that traveled to 77 cities across the country.
And along the way, “Barbara” would become “B.”
Signed by the prestigious Wilhelmina agency in New York, Ms. Smith skyrocketed onto the covers of 15 magazines, including Ebony, Essence and Mademoiselle, becoming its second-ever African American cover model in July 1976. Her fresh, girl-next-door looks catered to brands like Oil of Olay and Noxzema, and while they led to several lucrative corporate contracts, her interest eventually waned and redirected her toward what she’d always wanted, recalled her longtime friend, Joyce Mullins-Jackson.
“I knew Barbara when we were all much younger and living in New York City, and she wanted a restaurant,” she said. “That was her biggest dream; this was before she became famous.”
In 1986, she opened her first eponymous restaurant, B. Smith’s, on the edge of the theater district — and a dedicated base of affluent black New Yorkers immediately followed. Among them was Mr. Gasby, a tall, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming ad sales guru from Bedford-Stuyvesant who immediately noticed Ms. Smith while on a date with his then-wife for Valentine’s Day.
It’s hard to blame him. Her beauty was undeniable, said Emma Walton Hamilton, co-founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
“She just had this amazing, dazzling, warm smile,” she said. “She was elegant and gracious and beautiful, with this flawless complexion and this innate sense of style. You just couldn’t take your eyes off her. She was so, so beautiful, and so at ease in her body and in her skin and in who she was.”
Mr. Gasby was not lost on her, either — “I saw him. I liked him,” Ms. Smith told The Southampton Press in 2016 — and they would remain friends for about three years before dating in 1991. It wasn’t long before they were inseparable.
He was her “Big.” She was his “Sweetie.” And they were married 18 months later on December 23, 1992, at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on 46th Street — the start to what Mr. Gasby could only describe as a dream.
Despite working in tandem, the couple rarely argued. She was the face and energy of her brand, and he was her other half, supporting her every career move from behind the scenes, which came to include a nationally syndicated television show, “B. Smith With Style”; the B. Smith with Style Home Collection, which debuted at Bed Bath & Beyond in 2001, making it the first line from an African American woman to be sold at a nationwide retailer; a series of home entertaining books; and restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., and, eventually, Sag Harbor, where they first rented the Captain Cuffee House on Liberty Street in the 1980s on E.T. Williams Jr.’s family compound.
“My first impressions were that she was very vivacious, a real go-getter,” Mr. Williams said. “She really wanted to accomplish a lot of things, and, after talking to her, she does remind me of Martha Stewart in many ways, because she has the same kind of personality and was going on to do great things. We were very impressed with her.”
Ms. Smith and Mr. Gasby bought a waterfront home in Sag Harbor Hills, named it “Casa Del Soul,” and quickly established themselves as village regulars. “She had a great impact on the whole Sag Harbor community,” Mr. Williams said. “Just walking down Main Street, people would stop her and talk with her, and she would be very friendly and gracious to anyone who was there.”
Tracey Brown James grew up down the beach from the power couple, gaining access by way of her parents — the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and his wife, Alma — and Ms. Smith quickly became one of her idols.
“She had accomplished so much in so many different areas of life, and was so grounded,” Ms. James said. “She wasn’t someone who accomplished these things and then just said, ‘Oh, well, now I’m here and you’re there, and I’m living this new fabulous life.’ She brought people with her. She was always accessible, always grounded, and just beautiful inside and out.”
Naturally, Ms. James invited the longtime family friend to her wedding day on September 18, 2004, which inconveniently aligned with a brewing Hurricane Ivan on the horizon.
“It was this insane monsoon wedding,” the bride recalled with a laugh. “My ceremony was on the beach, with all the flowers and the chairs and the people, and that hurricane came through, blew everything out to sea. Everyone was running for their lives.
“Hillary Clinton was there with her Secret Service, they’re running, everyone’s completely hysterical, people are drenched,” she continued. “And B. looked immaculate the entire time.”
After ducking for cover and finishing the ceremony at the local church, the 300-plus guests migrated to B. Smith’s in Sag Harbor for a luncheon reception, listening to live music under sunny skies, as if the storm had never happened.
And that’s when an Earth, Wind and Fire song started to play.
“Next thing I know, B. is standing on top of the bar — she’s taken her shoes off,” Ms. James said. “She helps lift me up onto the bar, my husband comes on the bar, Dan comes on the bar, our flower girls, and we are dancing our hearts out all up and down the bar of her restaurant — on a Saturday afternoon in September. It was amazing. It was amazing.
“Every groomsman, all my husband’s friends, were madly in love with her,” she added. “First of all, she was beautiful, but the joy of life and excitement she exuded was just contagious, and everyone wanted to be close to her and talk to her and get to know her better. She was just a really amazing, amazing woman, and she is going to be so, so sorely missed.”
At age 64, Ms. Smith was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, though it was her disappearance in November 2014 — and the media circus that followed — that forced the news into the limelight, after she had gone public with the diagnosis four months earlier. She had disembarked the Hampton Jitney too early and spent 18 hours wandering the streets of New York, unharmed but for the blisters on her feet from her high heels.
“I know that something is wrong,” Ms. Smith admitted in 2016. “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!”
To that, Mr. Gasby met his wife with a wide smile. Together, the couple had already begun to raise awareness of the disease — and its effects on the African American community in particular — by writing the book “Before I Forget,” with Michael Shnayerson, interweaving the story of her battle with Alzheimer’s with practical advice and the realities of dealing with the day-to-day challenges of a brain disease.
For Mike Taibbi, a part-time North Haven resident and longtime friend of Ms. Smith and Mr. Gasby, he noticed the impact of the disease when the charismatic hostess began forgetting the names of her frequent guests at the Sag Harbor restaurant — “a difficult loss, because she was so good at that,” he said.
“When she had the restaurant, she came and sat at our table a number of times. She was a celebrity who made other people feel comfortable,” he said. “The last time she came to our house with Dan, she was in the throes of the disease, but there were moments when she was still who she was — beautiful, attentive and struggling to be as compassionate and sweet as we knew she was.”
The restaurateurs closed the Washington, D.C., location of B. Smith’s in 2013, followed by the original location in 2015, and the Sag Harbor restaurant in between. As the years ticked on, East End locals watched helplessly as one of their favorite neighbors declined.
That included author Steven Gaines. “They were a romantic couple. It’s really heartbreaking. It’s a terrible disease,” he said. “She always had a lot of grace, and she engaged this terrible diagnosis with the same grace that she did with everything. She was really blessed with this ability to be charming, to make you feel at ease, to be smart and wonderful.
“And Dan is one of the bravest people that I know,” he added. “He’s just incredible and everybody should have somebody like Dan to be able to take care of them like he took care of her.”
Besides Mr. Gasby, Ms. Smith is survived by her stepdaughter, Dana Gasby, and two brothers, Ronald and Dennis Smith.
In 2017, the couple sold their Sag Harbor home and moved to East Hampton. There, the 11 acres of land have provided Ms. Smith the room to spend time outside with her dogs in her final years, allowing her to connect with nature in the place she loved so much.
And it adored her right back.
“I don’t even know who could come close to her. She was really loved by all,” said her longtime friend Stephen Wald, who shares her birth date. “You had to like B. If you met her, you had to like her. It was that simple.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and the Southampton Press