MONTGOMERY, ALA. — Born in Kosciusko and raised in Starkville, Yazoo City and Magnolia, award-winning travel writer Starr Smith will return to his roots later this week to promote his new book,” Starr Smith’s Southern Scenes: Journeys Through A Lovely Land.”
Published in May by River City Publishing, “Southern Scenes,” already in its second printing, “is a most pleasant armchair visit to some of the South’s venerable institutions and a few you wouldn’t expect to see,” said Richard Howarth, owner of Square Books in Oxford.
In “Southern Scenes,” Smith covers antebellum homes in Natchez, steamboats on the Mississippi River and historic landmarks and restaurants in New Orleans, a city he frequented via the “dollar trains” as a child.
“Growing up, I was more interested in reading and seeing the world than I was in studying what I was supposed to,” he said. “In high school, I was a notoriously poor student but a constant reader. Once my father instructed the librarian not to allow me to check out books until my grades improved. They barely did. My father finally gave up.”
Smith, the oldest of five children of a textile executive and a homemaker, was 16 when he started his first job at the Magnolia Gazette.
“In my junior year of high school, I shyly approached ‘Mister’ Joe Norwood, editor of the Magnolia Gazette,” he said. “The old editor was our next door neighbor.
“On this day, he was cutting his grass. I told him in jerky, hurried words that I wanted to be a writer and would work for nothing. He stopped, mopped his brow and asked what I wanted to do on the newspaper. Not knowing what else to say, I said, ‘Mister Joe, I want to be a columnist.’ I had been reading the New York columns of O.O.
MyIntyre and Walter Winchell in the New Orleans and Jackson papers and thought that was the way to start.”
In Smith’s senior year of high school, Norwood allowed him to write a column — on school activities. His final column, on graduation, made the front page.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “That was the beginning of a sometimes checkered career as a journalist.”
As a teenager, Smith worked as a cabin boy on ships based from the Port of Mobile and began a journey that now includes 103 countries. He also found time to study, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama, studying under Hudson Strode, Ph.D.
During World War II, Smith was a combat intelligence officer with the 8th Air Force in England and a public relations officer on Eisenhower’s staff in Paris. His reports included interviews with Eisenhower, Jimmy Doolittle, J. Paul Getty, Edward R. Morrow, Jimmy Stewart, Kay Summersby and Ernest Hemingway.
“I learned a lot in those early days just by listening,” he said.
“One day, I was walking down the hall with Hemingway, and a friend of his passed by and mentioned that his article had just come out in a magazine,” Smith said.
“Hemingway hadn’t seen it yet. And do you know what his response was? ‘How’d they play it?’ I couldn’t believe it. Here was this great writer and that’s the first thing he wanted to know about the piece was, ‘How’d they play it?’”
After World War II, Smith was a political and feature writer for the Mobile Press Register, a reporter for ABC and NBC radio networks and correspondent for Newsweek magazine. He wrote extensively for national and regional publications, including the Congressional Record. Smith’s assignments as a radio correspondent included the coverage of the Bikini Atom Bomb Tests and the Civil Rights movement in the South.
“While few Southerners will make predictions or even discuss the court decision (on the end of segregation), there is, nevertheless, an air in the South this spring of careful watching and waiting — of thinking and planning,” Smith reported in a NBC Radio broadcast from Greenville in April 1954, when he interviewed editor Hodding Carter, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his editorials on racial intolerance.
“Most of this planning revolves around the counter-measures which the state may take if the court rules against segregation. The first of these counter-moves is delay — and more delay,” he said.
Smith detailed the Carter interview in his 1986 book, “Only The Days Are Long” (Yoknapatawpha Press). The book was based on letters Smith wrote to his father, the late Vernon Smith, which included profiles and world events spanning 35 years. In nearly every chapter, Smith paid homage to Mississippi.
“Mississippi shaped me,” he said. “Even though I now live in Montgomery, Mississippi remains very special. My sister, Lois Smith Clover, who I’m very close to, lives in Jackson. So do my daughter, Sandra Starr Smith Miller, and her husband, Scott Miller of Miller Transport, my granddaughter, Trenton Miller Milam, her husband, John Paul Milam, and their two sons, Max and John Scott. So you see, it’s a very important place.”
In “Southern Scenes,” Smith talks about William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak: “On my first trip to Russia, in the early 1970s, I was asked to participate on a panel about modern American writers for graduate students at Moscow University … and the writer who fascinated them most was William Faulkner, even though it has been 10 years since his death and 25 years since he received his Nobel Prize.”
He discusses Weidmann’s place in history by writing, “In Meridian, all good things begin or end at Weidmann’s — family gatherings, birthdays, graduation celebrations, Mardi Gras suppers, wedding festivals and all other special times and events in the lives of people. Travelers in the know from around the nation always arrange their schedules when they’re in this part of the country to arrive in Meridian in time for lunch or dinner at Weidmann’s.”
Smith devotes an entire chapter to Jack Kyle, a Minter City native, whom he refers to as “an upscale, Southern P.T. Barnum.”
“The success of the Jackson exhibits has posed a proper question, ‘How does Mississippi get great international cultural shows of this magnitude?’ And time and time again, there can only be one answer — Jack Kyle,” Smith wrote.
Smith continues to write a travel column for the Montgomery Advertiser and occasional travel features for the Birmingham News. He was recently named the Southeast Tourism Society’s Travel Writer of the Year and is considered one of America’s premier travel writers.
In between book signings and press trips to exotic locales, Smith plans to wrap up the first draft of a book about his friend, Jimmy Stewart, by the end of the year. He will promote “Southern Scenes” Aug. 24 at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson.
“No matter how far I travel, Mississippi is still my home,” Smith said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.