by Len Lear
If there is a greater storyteller in Philadelphia than James Smart, I am not aware of who that might be. And at age 89, Smart has a great many stories to tell. A prolific columnist, author and local historian (“An attempt to estimate how much I have written makes my head hurt”), he has lived in West Mt Airy for 33 years with his wife, Barbara Torade, who passed away on Jan. 3.
“I have a flimsy and rather insignificant connection to Chestnut Hill,” he admitted. “In 1860, my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side sold his farm in the far reaches of Northeast Philadelphia and bought a house in Harrowgate, between Frankford and Kensington, on the lane that ran from the Frankford Road (before it became an avenue) to Cedar Grove, the Morris family country house.
‘“About 60 years later, when the Pennsylvania Railroad had run busy tracks through there, the new Frankford elevated was rumbling by and the area was building up, my mother’s family, the Hartleys, moved to a bigger house six blocks east. And John and Lydia Morris moved from their place to their Chestnut Hill estate, which is now the Morris Arboretum.”
Smart’s father worked in hosiery mills on the looms that made ladies’ silk stockings. His mother worked in the accounts payable department at Strawbridge’s for years. His dad only went as far as seventh grade, his mother to ninth. “But my father was a prodigious reader, subscribed to the morning Record and Ledger, the evening Ledger and Bulletin but wouldn’t read the Inquirer because he said it was anti-union.
“My mother had been hired for a summer job of minor clerical duties but seemed to have a grasp of math that eluded older women trying to use the new Comptometer, a mechanical forerunner of computers, and she was persuaded to stay full-time. My father accumulated books by the dozen, and I read them all and still have them all, hundreds of them; complete works of Dickens and Mark Twain and more contemporary writers such as Sinclair Lewis and H. G. Wells; mystery stories, history, etc.”
Smart attended the old Northeast High School at 8th and Lehigh (now Edison High). When he was a freshman, a friend who was interested in journalism wanted to try out for Northeast’s student newspaper but was nervous, and asked Smart to go with him. When they were asked to submit a writing example, he wrote a short humorous piece about a guy who built the first telephone booth and didn’t know what to do with it; he called his friend Alexander Graham Bell and said, “Hey, Al, are you busy tonight? Could you invent something to put in this thing?”
Smart was ultimately hired. By his senior year, he was sure that writing was what he wanted to do for a living.
“I wrote a lot during summer vacation and sold two articles and a short story to magazines, making a total of $75, more than my mother made in a week,” he said. “When graduation approached, I perhaps foolishly turned down a scholarship to Penn. The principal asked what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Work for The Bulletin.’ I knew that the editor of The Bulletin, Bill Craig, was in the first graduating class from Northeast in 1890 and founder of the alumni association. Any Northeaster interested in journalism had a sure job at The Bulletin if he qualified.”
In an earlier interview with the Local, Smart said that one of his less enthusiastic family members said, “You should make window screens, like your cousin Billy. You’ll never want for work.”
Fortunately, Smart followed his own instincts instead. So he started as a copy boy in July 1948, did minor editorial work and was in the features department when, one evening, Frank Brookhouser, whose column made him a friend to celebrities, got a call from singer Dinah Shore, who then had a weekly radio program. She was in town; did he want an exclusive interview? Frank couldn’t do it, because he had a regular evening radio program, so Smart was sent. His article ran next day.
“Stuart Taylor, head of the department (and the publisher’s nephew), came to my desk and told me they would be moving me to the newsroom. I did reporting and writing, mostly at night, from 1954 to 1958, including covering the 1950 Mummers Parade, a month-long assignment. I was put on day work in 1958 and at one point spent several weeks on a long series of articles about teen-age gang violence.” (It won the “Best News Writing of the Year Award” from the Philadelphia Press Association.)
In 1959, the city editor died. Longtime columnist Earl Selby was appointed to that post, and Smart assumed writing the venerable “In Our Town” column six days a week. He wrote so much that “a reader actually wrote that I was being overworked, so they cut me back — the first time in history a newspaper ever did anything about its overworked writers!”
Smart, however, later felt that new leadership was leading in the wrong direction, whereupon his column was discontinued in 1973, and he resigned.
He worked briefly for a public relations firm, but The Bulletin lured him back as a freelancer to create a daily column of each day’s news from 200 years before, during the bicentennial years of 1975 and 1976. In the late 1970s, he tried editing two failing business publications and in 1982 began doing editorial services for Girard Bank.
He retired from Mellon in 1990 and began writing a weekly column for the Roxborough Review, which was used by about 20 papers of the Intercounty Newspapers chain.
“The decay of the newspaper industry proceeded,” he said sadly, “and now I’m only in The Review.”
In 1995, he published a book of his humorous columns, “Soggy Shrub Rides Again.” In 2001, he wrote “Historic Philadelphia; an Illustrated History.” In 2011, he published “Adonijah Hill’s Diary,” a historically correct journal of a fictitious Evening Bulletin reporter in 1876, the Centennial year.
Smart, a virtual Google of Philadelphia history, lived in Bucks County from 1948 to 1973 with his first wife, when she passed away. He moved to Center City and met his second wife, whom he married in 1977. He currently has two children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, with another due to arrive in September.
For more information, visit JamesSmartsPhiladelphia.com Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org