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Smoki Bacon, who went from child flower seller to Back Bay socialite, dies at 91

Smoki Bacon.
Smoki Bacon. Handout

You might feel flattered if you were called a “legendary Back Bay socialite.” Smoki Bacon didn’t. She’d quickly set the record straight while holding you in place with a steady gaze made more intense by her trademark oversized glasses.

“I’ve had my Social Security number since 1937,” she once told the Globe. “I’ve worked since I was 9 years old. I’m not schlepping around shopping for clothes out of a chauffeured limousine.”

Mrs. Bacon was 91 when she died Friday of Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly everything about her life was the stuff of oft-told legend — not least her ability to outlast everyone, everywhere, every time.

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“She was typically the person with the most energy in the room — when she was 45 and when she was 90,” said Joe O’Connor. They first met in 1974, when he was director of operations for the city’s celebration of the nation’s bicentennial and she ostensibly was his employee — though in practice he often took guidance from her.

A public relations consultant and fund-raiser for scores of events and organizations, and cohost with her husband, Richard Concannon, of the long-running TV show “The Literati Scene,” Mrs. Bacon also threw many of Boston’s most memorable parties and weddings (including her own).

Her real calling was civic activism, though, and she compiled a list of jobs and volunteer work that could fill five resumes while helping shape Boston’s culture and character.

“I love this city,” she said in a 1978 interview — and no doubt countless other times. “It’s a marvelous town.”

Over more than a half-century, beginning in the 1950s, Mrs. Bacon served on more than 100 boards and committees, always finding a new way to squeeze 36 hours of work into a 24-hour day.

Decades ago, she hid a pregnancy to keep her job and foil restrictions that excluded expectant mothers from working. She went on to stake a place on numerous boards that hadn’t welcomed women until she threw open the door.

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“I think the city’s a better place because she broke down so many barriers, and may others do likewise,” said Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and longtime political observer.

Her causes ranged from eliminating all bigotry — on the basis gender or race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background — to her ardent support of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.

“I started out as a Republican, became an Independent, then a Democrat,” she recalled in 1992. “The older I get, the stronger of a Democrat I become. It’s a party that feels very strongly for the people.”

Rising from poverty to prominence, Mrs. Bacon transformed from Adelaide Ruth Ginepra — who lived on welfare with her mother and brother in Brookline — to Smoki Bacon, whose Back Bay home was an entryway into the ranks of Boston’s who’s who.

“She sounds like a fictional character because the life she led shouldn’t be possible, but she did it anyway,” said her grandson John Gabrieli. “I think my grandmother was without a doubt the strongest person I’ve ever met.”

An intellectual and cultural matchmaker, she fostered friendships across boundaries among those who never realized they needed to meet until Mrs. Bacon introduced them, typically at a party she hosted.

“Smoki was a very honest intellectual broker,” said her friend David Jacobs, publisher of The Boston Guardian.

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“She has been a major figure straddling various worlds in the city for decades,” DiCara said.

And for Mrs. Bacon, Boston “was more than a place on the map,” O’Connor said. “She said, ‘My job is to remind everyone of this gem we inherited, this great city.’ It wasn’t a cliché for her. She lived it every day.”

Born Jan. 29, 1928, Adelaide Ginepra was the daughter of Ruth Burns and Alfred Ginepra. She was 7 when her parents separated, and she hit the job market early, selling flowers along The Riverway as a girl.

“She understood exactly what it meant to be poor and so she devoted her life to working for hundreds of nonprofit organizations that have made a huge difference to people in the community,” said her daughter Brooks Bacon of New York City.

As a girl, Mrs. Bacon was hospitalized for diphtheria, was in a coma for three days after being struck by a truck, and was treated for a ruptured appendix after a beating by neighborhood bullies who taunted her over her family’s background.

Graduating from Brookline High School in 1945, she attended the School of Practical Art and switched to Jackson Von Ladau School of Design, graduating in 1951.

Returning to Boston after a spell working in New York as a graphic artist, she married Edwin Bacon in 1957. They lived in the Back Bay and she was already a force in the community when he died in his insurance firm’s office in 1974.

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His death was initially ruled a suicide, but Mrs. Bacon pushed for the courts to acknowledge that her husband had been murdered by his business partner, James Blaikie Jr.

A couple of weeks before the murder, Mrs. Bacon insisted in court cases, Blaikie had forged her husband’s name on forms that made Blaikie the recipient of Ed Bacon’s life insurance policies, not Mrs. Bacon and their daughters. Though never charged in Bacon’s death, Blaikie was convicted of murdering someone else, and he died in prison in 1992.

The state Supreme Judicial Court, meanwhile, ruled in 1987 that there was “sufficient evidence to warrant a finding that Blaikie murdered Bacon.”

“It restores some dignity to Ed’s life,” Mrs. Bacon said then of the ruling.

She counted among her greatest accomplishments her advocacy for legislation to make insurance companies responsible for verifying beneficiary changes, thus sparing others the legal battle her family had endured.

In 1979, she married Concannon, who had been a Harvard College classmate of her late husband. The two of them launched programs including “The Literati Scene,” on which they interviewed numerous authors, sometimes in their Beacon Hill home, on local cable channels.

Their wedding at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and the reception on the Boston Tea Party Ship drew an estimated 800 people.

“I used to say that Auntie Mame could have taken a lesson from her. She was larger than life,” said Mrs. Bacon’s daughter Hilary Bacon Gabrieli of Boston.

Though best known for her civic engagement, Mrs. Bacon most valued time with her five grandchildren – John, Abigail, Pauline, Lilla, and Nicholas Gabrieli, to whom she “passed along lessons she had learned,” Hilary said. “She was such a kindhearted person. She knew what was right and wrong, and she had such a strong moral compass.”

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Mrs. Bacon’s two daughters and grandchildren are her immediate survivors. The family will hold a private funeral and announce a public gathering to celebrate her life and work.

Concannon, who died last year, and Mrs. Bacon spent years as “host parents” for Harvard students, including Yule Caise, who now lives in Los Angeles and is a film director, producer, and writer.

Among the lessons Mrs. Bacon imparted was how to remain self-assured, regardless of adversity.

“She could be herself,” Caise said. “She never had to alter who she was. That’s how secure she was in the world. That kind of confidence was rare.”

Part of Mrs. Bacon’s self-confidence was there for all to see and hear: her name itself.

She recalled that when she was a girl, teasing classmates had called her Smokey — a nickname she initially hated. One-upping them, she embraced the sobriquet, changed the spelling, and made it unforgettable.

“I substituted an ‘i’ for the ‘ey,’ ” she confided with a smile in 1978.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.