MARCO ISLAND — Benedicte Smith
September 25, 1921- October 29.2008
My 87-year-old mother, Benedicte "Bennie" Traberg Smith, widow of pioneering broadcast journalist Howard K. Smith, has died at her beach side condominium on Marco Island, Florida. She passed away on Wednesday, October 29, 2008 from complications from hydrocephalus. A longtime resident of Bethesda, Maryland, my mother had been living full-time on Marco for the past six years.
My mother married Howard Smith during World War II when she was a cub reporter for a Danish newspaper and very young. But from the earliest years of their marriage she was a formidable presence at his side and major force behind his success.
She edited all his books and articles, and was his agent, negotiating all his broadcasting and other contracts. She arranged every aspect of what, in later years, became a very lucrative speaking career. When my parents traveled on the lecture circuit, she once laughingly told a Lansing, Michigan paper, the Washingston State Journal: "My husband never knows where his trips will take him .... It's not until we get ready to board the plane that he'll inquire 'Where are we going?' and then I will tell him.'"
She also managed all their finances, doling out spending money to him on a weekly basis. It was an unusual arrangement, but they both liked it that way. My mother liked running things and my father preferred to think and write, the couple told the Washington Post magazine for an Aug., 11 1974 profile of the couple.
During most of his career, she traveled with him everywhere, whether it was war-torn France or Nome, Alaska. A 1976 article in a Texas newspaper, The El Paso Times, sums things up: "Howard K Smith," the paper's headline announced, "Always Accompanied by His Wife." My brother, the late Jack P. Smith, a longtime correspondent with ABC News, used to refer fondly to our parents as "The Howard and Bennie Show."
Born in Store Heddinge, Denmark on September 25, 1921, my mother met my father 20 years later (late 1941) in Berlin when he was reporter for CBS radio and she was a beautiful, redheaded staffer for Copenhagen's Berlingske Tidende newspaper. As my father recalled in his 1996 memoir, "Events Leading Up to My Death," their relationship "was born in an atmosphere of acute crisis." With World War II heating up and both of them heading out of the German capital, they decided to marry just four days after their first date. My mother's young age required her return to Nazi-occupied Denmark for parental approval and the Danish queen's intervention to obtain traveling papers, but the couple reunited successfully three months later in Berne, Switzerland.
They spent the first two and a half years of their marriage "trapped" by the war in neutral Switzerland, where my mother helped my father edit his first book, the wartime best seller "Last Train from Berlin."
In the summer of 1944, she traveled with him to report on resistance fighting in southeastern France and had a near-rendezvous with death when rebel forces mistook her for the red-haired mistress of a French collaborator. Later, although pregnant with my brother, she insisted on hitchhiking with my father through the still-occupied countryside to Paris, Smith recalls in the memoir. New motherhood stifled her traveling for a year or so, but once the war ended she was back at my father's side for a brief posting in Berlin followed by a move to London, where my father worked as chief European correspondent for CBS News. Over the next decade, she drove him to capitals behind the iron curtain and helped haul camera equipment across the Yorkshire moors for a report on unemployment in English textile country. She also drew my father into her passion for collecting.
My father was a Rhodes Scholar and had fine, southern manners, but he was brought up poor. In later years, he was often described as patrician and courtly. A lot of that style was actually her doing. When they lived in London, she was the one who introduced him to the pleasures of "salon" type entertaining. She also created the magnificent Bethesda, MD home that became the centerpiece of their life and the setting for much of his work from 1958 until his death in 2002.
When my father moved to Washington to become bureau chief for CBS and eventually anchor and commentator for ABC, my parents bought a down-at-the-heels Victorian off McArthur Boulevard with a sweeping view down to the Potomac River. She built him an elegant oval study, complete with day-by-day shelving for each of his three daily papers and pullout tabletops for reviewing script pages. He did almost all his writing there. The high-ceilinged Regency style addition she added onto their home was filled with treasures collected in their years abroad -- Elizabethan antiques, Egyptian statuary and lots and lots of leather-bound books. (Most of the Smith furnishings and the library were auctioned off two years ago in New York and Washington.) My father interviewed columnist Walter Lippmann there for CBS, and when he joined ABC it was the setting for several televised black-tie dinners where correspondents hashed over the year's events.
My parents weren't fabulously wealthy. My father left television before star salaries for anchors became the norm. But my mother was very clever. They collected beautiful and unusual things when the dollar was valuable and European families were unloading their heirlooms. They bought their hilltop Bethesda house cheaply on a gamble. It was condemned for a proposed highway; she bet neighborhood opposition would doom the project, and it did. She used the same savoir-faire to build up my father's lecturing career after he left ABC in 1979. Thanks to her, he earned far more in their lecturing years than he ever made on the small screen.
Soon after my father died, she left their Bethesda house for Florida's Marco Island, their part-time home since 1996. My mother was dealt a second blow in 2004, when my older brother Jack, a former ABC news correspondent, died of pancreatic cancer at age 58. But she showed no regret at trading her Potomac River vista for a panoramic view of the Gulf. She was quite happy on Marco. Always a lover of nature, she spent hours every day admiring the bird life and watching for storms. And she lived for the sunsets. "Welcome to Paradise!" she shouted out to visitors when they came in the front door.
My mother will be buried in Georgetown's historic Oak Hill Cemetery (in Washington DC). She made another smart choice some years ago when she secured a burial spot there under an old tree. It's the perfect resting place. She'll have the two things she loved most -- proximity to my father and a beautiful view.
Benedicte Smith is survived by her daughter, Catherine H. Smith of Los Angeles, California; and three grandchildren, Graham and Logan Jolicoeur, also of Los Angeles, and Alexander Smith of Washington DC.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to PanCAN, the advocacy organization that funds research for pancreatic cancer and provides services for those stricken, at 2141 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 7000; El Segundo, CA 90245, www.pancan.org.
OTHER COMMENTS ABOUT MY MOTHER:
-- "Her gaze was level, calm, assured, as if she had tested the world and felt she would be equal to anything it threw in her way. She was nineteen," her husband, Howard K. Smith wrote in his memoir, "Events Leading Up to My Death," page 125.
-- "I told her to keep the checks and others that arrived would be hers. I would ask when I needed money. So it has gone, and in her care our finances have prospered," Smith wrote about his wife.
-- Bennie Smith "had the capacity to do anything she chose after reading the relevant book." passage from memoir of former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey.
-- My father, Howard K. Smith, called Edward R. Murrow "the most impressive male person I was ever to know," adding that "The most impressive female person I ever met I married."
--Quote from Peter Jennings via Catherine Smith: When told Bennie Smith's health was weak at the Arlington National Cemetery funeral held for Jack Smith in April 2004, Peter Jennings (soon to die himself of lung cancer) said to me, "That is not an adjective I can ever imagine being applied to her."