Barbara “B.” Smith, a fashion model, restauranteur, and lifestyle icon lost her battle with Alzheimer’s disease on Saturday, February 22. Her death was announced in a statement from her husband via social media. She was 70.
“Heaven is shining even brighter now that it is graced with B.’s dazzling and unforgettable smile.”
Barbara Elaine Smith was born in a small town in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The daughter of a steel worker and part-time maid with interior decorating dreams, Barbara was no stranger to hard work. As a teenager she convinced her father to allow her to attend a modeling school by telling him it was a finishing school. She raised the money for tuition herself by babysitting. After high school, Ms. Smith modeled for department stores in Pittsburgh and got a job at the city’s airport as a ground hostess.
Her big break came in 1969 when she won a spot on the Ebony Fashion Fair, a touring fashion show. She shortened her name to B & later went on to join the Wilhelmina Models Agency. B.’s look was perfect and she enjoyed a successful career. The young maverick was featured on 15 magazine covers and was one of the first African American models featured on the cover of Mademoiselle Magazine (July 1976). As her modeling career slowed, in the 80’s B. went looking for her next thing.
The B. Smith Style Empire
She tried acting and singing in nightclubs; but found her groove as a hostess and floor manger for America, an Ark Group Restaurant. She impressed management and in 1986 opened her own restaurant. B. Smith’s in Manhattan was known for attracting affluent Black New Yorkers. Her restaurant was known as a the place “where the who’s who of Black Manhattan meet and greet spot.” The B. Smith restaurant empire expanded in 1994 when the doors of B. Smith’s at Union Station opened in Washington, D.C.; then again in 1998 in Sag Harbor, New York.
B. managed to transfer the success from her restaurants to build a lifestyle empire. There where home entertainment books: “B. Smith’s Entertaining & Cooking for Friends”, “B. Smith’s Rituals and Celebrations” and “B. Smith Cooks Southern Style”; a nationally syndicated television show in the 90s that featured home decor and cooking; a magazine; as well as a line in Bed Bath & Beyond and a furniture line with Lazy Boy. Her infectious personality and creativity impacted a national audience. Earning her on-air and guest appearances on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America”.
Smith showed signs of forgetfulness and a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease was the impetus for the closing of her restaurants. She and her husband, Dan Gasby, worked to raise awareness for the disease and its effects on the African American community in particular. They appeared in interviews and a public service announcement to help destigmatize Alzheimer’s. Together they cowrote the book “Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer’s” with Vanity Fair editor Michael Shnayerson. The book is the story of her battle with Alzheimer’s and advice for caregivers.
She is survived by her second husband Dan and stepdaughter as well as two brothers.
An Impactful Legacy
B’s signature tag line was “Whatever you do, do it with style.” At first look the B. Smith style might be mistaken for transcultural with a southern flare. But in actuality, her life story is threaded with the motifs of hard work, dedication and passion. Studying the life of the late Barbara “B.” Smith you can learn the lessons to be bold, live your life out loud and not distress. She took bold risks in her life and career which meant sometimes failing forward. Like she did when she tried her hand at acting.
From her early days as a candy striper with dreams of modeling and interior design. To her days working as a hostess with dreams of ownership. B. did what she had to do to not only stay productive but to also leverage her experiences so she could learn a skill to take her to the next level. After receiving a devastating diagnosis, the B. Smith style was not to give up and live out her days in hiding. The B. Smith style was to live life out loud to the fullest. Even after her diagnosis, she wrote a book with her husband and business partner and continued her advocacy work to help others seek treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Barbara B. Smith represented the true definition of a modern lifestyle icon.