William Jay Smith was born in Winnfield, Louisiana, in 1918, the older of two sons, to Jay Smith and Georgia Ella (Campster) Smith. His Army Brat, a Memoir (1980), describes his early life at Jefferson Barracks, a U.S. Army post near St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was an enlisted clarinetist in the Sixth Infantry Band. Smith recounts his generally happy life on the base with his family, enlivened by his father’s experiment with making and selling an illegal, alcoholic beverage, “home brew.” It was there that Smith learned his mother was part Choctaw, a revelation that answered some questions about his and his mother’s striking physical characteristics and generated a lifelong interest in his heritage.
Because his father continued to reenlist in the Army, Smith lived at Jefferson Barracks until he graduated from Cleveland High School. He attended Washington University in St. Louis on a scholarship. There he developed a friendship with a shy, quiet student named Thomas Lanier Williams, who later became better known as the playwright Tennessee Williams. Together, they reveled in the works of T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and other younger English poets, as well as those of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens.
Smith earned his B.A. in 1939, and on the day in 1941 on which he was awarded his master’s degree in French, he received his draft notice. He was reassigned from naval reserve to regular duty in the U.S. Navy and...
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