A Conversation with Philip Smith:
Author of Walking Through Walls: A Memoir
In the 1950s, dashing Lew Smith and his chic blonde wife Esther would go out on the town to drink cocktails and “listen to Dean Martin or laugh at Shecky Greene.”
As Miami’s “only heterosexual decorator,” Lew catered to clients ranging from jet-setting socialites to the dictator of Haiti. In Walking Through Walls (published in hardcover last year, now out in paperback), his son Philip writes, “my father was able to convince the ultra-rich that he was just the man to fluff their pillows, hang their drapes, and ease them away from their addiction to anything rococo or European baroque. In no time at all, he was designing tropical-fantasy interiors that combined the best of Oriental splendor and high-style fifties moderne.”
It was unusual enough that a Jew who fled pogroms in Poland should become the go-to guy for Miami home décor. But Lew’s life took an even stranger turn in the 1960s. First he went on a macrobiotic diet, which his unwilling son was obliged to share. (Esther stuck to her regime of cigarettes, kosher hot dogs and ice cream.) Then Lew fasted for extended periods, after which he turned to yoga, followed by studies of increasingly arcane metaphysics. By the end of the decade, he had become a psychic healer under the tutelage of spirit guides. At night he was curing people of physical and mental ailments—including ridding them of evil spirits—and by day he was decorating homes of the rich and famous. This didn’t sit well with Esther, who divorced him; or Philip, who just wanted to be a regular kid.
All this makes for a good story, and more than 20 years after his father’s death artist Philip Smith wrote it. He phoned me from his Miami studio to give me the tale behind his odd tale.
Bella Stander: I was surprised to learn that you lived on the Bowery at the same time I lived on Mott Street, just two blocks west. Near the end of the book you see a psychic, who lived on Mulberry Street “across from a church graveyard.” The view from my window was the other side of that graveyard. [See it in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.] A few pages later, you write: “I decided to see the new Charlie Chaplin film biography directed by Richard Attenborough. The timing seemed serendipitous.” I nearly plotzed when I read that, because I had started watching Chaplin the night before. Talk about serendipitous!
Philip Smith: Stuff like that happens a lot with this book. Some people say that they feel my father working through them, or talking to them. Even though it was not my intention to create the space for people to have these experiences, I accept them and I’m very glad they’re occurring.
BLS: Why did you write Walking through Walls?
PS: There are two answers. The first is that someone had heard this story, and an agent called me and had lunch with me. He said, “This is really interesting stuff. I want you to write this book.” I thought, “Well, OK, I can just bang out a book in a few months.” Then it took six years to research and write.
The second answer is that I wanted to honor my father. He taped everything—his phone calls, healings and lectures, which is where I got a lot of material for the book And he left behind over 5,000 pages of spirit dictation, along with rooms full of various documents. About two weeks before I handed in the manuscript, I came across yet another folder of his papers. I was concerned that it contained something crucial and I’d have to rewrite the book. In the folder was a spirit message from 1971 instructing him to organize his papers, because Philip was going to write a book on him and his work. This was 30 years before I even thought about writing it.
A week after I found that message, I discovered a bag of unmarked audio tapes. I picked one, like picking a number out of a hat, and popped it into my car’s cassette player. On it, Father is having a psychic reading with an English woman. She says, “Your son is going to write a documentary on your work. Make sure you have everything ready for him.”
I thought, “Wow, Mr. Smartypants, you thought this was your idea, but you had nothing to do with it.” I was just the secretary. I wish I would have known ahead of time that this was in the stars. I would have been a lot less anxious about writing the book.
BLS: If you had known that, you might have rebelled against it.
PS: I might have been lazy. I would have said, “It was meant to be, so whatever I do is OK.” Instead, I worked my fingers off. It got rewritten and rewritten.
The book is disarming, charming and funny, with a lot of serious stuff underneath, and my paintings are the same way. They were always about Father and his world, but in a more atmospheric way. I couldn’t think about him in two different ways, so I stopped painting while I was writing the book.
BLS: When I was in art school, someone asked me to tell what one of my paintings was about. I said, “If I could use words I wouldn’t need to paint.”
PS: Right. There’s a lot of latitude in painting. You’re gulping in ideas wholesale. In writing, those ideas have to be pared down and carved cleanly into each word. It’s a very different experience.
BLS: A painting can have many levels of meaning; more so than words.
PS: It took me a really long time to say exactly what I wanted. Some of that is because it took forever to get through my father’s books and audiotapes. I was reading through them the first time because I wanted a story and evidence. I wanted the book to be airtight, otherwise people would say I’d made this stuff up. I didn’t want to discredit my father’s work. I was fanatical about only putting things in the book that could be validated. Now when I go back and read his papers, there’s a whole other level of profundity that escaped me the first time.
BLS: I once read that a memoir is really about the person who wrote it. What makes the book interesting is your reaction to what’s going on with your father.
PS: Here’s this kid who just wants to get high and go surfing, and he has to deal with a supernatural father. When I was growing up, “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Addams Family” were reality shows. I just wanted a normal father who mowed the lawn and fell asleep in front of the TV. Instead I got this guy who talked to dead people. And in the end, lucky me.
BLS: You write about your mother, “No matter what it might be, Esther was ready for the next big thing in her life.” How did she feel about the book?
PS: She died the day it came out.
BLS: Did she read the manuscript?
PS: I asked if she wanted to see it. She said, “No, I lived it.” Behind my back she was very excited, but didn’t want to show it in the event the book wasn’t well received. After all, it’s her life that’s in it too.
BLS: Your father was helpful to strangers, but it seems he wasn’t so great at personal relationships.
PS: I think it was very difficult, because when this thing happened to him it was like becoming an emergency room physician. Today healers have office hours, but when I was a kid people were knocking on the door at three and four in the morning. It was scary weird. As a result, I think the day-to-day small interactions got lost in the shuffle.
At a friend’s book reading, a woman in the audience said her 13-year-old daughter is seeing dead people. Nobody thought that was unusual. Forty years ago my father would have been locked up if he said that. Today he’d be on “Oprah,” he’d have a nice set of DVDs and the NIH would be throwing grant money at him.
My father was healing people at no charge while he was being chased by the authorities, including the police and the FDA. In many ways he was an outlaw—a spiritual outlaw. He was doing work that no one, not even doctors, could do. Back then, there were no MRIs or CAT scans. So when the doctor sent you home with congestive heart failure or liver cancer, that was it. There were no other options. He helped a lot of people who were getting ready to die.
There’s a big difference between my father and most of the healers now. A lot of the healing done today is non-specific and gives comfort, whereas he would do very specific medical healing. He would diagnose a tumor and get rid of that tumor. I haven’t found anybody who does that.
BLS: Lew was taken in by his girlfriend Ruth, who said she was fasting. Meanwhile you noticed empty Doritos bags in her trash.
PS: My father adored women in a very Frank Sinatra way. He put them on a pedestal. The incidents with Ruth were important to include because they show he wasn’t perfect, even though he had these amazing gifts. I was criticized for putting that part in, but I was a reporter and that was the true story. [Philip was a writer for Andy Warhol’s Interview, then later the managing editor of GQ.]
BLS: You write that Lew was “on the A-list party circuit for the deceased.”
PS: For him, there was no difference between being alive and dead. The way you and I are having this conversation, if a spirit guide showed up, he’d interject them as if they were in the room with us. Once he’d met a spirit, they’d bring their friends by to meet him and work with him on new healing methods. He was the toast of the town with the dead folks.
My father and his work existed outside of time. When you go to the doctor and you’re given antibiotics, they say it’ll take 10 days for you to get better. My father’s healings weren’t governed by our reality, so they were instantaneous. Boom! You were healed. You might take some time to accept this gift, but as far as he was concerned his work was done.
BLS: This must have been difficult for you to live with.
PS: His having these different dimensions always in play was not easy for anyone. It’s like he had the Internet to other universes plugged into his head.
BLS: I was amused by your observation: “The spirit world sounded a bit like the Mafia to me.”
PS: Once you were in, the spirits didn’t leave. If they were looking after you, they didn’t go away. You were tied in.
BLS: Is that because so few people can see spirits that they hang around the ones who do?
PS: In my father’s case, they thought he was special and they could transmit a lot of their work through him. There are many messages that discuss why he was chosen to carry on various ideas. However, he never thought he was different from anyone else.
BLS: You describe electric-shock aversion therapy administered to you as a teenager by a psychiatrist, which left your arms covered with red welts.
PS: It seems like the Dark Ages, but this was in our lifetime. In another 20 years we’ll look back at medicine and say, “You mean we cut people open and cracked their rib cages to get to their hearts? How primitive!” To my father, our bodies weren’t pieces of broken machinery, which is how the medical profession sees them. He saw us as energetic, spiritual organisms that had to be treated with energy and spirituality.
BLS: You were very ill on a trip to Europe in your late teens, then suddenly recovered. When you returned home, you found that Lew had healed you from afar. You write, “For the first time, I began to think that just maybe I should actually start paying attention to this weirdo father of mine.”
PS: Apparently I almost died. I thought, “What if this had gotten even worse and I didn’t have the father I have? I’m pretty lucky.” I had taken him for granted. Big mistake.
My father was seen as a Communist, a devil worshipper, and just plain crazy. We easily could have been arrested or institutionalized. So I transformed myself into this very normal-acting person that never aroused suspicion from anyone. I had to do these Academy Award performances just to get through the school day. I still do a lot to blend in and come off as a regular guy. My karate teacher said, “Philip in book not same as Philip in dojo.You master actor!”
BLS: The final acknowledgement in Walking Through Walls is to Kaicho Nakamura. Do you practice Seido karate?
PS: Yes, for 16 years. Karate has been a profoundly spiritual undertaking for me and it is thanks to my teacher, who’s an extraordinary human being. If I could nominate people for sainthood, he would be second on my list after my father.
BLS: What do you practice that your father taught you?
PS: My worldview: That life and the world I live in is miraculous, and much of it is my own creation. The other area is through my painting. The Tibetans make thangas, which give you a blessing or insight when you look at a painting. I’m hoping in some small way that my art has the same effect on people, and so I can carry on some aspects of my father’s work.
BLS: Lew wanted you to take over after him, but it’s not your calling.
PS: I’m not so sure anymore. It’s being pressed on me more and more. I was in an alternative conference, and this Chinese woman got up and started yelling at me: “You think you so smart, you write book and you OK. But you waste your life. You do nothing.You stupid man! You supposed to help people.” She just kept screaming and following me around for 45 minutes. So I have a fan club.
BLS: Of your father’s death in 1981, you write: “He was irreplaceable. Suddenly my safety net had been ripped out from under me…I was now completely human and vulnerable.” Do you still feel that?
PS: More so. As I get older, I increasingly realize what amazing good fortune I had to have a miracle worker for a father. It wasn’t just his ability to heal, but he was able to manipulate reality in a way that all of us wish we could. He could rub the genie lamp and make your wish come true. Having someone like that on your side is an unimaginable gift.
BLS: Where did Smith come from? That surely wasn’t the family name in Poland.
PS: I guess they gave it to him at Ellis Island. When I was 16, I asked Father what our real name was. He said, “We built up a really fine name for Smith in this country.” He was imprinted by pogroms when he was a kid, and he didn’t want the price he paid for being a Jew imprinted on me. He was moving forward because the past was so painful.
BLS: That’s typical of the Jews who came here. They wanted to start over. The past didn’t matter, only the future. Your father liked crucifixes and used them in his work. What was that about?
PS: He believed in Jesus. After all, Jesus was a healer and Jewish. What’s not to like? I think that by using the crucifix, he felt he was able to call in the energy of Jesus. As long as there was something useful in a religion, that’s all he cared about.
BLS: What’s been the reaction to Walking Through Walls?
PS: I am very honored that so many people have read the book and learned about my father. The best reaction is having doctors read it. That’s astonished me. They didn’t laugh or dismiss the book. It made them think about what they’re doing as physicians, and how they heal people. The amazing thing is that 40 years later, a lot of the stuff that my father talked about is being taken seriously and is part of standard medicine. I thought, “Pop, they’re finally listening to you.”
Bella Stander is the proprietor of Book Promotion 101 author publicity consulting, publisher of Bella Terra Maps and a consultant to the Virginia Festival of the Book. A former contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, she has also reviewed books for such publications as Entertainment Weekly, People, The Wall St. Journal, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.
Works by Bella Stander
ALDRICH – Life in the Big House: Alexandra Aldrich, author of THE Astor Orphan – A Memoir
SMITH – A Conversation with Philip Smith: Author of Walking Through Walls: A Memoir
WELES – In My Father’s Shadow: An Interview with Chris Welles Feder: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles
WILSON – Kevin Wilson: Debut Novel – The Family Fang- Strange and Beautiful