Alumnus Interview: David Bruce Smith ’79

If you have been to a GW basketball game or a rained-out Fall Fest, you probably recognize the name Smith. “Smith” might be the most common surname in the United States, but it also has an illustrious history at GW. The Smith Center is named after D.C. real estate developer and GWU benefactor Charles E. Smith, and the Smith Hall of Art is named after his son Robert H. Smith. Although his grandson does not yet have a building of his own at GW, he recently sponsored a new class in the GW English Department: Faye Moskowitz’s “Literature Live” course focusing on contemporary Jewish-American literature.

When I met with David Bruce Smith last Friday (27 February 2009), he was awaiting the delivery of his new book, Thirteen Young Men: How Charles E. Smith Influenced a Community, his fifth and final book about his grandfather. I chatted with David about his literary career, his hopes for the “Literature Live” course, his time at GW, and his experience serving on GW’s Board of Trustees.

CALDER STEMBEL: It has been just over a year since we featured you on the GW English blog for the first time. Then, you had just published Three Miles from Providence: A Tale of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. What have you been working on over the past year?

DAVID BRUCE SMITH: Actually, I have a book coming out today. It’s being delivered today. It might be coming out in an hour. It’s about my grandfather. It’s called Thirteen Young Men: How Charles E. Smith Influenced a Community. It’s about how he and others raised the money to build the Rockville Jewish Community Center complex in the ‘60s. This is the fifth and last book about my grandfather. I started on September 27th 2007, to be exact, and the writing was done in August of ’08, and then you have the corrections and all that stuff. So it was done in January.

CS: What has motivated you to write five books about your grandfather, besides the fact that he’s had a big influence on the Jewish community in Washington, DC?

DBS: Well the first book, which was in 1985, that was accidental. He had hired someone to help him with his memoirs; he asked me to read the manuscript, and I didn’t really care for it. He asked me if I wanted to take it over, so I took it over with someone who I found who was a professional writer.

Then, he wanted a collection of his speeches. So in 1988 I did a collection of his speeches. Whenever I do a book, I try to do it so it’s a little bit different. I didn’t want to just take the speeches and staple them together. And I didn’t want to do some editorial comments that would be so dull. So I divided it into five sections, and rather than saying “this section is about this, this, and this,” I explained what it was about by making up letters between us. Because I am very comfortable writing make-believe letters.

He was still alive during that book, the second book. The third book was called Letters to My Children. By the time that book came out he was almost 93, and my grandfather’s memory was getting really bad. It was really important to all of us that he felt he had something to do. Much of the information that he wanted to use had been used in the first book. So I had to figure out what to do; I wasn’t going to say, “Papa Charlie, this information has already been used.” So I took the information, and I turned it into letters that came from my father and aunt, and I called it Letters to My Children. The information was true, I just framed it differently.

The fourth book about him was a commercial book, which I did five years after he died. That was my version of his life: twenty-eight vignettes that hold together. That was the truer version of his life.

This fifth book has a lot of letters. This story, I felt, was not the most exciting story, but I knew it would be my sign off book. He is talking to me in this book; I am moving this book along with his letters, and then at the end I write a letter to him. All the information is true, but I’m using all kinds of devices to make it interesting. The problem with this story is, since the major players in the story forty years ago were in their sixties, they’re no longer alive. There were so many people involved, you can’t just be talking about so many people, it’s boring. I had to find a way to give the illusion of all these people. So at the beginning of each section, I might take an invitation or part of the minutes or part of a nominating committee, just to give the flavor of who was involved. The people who are really telling the story: Papa Charlie, and me. That’s the only way I could really make it work.

CS: In addition to writing about your grandfather, you have written about both Abraham Lincoln and Tennessee Williams. What has inspired these literary pursuits?

DBS: I was always interested in Lincoln because he freed the slaves. The basis for Three Miles from Providence was a trip my parents and I took to Springfield, Illinois in ’06, with some people from Lincoln Cottage and National Trust for Historic Preservation. They showed us the Lincoln museum in anticipation of the re-inauguration of Lincoln cottage. They were giving us all these statistics like, “Lincoln is the most written about person in the world, after Christ.” That’s pretty incredible. He’s only been dead 150 years! And I thought to myself, “Well, myself, they don’t have anything to promote the re-inauguration of this cottage. Maybe they would like a book.” So I pitched it to them.

As for the Tennessee book, I worked at Charles E. Smith for 20 years. After the company went public and I decided I didn’t want to stay there, I was looking for something to do in the writing field, and there was the opportunity to do the book on Tennessee with the Shakespeare Theatre. It was a lucky coincidence, as they say. Just before it happened, I read fourteen Tennessee Williams plays. So the opportunity to do a Tennessee Williams book was a lucky break.

CS: You recently donated to GW to establish the “Literature Live” course focusing on contemporary Jewish-American literature. At the time, you said, “It is my hope that this gift will help grow Jewish literature teachings at The George Washington University […] ‘Literature Live’ will be a uniquely GW experience for students.” What exactly do you hope students in the class will gain from their “uniquely GW experience”?

DBS: Faye Moskowitz is teaching Jewish literature right now, and my fear is that someday when she decides to retire, there won’t be anybody there teaching Jewish literature, or Jewish authors, period. And that makes me sad; that needs to be perpetuated. I’d like to see this as the beginning of the perpetuation of the teaching of Jewish authors.

CS: So this course is planned to continue for many years.

DBS: I hope. This is an experiment to see how it works.

CS: The “Live” element of the class includes readings by Anya Ulinich (March 5), Michael Chabon (March 23), and Art Spiegelman (April 2). Did you select these authors and arrange for them to appear?

DBS: Faye did. Actually, I didn’t have anything to do with even the selection. She emailed who she had in mind, and we talked a little bit about it, but really its all her design. There was one author that both of us wanted, Cynthia Ozick, who couldn’t come. And then there are always, you know, a couple of people like Philip Roth who are too expensive to come. I would be nice to see somebody like that.

CS: Some of the other authors who will be read in the class are Amy Bloom, Edward Schwarzschild, Dalia Sofer, and Aryeh lev Stollman. Did professor Faye Moskowitz also select these authors?

DBS: I don’t really think that’s my place. I suppose that if she had picked something that was really terrible, I would have said something, but it all looked pretty fine to me.”

CS: It seems like you trust her judgment.

DBS: Yeah. And I love her writing. I just think she’s so good.

CS: Have you considered coming to GW to speak about your own literary experiences, your work in special book making, or your grandfather’s legacy?

DBS: I haven’t, because I’m not sure anybody would really be interested, to tell you the truth. I have no way of even gauging that. But it doesn’t really appeal to me.

CS: You graduated from GW in 1979 with a B.A. in American Literature. Do you have any humorous anecdotes from your time at GW?

DBS: When I graduated from GW I was 20 years old, so I was probably not feeling very humorous at the time. I was a very serious teenager, so I think I picked American Literature because it was an escape. Reading was an escape. So it was an escape from everything bad. And I have to tell you, this was generally true at the time, GW was a lot different back then. It wasn’t nice; not students, the administration, at that time. But there were a lot of very nice people in the English department.

CS: You happened to overlap with actor Alec Baldwin during your time at GW: he attended from 1976-79 before transferring to NYU. Did you ever cross paths with him?

DBS: Every once in a while I used to see him at the Smith Center. I think he was a year ahead of me. I didn’t know him at all. You know, he went to New York and in twelve minutes he was Alec Baldwin.

CS: For many students, the transition from college to the real world can be daunting. How did you transition from being a GW English major to being a professional writer?

DBS: I just started doing stuff immediately, in ’79 and ’80. In February of ’81, I went and did a six month internship at the National Journal. And they said to me in July, that if I would go to graduate school in journalism, they’d give me a job.

They said, “We’ll get you in, if we can. Where do you want to go?”

And I said, “I want to go to Columbia.”

So they contacted Columbia, and Columbia said, “It’s just too late, it’s already August.”

And I said, “You know what, I don’t want to wait a year. How about NYU?”

The president of NYU at the time was a friend of the head of National Journal. His name was John Brademas, and he had been a congressman from Indiana.

Brademas said, “If you send his transcripts up, and if we’re interested, we’ll call you and we’ll let you know if we’re interested in him.”

September 16th they call me, and they say, “Okay, we’re interested.”

School is supposed to start September 22nd. I have no place, I don’t know if I’m going, coming, I don’t know what I’m doing. So I go up on September 17th, I have no GREs, I have nothing. They gave me a two-hour interview and grilled me on everything. I remember thinking, forget it. But they took me. I got in, and it was like GW in many ways, except it was in New York. The people in the program were great, but the administration was mean. So I decided I was going to put this into my acceleration mode, and I finished in 16 months, because I didn’t like it.

CS: But you didn’t end up working for National Journal after graduate school.

DBS: No. In the summer of ’82, my father asked me if I would be a property manager in residential. That would be apartment buildings, for six weeks. I didn’t want to do it particularly, but I figured it was the least I could do for him. It turned out I liked it. So I stretched it out to 8 weeks. I went back to school, I finished my thesis, and then I was supposed to go back to January. But I didn’t find out that I got my degree until February, and then I stretched it until April. I went back to Charles E. Smith in January, but I stretched it to April.

I called them, and they told me rather than working at National Journal, they were going to offer me a job at Barrons. And I said, well I kind of changed my mind. I like what I’m doing right now, I think I’ve decided I’m going to, if you don’t mind. It wasn’t killing them that they didn’t have me. So I just went back to Charles E. Smith and I stayed until ’03.

CS: In 2002, you became a member of GW’s Board of Trustees. Could you describe your experiences on the Board, especially as an English major and author?

DBS: Well, I think your experience on the Board of Trustees is really shaped by the committee you’re on. I think you really have to be on the Executive Committee of that particular board to have a huge amount of influence. And I haven’t been on the board long enough to be on the Executive Committee. I’m on Academic Affairs, which I like, and that has to do with tenure, and emeritus, and deciding on new courses, educational policies. I think the GW board, I think it’s a pretty good board, I’d like it to be a little smaller, but I’d say that about any board. The GW board in probably on the smaller side, at about 33 members. I was on WETA years and years ago, and with staff it was about 77. It was like going to the United Nations.”

Smith was most recently at GW for Edward P. Jones’ inaugural reading as the Wang Professor of Contemporary Literature. We would like to invite him back to campus for the upcoming reading by Michael Chabon on Monday, March 23rd. The event begins at 7 PM in the Jack Morton Auditorium, and is followed by a book signing for both Chabon and Jones. Free and open to all who wish to attend, but seating is on a first-available basis.

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