The ProsenPeople

The Legacy of Robert Kimmel Smith

Thursday, November 14, 2013 | Permalink

by Dina Weinstein

Forty years ago in books and in groups, women were documenting, prodding, and examining their world, their status, and their lot as they entered the workforce with gusto, weighing personal versus professional costs and duties. In 1973, as the movement came into full swing, women very seriously asked provocative questions in print and in consciousness-raising groups.

Then Sadie Shapiro came along. She was a geriatric, feminist heroine with “old fashioned, if you love it, then you need to put a ring on it” values during a time of free love. Her charm and straight talk made her beloved around the world. Robert Kimmel Smith’s Sadie Shapiro’s Knitting Book (Simon and Schuster, 1973) came out ten years after Betty Friedan’s revolutionary book documenting the feminist struggle The Feminine Mystique, a year after Gail Parent’s desperate, extended suicide note from a confused swinging single Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, the same year Erica Jong’s feminist liberation novel Fear of Flying was published, and three years after Judy Blume’s Margaret was writing God about her period.

Smith offered a new geriatric heroine with a talent for knitting, indeed a Picasso of the craft. She was appreciated for that skill. Smith’s spunky heroine of the funny, warm novel was seventy-two years old, or perhaps, seventy-five (she wasn’t quite sure) and lived in the Mount Eden Senior Citizens Hotel. When she submits fifty of her best knitting patterns to an ailing publishing firm, the course of her life changes. Not only is her book published, but Sadie becomes the peoples’ darling, the pure-gold TV talk show guest who knits herself into the fabric of myth. Critics called it a big-hearted, moving, hilariously irresistible book.

Shapiro is a character based on Smith’s aunts including one Yetta Moskowitz—first generation Jewish women in Brooklyn who, as Smith put it in a recent interview “didn’t take crap from anyone.”

Forty years later Shapiro is still refreshing in an age of intense youth worship.

In a 1973 review in The New York Times, Martin Levin wrote:

“The golden-age heroine of this little comedy meets cure with a publisher’s editor (while jogging). Before long, she is out of an old-people’s home and into the public eye—launched by her new friend on a literary career. Sadie Shapiro is a mixture of Grandma Moses and Myron Cohen: high creativity and ethnic one-liners. Plus she has written something that has the wattage of the Legendary Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. When she has been taken notice of by Howard Cosell, you know that Sadie is a bona-fide celebrity. (‘My face on a tee shirt,’ Sadie grinned. ‘Who would buy such a thing?’) Robert Kimmel Smith translates the banality of book promotion into broad old-fashioned farce, in which everything for everybody works out ipsy-pipsy.”
Smith’s clearest message is that people—women, the elderly—are valued and need to feel valued. I take Sadie Shapiro as a clearly feminist novel. Smith meant it to be that way.

Smith had toiled for years as a successful advertising copywriter. He knew from childhood that he wanted to be a writer. A bout with rheumatic fever at age eight kept him in bed for three months, reading and dreaming. It was then that he had his first thoughts of becoming a writer. His parents pushed him to medicine.

At forty, Smith’s wife encouraged him to finally focus on his passion and he produced an adult novel, Ransom, in 1971 and then in 1972 the still-popular, classic children’s book of excess, Chocolate Fever.

Sadie Shapiro’s Knitting Book came about during the craft craze of the 1970s, when Smith was joking with family about a “what-if” situation: “What if the very talented Aunt Yetta Moskowitz who actually did own a knitting store in Brooklyn and kindly knitted amazing items for the Smith children like alligator-looking mittens, pom-pom hats and ponchos, became a craft book author/celebrity?”

Everyone laughed, but Smith took the idea to the typewriter and the Sadie Shapiro character was born as a charming, straight-talking, jogging, septegenarian. A recent reading likened her to Amelia Bedelia who also wears a uniform and twists language.

Sadie Shapiro’s popularity and the adoption of the book by the Readers Digest Condensed Books led to Sadie Shapiro in Miami (1977) and Sadie Shapiro Matchmaker (1979).

Smith is well-known as an author of wildly popular middle grades novels including The War With Grandpa (1984), which Smith calls his “best pure story.” In the powerful book, when Grandpa moves into the house and takes Peter’s room, the grandson has to fight back. But declaring war on Grandpa may be too much. It is described as a fast and funny read, but touching and important in what it says.

Smith has an ardent fan base of third and fourth-grade boys. But his Sadie fans are the ones who come over and pinch his cheeks.

Smith’s Jewish background seeps into his work. Sadie’s fan letters seeking advice harken to The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper’s advice column A Bintel Brief.

I am now reading Smith’s 1981 Jelly Belly (based on Smith’s own experience) to my sons. The fat hero, Ned Robbins has to shed weight. High calorie, rich, and delicious-as-cake challah figures prominently in the book but Smith refers to it as egg bread. The protagonist’s parents send him to Camp Lean-Too to drop the pounds. After the unsuccessful summer, Ned confronts his coddling grandmother who lives with the family and overfeeds the boy all his favorite treats.

Smith imbues her with a Jewish cadence. Behind her steel-rimmed eyeglasses she blinked at me. “Like that you talk to a grandma?” she said in a hurt voice.

Smith’s skill lies in detailing characters’ conflict, challenges, and struggles against overwhelming odds to achieve a worthwhile end. His books for children take on difficult topics like divorce and the glory and disaster of little league.

Smith’s last adult novel Jane’s House (1982) is about a widower in Brooklyn who must pick up the pieces for his two children. This year Smith celebrated his eighty-third birthday. He stopped writing after his first wife’s death. Remarried, Smith is now working on a memoir.

Dina Weinstein is a Miami-based journalist. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter.Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.