Published: August 23, 2022
By Laura Beach, Editor At Large
NEWTOWN, CONN. – The Antiques Dealers Association of America (ADA) lost two Award of Merit winners in the space of a week, David McCullough, 89, and R. Scudder Smith, who died August 14 at the age of 87. Both men were American originals, with a deep love of country and a contagious enthusiasm for its culture and traditions. Both were storytellers, McCullough a courtly patrician with a background in journalism who carved out a space as a popular historian; Smith, a stylish, generous newspaperman with a light touch and winning sense of humor, who, like Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer (1867-1937) before him, allowed his love of collecting and collectors to guide his editorial instincts, thereby influencing a generation of like-minded enthusiasts.
Many of us are where we are today because of Smith. Through The Newtown Bee, the newspaper he inherited from his forebears and published until his death, and Antiques and The Arts Weekly, the newspaper he launched as four editorial pages in The Bee in 1963, Smith befriended and promoted aspiring dealers, show managers, auctioneers, curators and collectors. His persistent attention to their endeavors – the antiques shows and flea markets they directed and exhibited in, the auctions they organized and attended, the exhibitions they mounted and the books they published – created a framework for understanding the world of Americana and placed within it those whose careers and pastimes he followed.
Elegantly attired in Robert Graham shirts and bespoke bow ties to match, Smith was a dashing presence on the antiques trail. His style sense – he mixed strong color and sharp silhouettes with whimsy, and had a knack for stripping the starch out of the classics – expressed itself everywhere he was: at his home, a 1783 farmhouse that he and Helen, his wife of 66 years, filled to the rafters with their finds; in his gardens, which extended for acres and provided another excuse for collecting; and at the office, a romping mélange of trade signs, weathervanes, carousel figures and arcade devices that all but overwhelmed the setting’s more mundane purposes.
Beyond his undeniable flair and talent for friendship, Smith will be remembered for his fundamental decency. He moved easily in every social stratum and took pride in an old-fashioned approach to business that prized loyalty and thrift, values instilled in him by a family keenly attuned to and appreciative of community. It was community that Smith identified in the antiques trade and shared comprehensively with his readers, making Antiques and The Arts Weekly unlike any publication before it, with an informality and warmth that was all Smith’s own.
Born April 12, 1935, Robert Scudder Smith was the elder son of Paul Scudder Smith and Mary Starr Conger Smith, and older brother to Mary Starr Adams and Ted Smith. He captained the soccer and track teams at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., and entered Amherst College, his father’s alma mater, in 1953, later completing his studies at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. It was during a stint in the US Marine Corps, where he trained as a navigator at Cherry Point, N.C., that he met the former Helen Willis, whom he married in 1956. A son, David, and daughter, Sherri, soon followed. The family returned to Newtown in 1961, when Smith formally joined The Bee Publishing Company.
Scudder and Helen began dabbling in antiques as newlyweds. They exhibited at weekend shows with an eye toward upgrading their growing Americana collection and formed close friendships with two of the field’s most influential figures, the show promoter Russell Carrell (circa 1910-1998) and Mary Allis (1899-1987), a top dealer in American folk art. Never one to mince words, Allis urged the Smiths to refine their holdings and stop moonlighting as dealers. As their taste developed, the couple gravitated to folk sculpture. The first weathervane they purchased was a $75 sheet iron horse. They emptied the contents of their change jar, then borrowed the balance from Scudder’s father to acquire the piece.
Smith was only 38 when he succeeded his father as The Bee’s editor and publisher. His first editorial on May 23, 1972, revealed his trademark humor and grace, qualities that served him well professionally. He might have been describing himself when he said of his father, “The door to his office has always been open to all comers and many post-editorial meetings have ended in complete accord.”
The Bee’s traditions have changed little over the decades since its founding in 1877. The paper captured the flavor of small-town life, making it a favorite of writers who settled in the area. “I trust that you managed to get on your exchange list the invaluable and truly marvelous Newtown Bee, of Connecticut,” the humorist James Thurber wrote to fellow New Yorker contributor Wolcott Gibbs in 1954. “…When I lived near Newtown 20 years ago, it was a big, floppy, endless journal filled with wonderful announcements…”
The region was peppered with dealers and auctioneers. Though few of these early businesses survive, readers will remember the Ansonia, Conn., dealers George and Benjamin Arons, who advertised their annual antiques sales in The Bee in the 1930s; auctioneer O’Rundle Gilbert, whose notices appeared in the 1940s; and Carrell, whose shows and markets were listed by the early 1960s. From 1947 until the early 1960s, The Bee carried Thomas Ormsbee’s syndicated collecting column, “Know Your Heirlooms.”
Smith saw his editorial role as supportive, not adversarial. “Our goals for the antiques section, right from the start,” he explained at the time of The Bee’s centennial in 1977, “were to provide news in advance of an event, coverage when possible and a complete line of advertising. We have not limited ourselves to any one field, but go to glass shows as well as art shows, antique car rallies and the show and flea market circuit.”
After finishing his editorial chores each week on Thursday, Smith in the early years spent Fridays pounding on doors, talking to dealers and auctioneers, and selling ads for the next antiques section. One of his first initiatives was to produce a map, published July 31, 1963, listing 64 dealers in Western Connecticut, among them Howard K. Richmond, then at Silvermine Tavern in Norwalk; Florene Maine in Ridgefield; Thomas D. and Constance R. Williams in Litchfield; and Moira Wallace in Woodbury.
“From then on, people rapidly became aware of our antiques section, ad revenues started to climb and circulation went up. We repeated the maps each year, for many years,” he recalled. By the late 1960s, the names Harry Hartman, Nathan Liverant and Son, and Tillou Galleries, to name just three, regularly appeared in The Bee’s antiques pages, along with Lillian Cogan, I.M. Wiese, Avis and Rockwell Gardiner, Roger Bacon and John Walton. Withington, Bourne, Eldred and Skinner were mainstays of The Bee’s auction pages.
By 1969, The Bee was mailed to 26,000 readers in 46 states. The paper left the press at 5 pm each Tuesday, reaching most subscribers in time to plan their weekends. Sprawling and enticingly unpredictable like the market itself, the paper succeeded because it was straightforward and useful. For many years, Smith managed Antiques and The Arts Weekly, independent of The Bee since 1976, with a single editorial assistant and one advertising manager.
Scudder and Helen Smith were indivisible as a couple. A caring mother and grandmother, and Bee Publishing Company’s business manager before her retirement, Helen was Scudder’s indispensable other, accompanying him to industry events and assisting him with all. Beautiful, sociable and charismatic, they drew friends into their orbit wherever they traveled. They were master entertainers, equally adept at hosting intimate gatherings on their poolside terrace or blow-out dinner dances for dozens, sometimes with headline entertainment. They loved fine French food and good wine, for a time frequenting Auberge Maxime in North Salem, N.Y. As was typical, the French-speaking staff there adored Scudder, whom they adopted into their expat world.
What began as a brief getaway, generally in February after Americana Week in New York, became an annual migration when Scudder and Helen purchased property on Saint Barthélemy. They transformed the French West Indian house and gardens, Scudder christening the retreat Villa Boodee – Boodee being grandson Ben’s toddler name for Helen. An ever-growing circle of family and friends, many with ties to the antiques trade, cherish memories of visiting the Smiths at their island paradise.
Invited to audition for the role of host of the American edition of Antiques Roadshow, Smith declined, citing his heavy summer show schedule and privately preferring to spend whatever free time he might have in his garden, a great, sprawling affair ornamented with antique sculpture and specimen trees, and housing a variety of architectural structures, from a general store to a gazebo. Smith shared his combined passion for gardening and antiques with two good friends, the late museum director Thomas N. Armstrong III and the collector, sportscaster and Olympic skater Dick Button.
Smith never tired of collecting. His house nearly full and garden complete, he, over the past two decades, turned his attention to antique American cast iron still banks, which replicated in miniature some of the humor and sculptural verve that first drew him to weathervanes. His new pursuit meant more travel – to toy and banks shows, auctions and conventions – and a new circle of friends. The Smiths transformed a former den into a dedicated space for showing Scudder’s banks, roughly 1,600 in all and dazzling in their variety.
“Banks were a steep and rapid learning curve for Scudder,” says his friend Steven Weiss of RSL Auctions and Gemini Antiques. “At a certain point, Helen had to carry a record with her just so they would know which banks they already had.”
Smith’s final antiquarian chase was RSL’s August 6 Summer of Fun sale. “We watched the auction from start to finish on my laptop, reporting his purchases to him and relaying hammer prices. He bought his last seven banks from a bed in Norwalk Hospital. Honestly, it was a bit frustrating. He wanted to bid on so many more, but he already owned them,” his daughter Sherri recounted.
Smith could not have accomplished a fraction of what he did without the loving support of his family. His wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were a constant presence in his life, caring for him as he declined and until the very end making it possible for him to remain engaged in what he held most dear. So devoted was he to the family’s Golden Retrievers – since 1986, Barth, Bow, Starr, Rosie, Piper, Liberty (nicknamed Libby) and Pickles – that medical staff dispatched a Golden Retriever “comfort” dog, Jake, to his hospital bedside.
Sadness at the passing of R. Scudder Smith is tempered by our vivid memories of this great and good man. Through sheer force of imagination and with ample charm, he created a rich, colorful world in which we all shared. As Woodbury, Conn., dealer David Schorsch recently remarked, “For those of us who experienced those exiting halcyon days, we are all blessed with a lifetime of memories of Scudder and his remarkable circle of friends in the antiques business. Their spirits live on in a business and field of collecting they lovingly fostered and brought about for the rest of us to carry on.”
In addition to his wife, Helen; son, David S. Smith; daughter, Sherri Smith Baggett, and her husband, Scott Baggett; Smith is survived by grandchildren Benjamin and Gregory Smith and their spouses, respectively, Jessica and Daina, and Scudder and Judd Baggett and their spouses, respectively, Alex and Ali; and six great-grandchildren.
Friends and family celebrated Smith’s life at the Newtown Meeting House on August 19. He was laid to rest at the Newtown Village Cemetery, his parents and infant granddaughter Jacqueline nearby.
Donations in Smith’s name made be made to the Newtown Scholarship Association, PO Box 302, Newtown, CT 06470; Town of Newtown Animal Control, 3 Primrose Street, Newtown, CT 06470; and the FAITH Food Pantry of Newtown, 46 Church Hill Road, Newtown, CT 06470.
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