Lois Smith: Publicist who worked with Monroe and Streep
Tuesday 09 October 2012
The publicist's role is a paradox. He or she is looking to gain a maximum of publicity – but only for the client. Lois Smith stayed behind the scenes, making sure that it was her clients who remained in the limelight. Or for most of the time, anyway; one would occasionally see photos of her out with her clients, sporting her trademark red coat.
Answering the question, "What does a publicist do?" Smith said: "It depends upon the client. You have to take the needs of the client into consideration and act accordingly. Sometimes it's to get publicity, sometimes it's not to get publicity, sometimes it's to aim it in a certain direction; everybody is different. There is no formula. Well, at least there shouldn't be, let's put it that way."
But it wasn't just their public side that she would look after. As the late United Artists chief Steven Bach pointed out, she had the "softest shoulder" in the business, offering private advice and solace to the most public personalities. Over a period of 40 years Smith acted as the publicist to Hollywood stars like Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep and Marilyn Monroe.
Smith had wanted to become a journalist and applied to Time magazine, but was offered only a researcher position because women were not allowed to write under their own byline at that time. Declining that role, she went instead to work for the PR firm run by Ted Saucier, where she provided public relations advice to fashion and corporate clients. It was soon after, at the firm Arthur Jacobs, that she represented her first client, Shelley Winters. She formed Pickwick Public Relations (later PMK/HBH) in 1969 with Pat Kingsley, Gerry Johnson and Pat Newcomb. "We called ourselves Pickwick because we were amiable eccentrics – the staff and the client list," she later said.
Cindi Berger, who is the chief executive of the company's successor, PMK*BNC, spoke of Smith as being "...one of a kind... a trailblazer in the business who loved her clients and guided them with strong and steady hands."
In 2003 she won the Les Mason Award at the 40th Annual Publicists Awards. Her client and friend Martin Scorsese, who made a surprise appearance, said during the presentation: "Lois stands out as a beacon in the industry. What matters to her is the art as it should be."
It was not only the old-time stars of Hollywood whom she represented. She also mentored up-and-coming actors and actresses, such as Marlee Matlin, who said of Smith via Twitter: "She really set me on the right track when I was so new. She helped guide me when I did Children Of A Lesser God. I will miss her."
Smith, whose daughter Brooke Smith is an actress best known for her role in the television series Grey's Anatomy, retired with her husband Eugene Smith to Plum Island, Massachusetts. In an interview following her retirement, she commented on the change in the pace of public relations, with the advent of the internet and social media. "I'm so glad I'm not doing publicity now," she said. "Between celebrity magazines and websites, there's so much out there to be filled up, so much information that has to be put out there simply because those publications exist."
Lamenting the 24-hour news cycle, she noted, "I don't care about hearing so much information minute by minute. People are desperate to fill the space they've got; they'll print anything, go with anything, pursue rumours, and even create them. It's not what I call publicity."
Smith was on a visit to Hebron Academy in Maine with her husband, who was due to accept an award for fund-raising from his alma mater. She fell during the night and was taken to a local hospital with a head injury, where she died from a brain haemorrhage.
The journalist Mike Fleming spoke about working with her: "The thing I remember most about Lois is how a quick call to confirm facts on one of her clients always turned into a lengthy conversation that ranged from her family to mine, and the state of the movie business and life in general. She loved what she did, loved her clients and the film business, and she was one of the good ones."
The Hollywood producer, Steve Jaffe, said: "As a colleague and an admirer of Ms Smith, I offer a tribute to an icon in our a profession which, by its very nature, must attempt being off camera. Lois Smith achieved great service to her clients. She was effective beyond expectations and maintained sincere humility. We shared a profession and I was pleased to have known her but I could never do what she did and I'm greatly saddened by her passing."
Lois Smith, film publicist: born 1926 or 1927; married Eugene Smith (two sons, and one son deceased, and one daughter); died Hebron, Maine 7 October 2012.
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