Gregory White Smith, a world-renowned author who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning biography on painter Jackson Pollock, the definitive biography on Vincent Van Gogh and who spent the past 25 years devoted to historic preservation and cultural enhancement in Aiken, died at his home Thursday. He was 62.
His death came after a 40-year battle with a rare brain tumor, Smith’s publishing company, Woodward/White Inc., said in a statement.
Smith and his husband, Steven Naifeh, wrote 18 books and are known for co-founding the Juilliard in Aiken Festival and for restoring the historic Whitney-Vanderbilt house, now called Joye Cottage. The 60-room mansion doubles as the couple’s home and the site of the Juilliard in Aiken’s artist-in-residence program, which brings Juilliard School students and faculty in for public performances, workshops and outreach in the local public schools.
“He was fabulous, a true genius,” said Juilliard in Aiken President Betty Ryberg. “He was so awe-inspiring. He followed his ideas with implementation. Sometimes geniuses have ideas, but he manifested those ideas into these acclaimed books. It’s the implementation, not just the ideas, that make someone a genius.”
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Smith graduated from Maine’s Colby College and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School, where he met Naifeh on the first day of classes, according to Woodward/White.
After briefly working for a law firm in San Francisco, Smith began an extensive career as a writer with Naifeh. Together they wrote five New York Times bestsellers; an Edgar Allan Poe Award finalist; the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, which was later turned into an Academy Award winning film; and a ground-breaking expose on the life of Van Gogh, which took 10 years to complete.
Van Gogh: The Life was published in 2011 and was the first book to question the widely accepted theory that Van Gogh committed suicide, proposing instead that he was murdered.
In 1975, Smith was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor that would require 13 surgeries throughout his life, according to Woodward/White. He was given three months to live in 1987, which caused him and Naifeh to travel the world in search of doctors who could treat his condition.
That quest led the couple to launch Best Doctors, a company dedicated to help patients with undiagnosed and untreatable illnesses find doctors. Smith’s illness and the Best Doctors company were featured on a 1997 segment of CBS’s 60 minutes, which would also later air a full-length interview on the couple’s Van Gogh biography. After the couple moved to Aiken in 1989, Smith revised the city’s historic preservation ordinance and served as the historic preservation commission chair for a decade.
Aiken City Manager Richard Pearce said Smith brought passion, expertise, hard work and innovation to every project he worked on and every person he helped.
Besides spending seven years restoring his Joye Cottage home, Pearce said Smith shared information and knowledge with those interested in historic preservation.
“He really knew a diamond in the rough,” Pearce said. “He didn’t just consider something ‘that old thing,’ he knew how to restore it and absolutely make it shine without losing the character and value.”
Pearce said Smith spoke to people with compassion and a genuine heart that is rarely seen in people with so much success.
“The guy had every right in the world to be arrogant … but he could have a conversation with one of the folks picking up garbage to visiting heads of state and ambassadors. I never saw him meet a stranger. He was a true intellect, but not in an off-putting way, but in a very engaging and inclusive way.
“There is no question whatsoever that Aiken is a better South Carolina city for Greg Smith having spent time here.”
Ryberg, with Juilliard in Aiken, said because of Smith’s dedication to the program, more than 50 artists have spent time in Joye Cottage over the past six years and have affected 19,000 public school students.
Smith was also instrumental in the organization’s festival in March, which became the most successful and well attended event to date.
In a statement issued by Woodward/White Inc., Naifeh, who married Smith in New York in 2011, said even during the most difficult times of Smith’s illness, he never lost his ability to touch the hearts of others.
“It took enormous grit and determination to stage this heroic, ongoing battle against his brain tumor,” Naifeh said. “Yet it never robbed him of his passion for life. Or his sweetness. He was so unassuming about his intellectual gifts, so guileless, that he had an extraordinary capacity to help people understand how special they were in their own ways.”