Smith draws on six decades of work for new book

Sat, 04/07/2018 - 7:30am
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Robert Ellis Smith, a Providence-based attorney who has written extensively on the subject of privacy rights, has a new book of essays reflecting on the many celebrities, writers, politicians, and athletes he has interviewed and written about during his six decades as a journalist. Smith is a former Block Island resident who has, incidentally, authored four editions of the book, “Block Island Trivia: Quiz for a rainy day.” Since 1974, he has published the Privacy Journal, at privacyjournal.net. The Times recently discussed Smith’s new book during a phone interview.

The Block Island Times: So, I’m interested in the title of the Book, “Faces I have known.” Why faces instead of ‘People I Have Known?”

A: It comes from The Beatles song, ‘In My Life.’ I changed the word places to faces. It just clicked in my mind to change it to faces. 

Q: It’s quite a spectrum of people in the book. Everyone from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Rosa Parks, from George Wallace to Jim Nabors. Quite a crew.

A: That’s journalism. 

Q: You tell the story of how you decided to walk around to the back of Providence City Hall to meet President Harry Truman. This was in 1952, and you would have been 11, 12 years old. Were you curious about everything as a kid, or was it something else? 

A: I think it was involuntary. As I imply in the book, I was an outlier and that was an early indicator of that. Curiosity had something to do with it. I had that at a very early age. It was innate in me. I was curious to see what a VIP looked at up close… the body language… I remember that very clearly. He was alone in the car and it was only much later that I realized how exposed he was.

Q: What was your first piece of journalism? Was that in high school or at Harvard? What was it about? 

A: Before high school. I was given a printing press. I was probably 12. I remember publishing a crude news sheet. I was in East Providence. I was fascinated by the printing process. I had ink on my fingers. I think I gave it away for free. I didn’t make any money from it.

Q: Let’s talk about some of these faces, without giving away too much. Rosa Parks. I was only aware of her when she was older, and had taken on an almost mythical status.

A: I subsequently found out that she had family problems. They were jealous of her and that was the reason why she always downplayed her role [in the Civil Rights movement]. It was family pressure. In these days of the #metoo movement, you might say she was intimidated. 

Q: I want to talk a little bit about [Red Sox icon] Ted Williams, and what your impressions were. 

A: He was a hero of mine, but I never met him. I admired Williams a lot. He was a little defiant and separate from the crowd. He strove for excellence. I think the military was quite unfair to him. He had already served once [in World War II] and to pull him back a second time [for the Korean conflict], it just broke precedent. He was awfully good, and that was probably the reason why they did that, for publicity purposes, to make sure everyone knew we were at war. But to do that at the peak of his powers…

Q: Who was the most surprising personality, in terms of the difference between public and private personas? 

A: [Writer and feminist] Gloria Steinem. She laughs easily and takes her crusader role not too seriously and never really believed she was influential. She comes across as strident, but she’s anything but strident. That’s one person who is much better, in my mind, up close and in person. Jesse Jackson, he was kind of snarly.

Q: Do you think politicians and movie stars and writers are as interesting today as they were then? 

A: I think that’s just with the passage of time. It may be harder to find them, but there are still people who are unique. There are outliers.

“Faces I Have Known” is available for $14.50 in a Kindle edition at amazon.com or directly from Smith at orders@privacyjournal.com.