Those who knew B. Smith at the height of her career never could have dreamed that she could so quickly become the public face of a degenerative disease long thought to be found primarily among the elderly.
But she approached even this demon with style and courage.
When our editor was a cub reporter for the Sag Harbor Express walking the streets of Sag Harbor with a pencil behind her ear, B. Smith’s Restaurant down by the edge of Long Wharf was the place to be.
It was there that the people of Sag Harbor gathered, for sunset cocktails or for dinner with family and friends, and the proprietress, B. Smith herself, was often there making sure everything was running smoothly and making sure everyone felt welcome.
The restaurant was a capstone of sorts for Ms. Smith’s gutsy and varied career as a model, restaurateur, author and television show host, who liked to say her career was akin to what would happen if Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey had a baby.
As a female African American entrepreneur, she broke boundaries with such grace and class that it was easy to forget how rare her success had been.
There is no more devastating fall than the fall of someone who dies of Alzheimer’s Disease, especially early onset Alzheimer’s, which is how the disease is characterized when it is diagnosed before the age of 65.
When B. Smith died Feb. 22 at the age of 70, it had been six years since she and her husband, Dan Gasby, had publicly announced she was ill. She had already closed her restaurant in Sag Harbor, and two other eponymous restaurants in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.
In the six years since her diagnosis, the pain her family faced with making decisions for someone who was used to making decisions for herself was public in a way few sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease are.
She and Mr. Gasby chose to be public about this struggle, and he later said he’d begun noticing signs that she may have Alzheimer’s disease as early as 2008.
In their 2016 book “Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help and Acceptance in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s,” they documented the progression of her disease, interwoven with lessons they’d learned in the process of coping, lifestyle changes that had proven helpful for them and clinical research that is still a long way from finding a cure.
Their struggle also provided a crucial and personal face on the disproportionate toll Alzheimer’s disease takes on African Americans, who, for reasons that have not yet become clear but are believed to be partly due to chronic stress, are twice as likely as white Americans to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and who bear 30 percent of the country’s financial burden of caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s, despite making up just 14 percent of people diagnosed with the disease.
Mr. Gasby also spoke out with great candor about his struggles as a caregiver, about the friends who, not knowing how to relate to someone with Alzheimer’s, abandoned the couple, and about how he entered a new relationship when he realized he felt as if he was dying alongside B. during the years of caring for her. He took a lot of heat for his frankness about his decision, but it was a choice none of us could wish on our worst enemy.
Alzheimer’s disease truly is the devil’s disease, and while it’s easy for younger, healthy people to dismiss it as just a normal part of aging (which it is not) when they see it in the elderly, we all look it square in the eye when someone younger in our midst succumbs to it.
B. Smith was a painfully public face of something so many families suffer with in silence every day. It is our hope that her death spurs the public to wake up and demand the crucial funding to put an end to dementia in our lifetimes.
— Beth Young