B. Smith—She did it with style and grace
Herb Boyd | 2/23/2020, 11:22 a.m.
Be beautiful, be wonderful, and be genuinely blessed. B. Smith was all of these and more as a glamorous model, restauranteur, chef, author, actress and a creator of a home products line. The B was for Barbara and that single letter marked her celebrity and on Saturday announced her death after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 70.
The world first took notice of B. Smith when her gorgeous face emblazoned magazine covers, particularly Mademoiselle in 1976 where she followed the trailblazing Jolie Jones in 1969 as the second Black model on the cover.
Born Barbara Elaine Smith on August 24, 1949 in Everson, Pennsylvania, she began her exuberant contact with the world knocking on doors and conversing with people as a child where she ventured with her father as a Jehovah’s Witness. After graduating from high school she convinced her parents to support her dream to become a John Robert Powers model. Soon, her visage was featured in several prominent publications, and later with even wider exposure when she signed with the Wilhelmina agency.
But it was her face on Essence and Ebony that gave her a fixture in the mind for many African Americans. Her ever-growing popularity increased exponentially in 1986 when she opened her first restaurant B. Smith’s in Manhattan’s theater district. Another was opened later at Union Station in Washington, D.C. and Sag Harbor. Managing restaurants and greeting customers paralleled, and often augmented her career as a pitchwoman or poster woman for a number of nationally known entities and products, including Verizon, Oil of Olay, Noxzema, and Colgate.
Her effervescent personality was perfect for the nationally syndicated television show B. Smith with Style that for a decade was aired on the NBC stations. She was often a guest on a variety of talk shows where her opinions on style and culture were requested. By 1992, after her marriage to Dan Gasby, they produced four specials for TV One.
Smith authored three home entertaining or cookbooks, B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends (Artisan Press), the first tabletop entertainment and lifestyle book by an African American; B. Smith: Rituals and Celebration (Random House), a James Beard Foundation Award nominee, one of Food & Wine’s best cookbooks of 1999 and an American Library Association Black Caucus Literary Award winner; and B. Smith Cooks Southern-Style (Simon and Schuster), with 200 recipes and flavorful tips for reducing calories. Visit YouTube and you can watch her prepare some of these scrumptious meals in the company of such celebrities as Eartha Kitt. When she introduced her home products line the comparisons to Martha Stewart began, and even she noted during an interview that she could have been the offspring of Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. Her husband defined Stewart as the perfectionist, “Barbara is passion,” he said. In 2018, they co-authored with Michael Shnayerson, Before I Forget, chronicling her struggle with Alzheimer’s.
The passion between Smith and husband was challenged by the onset of Alzheimer’s, and by 2018 he revealed that he was in a relationship with another woman. That revelation wasn’t received very well on social media, and on one occasion Gasby’s response was “I love my wife but I can’t let her take away my life.”
Even so, upon her death he noted that “Heaven is shining even brighter now that it is graced with B’s dazzling and unforgettable smile.” Among her survivors is her stepdaughter, Dana Gasby.
Her signature tagline could serve as her epitaph: “Whatever you do, do it with style!” And that line and her lovely image can be found on display at Smithsonian The National Museum of African American History and Culture.