‘Conversations with Papa Charlie’ book review: Thumbs up—and toes, relax

image The Schmidoffs’ windmill burned down in 1908 in Lipnick, Russia. An upshot was a real estate empire half a planet away, including Crystal City, the huge office and residential complex across the highway from Reagan National Airport. How did it happen? A rabbi saw the fire and other events as signs for the Schmidoffs to leave Russia. They sailed to New York and eventually became the Smith family of Washington, D.C., so legendary in real estate and philanthropic circles.

David Bruce Smith, grandson of Charles E. Smith, recounts the rise of the man and family in Conversations with Papa Charlie, a 119-page collection of stories that should please many in the local business and Jewish communities. Papa Charlie came out a decade ago but is timely in the wake of the death of Robert H. Smith, the author’s father, on December 29. I’ll review the book, enlivened by the warm drawings from the younger Smith’s gifted mother, Clarice Smith, and then, in keeping with the family’s interest in charities, I’ll suggest a new philanthropic initiative that just might reflect David Bruce Smith’s personal passions.

The younger Smith aimed for a memorable tribune, not a full-length, objective biography with all the good and the bad. He has succeeded, aided by the many idiosyncrasies of his subject—from distain toward Big Macs to a fondness for deep-breathing exercises and self-hypnotism, body part by body part. “Toes, relax,” Charles Smith would start, nodding off before he could command his head. As required of all Jewish families by the Almighty, much of the intergenerational talk focused on food. Papa Charlie was an anti-cholesterol hawk, remindful of my father, who, given a hamburger, could squeeze cow remains to a second death with his napkin, lest any artery-clogging juices remain. But Charles Smith may have been even more relentless in pushing his David toward fruits, vegetables and low-fat yogurt.

While spinning those anecdotes and more, Papa Charlie scoots back and forth in time, and from topic to topic, and some readers might object, but maybe that’s one of the points of the book—replicating on paper the spontaneity of conversations with the elderly Smith. Whatever the case, David Bruce Smith’s little volume kept me reading on, curious about the next page; and in the end it struck me as useful in two ways.

First, for long-time Washingtonians, Papa Charlie lays out the mindset of the Smiths, with a history as one of the region’s largest property owners, maybe the largest. Thousands have been Smith employees, and many more have lived or worked in the family’s buildings. Big corporations have taken over the old empire, and the former Smidoffs are now part of the American social elite in Washington and elsewhere. Along the way up—starting with the first construction project, three houses sold in Brooklyn for $8,500 each—did Charles Smith and the others really honor the family-and-charity-related homilies in Papa Charlie, or is the book just PR trimming? From afar, I’d suspect that the Smiths have been true believers. Philanthropic aspirations may even have made them all the tougher at times as negotiators, whether the other parties were fellow real estate moguls or representatives of a janitor’s union at odds with them over wages. You can wonder about all the ramifications here, as I do, but still respect the final numbers. Robert Smith donated hundreds of millions of dollars to a variety of causes ranging from Jewish charities to universities, the National Gallery of Art, and such historical places as Mount Vernon, Monticello and Abraham Lincoln’s cottage. That must not have been a piddling percentage of the family’s wealth.

At a more personal level, Papa Charlie could be useful as a promoter of heart-to-hearts between grandparents and grandchildren. My own grandfathers on both sides died before I could know them. But Charles Smith lived to 94 and was alert up to the last few years; and even as a senile old man, no longer a numbers whiz and charmer of senators and Supreme Court justices, he could still point a rubber-ended cane at David Smith and say: “I love him. I love him. I love him. I don’t remember who he is, but I love him.” I’m happy for David—a complete stranger—and others to whom the epigraph at the start of Papa Charlie may apply. Picked up from The Brown Decades, the Lewis Mumford book, it reads: “The common axiom of history is that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

Charles Smith and the fourth of his six grandchildren shared something in common besides mutual love, some iffy moments when their parents feared they might not survive. Papa Charlie nearly died of diphtheria as a child; David Bruce Smith, of lung obstructions from his premature birth at just three and a half pounds, some two months ahead of time. The older Smith saw himself as God’s protector of the younger one, born half a century after him in 1951. David Bruce Smith recalls: “The doctors warned my parents I might die. But Papa Charlie, who visited the hospital every day to see me, insisted they were wrong… As he had coughed up his diphtheria membrane two generations earlier, I would miraculously vomit my phlegm into two buckets, clearing the way for my life to begin.” I’m hardly startled grandfather and grandson would value family unity despite the Mumford quote about rebellion and despite David Bruce Smith’s recollection that Papa Charlie was not as close to his siblings as the old man would have liked to have been. In fact, in relations with his own grandchildren and their parents, Charles would be eager to make up for his past shortcoming.

From the start, as a boy, Papa Charlie was pugnacious at times, and early in the book we learn of his fight with a classmate who taunted the young immigrant with the epithet of “Greenhorn.” Smith threw him to the ground. This is a pride-driven family. The Washington media’s habitual reverence toward the Smiths might in part reflect the past, when they personally controlled millions in real estate advertising and on at least one occasion used their financial muscle to keep the press in line.

But Papa Charlie was more of a numbers geek than a bully, and barely off the boat from Europe, he made it to the fourth grade, then the sixth, at PS 125 in New York. However much David Bruce Smith may justifiably extol character, it cannot replace raw talent in a competitive field like construction. Rival companies joust for jobs and negotiate with prospects, and woe unto those who cannot come up quickly with the right numbers and stick to them. Smith’s father, Reuven, was a builder but wanted young Charles to enjoy the steady income of an accountant; instead the son followed the father into this rollercoaster of a trade.

In business and life, Papa Charlie retained a Jewish villager’s faith in divine signs, and one of them might actually have been a little more worldly than usual—fluctuations in the stock market in 1929. “Let’s sell all our buildings and lay low,” he told a cousin, also a business partner. They ignored Charlie’s intuition, and it would be years before Smith was rich again, this time in the D.C. area, where he helped meet housing needs during World War II. Signs led Smith through business deals and even into marriage, and inspired his tough moxie, his soft sides and mixes of the two when he was raising money for charity. Of his first wife, a bright, gifted woman tortured by demons, the kind that modern medicine might have thwarted, he said: “Maybe Leah was a sign from God.” Charles Smith ascribed her tantrums to her illness; and understanding that she was beyond mere talk therapy, he financed a psychobiology institute, of which David Smith would go on to become president.

As related in Papa Charlie, Leah’s plight was a general catalyst for all kinds of philanthropy. Charles Smith retired from a day-to-day role in the family business in 1967 and spent the rest of his life on charitable activities, including the dispensation of cash to needy people whose troubles made the newspapers.

Robert Smith, David’s father, along with his uncle, Robert Kogod, took over from Charles Smith in 1967 in day to day management of the business. Robert is remembered as the creator of Crystal City, about which Charles and others were at first skeptical because the land was not prime property in the center of Washington-area life. I can recall driving past there on Jefferson Davis Highway decades ago, and it was exactly as Robert Smith’s obituaries described, a series of used car lots and worse. The Crystal City name, as has been explained elsewhere and on this Web site, comes from the decorative chandelier that Smith installed in the lobby of the first apartment building. One of the real mysteries of Crystal City is why the federal government put out large space requirements for some apparently unrelated agencies, reducing competition and siring a huge cash cow for the Smiths despite the low rental costs. This book review will not explore that and other lease-related oddities—like the federal government’s lack of advertising in many cases—that I’ve covered elsewhere.

Lewis Mumford, however, once again deserves mention here with his observation that sons rebel against fathers and befriend their grandfathers. Did David Bruce Smith have anything of substance to rebel against—something of greater import than, say, vacation plans and other cases where Papa Charlie at times intervened on his behalf?

I’m especially curious about Crystal City as it might have been viewed by the late Mumford, who feared the dark sides of factories and corporate bureaucracies—the ascent of organizations and their managers over individuals; not to mention overdevelopment. In the first chapter of The Brown Decades, Mumford writes of the post Civil War period: “Our recent historians have shown in detail all the industrial and financial transformations that were either brought or hastened by the war: the growth of steel mills, the mechanization of agriculture, the substitution of petroleum for whale oil, the development of the trade union movement, and the concentration of great fortunes, built up by graft, speculation, war-profits, or the outright donation of priceless lands to great railway corporations, acquisitions which were not called theft, and doles which were not denounced as inimical to manhood and independence, only because the sums involved were so huge and the recipients so rich.” Crystal City is not the Pentagon, but the Defense Department filled up no small fraction of the office space there, and, of course, Crystal City brought together office tenants from other large bureaucracies, drawn in part over the years by another public endeavor, the Washington subway system.

David Bruce Smith probably chose the Mumfordian epigraph for his book with an emphasis on “makes friends with its grandfathers” rather than on “revolts against its fathers.” What’s more, he even became editor of Crystal City Magazine. And his Papa Charlie would hardly have worshipped Mumford. So, given that Crystal City is in some ways the antithesis of everything Mumford stood for, I wondered about Smith’s use of the epigraph. Is it possible Smith felt he could work within the family business to bring it closer to Mumfordian ideals?

For Smithologists trying to understand the family, some other names may come up beyond Mumford’s—those of Washington (Mount Vernon), Lincoln (the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home in D.C.) and Jefferson (Monticello). David Bruce Smith wrote a novel about Lincoln, but in a Papa Charlie context a quote from another president intrigues me, one from John Quincy Adams, words that I first thought were Jefferson’s: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” In a very general sense, is this not the trajectory of the Smith family? Here’s Papa Charlie, raised in a dirt-floored house on a potato-and-corn farm near the Volga and Don Rivers, and his son Robert goes on to collect the works of Flemish, Danish and Venetian masters and serve as president of the National Gallery of Art—no generation skipping needed.

The obvious question is, What’s ahead for David Bruce Smith, his mother and other Smiths? In their place I would look for new causes to advance, something to give purpose to their lives in ways Charles Smith might approve. And this time, a genuine Jeffersonian quote does come to mind: “Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not then an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life it is their only capital.” Over the years, the Smith family itself has evinced a strong faith in books as a medium; David Bruce Smith today runs David Bruce Smith Publications, and he and his grandfather worked together on some book projects. What if the Smiths, like Carnegie, focused on libraries, especially the public variety, although not exclusively? And suppose they explored innovative ways of honoring the intent of Jefferson, himself a bit of gadgeteer.

Perhaps one way to do so would be to work toward the establishment of a well-stocked national digital library system, well-integrated with local schools and libraries—and with sufficient backup measures (including well-preserved paper editions of the very most important books, something in line with Mumford’s warnings against “monotechnic” solutions)? All kinds of other reasons for such a library system exist. Many books would not even be worth an hour of preservation, but which ones? An online approach would allow storage of many worthy books that might otherwise perish. Moreover, what about today when so many books of all kinds may become obsolete, simply because the Net accelerates the process?

I wrote about these issues in the 1990s in a number of places, including Computerworld, the Washington Post and an MIT Press information science collection, and recently I did so again in the Huffington Post—suggesting the creation of a well-stocked national digital library system with the appropriate integration with local institutions. William F. Buckley, Jr., in many ways my political opposite, endorsed the TeleRead idea in two columns, at one point suggesting that Bill Gates should buy the idea for $1 from me. Of course, the TeleRead vision wasn’t for sale and isn’t now; it’s there for the Smiths and anyone else to develop for free.

As for immediate actions, perhaps the Smith family could finance an e-book library for people in the entire Washington area and also support studies of the best hardware and software possibilities for schoolchildren, the elderly and others—yes, e-books can be the new large print. One source of advice might be the International Children’s Digital Library, based at none other than the University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith’s alma mater and already the setting of the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

If the Smiths do good work on behalf of library e-books and it adds luster to their family name, that’s fine by me.

Despite my misgivings over certain matters in the distant past, it’s time to move on in keeping with the afterword of The Solomon Scandals which makes a case against intergenerational grudges. Scandals is fiction, and satirical at that, but real life could do worse. And if David Bruce Smith isn’t interested in the library ideas? I understand. “Pursue your dreams, not someone else’s,” he quotes Papa Charlie. “And never give up.” Exactly. The important thing is to have the dreams in the first place.

Update, April 10, 2024: I eventually learned that a chandelier logo for Crystal City existed before the actual chandelier did. Clever marketing!

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David Rothman

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