When Lois Smith arrived in New York City in the early 1950s, she thought she would take the journalism world by storm.
“She said, ‘Here I am, you lucky people,’ ” said her husband, Eugene. But journalism wasn’t ready for her — women weren’t allowed bylines in those days, and Ms. Smith wasn’t going to settle.
“One of my great memories is, she went to Time magazine, and this woman said, ‘Yeah, we’ll hire you, but you’ll never write, you’ll always be doing research,’ ” her husband said. “She said, ‘The hell with that.’ ”
Ms. Smith got into the blooming field of public relations instead, and went on to shape the careers of such Hollywood greats as Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Rosie O’Donnell, and Meryl Streep. She was as much a friend to her clients as a publicist, decked out, always, in a bright red rain jacket so they could find her in a sea of people, and calling everyone, lovingly, by the nickname “Ducks.”
Ms. Smith, who retired with her husband to a home they owned on Plum Island in October 2000, died of a brain hemorrhage Sunday afternoon after falling early Saturday morning down a staircase at a converted farmhouse in Bryant Pond, Maine, where she was staying with her husband. She was 84.
‘It didn’t matter if you were her friend or her client, all of those qualities came through.’
The Smiths were set to be honored Saturday by Hebron Academy in Maine for a lifetime of service to the school and to the world in general. They received the award in absentia; the flags at Hebron are flying at half-staff this week.
“She was a woman ahead of her time,” said Michelle Fino of Newburyport, a close friend who worked with Ms. Smith on a film festival in Newburyport and briefly ran a PR firm called Wild Plum Public Relations with her. “You get goosebumps if you know Lois Smith.”
Ms. Smith was born Lois Wollenweber in 1928 in Brooklyn, N.Y. She grew up in Malverne, N.Y., and went to the University of Southern California, from which she graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
In 1969, she was one of the founders of the entertainment agency Pickwick Public Relations, which merged in 1980 with Maslansky and Koenigsberg to become PMK, which exists today as PMK*BNC.
“Certainly as far as women were concerned, I don’t know anybody who was more highly regarded than Lois,” said Leslee Dart, who was partners with Ms. Smith at the agency and who now runs her own entertainment agency called 42West. “People always referred to her as ‘earth mother.’ She was kind and funny and smart and political and protective. And it didn’t matter if you were her friend or her client, all of those qualities came through.”
Dart shared an office with Ms. Smith for 15 years starting in the late ’80s, a time when, Dart said, the public relations field was growing fast.
“The people that were drawn to that were predominantly women, and the women, for the most part, [were tough],’’ said Dart. “Lois was the exception. Lois taught me literally that to be strong and powerful didn’t mean that you couldn’t be kind and gentle and considerate.”
Ms. Smith, she said, was old-school: She had good manners and strong principles that she stuck to. She wouldn’t take a client she didn’t believe in, and she wouldn’t champion a cause she thought was wrong. Dart recalled a cigarette company’s request that the firm participate in an event, and Ms. Smith’s flat-out refusal.
“She was very moral, very ethical,” said Dart. “Many people in this business are not. At the end of the day, that’s what set her apart from the crowd.”
Her clients adored her. When she had heart surgery about 10 years ago, her husband said, Streep flew to her bedside, and painted her fingernails. When the bright red rain jacket began to fray, O’Donnell gave her a new one.
O’Donnell in a statement called Ms. Smith “a force of nature.” In a poem that she wrote and posted to her website, she remembered Ms. Smith as “a legendary powerhouse” who “was by my side as i rode the fame roller coaster / holding my hand thru the scary parts.”
“she taught me how to live / and how to love... this death thing / is impossible to get used to / i hope my heart can withstand it / sorrow is killing me” wrote O’Donnell.
Redford said Ms. Smith, who became his publicist in 1963, was “not only a career supporter but a dear friend.”
“I feel a tremendous loss,” Redford said in a statement.
Ms. Smith won the International Cinematographers Guild’s highest honor for a publicist, the Les Mason Award, in 2003. The award is given for lifetime achievement of a publicist.
Even in retirement, Ms. Smith did not settle down. She was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Newbury Library and active with the Friends of the Newbury Library, helping raise money and find books. She worked as a consultant for the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, her husband said.
She worked with Fino to organize the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival, which in 2013 will be in its eighth year, and ran Plum Island Public Relations with Fino for a couple of years beginning in 2008, promoting local events.
“What reminds me of Lois, in my mind, from the time of being around her — if I think, ‘Oh, I’d like to do that — I can’t do that,’ I automatically hear Lois say, ‘Just ask, just make the call,’ ” said Fino. “There’s something about her that just cuts through whatever baloney is going on, and gets you where you need to be.”
Ms. Smith and her husband had four children, including one son from her husband’s previous marriage. Their youngest son, Scott, was killed in an accident in 1985. He was a student at Hebron Academy, and the Smiths began a scholarship program in his name after his death. They have been lifetime donors to the school, and helped the school build its covered hockey rink.
“Hebron has lost a great friend, and we’re sad for the loss that our other great friend is suffering right now,” said John King, head of school at Hebron. “These were special folks.”
In addition to her husband, Ms. Smith leaves two sons, Eric of Park City, Utah, and Luke of Newburyport; a daughter, Brooke, of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren.
A viewing will be held Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Elliott, Woodworth and Rogers Funeral Home in Newburyport. The funeral will be Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Old South Church in Newburyport.