Remembering the Writer and Comedian Bob Smith
Author: Donald Weise
January 25, 2018
Bob Smith was once having lunch in Beverly Hills when into the restaurant walked a pair of elderly men—silk scarves tied around their necks, white hair feathered, clutching each other playfully, giggling—much to Bob’s amusement. He leaned across the table and said to his lunch companion, laughing, “Get a load of the old queens who just came through the door!” The friend looked around and then turned back and said, “Bob, that’s Kirk Douglas.”
I share this story not to demonstrate that even bona fide heterosexuals can turn flamboyant in old age but because it nicely illustrates that the world Bob inhabited was a place where funny happened even under the most unexpected circumstances. More than on just the pages of his much-loved, laugh-out-loud novels and autobiographical writings but seemingly anywhere. Of course, it helps to see “funny” anywhere if you possess a brilliant comic mind to start with—and Bob had that in spades.
We first met when, as a new editor, I’d written to ask if he had a new book I might publish. Today, after fifteen years of friendship, it’s hard to believe there had been a time when Bob wasn’t in my life, making me laugh. I mentioned to him in my email of having worked with Gore Vidal and Edmund White, which would have impressed Bob mightily, him being an avid reader—or as Edmund would later say, “Bob Smith is the best-read person I know, after John Waters.” Back then, however, I didn’t realize the breadth of Bob’s reading. To me, he wasn’t the guy who’d read all of Dickens, Trollope, Waugh, and Maugham, but somebody who was in fact more rare and remarkable than even that—namely, a stand-up comic who was extremely funny. And not just funny but clever, insightful, inventive, and spot on in ways most stand-ups only dream of.
At Thanksgiving dinner, for example, one of the guests described a gruesome news report about gay men in Iran being killed by having a tall wall of stones built and then toppled over them, thereby crushing the victims to death. There was a long pause as everyone absorbed these horrifying details until Bob finally broke the silence by saying, almost solemnly, “I guess you could say they were Stone-walled.” For Bob, there was humor to be had even in life’s most tragic occurrences, and one need only read him on ALS to witness the extent to which he was willing to mine humor from our darkest realities.
When I first wrote to him, he was completing his debut novel, Selfish and Perverse. Bob said he was interested in working with me and asked to meet, so we arranged to go to a restaurant opposite St. John the Divine—ironically, only a matter of steps from the hospital where he would later reside. Although I’d seen Bob perform while I lived in San Francisco, nothing could compare to the excitement of sitting down with him alone over a meal. I can’t recall which of us first mentioned Jonathan Winters that night, but it doesn’t matter, because two devotees of Winters had found each other and there was no separating us, not even had Winters himself appeared with a crow bar in hand and tried. For the next four hours, we covered the gamut of much of what would bond our eventual friendship: books, old movies, and whatever made us laugh.
He made such an indelible impression on me that evening that after getting home and gushing to my partner about what a thrill seeing Bob had been, my partner said, apprehensively, “Don’t tell me this is going to lead to something.” It did, but not the tryst he had in mind, something better—a genuine friendship with more laughter than I’ve ever had with anyone.
I acquired Selfish and Perverse, and the experience that followed was a first for me: being paid to edit someone I would have gladly worked with for free. Bob had revised the novel over and over so that what he handed in to me was in great shape and in small need of edits. Surprisingly, however, the area where we applied the most editorial attention were the jokes. The novel is full of hilarious lines (“bon mots,” as novelist Stephen McCauley put it when Bob and I met him in Boston), which made a handful of the perhaps lesser jokes stand out as being in need of reconsideration.
At first, I didn’t know how to raise the issue—who was I to tell Bob Smith he needed to be funnier? More to the point, how could I when I wasn’t funnier than Bob to begin with? But, by then, I’d come to know him as a dedicated, meticulous craftsman for whom the quality of his work came before all else. So, I ventured that some of the jokes—only a handful I hasten to add— needed a “lift.” Bob, to his admirable credit, agreed to address the issue immediately.
We sat down and went through the spots in question, one by one, improving on jokes that, had they been written by anyone else, would have been considered golden, such was his talent. There was one joke in particular, where the punchline involved a negligee, a word that rang hollow to me. It felt out of step with the rest of the book, if not Bob himself. So, I flagged it, telling him, “Bob, let’s be upfront here, you’re not a negligee kind of guy and this isn’t a negligee kind of book—and for that matter, your fan base is definitely not a negligee kind of fan base.” He sat there a moment, thinking of a more fitting, alternative word when, finally, he looked up and said, “Jockstrap.” “Bingo,” I said. You could work with him like that. It didn’t matter that he was a well-known and accomplished comic and memoirist whose Openly Bob, when published, was everywhere I went, so long as everywhere I went was within walking distance of Castro Street. Like most first-rate authors, Bob wanted foremost what was best for his writing and so he invited critical feedback. No joke was too sacred to be cut or bettered, which is one reason his humor is so exceptional.
Then ALS happened. For something as disastrously momentous as his being diagnosed, I can’t remember when Bob first told me about it, oddly enough. He says in his last book, Treehab, that he broke the news over drinks with a small circle of our close friends. If that’s true, I’m fairly certain I wasn’t one of them. All I can tell you for sure is that Bob’s health was stable in the beginning, and our lives went on together as if the diagnosis had never happened. There was even talk of a new novel.
It wasn’t until he began to slur his words that the situation took a sharp turn. At first, I could understand most of what he said despite his speech disorder. For quite a while, long after strangers started to regard him quizzically when he spoke (mistaking Bob for drunk, a cocktail waitress once looked at me and asked, “Is he alright?” Lady, it wasn’t Bob you needed to keep an eye on), I became one of the relatively few people who saw him often enough—and was therefore familiar enough with this new manner of speaking—that I could understand him, until a couple years later when further deterioration made comprehension impossible for everyone.
Another sharp turn came when Bob was admitted for the first time to the intensive care unit with pneumonia, some nine years after diagnosis, which is extraordinary considering life expectancy after diagnosis can run just three years (or even one). Seeing Bob in his hospital bed, incoherent due to sedation, was alarming to say the least. I’d never seen him looking so frail or so near death. In a semi-lucid moment, he told the writer Christopher Bram that he thought he’d been secretly drugged, to which Chris said, “Yes, Bob, you have been drugged, and no, Bob, it’s not a secret.”
Bob spent months going in and out of the hospital as he recovered, only to relapse and be admitted again. In fact, Bob’s being hospitalized in a sense became normal after a while; in other words, to see Bob necessarily meant going into a hospital. I never got used to it, and I’m sure no one else did either, but I came to accept that this was now our reality. On a brighter note, it also meant seeing lots of friends—in some cases, people I’d not seen in years—who’d come to visit, and these friendships for me took on an urgency because experiencing all this as a part of a group made the situation bearable.
In his final years, Bob couldn’t speak but he also no longer had the use of the muscles in his hands, which made expressing himself through writing out of the question. Instead, he communicated through a sheet of plastic on which the letters of the alphabet were arranged. If he wanted to say, “Merry Christmas,” you had to hold up the plastic and follow his eyes to each letter as he spelled out his words. This wasn’t easy to navigate at first, but I became fairly adept at it—as good as you could hope to get, anyway—once I had the hang of it. Still, the act of walking someone as intelligent and dignified as Bob through the alphabet like this was nearly as painful as watching him struggle to breathe.
But the situation was not without humor. One day I arrived as Bob’s nurse was monitoring him. As soon as the guy left, Bob took on a look of seriousness, pointing his foot emphatically to the sheet of plastic with the alphabet, sitting at the end of his bed, as if he had something important to convey. His eyes directed me to the letter “G.” Cutting to the chase in case this was an emergency and he needed help, I said, “Get? Get the nurse? Are you in pain?” He shook his head no and we moved on to the next letter, “A.” Right away, I said “Gave. The nurse gave you something. Or the nurse needs to give you something. Is that it?” Again, he shook his head, indicating that we were now to proceed to the third letter, which was “Y.” Baffled, I said, “Gay?” Bob nodded yes. Even more baffled, I said, “I don’t think you’re coming out to me, are you, Bob?” He then gestured out the door toward the nurses’ station, as if to say, “My nurse is gay,” which couldn’t have been more obvious to me had in that instant the nurse’s Grindr profile popped up next to mine. Yet having his nurse’s sexual orientation confirmed made talking about gay “adult” content in Bob’s room just a little freer.
Being able to talk freely in his hospital room mattered when you weren’t aware of who might be in earshot, particularly when you didn’t know if being gay might somehow adversely influence the quality of care Bob received from the staff. And there were hospital roommates to consider as well. Once, after an admittedly esoteric conversation with Bob’s partner, Michael, about the life of Cecil Beaton, I worried that the poor man behind the curtain in the next bed, who’d been forced to listen to us, must have thought we were the biggest fruitcakes ever and probably had been bored into a coma. That is, until the nurse delivered his food and the man exclaimed, “Girlfriend, that fried chicken is rockin’!” Bob didn’t need to spell this one out for me either.
Word went out that Bob was at last being discharged after nearly two years in his last care facility. While this implied good news, it seemed unlikely that he’d stabilized enough to return home, especially after my last visit, when he looked to be in more pain that I’d ever seen him, constantly wincing, seemingly exhausted and barely able to shake his head yes or no. I can’t say what accounted for such a dramatic transformation since last I’d seen him, but it so disturbed me that afterwards I walked for blocks, not even knowing where I intended to go. Anyplace that wasn’t his hospital room. Trying to remember my friend before hospitals entered the picture. When Bob could make my whole day by complimenting one of my jokes with his familiar “Don, that’s hilarious!” the highest praise imaginable for being funny. Still, a homecoming was most welcome regardless if he’d stabilized, but any elation proved short lived.
It might be owing to this discharge that the text I received at dinner a week later, informing me that Bob had died, made me gasp in disbelief. Yes, despite having expected this message to come for quite a while, I still found myself unprepared for it. I instinctively stood up; I don’t know why. Rather than knocking me off my feet, the news somehow brought me to my feet. I was eating at Barney’s department store restaurant of all places and had to leave the table to call the person who’d texted. Standing inside the store where it was quieter, placing the call, I had to keep myself from crying in front of the unwitting stranger next to me, who was shopping for sunglasses as if the world hadn’t just changed. This situation was so bizarrely incongruous that Bob himself might have laughed.
The last piece of writing that Bob asked me to read was a yet-to-be-published essay on the importance of friendship, a topic fiercely close to his heart as any of his friends can attest. In the essay, he writes all about friends other than me—thanks, Bob!—but there was a line that applied to each of his friends nonetheless: “Although I have ALS, I consider myself the luckiest person alive because I have such wonderful friends.” Sitting next to his bed as I read, I was suddenly overcome and had to stop reading as tears filled my eyes. I was so deeply, unexpectedly moved by this seemingly simple but enormously profound sentiment, the sheer humanity of it, in the face of death no less. He’d once said that in spite of the ravages of his illness, ALS had never made him cry. Apparently, I wasn’t that strong. Bob’s future was far from certain in that moment, and so I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to tell him how much his friendship, his work, his unrivaled sense of humor meant to me for so long. This opportunity was a gift, actually, his last for me and certainly my most cherished memory of him.