The Dream House of H. Allen Smith
Laugh, and the world (sometimes) laughs with you.
What ever became of H. Allen Smith? The tongues of the nation are not growing weary asking that question. Smith’s name, once one of the best known in the country, is seldom mentioned anymore. Few people under 50 have heard of him and those over 50, the people who read him in such numbers that his books were consistently on the best-seller lists during the Forties, remember him vaguely or not at all. Smith is a humorist, but the only humorists of his generation who are still read are James Thurber, Robert Benchley (both friends of Smith), and S. J. Perelman. Smith, in his time, was as popular as they were, but now he is as unread as, say, Franklin P. Adams or as Smith’s friend and idol, H. L. Mencken.
Smith was once the friend of famous writers, artists, actors, and actresses and a well-known character in his own right. But no more. H. Allen Smith—the man who took the first legal drink after prohibition, the prankster who kidnapped Albert Einstein from a banquet in his honor, the saucy gremlin of Broadway who once goosed French actress Simone Simon, asked Marlene Dietrich to lift her skirt and show him her legs, and greeted J. P. Morgan with a jaunty “Hiya, toots!”—now lives in an isolated house on a hill outside of Alpine, Texas, one of the most isolated communities in the country. Motel clerks tell visitors who happen to ask, “We don’t think much of Mr. Smith around here.”
Smith didn’t move to Alpine by accident but partly by design and partly by default. He had spent nearly 40 years living in and around New York City, the last 20 of which he spent in a large white house on a hill in suburban Mount Kisco. There his son and daughter had reached maturity. He had written two books about life in that house. It was large, beautiful, and had a separate room Smith used as an office. Mount Kisco had been, when the Smiths first moved there, an easy place to live. It was far enough from New York to be somewhat rural but still close enough to the city that he could easily go in to see publishers, his agent, old friends. But time relentlessly worked its changes so that by 1967, when H. Allen Smith was just over 60, he had been looking for several years for a place to move far away from New York and all it had become. The streets of Mount Kisco were constantly crowded with cars, the stores filled with people he didn’t know and didn’t like the looks of. From the top of his hill he could look down and see the brown, polluted haze spreading out from the city over its environs. His closest friends—Fred Allen, the novelist James Street, Gene Fowler—were dead, were long dead in fact, and the people now in the clubs and cafes and theaters and watering holes around New York, the scene he had reported on for years, were all new to him, a different breed, and did things he wanted neither to see, understand, nor write about. “Pollution is the reason I moved,” he came to say later. “Air pollution and people pollution.”
When his search began, neither Alpine nor Texas came immediately to mind. First he revisited Tahiti, Hawaii, and Mexico, each the subject of one of his books. He found them all, to his way of thinking, ruined. Florida, California, and Arizona, where he also spent considerable time looking, were ruined, too. “I was looking for a place,” he said later, “for my wife and me to spend our declining years away from New York traffic, pollution, the Mafia, the collapse of morals, and the expense involved in even a simple life. But all I saw everywhere I looked was shoulder-to-shoulder living, shoulder-to-shoulder eating in restaurants, shoulder-to-shoulder traffic, shoulder-to-shoulder housing . . . probably shoulder-to-shoulder other things, too. No better than New York.”
Although Smith had once visited Alpine in 1947, he might never have thought of the town as a retirement home if it weren’t for chili. In August of 1967 Smith published an article in Holiday with the title “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.” The article contained all the sassy claims the title implies and ended with Smith’s recipe for chili.
Now chili, like barbecue, is a dish in which Texans take a possessive pride. Frank X.
Tolbert, the Dallas Morning News columnist, seized upon this article and attacked Smith and Smith’s chili in his column. Scores of other Texas chili makers, who could not bear the thought of some writer from New York saying he was the world’s foremost chili cook, began writing letters back and forth to each other, to local newspapers, to Tolbert, to Holiday, and to Smith. For a while the world was awash with insults, chili boasts, and corny rhetoric.
Among the boastful was Wick Fowler, a humorist-journalist from Austin, who claimed he was the world’s foremost chili authority. He even owned a company that sold spices for “Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili.” Fowler challenged Smith to a showdown. Egged on by Tolbert and encouraged by expense money from Holiday, Smith accepted the challenge. The cook-off was held in Terlingua, Texas, a ghost town on the edge of Big Bend National Park. That long weekend saw a lot of drinking, stumbling around, loud talking, and a little cooking. The contest ended in a tie.
The experience gave Smith the material for a fairly funny book (The Great Chili Confrontation, Trident, 1969) and gave him another idea as well. Alpine, about 80 miles north of Terlingua, had been the meeting place for everyone involved in or attending the contest. Seeing the town again, Smith remembered how much he had liked it when he had visited there in 1947 and began to wonder if Alpine wasn’t the quiet, clean, peaceful retreat he’d been looking for.
So Smith decided . . . no, wait just a minute. Before going on, let me wrap this chili thing up. I wish I could skip it. I am profoundly bored by such occurrences as chili cook-offs and all the other small-town festivals—the Fruit Flings, Snake Stomps, Hog Wallows, Boot Burnings, and Jaycee Beer Putsches-—that are second only to the heat in making the long Texas summer so oppressive. I urge all of you reading this not to attend a single one. Stay home, start a sweet potato plant, dust your light bulbs, shoot your neighbor’s dog. That will do a lot more for Texas. You won’t end up late one night careening home in your car after a day in the sun and dust watching the leading citizens of Overlooked County see who can spit a pumpkin seed the farthest. But, bored as I am by all that, it still would help to show something important about H. Allen Smith to add a few details about the chili cook-off. Smith, having met Wick Fowler during that first cook-off, subsequently became very good friends with both him and his wife. Fowler knew that the cook-off was half jest and the other half hot air and carousing, which was the attitude Smith had had from the beginning. But Frank X. Tolbert seemed to take the whole thing very seriously, has continued to take it seriously, and therefore has made himself the perfect cushion for Smith to stick pins in. In Return of the Virginian, a loose novel Smith published in 1974, one character complains that his only living relative is a cousin named Tolbert. “In recent years,” the disgruntled character goes on, “this cousin has taken to
dressing himself in women’s clothes and spending a couple of afternoons a week parading the streets of the town where he lives, lisping at people.”
Smith has now launched a campaign to get Tolbert to declare him the winner of the original cook-off. Some people in Oklahoma read The Great Chili Confrontation, fixed batches of both Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili and Chili H. Allen Smith (which during the original cook-off came to be dubbed Preparation H. Allen Smith), served both concoctions to a large gathering of friends, and wrote to Smith that his chili was the overwhelming favorite. This is the sole justification for Smith now demanding that he be declared winner. He has written a long, cheeky letter to Tolbert and has enlisted friends in his cause to stir up trouble if Tolbert ignores his letter. Smith is stopping at nothing: one of the allies he’s recruited is Fowler’s widow. The point of all this, the only point of all this, is that Smith is a very ornery, feisty fellow. So. Meanwhile, back in Alpine. . .
Smith, in spite of Alpine’s renewed appeal to him, had certain reservations. During his visit in 1947 while gathering material for a travel book about the western United States he called We Went Thataway (titles are not Smith’s forte), he had stayed at the old Holland Hotel, then filled with hunters in town for the antelope season. The hotel, Smith remembered, had been clean, well run, well appointed, almost elegant. He was astounded that it could exist in a town like Alpine. During his visit for the chili cook-off, Smith went to see the hotel. “It wasn’t even functioning as a hotel,” he said when I visited him last November. “Oh, there may have been a couple of old bums living there or something but the place was all bedraggled and dead looking. I was surprised how emotional it made me feel. I wished I hadn’t seen it at all.” That experience was enough to start Smith looking for a house, not in Alpine, but in Galveston and Corpus Christi. He would have chosen Corpus if he had been able to buy a house facing the bay, but none that he liked were available. He returned to Alpine on the information that a good house was for sale there, but an idea had begun to grow in his mind—to build his own house to his own specifications. He asked a friend about available lots. The friend drove him a short distance out of town to a steep hill, up a winding road, and stopped on a shelf of land overlooking the valley. Smith got out of the car. Below him lay Alpine, then a long valley floor, and in the extreme distance a wide circle of craggy mountains. The place was lofty, peaceful, isolated. Smith turned to his friend. “Right by god here,” he said. “This is where I’m gonna live.” And right by god then the trouble started.
There were two sides to the trouble, each of which contributed its share. On one side was small-town prejudice, ignorance, parochialism, and misunderstanding. On the other side was H. Allen Smith.
Though both are worthy combatants, let’s start with the latter. Smith is about five nine and a still wiry 150 pounds. He has a high forehead, a long nose with enough peaks and twists in the cartilage that it looks double-jointed, and eyes set deep in his head and very close together.
They still frequently burn with maniacal fury or amusement, depending on the situation. He likes dirty stories, practical jokes, and cussing. (“The four greatest cussers in American literature,” he is fond of saying, “are Huck Finn’s pa, Eugene Gant’s father as Thomas Wolfe portrayed him in Look Homeward, Angel, my father, and me. I received my preliminary instructions in cussing at my father’s knee and did graduate work in the pool halls and barrooms of southern Illinois.”) He likes to speak and write in dialect, for which he has an excellent ear. And in both his books and his conversation he prefers yarns to witticisms, broad and exaggerated characterizations to subtle ones, and action to contemplation. All these preferences—for the bawdy, for cussing, for dialect, for yarns—place Smith both personally and as an author in a literary tradition known as the Humor of the Old Southwest.
If the tide of that tradition carried him from McLeansboro, Illinois, where he was born, to the East Coast, it is appropriate that the tradition’s ebb should carry him all the way back to Alpine, Texas.
The Old Southwest of the tradition is not the Southwest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona that we think of today, but that region which was known as the Southwest during the nineteenth century when Ohio and Indiana were truly the Midwest: in other words, southern Illinois, eastern Missouri, western Tennessee, and Kentucky. Mark Twain represents the tradition’s finest flowering but also included are such less talented and now little-read humorists as Davy Crockett (yes, the Davy Crockett), Johnson Jones Hooper, Charles F. M. Noland, and George Washington Harris, the most popular after Twain in his own time. Harris wrote stories about a small-town bully-prankster named Sut Lovingood, who was one of Lincoln’s favorite literary characters. McLeansboro, Illinois, is squarely in the center of the Old Southwest. It is nearly 200 miles southeast of Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain grew up, and is about as close to Davy Crockett’s home in Tennessee as to the capitol of Illinois. The present Southwest is the inheritor of this tradition, although Texas doesn’t seem to have done much with it. It is maintained by after-dinner storytellers like Jerry Clower (who is very funny but from Mississippi), by small-town humor columnists like Sam Huddleston, by John Henry Faulk, by whoever it is that makes up Aggie jokes, and by, well, H. Allen Smith.
Smith received no formal schooling past the eighth grade and claims that he didn’t learn anything there except spelling, at which he excelled. “I just had an instinct for it. And for punctuation, too. Thinking back on it now, I realize I’m probably one of the few people in the world who could write before he was literate.” At fifteen he was living in Huntington, Indiana, sweeping up and shining shoes in a barbershop when he landed a job on the local paper as a proofreader. He was a quick study and was soon covering a variety of stories as well as writing a hopelessly corny humor column under the name of Miss Ella Yator. Later he wrote another column under the name Al T. Tude.
In his second year at the paper Smith and a young friend spent an evening in the newspaper office drinking and talking about girls. Afterward Smith stuck a piece of copy paper in his typewriter and banged out a short story entitled “Stranded on a Davenport.” It discussed in detail how a young gentleman had his way with a young lady on the piece of furniture mentioned in the title. Smith gave the story to his friend who typed copies of it and gave them out to his friends at the local high school. Soon girls were surreptitiously copying it in their typing classes. The copies circulated so widely that the principal found one and demanded that the police chief find the author. Since the original story had been written on newspaper copy paper, the chief figured the culprit must have been Smith. Smith at first denied it, but the chief told him that if he confessed nothing would happen to him. Smith confessed and the chief promptly hauled him into court. “At the trial,” Smith remembers, “they put all these girls on the stand and ‘Yes,’ they said, they’d read it but ‘Oh, no,’ they didn’t understand a word of it. Like hell they didn’t.” The court fined Smith and the experience left him a social outcast in the town. He then, at seventeen, decided it was time to seek his fortune in the great world outside Huntington.
He worked on newspapers in various small towns in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois before being lured to Florida two years later by the land boom that occurred there in the middle Twenties. Opportunities appeared and vanished quickly in that place and time. Smith became the editor of the daily Sebring American when he was nineteen. He found himself caulking boats for a living a few months later when the land boom turned into a whimper and the Sebring American folded.
Smith moved on, eventually finding a newspaper job in Tulsa. From there he wrote back to Nelle Simpson, a woman four years his senior who had been the society editor of the American. She came to Tulsa, arriving on April 14, 1927, and on April 14, 1927, she and Smith were married.
In Florida Nelle had given Smith the complete works of O. Henry. Despite Smith’s four years in the newspaper business, it was virtually the only book he’d ever owned or read. His lack of formal education had never been a handicap, but when he left Tulsa shortly after his marriage to take a job on the Denver Post, he joined a staff which included a number of well-educated, well-read young men. Their conversation was filled with references to contemporary writers, historical events, literary figures—names, books, occurrences Smith knew nothing about. He undertook to educate himself. He asked his friends which books he should read and their suggestions included the works of H. L. Mencken, Dickens, Anatole France, all of whom turned out to be lifelong influences. One friend, Morris Watson, later a founder of the Newspaper Guild who was involved in an important Supreme Court case concerning unions, suggested that Smith read H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, write down and learn every word he didn’t understand, and read other books about the important events and people Wells described. “I’m still impressed with what good advice that was,” Smith now says, and his habit of wide, inquisitive reading has persisted to this day.
His lack of formal education has made him especially appreciative of any kind of academic recognition. While I was visiting in his house he took me into his study and pointed out two bookshelves filled with college textbooks and anthologies. “I’ve got something reprinted in every one of those,” he said. “Me, with just an eighth-grade education. I don’t even know grammar. No one ever taught me. I’m not sure what a split infinitive is. But there they are—essays of mine in college textbooks as examples of good writing.”
Besides the beginnings of an education, Smith acquired a family in Denver—both his son and daughter were born there—and an antipathy for Will Rogers. “Will Rogers always said he never met a man he didn’t like. Well, he met me and he didn’t like me.” Since then Smith has taken great delight in writing unflattering things about Will Rogers. The latest was an article he published in Esquire which discussed a persistent rumor that Rogers had once drilled a hole in Shirley Temple’s dressing room wall so he could watch her on the toilet.
In fall of 1929, when Smith was 22, he left Denver for New York. For the next twelve years he worked for various papers as a feature writer or rewrite man. He interviewed celebrities and oddballs, and those stories became the core of Smith’s first successful book, Low Man on a Totem Pole. It was published in 1941, had an introduction by Smith’s close friend Fred Allen, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Since then, living in New York City, Mount Kisco, and Alpine, Smith has made a very comfortable living solely by writing and writing prodigiously—37 books since 1939, better than one a year. Between 1941 and 1946 his books sold over 1,400,000 copies; since then they have sold steadily but not nearly as well as before. His thirty-eighth book, a biography of his friend Gene Fowler, will be published this year.
Smith’s early books, though they contain what is still some of his best writing, have lost their appeal because so many of the people he discusses have faded from interest—Maxie Rosenbloom, Olivia de Havilland, Joe E. Brown, Constance Bennett. Most of his subsequent books are a series of anecdotes using various devices as the wire to bale them together: a trip (The Pig in the Barbershop, about Mexico; Waikiki Beachnik, Hawaii; Smith’s London Journal; Lo, the Former Egyptian, southern Illinois) or a particular place (Lost in the Horse Latitudes, Hollywood; Let the Crabgrass Grow, suburban New York) or a theme (People Named Smith, The Rebel Yelk, The Age of the Tail, concerning the changes in the world after people began growing tails; The Compleat Practical Joker). All of Smith’s books have their moments, but some don’t have enough of them, and few readers, I think, will want to read his entire body of work. But there are several worth recommending. One is The Best of H. Allen Smith, an anthology originally published in 1972 and now available in paperback. It contains selections from nearly all his books published up to that time and is consistently entertaining, energetic, and funny. Let the Crabgrass Grow, a title which the publisher forced on Smith and which he dislikes to this day, is a very fine evocation of life in the wealthy suburbs in the late Fifties with its barbecues, commuter trains, and cocktail parties. And finally a book that is by far the best of its kind, Buskin’ with H. Allen Smith, a collection of jokes, many of them dirty, some of them not. It is the funniest joke book in the language. Smith is a master, one of the few worthy masters of the rare art of setting a joke to paper.
This one appears in Let the Crabgrass Grow:
Not far from our home is the residence of a prominent doctor, a specialist whose practice is in New York City. He is a man of considerable wealth and he lives out here because his hobby is gardening. During the spring and summer he spends at least one day a week in overalls and blue denim shirt working among his flowers. He has one of the finest gardens in this area.
One day he noticed a big black automobile drive slowly past his grounds while he was at work in the garden. A stiffish matron was driving the car and she stared hard at the doctor as she passed. After a while the car came by again, and again she stared. The third time around the matron stopped the car and got out and approached the doctor.
She glanced all around to make certain that no one was in earshot and then asked, “Are you happy with this job?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the doctor, removing a dirty old hat.
“Would you consider changing jobs?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t,” he said.
“I’ll give you,” she said, “fifty cents an hour more than you’re getting here—no matter how much it is—if you’ll come and work for me. You look like a man who knows his business.”
He still resisted, shifting from foot to foot, turning his hat in his hands. She demanded to know why he would spurn such a handsome offer.
“Well, ma’am,” he said, “it’s like this. On this job they let me sleep with the madam.”
There are seldom any ideas in Smith’s books beyond the one he once explained to a Reader’s Digest editor: “We’re really not so different,” Smith said to the man. “The Reader’s Digest keeps saying, ‘Be good,’ and I keep saying, ‘Stop being bad.’ ” Which is fine, except at his worst—usually when he’s writing about the contemporary world, which he hates (he is one of the few people left still capable of getting into a spitting fury about long hair on men)—that message gives his writing a scolding, grumpy tone that changes his satire into petulance.
Part of Alpine’s appeal for Smith was that most of contemporary life seemed to have passed it by completely. Shortly after standing on that hillside just outside of town and deciding that was where he was going to live, Smith wrote from New York to an old friend: *
“We bought five acres of an Alpine mountain, lookin across the top of Alpine itself at 900 other mountains, and there is a nice new hospital in crawlin distance of the building site, which is a necessity when you reach The Golden Years… I can write books out there just as well as here and God knows I need a change of scene. Alpine is a perfect spot —population about 5000 and everyone a character… No progress. No accessibility… Mountains all around… My god I’ve been looking for this town for twenty years.”
(*For this letter and for some other material in this story I owe thanks to an unpublished biography of Smith by Elton Miles, a professor of English at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.)
This enthusiasm, this pure enthusiasm for Alpine, didn’t last long. Smith had forgotten that with nothing else changing, attitudes in Alpine wouldn’t change much either, and they hadn’t. They were much the same as they had been 50 years earlier when another small town condemned him for writing “Stranded on a Davenport.” His first forebodings came shortly after he and his wife arrived. A local lady asked him, “Mr. Smith, just what does a writer do?” His second start came when he noticed, looking through the phone book one day, that he’d moved to a town with seventeen churches and only one dentist.
His more serious troubles began when he started building his house. He decided to spare no expense in design, materials, or workmanship; it sits on its mountain today, certainly one of the handsomest new houses in West Texas. It is a long bungalow of more or less Mexican design with white bricks that suggest adobe, red tiles on the roof, wrought iron around a large, patio, and projecting rafters. Inside, the floors are large brown tiles, the kitchen has glazed Talavera tiles, and in his bathroom beautiful blue and white Talavera de la Reina tiles made in Puebla. The furniture is mostly large, heavy, hand-carved pieces also from Mexico, very comfortable. In the living room they are arranged around a white brick fireplace. His study has the same brown tile on the floor as is in the rest of the house. There bookcases go from floor to ceiling with, the exception of a few little cubicles where he has hung pictures and mementos—photographs of Mencken, Gene Fowler, James Street, an etching of Twain, a Leo Hershfield drawing of Smith and Benchley drinking at the same table, the royalty statement for his first book ($8.20), and a framed saying of G. K. Chesterton’s: “Tolerance is the virtue of people who don’t believe in anything.” The room is big enough to hold an L-shaped desk, an easy chair, a black-lacquered electric organ, and various other tables and chairs, with plenty of pacing room in between.
When I visited him it was late fall, but the morning I arrived wasn’t especially cold. Still Smith had a warm fire going in the fireplace. “I’m not trying to cook you,” he said. “This is in the interest of science. It’s an experiment I’ve got going.” Nelle Smith’s bedroom is on the other side of the wall from the fireplace and some nights earlier she had noticed the baseboards had gotten very hot. Smith discovered then that the contractors hadn’t bothered to use firebrick behind the fireplace. He had added some protection, hoping that would solve the problem and was testing now to see if it had. “Those bastards cheated me every chance they got,” he said. He sat down in a chair with his back to a long wall of glass looking over Alpine and the mountains in the distance. “People told me later that I’d shown a great talent for choosing the worst sonsabitches in town to do business with. Well, why the hell didn’t they tell me that then when it might have done some good. Let me,” he went on, getting out of his chair, “show you something.” He led me outside.
“I like to grow vegetables,” he said as we walked a few yards down his driveway toward a small outbuilding, “so it occurred to me after all the plans had been made and construction was underway that I was going to need a toolshed. ‘Waddya want?’ they asked me. I said, ‘Oh, something kind of in keeping with the looks of the rest of the house.’ I knew I should have kept my eye on them. Look what they built.” There was the shed, about nine by twelve with the same white brick and red tile roof as the house and even, in the wall facing the valley, a large picture window with a black metal frame. “Goddamn bastards,” Smith went on, “that red tile on the house cost $10,000. And they use it on the roof of a toolshed. And I’ll guarantee you I’m the only man in West Texas who has a toolshed with a picture window.”
Smith was wearing a bright red sweater and bright red socks with brown pants and brown shoes. A strong wind was blowing and it would be convenient, since Smith is small and thin and old, to say that it threatened to blow him away. But his attachment to his mountain is almost physical, and the glue of that attachment is his pride and his cantankerousness. Several times during the construction of his house, Smith got so disgusted with his builders or with Alpine itself that he went searching for another place to live. He came close to buying land in Kerrville but in the end that land didn’t suit him as well as his land in Alpine and, he told me, “I just decided I wasn’t going to let those goddamn bastards run me off my mountain.” Even now, pointing toward the toolshed’s picture window with his red sweater billowing around his bony arms and chest, Smith’s eyes, each black and vibrant as a wasp’s stinger, glared into the wind.
But there is more to Smith than cantankerous pride. As we stood outside, right after he had finished his diatribe on how the construction company had cheated him, he proudly pointed at a willow tree growing halfway down the mountain. He told me that people are amazed to see a willow, a tree usually found by running water, growing on a mountainside in West Texas. “I tell them it’s just a knack I have making things grow,” he said. “But the real reason is that’s where my septic tank is. The tree gets plenty of water.” He turned to show me his garden. First he started cussing the caliche—“the worst damn soil”—and all the fertilizer he had to put on to get anything to grow. Then, in the same breath, he pointed out several rows of smooth, white rocks that divided the garden into small sections. He said his wife had found them in a streambed. He took hold of my elbow with one hand and pointed toward the rocks with the other. “I was working in there,” he said, “weeding or something, and thinking about those rocks when I got an idea. I thought of a neighbor coming over and asking me about the rocks and me telling him, ‘Oh, those keep snakes and mice and all the other little varmints out of the garden. They won’t go over the smooth stones.’ So he decides to get some rocks, too, to protect his garden.”
“Does that really work?” I asked. “Ha,” he said. “No, no, hell no, it doesn’t work. But it would be a good story. The idea is pretty soon everyone in town wants the rocks. They’re fighting for them in the streambeds, stealing them from each other at night. That’s the way these things work, you know.” On the way inside, after refusing my offer of help, Smith, nearly 70, picked up a large log and carried it in to put on the fire. Back inside, he continued, over a bowl of Preparation H. Allen Smith, to tell me about the days in Alpine he has come to call “The Trouble.” (The chili, by the way, was delicious. After serving me, Smith said, “These Texans don’t like my chili because I put the beans in it. They say the beans should be on the side. What’s,” he said, brandishing his chili spoon as his voice rose, “the damn difference?”) The Trouble began, of course, with the construction of the house, when Smith began to feel that everyone he did business with tried to and frequently succeeded in cheating him. This feeling may have been partly paranoia but not completely. A man who works for the local newspaper and is not a personal friend of Smith’s told me, “When he came to town, word got around that he had money. Some people decided to try to get as much of it from him as they could. For example, when he tried to buy some more land, the owners just doubled the price when they heard he was interested in it. Things like that happened all along.” Still, Smith’s cantankerousness and suspicion, whether justified or not, did not sit well with the town. People accused him of acting as though he were better than the town and the people in it and wanted them to “bow and scrape” when he walked by. Local architectural critics said his house was an eyesore because it was of Mexican design. One area journalist accused him of befouling the side of what had been a beautiful mountain. The local newspaper and radio station KVLF ignored his presence completely, while Smith, for his part, took a certain pleasure in pointing out their inadequacies. He began calling the paper the Weekly Gut Rumble and the radio station K-Very-Loud-Fart. He was doubly amused when people in the town began using those names, too. Otherwise, he despaired of the local society. One man who had been lightly kidded about not reading very much responded, “Dang it, I’ll have you know I’ve read The Robe four times and I’m about to start it again!” Smith found he had to identify famous people he once knew so that he was habitually opening conversations like this: “One day H. L. Mencken was walking along … oh, H. L. Mencken was a great magazine editor and a greater writer of the iconoclastic school and lived in Baltimore . . . Well, one day he was . . .” He similarly had to identify Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, and James Thurber.
Particularly painful was the night when a prominent citizen, one who had gone out of his way to be friendly to Smith, sidled up to him and asked in a low voice, “Say, how much do you have to pay to get one of those books of yours published?”
“Pay?” Smith said. “They pay me!”
The man snapped back as if he’d been slapped. “They do?”
About this time two writers for Time, the former Texas correspondent and his recent replacement, called on Smith during a tour of West Texas. They stayed for ten hours talking at great length about a number of subjects. Shortly afterwards, in March 1970, the following item appeared in the magazine: “Two years ago when life in polluted New York City got to be too much for humorist H. Allen Smith, he packed up his wife and headed for Alpine, Texas. There he built a house and settled back to enjoy the good pure life. Now, Smith says, he is suffering mightily from ‘people pollution.’ The angry humorist insists that he has never seen ‘such a goddamned bunch of bigoted, pious, lying, cheating bastards in all my life.’ ”
Smith had not understood that his conversation with the correspondents was for publication, but once the quote was printed, he had no wish to take it back. The town erupted. He began getting calls at all hours of the day and late into the night. “Is this H. Allen Smith?” the caller would ask.
“Yes, it is.”
“Then screw yew!”
People acted rudely on the streets or in shops or else ignored him completely. Or else they were threatening. Smith appeared on the Merv Griffin show shortly after the mention in Time. He told some stories of life in Alpine, all of which tended to support Smith’s sentiments as Time had reported them. When he got off the plane at Odessa, a group of cowboys accosted him, manhandled him a little, and made some threats.
The worst incident happened one night when Smith got a call from a woman, one of the few people in town who had remained friendly. She was excited and frightened. She had been walking past the courthouse square and saw a crowd of people talking about coming up to tar and feather him. “Tell them to come on,” Smith said. He loaded his shotgun and went to wait for the mob at the head of his driveway like an Old West gunfighter. He waited late into the night almost wishing they would come, but no one did. After that, he kept the loaded gun by his door for several months.
Now, five years later, Smith and Alpine have reached a wary truce. He has a few good friends in the town and these friends like to point out that he is in the habit of donating generously to local charities, supports the town’s and Sul Ross’ libraries with contributions of books and money, and has written some friendly articles about this or that person in the town. Many of the people I talked to remarked on how friendly he is now. All this has helped heal a few of the wounds that some of Alpine’s citizens feel they suffered at his hand. Smith, for his part, has decided to like the people he likes and let it go at that.
“Most people out here still haven’t recovered from my first assault,” he told me. “They are, for the most part, middle-aged and old, bitter and malevolent sourpusses, unhappy at the way life has handled them—in a word, failures. It used to be my custom in small towns to speak to everyone on the street, but these smelly antagonists, their mouths turned down at the corners, won’t even grunt at me. Instead they give me scowls and hateful looks. So I decided to quit speaking to anyone on the streets, in the stores, anywhere, unless it’s someone I know fairly well and know isn’t my enemy.”
One aspect of those past events still baffles him. “They thought I meant ‘bastard’ literally, not just the common cuss word, but ‘born out of wedlock.’ This is non-cussing society out here and they couldn’t comprehend that calling a person a bastard usually is the same as calling a person a skunk. I keep having to tell people that when I hit my thumb with a hammer, and then shriek at the hammer, ‘you bastard,’ I am not suggesting that the hammer was born out of wedlock.”
Smith’s account of The Trouble came in bits and snatches throughout the afternoon and evening. During the rest of the time he was answering my questions about his life before moving to Alpine. Since Smith’s habit is to go to bed early and get up very early (usually around 3:30 or 4 a.m.) and do a good deal of writing before breakfast, I retired to his guest room not long after dinner.
The next morning I went to see some people in Alpine, then came back to Smith’s house to have lunch with him before I left. He took the opportunity to give me a guided tour of his study. Near his desk, standing on a square black table, was a large cabinet that had twelve drawers all of which had changeable labels. He used these drawers to file material for the magazine stories he was working on and, that morning, each drawer was in use. Elsewhere around the room were cardboard boxes filled with files for his just completed biography of Gene Fowler. His desk was covered with books and manuscripts in various stages of completion, and a bulletin board behind his desk had a list of article ideas, articles in progress, and deadlines. Looking for the first time at the pictures of Benchley and Mencken on the walls, I realized how little he had talked about these people he had once known. When he had talked, it had been mostly at my prompting. He was far more interested in showing me the articles he had in progress or pointing out the bookshelf by his bed that contained the books he was reading or would soon read. These were all aspects of the same quality I had begun to notice with the story about the smooth rocks. In spite of his dream house turning out to be something of a nightmare, in spite of his books now being more ignored than read, in spite of all his closest friends being long dead and the world he enjoyed being dead just as long, he wasn’t living in the past. Even rocks could suggest something new to write about. And if part of that energy spilled over into a general cantankerousness and fury with the world, then those were his devils, he had been long wrestling with them, and perhaps now he had his reasons for needing their challenge.
We lingered over lunch. After a while, just before I left, he told me about an old friend of his in Los Angeles. The man had once had some profitable business interests as well as a popular newspaper column and his own radio show. Now he was old, he had no money, and his letters were filled with little but talk of death. He lives in a small apartment that Smith has never seen. “He always has me meet him somewhere else. I know it’s because he doesn’t want me to see how he’s fallen.” We both stared down at our plates for a moment. Then he said, “Jesus, the world is full of sad cases. And I’ll tell you something, you start seeing more of them when you get to be my age.” And his dark eyes glared. Not with hatred or contempt or bile; just with fury.