Dorothy Gladys "Dodie" Smith (3 May 1896 – 24 November 1990) was an English novelist and playwright. Smith is best known for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Her other works include I Capture the Castle and The Starlight Barking.
Dorothy was born on 3 May 1896 in Whitefield, near Bury in Lancashire. She was an only child. Her parents were Ernest and Ella Smith (née Furber). Ernest was a bank manager; he died in 1898, when Dodie was two years old. Dodie and her mother moved to Old Trafford to live with her grandparents, William and Margaret Furber. Dodie's childhood home, known as Kingston House, was at 609 Stretford Road. It faced the Manchester Ship Canal, and she lived with her mother, maternal grandparents, two aunts and three uncles. In her autobiography Look Back with Love (1974), she credits her grandfather William as one of three reasons she became a playwright. He was an avid theatregoer, and they had long talks about Shakespeare and melodrama. The second reason, her uncle Harold Furber, an amateur actor, read plays with her and introduced her to contemporary drama. Thirdly, her mother had wanted to be an actress, an ambition frustrated except for walk-on parts, once in the company of Sarah Bernhardt. She wrote her first play at the age of ten, and she began acting in bit roles in her teens at the Manchester Athenaeum Dramatic Society. Today there is a blue plaque on the building, commemorating where Dorothy grew up. The formative years of Dorothy's childhood were spent at this house.
Move to London
In 1910 Ella remarried and moved with her new husband and the 14-year-old Dodie to London. She attended school in both Manchester and at St Paul's Girls' School. In 1914, Dodie entered the Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first role came in Arthur Wing Pinero's Playgoers. Other roles after leaving RADA include a Chinese girl in Mr. Wu, a parlour maid in Ye Gods, and a young mother in Niobe, which was directed by Basil Dean, who would go on to buy her play Autumn Crocus. She was also in the Portsmouth Repertory Theatre, travelled with a YMCA company to entertain the troops in France during World War I, toured with the French comedy French Leave, and appeared as Anne in Galsworthy's The Pigeon at the Everyman Theatre and at a festival in Zürich, Switzerland. During her mother's decline while dying of breast cancer, Dodie and her sister became followers of Christian Science.
Career after acting
Even though she had sold a film script, Schoolgirl Rebels, under the pseudonym Charles Henry Percy, and written an one-act play, British Talent, that premiered at the Three Arts Club in 1924, she still had a hard time finding steady work. In 1923, she took a job in Heal and Son's furniture store in London and became the toy buyer (and mistress of the chairman, Ambrose Heal). She wrote her first play, Autumn Crocus, in 1931 under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony. Its success, and the discovery of her identity by journalists, inspired the newspaper headline, "Shopgirl Writes Play". The show starred Fay Compton and Francis Lederer.
Her fourth play, Call it a Day, was put on by the Theatre Guild on 28 January 1936 and ran for 194 performances. It ran in London for 509 performances, the longest run of any of Smith's plays to date. It was compared favourably to George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight and Edward Knoblock's Grand Hotel by Joseph Wood Krutch. He also said of the production that it "stays pretty consistently on the level of comedy and imposes upon its brittle structure no greater emotional weight than that structure is capable of bearing."
After the success of Call it a Day, Smith was able to purchase the Barretts, a cottage near the village of Finchingfield, Essex. Her next play, Bonnet over the Windmill (1937), was not as successful. It follows three aspiring young actresses and their landlady, a middle-aged former music-hall performer, and the young women's attempts to attract the attention of a playwright and a theatre producer with hopes of obtaining dramatic roles.
Her next play, Dear Octopus (1938), starred Dame Marie Tempest and Sir John Gielgud. The unusual title refers to a toast in the play: "To the family—that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to." Brooks Atkinson who called Smith a "domestic panoramatist" and compared her to a lot of English novelists, from Samuel Richardson to Archibald Marshall and called her the "appointed recorder" of the English family. The production in London ran for 376 performances, compared to that in New York of only 53.
When Smith travelled to America to cast Dear Octopus, she brought with her Alec Macbeth Beesley, who had also worked at Heal's and had become her longtime friend and business manager. The two married in 1939. She would not have another play staged in London until 1952, though Lovers and Friends did play at the Plymouth Theatre in 1943. The show starred Katharine Cornell and Raymond Massey.
Smith lived for many years in Dorset Square, Marylebone, London, where a plaque now commemorates her occupation.
During the 1940s, Smith and her husband moved to the United States due to legal difficulties with Beesley's stand as a conscientious objector. She felt homesick for Britain, which inspired her first novel, written in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, called: I Capture the Castle (1948). She and Beesley also spent time in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Wilton, Connecticut.
During their American interlude, the Beesleys became friends with writers Christopher Isherwood, Charles Brackett and John Van Druten. In Smith's memoirs, she credits Alec with making the suggestion to Van Druten that he adapt Isherwood's Sally Bowles story Goodbye to Berlin into a play (the Van Druten play, I Am a Camera, later became the musical Cabaret). In her memoirs, Smith acknowledges having received writing advice from her friend, the novelist A. J. Cronin.
Her first play back in London, Letter from Paris, was an adaption of Henry James's short novel The Reverberator. She followed the adapting style of William Archibald's The Innocents (adapted from The Turn of the Screw) and Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress (adapted from Washington Square).
Beesley died in 1987 and Smith in 1990. She was cremated and her ashes scattered in the wind. She had named Julian Barnes as her literary executor, a job she felt would not be much work. Barnes writes of the complicated task in his essay "Literary Executions", revealing among other things how he secured the return of the film rights to I Capture the Castle, which had been held by Disney since 1949. Smith's personal papers are housed in Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, and include manuscripts, photographs, artwork and correspondence (including letters from Christopher Isherwood and John Gielgud).
Smith is best known for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956) (which was adapted into the Disney animated film One Hundred and One Dalmatians). Her novel I Capture the Castle also has a devoted following (a film version was released in 2003). I Capture the Castle was voted number 82 as 'one of the nation's 100 best-loved novels' by the British public as part of the BBC's The Big Read (2003).
List of works
- Autumn Crocus (1931)
- Service (1932)
- Touch Wood (1934)
- Call it a Day (1935)
- Bonnet Over the Windmill (1937)
- Dear Octopus (1938)
- Lovers and Friends (1943)
- Letter from Paris (1952)
- I Capture the Castle (1954)
- These People, Those Books (1958)
- Amateur Means Lover (1961)
- I Capture the Castle (1949)
- The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956)
- The New Moon with the Old (1963)
- The Town in Bloom (1965)
- It Ends with Revelations (1967)
- The Starlight Barking (1967)
- A Tale of Two Families (1970)
- The Girl from the Candle-lit Bath (1978)
- The Midnight Kittens (1978)
- Look Back with Love: a Manchester Childhood (1974)
- Look Back with Mixed Feelings (1978)
- Look Back with Astonishment (1979)
- Look Back with Gratitude (1985)
- The Uninvited (1944), written by Smith and Frank Partos
- Darling, How Could You! (1951), written by Smith and Lesser Samuels
Films adapted from her works
- Looking Forward (1933), based on Service
- Autumn Crocus (1934)
- Call it a Day (1937)
- Dear Octopus (1943)
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
- 101 Dalmatians (1996)
- 102 Dalmatians (2000)
- I Capture the Castle (2003)
The Hundred and One Dalmatians
Pongo, the canine protagonist of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, was named after Smith's own pet Dalmatian, the first of nine. Smith got the idea for her novel when a friend remarked at her own dalmatians: “Those dogs would make a lovely fur coat!”