Robert Kimmel Smith (1930-2020)

Robert Kimmel Smith (1930-2020)

My sister, Heidi Pie Aronson, and I co-wrote this remembrance of our father, who passed away on April 18.

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Robert Kimmel Smith, novelist and author of the children’s books Chocolate Fever and The War With Grandpa, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

He passed peacefully from natural causes, said Margery Nathanson, his wife. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease since 2015.

Mr. Smith’s books for young readers have been widely taught in elementary school classrooms for decades. They feature young boys whose charmed misadventures make them kinder and wiser. The author often said his goal in writing was to animate children, particularly boys, with the love of reading. 

A Hollywood film based on The War With Grandpa, starring Robert De Niro as Grandpa, is slated for release later this year. 

Mr. Smith was born in Brooklyn on July 31, 1930, the son of an immigrant postal worker and the best Charleston dancer in Williamsburg. He grew up walking to Ebbets Field for games in the bleachers, playing stickball with the dozens of cousins who lived on his block, and listening to stories of the colorful characters in his large extended family. Bedridden with rheumatic fever for several months as a child, he became a devoted reader and dreamed of one day becoming a writer. He dropped out of Brooklyn College after finding that pre-med courses didn’t suit his resistance to arithmetic. 

During Army service in Berlin, Mr. Smith sang in a barbershop quartet at a local bar; payment was “all the champagne they could drink.” His unit did espionage, but he had only limited security clearance, probably because his grandfather, a close friend of Eugene Debs, was an organizer and soapbox orator for the socialist cause. 

After discharge, friends set Mr. Smith up on a blind date with an English major named Claire Medney; they spent hours talking about books, and when they got home told their mothers that they’d met the person they were going to marry. They did so in 1954, moving close to Ebbets Field to be near the team they loved. 

After stints at a carpet store and as a traveling salesman, Mr. Smith got a job as a copywriter in training at the advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach. His supervisor told him, “You are now writing words for money,” a phrase that forever more invoked pride and motivation. He worked for a dozen years in advertising, moving up the ranks and eventually starting his own firm.

At age 40, he took a leave to focus on writing fiction and never returned to Madison Avenue.  In his quest to get published, he received enormous help from his wife Claire, who by then had become a literary agent at the prestigious Harold Ober agency, representing such well-known clients as Judy Blume.

A spontaneous bedtime story Mr. Smith told his daughter became the springboard for Chocolate Fever, a zany yarn about the consequences of indulging in too much of a good thing. The chapter book, published in 1972, remains in print and has sold well over two million copies. It also aired as a 30-minute animation on CBS Storybreak in 1985. The War With Grandpa (1984) received eleven statewide awards for best children’s book of the year. Delacorte Press plans to re-release the title in tandem with the nationwide release of the film adaptation.

Mr. Smith’s other novels for children include Jelly Belly, Mostly Michael, Bobby Baseball, and The Squeaky Wheel.

The most successful of his works for adults was Jane’s House, the story of a husband and father recovering from his wife’s premature death. Mr. Smith also penned a trio of comic novels about a wisecracking septuagenarian and celebrity knitter named Sadie Shapiro. Sadie Shapiro’s Knitting Book and its sequels enjoyed great popularity as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Mr. Smith wrote several plays and worked on CBS television comedies during the 1970s—a move he jokingly recalled as “a huge step sideways” in his career.

Writing in a home office while his wife commuted to her job as a publishing executive, Mr. Smith was an early male feminist and “househusband.” He picked up meat from the butcher and dropped clothes at the dry-cleaner (“They were all very nice. I think they worried about me”), and had dinner cooking and a scotch-and-water ready for his wife when she came home from work. He chronicled his musings on domesticity in a series of columns for the Flatbush Life called “Man at Home.” 

Claire M. Smith died in 1998. In 2000 he married Margery Nathanson, former Director of Design Services for the New York City Department of Transportation, gallerist and collector of Latin American folk art, and docent at the Museum of Art and Design. She survives him, as do his two children, Heidi Aronson of Berkeley, California, and Roger Kimmel Smith of Ithaca, New York; two step-children, Erica Sheffield of Mission Viejo, California, and Justin Nathanson of Brooklyn; and six grandchildren.