Monday, August 26, 2019

Iowa-born gay activist, atheist in a foxhole

Warren Allen Smith
Some years ago, I wrote a few brief essays about men and women with connections to Iowa --- birth in the state was enough --- who were prominent to one degree or another, notably LGBTQ and often leaders in the gay rights movement. The intention was to write more, but I wandered away from the topic. Those essays are indexed a ways down in the Lucas Countyan's right-hand sidebar under "LGBTQ+ Iowa History." 

So I'm thinking of picking up the thread again and Warren Allen Smith, who died "of happiness" during January of 2017 at the age of 95, seems like a good starting point. A native of little Minburn, in Dallas County, he was drafted into service during World War II and then returned to Iowa to study at what now is the University of Northern Iowa under the G.I. Bill before heading to New York.

Known, he later wrote, as "the atheist in a foxhole" during the war --- he had insisted that "none" rather than "P," "C" or "J" be stamped into his dogtags. Present at Stonewall for the birth of the U.S. gay rights movement, he remained an activist in various areas for the remainder of his long life.

He also wrote his own obituary, published in The New York Times on Jan. 13, 2017, and in modified versions elsewhere, thus allowing him to have the final word --- in his own words:


SMITH--Warren Allen, a teacher, editor, businessman, and author, died on January 8, 2017, of happiness.

Mr. Smith was born on October 29, 1921, in Minburn, Iowa, the son of a South Dakota homesteader's daughter and a grain dealer who was a scout for the Chicago Cubs' farm team in Portland, Oregon. 

Drafted into the U.S. Army (1942-1946), he landed as an Acting First Sergeant on Omaha Beach (1944), and in 1945 became Chief Clerk of the Adjunct General's Office, Supreme Headquarters (SHAEF), in the Little Red Schoolhouse, Reims, France. 

In 1948, he received his B.A from the University of Northern Iowa, and in 1949, with Lionel Trilling as his advisor, received his M.A. from Columbia University.

Mr. Smith taught English at the Bentley School in Manhattan (1950-1954); the New Canaan High School (1954-1986); and at Teachers College, Columbia University (1961-1962).

In the 1950s he was a Book Review Editor of The Humanist; wrote reviews for the Library Journal; and, under the name of Lvcretivs, founded the Hvmanist Book Clvb.

In 1961, with paramour Fernando Vargas Zamora, he founded Variety Recording Studio, a major independent company in Times Square (first, at 225 W. 46th St., then at 130 W. 42nd St., advertised as being "in the heart of showbiz"). Mr. Vargas and Mr. Smith were companions for 40 years until Mr. Vargas's death from Kaposi's sarcoma in 1989.

Mr. Smith was the personal agent to Gilbert Price, a three-time Tony Award nominee, from 1963 until Mr. Price's death in 1989. In 1971, Mr. Smith co-founded Taursa, a mutual fund he named by combining Taurus and Ursa. He was chairman of the International Mensa Investment Club from 1976 to 1993. 

Eight of Mr. Smith's works were published after he reached the age of 80: "Who's Who in Hell," a 1,264-page biographical listing of over ten-thousand philosophic non-believers; "Celebrities in Hell," a biographical listing of people whose belief systems ran against the grain; "Gossip from Across the Pound," a collection of a decade of his columns in the United Kingdom's Gay & Lesbian Humanist organization; "Cruising the Deuce," written under the pseudonym Allen Windsor, a description of Manhattan grind houses and the subculture that flourished on 42nd Street in the 1940s through the 1980s; his three-volume autobiography, "In the Heart of Showbiz, A Biographical Triography of Variety Recording Studio, of Fernanda Vargas, and of Warren Allen Smith"; and the "Unforgettable New Canaanites," an irreverent look at the Connecticut town in which he taught for 32 years. 

Mr. Smith's free online search engine, Philosopedia, received over six million hits between its inception and the day of his death.

Mr. Smith was an activist member of ACT UP (and participated in the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969); the Bertrand Russell Society (a member of the Board from 1977 until 2014); Freethinkers New York (a co-founder); Mensa (1964 until his death); the New York Society of Ethical Culture; the Rationalist Press Association (United Kingdom); and the Unitarian Society. Mr. Smith left no survivors.

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