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Memorial service for actress, Kansas native Shirley Smith, 84

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, at 7:51 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, at 6:55 a.m.

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As an actress, she appeared on Broadway with Robert Redford.

As a model she was featured in ads that are now in the Smithsonian.

As a painter, her work is on display in museums around the country.

But Shirley Smith was closest to her true spirit as a Kansan who came home to Whitewater to spend summers in a trailer making art out of the farm animals she loved to observe.

Ms. Smith died in New York City in October at age 84. A graveside memorial service was held Friday at the Whitewater Cemetery.

Ms. Smith was born in Whitewater in 1929, the daughter of an undertaker, and Kansas was always with her through a long career as model, actress, and painter.

“She talked about Whitewater a lot,” said Scott Smith, Ms. Smith’s nephew, a former Wichita State University student who lives in the United Kingdom. “She would go back there and go to the cafe during her summer sojourns and talk to the old folks, and it was obvious to me she remained connected emotionally to Whitewater.”

Ms. Smith was named Miss Butler County in 1947 and later won beauty contests in Manhattan and Kansas City.

She attended Kansas State University where she majored in radio, moved to Kansas City to work for a radio station, then started appearing in ads for Helzberg’s jewelry store.

She moved to New York to be a model in 1952 and appeared in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s. She also became one of the original Maidenform bra models. Some of those ads are in the Smithsonian in recognition of the longevity of that ad campaign, Scott Smith said.

While Ms. Smith supported herself with her modeling, she began taking acting classes with other aspiring actors such as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. She was cast in the Broadway show “Picnic,” written by another Kansan, William Inge, and was part of its first touring production.

Ms. Smith also appeared on Broadway in “The Highest Tree,” with Robert Redford, was cast in the 1959 movie “Pretty Boy Floyd” with Peter Falk, and had a starring role in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

Scott Smith said his aunt started suffering from a hearing loss in one ear in her early 30s, and it became difficult to hear her cues on stage. So she began taking her interest in art more seriously and worked harder at learning how to paint and draw.

Painting was more to her liking, Smith said. Acting was collaborative; painting was an individual pursuit.

“I think that suited her personality, to become a singular artist with a singular vision and a singular work ethic,” Smith said.

Redford stayed in touch with her, writing her messages of congratulations when her work began appearing in art shows, Smith said. She and Redford had often drawn on sketch pads together while waiting in the wings during their Broadway play.

Ms. Smith became part of the “lyrical abstraction” art movement in New York City. Her work is on display in the Whitney Museum in New York City and in more than a dozen other museums and public art collections around the country, including Emprise Bank in Wichita and the Bank of Whitewater.

She had a one-woman show at the Wichita Art Museum in 1978, and a retrospective at Kansas State in 1999, where her works will become part of the permanent collection at the Beach Museum.

Ms. Smith was honored by The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991.

Scott Smith said his aunt, who lived in a loft in the Soho district of New York City, started to spend summers in Kansas around 1977. At first, she lived with her brother, Gene, who worked for The Wichita Eagle.

Eventually she purchased a trailer that was parked in the back of a barn in Butler County, he said. She was allowed to keep it there during the winter.

“She’d come back in the spring and summer and live in the trailer and take a lot of photographs of farm animals, like pigs, cows and roosters. Those would make their way into her paintings,” Scott Smith said.

Her Soho loft became filled with paintings of animals, Kansas landscapes and prairie scenes, he said.

“She wanted to be taken seriously as an artist,” he said. “But at the same time she had this glamorous background. Really, in her later years, it wasn’t like she wanted to play that stuff down, but there was a balance of trying to be taken seriously as a visual artist as well as a young model and actress.”

Despite the years she spent away from her native state, Ms. Smith always wanted to be buried in Whitewater with the rest of her family, Scott Smith said.

“I think she always considered herself a person from a small town in Kansas,” he said. “I think going back to Kansas became part of her identity.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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