"When there are two conflicting versions of the story, the wise course is to believe the one in which people appear at their worst. "
H Allen Smith, Let the Crabgrass Grow
Harry Allen Wolfgang Smith was born in McLeansboro, Illinois where he lived until he was six. His family moved to Decatur in 1913 and then to Defiance, Ohio, finally settling in Huntington, Indiana. It was at this point Smith dropped out of high school and began working odd jobs, eventually finding work as a journalist.
He started his journalism career in 1922 at the Huntington Press, later relocating to Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky. It was while editing the Sebring American in Florida in 1925, that he met society editor Nelle Mae Simpson. They married in 1927. The couple lived in Oklahoma where Smith worked at the Tulsa Tribune, followed by a position at the Denver Post. In 1929, he became a United Press rewrite man, also handling feature stories and celebrity interviews. He continued as a feature writer with the New York World-Telegram from 1934 to 1939. By then well-known for his unconventional interviews with celebrities and assorted personalities, he interviewed such prominent figures of the day including Charles Lindberg, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Florence Ziegfeld, Babe Ruth, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Smith's first publication was a commissioned biography of industrialist Robert Gair in 1939. Soon after that he wrote a spoof of Hitler entitled Mr. Klein's Kampf. However, it was the publication of his book Low Man on a Totem Pole in 1941, featuring an introduction by his friend Fred Allen, that launched Smith's fame as a humorist. Low Man on a Totem Pole was popular during WW2 not only on the home front but also on troop trains and at military camps and eventually sold a million copies.
With his newfound financial freedom, Smith left the daily newspaper grind for life as a freelance author, scripting for radio, writing “The Totem Pole” a daily column for United Features Syndicate, making personal appearances and working on his next book, Life in a Putty Knife Factory (1943), which became another bestseller. He spent eight months in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures, and wrote about his experience in Lost in the Horse Latitudes (1944). Low Man on a Totem Pole, Life in a Putty Knife Factory, and Lost in the Horse Latitudes were widely circulated around the world in Armed Services Editions. The popularity of these titles kept Smith on the New York Herald Tribune's Best Seller List for 100 weeks and prompted a collection of all three books in 3 Smiths in the Wind (1946). By the end of World War II, Smith's fame as a humorist led to an invitation to edit Desert Island Decameron (1945), a collection of essays and stories by such leading humorists as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and James Thurber.
His novel, Rhubarb (1946), a wonderfully zany novel with a cast of madcap characters including Rhubarb, a scraggly alley cat that comes into a fortune and ownership of a baseball team, led to two sequels and a 1951 movie adaptation. Larks in the Popcorn (1948, reprinted in 1974) and Let The Crabgrass Grow (1960) described "rural" life in Westchester County, New York. People Named Smith (1950) offers anecdotes and histories of people named Smith, such as Presidential candidate Al Smith, religious leader Joseph Smith and a man named 5/8 Smith. He collaborated with Ira L. Smith on the baseball anecdotes in Low and Inside (1949) and Three Men on Third (1951). The Compleat Practical Joker (1953, reprinted in 1980) detailed the pranks pulled by his friends including Hugh Troy, publicist Jim Moran and artist Waldo Peirce. His futuristic fantasy novel, The Age of the Tail (1955), describes a time when people are born with tails.
Smith also wrote hundreds of magazine articles for Esquire, Holiday, McCall's, Playboy, Reader's Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, The Saturday Review of Literature, True, Venture, Golf and other publications. Smith made a number of appearances on radio and television including The Fred Allen Show and Person to Person.
Smith's autobiography, To Hell in a Handbasket, was published in 1962. One of his last books, Rude Jokes, was published in1970.
H. Allen and Nelle Smith lived in Mount Kisco, New York, for 23 years before relocating to Alpine, Texas, in 1967. Smith died in San Francisco on February 24, 1976 while collecting material for further articles and books. His last book, The Life and Legend of Gene Fowler, a man he had loved and respected all his life, was published posthumously in 1977. His papers are in special collections at Sul Ross State University (Alpine, Texas) and Southern Illinois University (Carbondale, Illinois). The SIU photograph collection contains pictures of Smith, his family, friends and celebrities.