By Sonya Vartabedian Staff Writer
---- — PLUM ISLAND — Lois Smith — the venerable New York publicist for Hollywood royalty — helped launch and promote the careers of such celebrities as Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Rosie O’Donnell and Anthony Hopkins during her 40-plus years in public relations.
But today, she is being remembered for her leading role in Newbury and on Plum Island, where the straight-talking, yet unassuming woman came to bring as much passion to the Newbury Town Library and the future of the barrier island as she once did to her megastar clients.
Smith died Sunday from injuries sustained falling down a flight of stairs while on a weekend trip to Maine. She and her husband and former New York Times editor and writer, Gene, had traveled to Hebron Academy, where they were being honored for their fundraising work benefiting his alma mater.
The couple had followed the reception with dinner together at their favorite French restaurant in Maine, before returning to the bed and breakfast where they were staying. Smith, 84, fell during the night and passed away the next day from a brain hemorrhage.
Friends and fellow activists in Newbury said Smith was just as comfortable rubbing elbows at the Academy Awards, celebrating Robert Redford’s birthday at his ranch or donning her trademark red coat and red lipstick to walk the red carpet with a client as she was helping residents of Plum Island plant sea grass and put up snow fencing to protect beach properties from erosion.
“She didn’t get more excited when Robert Redford would call or I would call,” Marie Lojek, a longtime neighbor on Plum Island, said. “She treated everybody the same. ... In a crowd, she would just melt in. She wanted to be part of everything completely, not set apart. I think that made her life very full.”
Catherine Dullea, chairwoman of the Newbury Board of Library Trustees, recalled the first time she met Smith was in the mid-2000s when the Southern Boulevard woman sailed into a meeting and announced she was thinking of running for a seat on the library board. Dullea said they laid out the process for her, explaining how she would need to collect signatures on nomination papers to get her name on the town ballot.
‘“She told us, ‘I’ll just go to the dump and stand at the dump and get some signatures,’” Dullea said.
Sure enough, she did, ultimately getting herself elected and channeling her lifelong love for reading into becoming one of the library’s most ardent supporters over the last half-dozen years. Most recently, she had been working to launch a new library friends group and was to have spent yesterday distributing fliers about an upcoming library fundraiser.
Dullea said one of Smith’s long-term desires was to create an endowment for the library so it would have a dedicated funding stream and wouldn’t be so fragile and dependent on the local economy. Indeed, the Newbury Library was chosen by Smith’s family as one of two beneficiaries for contributions in her memory.
Dullea said she’ll most remember Smith for her knack for bringing people and situations together for a common good.
“I think what would be her greatest gift in life is that she could see a connection between people and situations and opportunities and saw them as bright, glowing threads in the world,” Dullea said.
It was on Plum Island, where she earned the nickname of mayoress from some, that Smith especially felt at home. Here, she spearheaded fundraising efforts, including a voluntary toll at the beach center. As a staunch liberal Democrat, she organized forums on social and political issues.
She was introduced to Plum Island by her husband, who had grown up in Medford. And it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight. Smith told Newburyport Magazine in 2009 that she arrived on Plum Island kicking and screaming, determined not to give up her big-city roots for the crash of waves and salty shores. But she quickly became enamored with the barrier island, and in 1970, the Smiths bought what was then a small yellow cottage, where they would spend one month a summer with their four children, Eric, Luke, Brooke and Scott.
They would eventually expand the cottage, with Smith creating her office, an “inner sanctum,” on the third floor overlooking the ocean.
When it came time for Smith to retire in 2002, she announced she wanted to sell their New York home and settle on the island permanently, her husband of 47 years said yesterday.
“I could have kissed her right there,” he said. “I wanted to come here and hoped she would want to, too.”
Members of the former Newbury Beach Advisory Committee, a volunteer board charged with developing beach management plans in the late 2000s, said Smith was deeply concerned about the environment on Plum Island. And she would often call on her contacts in the performing arts industry to contribute to initiatives for its betterment, including paying for sea grass, fencing and the Welcome to Plum Island sign at the center.
Today, that sign includes a message to pray for the Smiths.
“It’s a very sad loss to the culture and the kind of way Plum Island is,” said Stanley Liffman, who served with Smith on the advisory committee. “We all benefited from her energy and her vitality and her willingness to work together with people.”
Fellow beach advisory committee member Martin Saradjian said Smith approached everything with an upbeat manner.
“There was a freshness about her. Even though she aged, her mind was young and she had sort of a young approach,” Saradjian said. “She spoke what was on her mind, she didn’t pussyfoot. She treated everyone naturally. I just adored her.”
Despite a 20-year age difference, Mary Leary said she and Smith became the best of friends,
“She was full of life and just so normal,” Leary, a former library trustee, said. “Her favorite saying was, keep calm and carry on, from Winston Churchill. ... It was pretty special to have known her.”
Friends said Smith didn’t openly tout her stature among Hollywood’s elite, but invariably, tidbits would leak out.
Michelle Fino, founder of the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival, recalled the day Smith approached her with an offer to assist with the annual event.
“I thought she was a nice lady who wanted to help out. Then I started getting to know her and to hear these tidbits,” said Fino, who accompanied her on several trips to New York to attend shows and screenings. “The thing with Lois was you’d go out to lunch with her and she’d talk about the family, about raising money for the library, mention Meryl Streep had called and that she had to get her hair cut. It was that matter of fact. She was very low-key. She was just that normal.”
Perhaps one of Smith’s greatest credits is the discovery of Redford, a veritable unknown when Smith met him. But Smith saw a star quotient in Redford and, Lojek said, fought to have the industry take notice.
The two remained lifelong friends, and Redford would occasionally visit Plum Island on his yacht and the two would dine on steamers. “He felt a real kinship with her,” Lojek said.
Redford wasn’t the only celebrity to credit Smith with their success. She accompanied director Robert Altman when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences in 2006. In 2003, when Smith won the Publicist Guild’s Life Achievement Award, her friend Scorsese testified, “Lois stands out as a beacon in the industry. What matters to her is the art as it should be.”
In a poem posted online yesterday, Rosie O’Donnell wrote, “ ... she loved her clients, with a fierce loyalty, and a huge open heart that went way beyond show biz; never without her bright red coat, she could be easily spotted in any star-studded crowd; she was by my side as i rode the fame roller coaster, holding my hand thru the scary parts.”
“She loved it,” Gene Smith said of his wife and her career.
That genuine person, full of comfort, compassion and caring are what friends said they will most remember,
Dullea said when her brother died, Smith wasn’t afraid to share herself, opening up about her own loss, that of her youngest son, Scott, who was just shy of 16 when he was killed while surfing on Plum Island. Smith’s family is also requesting memorial contributions be made to the Scott Smith Scholarship Fund at Hebron Academy, where the teen was enrolled before his death.
“There was nothing off-putting about her,” Dullea said. “She was just open and generous and real. I told her she was my role model for how to age gracefully. It’s very fortunate when you can find yourself in life and do what you do best. Lois certainly did.”