Dan Gasby lives alone these days. Unless you count the three neapolitan mastiffs who share his chic, 8,500-square-foot contemporary nestled on 11 woodsy acres in East Hampton.
Sansa, the mama mastiff and leader of the pack, is 130 pounds of roped muscle and sinew with a head twice the size of a casaba melon. She’s decidedly less streamlined than her namesake, the Lady of Winterfell, as played by Sophie Turner on Game of Thrones.
As they barrel toward you, Sansa and her boys can be a little intimidating — even for a dog lover. But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to realize that the canines are only interested in finding the most effective way to shoehorn as many of their massive heads as possible into your lap while you stroke their powerful jowls.
Gasby and the mastiffs have not always been the sole residents of the house. Until death by early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in February 2020, Gasby lived with his wife and business partner of 28 years, Barbara Elaine Smith, who was known professionally as B. Smith, the model, actress, restaurateur, author, TV personality, style icon and creator of a powerful personal brand.
“She had the most amazing, natural God-given essence. She was pure. She was the best human being I ever met,” says Gasby, whose propensity for speaking in soaring language when describing his late wife feels genuine, not hucksterish or hyperbolic, even considering the fact that he still makes his living from the B. Smith brand and is in active discussions about producing a film based on Smith’s life.
“She knew how to do the slow reveal,” he continues. “It was like Michael Jordan going to the hoop. He had already left the ground, but when he saw something to one side or the other, he could still elevate in the air. She had that with a smile.”
Raised in Scottsdale, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Smith began her career as a fashion model. In 1976, she became one of the first African-American women to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle.
Modeling became a springboard to the culinary world. Smith owned and operated three restaurants under the B. Smith name, one each in Manhattan, Sag Harbor and Washington, D.C. Dovetailing off the success of her restaurants, she built a formidable lifestyle empire that included television, books and retail merchandising.
For nearly a decade, she hosted the nationally syndicated/cable television show B. Smith with Style. She also logged numerous appearances on Good Morning America, The Today Show and other lifestyle programs. Additionally, Smith made her off-Broadway debut in the acclaimed production of Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss and What I Wore at Manhattan’s Westside Theater.
Smith authored three home entertaining/cookbooks, including B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends, the first tabletop entertainment and lifestyle book by an African American; and B. Smith: Rituals and Celebration, which was a James Beard Foundation Award nominee, one of Food & Wine’s best cookbooks of 1999 and an American Library Association Black Caucus Literary Award winner.
In 2001, Smith launched a bedding, tabletop and bath products collection that was the first line created by an African-American woman to be sold at a nationwide retailer. Today, in addition to Bed Bath & Beyond, the line is available at multiple national retailers, including Burlington, Home Depot, JCPenney, Kohl’s and Macy’s.
Before turning his professional attention primarily to co-managing Smith’s many business ventures, Gasby was a television producer and media executive. His early career was highlighted by a stint as an account executive for King World Entertainment, whose properties included Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and The Oprah Winfrey Show, three of the most successful programs in the history of TV syndication.
“I put Barbara on TV, and she put me in the restaurant business,” Gasby says.
Both wildly successful, Gasby and Smith married in 1992 and spent two decades as a quintessential New York City and Hamptons power couple, splitting their time between their Park Avenue apartment and a luxe waterfront home in Sag Harbor.
In 2013, the couple’s seemingly idyllic life changed forever. At the age of 64, Smith was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than turn away from the public eye, Gasby and his wife leveraged Smith’s celebrity to raise awareness about the disease in general and its effect on the African-American community in particular.
They spoke openly about it in personal appearances and co-authored Before I Forget, a 2016 memoir written with Michael Shnayerson that chronicled the day-to-day challenges of brain disease.
Smith died in February of 2020, a month before the pandemic changed the world.
“She even knew when to leave,” Gasby says.
The years that followed Smith’s initial diagnosis and subsequent mental deterioration were unforgivingly brutal, not only for her, but also for Gasby, who served as her primary caregiver during her illness.
“Alzheimer’s is a form of terrorism. You can’t negotiate with it. It’s unrelenting. It’s evil. It has no soul,” he laments. “You lose the person before they die.”
Gasby still controls the B. Smith retail brand and the licensing and merchandising opportunities associated with it. He’s also in the process of negotiating multiple projects, including the aforementioned feature film about Smith’s Life, as well as a potential wellness-centric TV/radio show and a possible sequel to the memoir the couple co-wrote about their struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Legacy-polishing is clearly part of his thought process these days.
During the latter stages of Smith’s illness, Gasby was involved in a platonic relationship with a female friend. That relationship changed from platonic to romantic while Smith was still alive. Gasby was vilified in local media for what some saw as a betrayal of Smith and the couple’s 28-year marriage.
Gasby doesn’t deny the basic facts of the relationship. “We were friends and then we became more than that,” he acknowledges. “But a lot of what they said about me in the media wasn’t true. They said I was giving money to this woman. Meanwhile, she drove a Porsche and owned a $5 million brownstone. They said she moved into the house, but she’d come here and help cook. She didn’t live here. Barbara wasn’t fully aware of the relationship. She was already ‘gone’ at that point.”
Regardless of what he shares with the outside world, only Gasby knows his own heart. It’s inarguable that he has a stake, both professionally and personally, in burnishing his family’s legacy. But when you listen carefully, you get the sense that what he wants most is to recapture a level of bliss that many never achieve — a love story that stretched over 28 years, the last seven of which were destroyed by an insidious disease.
“The value of Barbara’s legacy is that other young women, particularly young women of color, can see that we did something pretty remarkable,” he says. “That it’s possible to have the fairy tale.”
Though Alzheimer’s robbed Smith of her faculties before it took her life, Gasby maintains that the disease never defeated her.
“She was fearful of it, but she wasn’t afraid of it,” he says. “Until she began to shut down, she was beautiful. Even in that last declining moment, she was beautiful.”