EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Author Kristine M. Smith Remembers DeForest Kelley
Kristine M. Smith is an author with an enduring and unusual Star Trek connection. In fact, it’s that Trek connection that led her to become a writer. Smith first befriended DeForest Kelley while she was in high school and, decades later, she became the personal assistant to Kelley and his wife, Carolyn. Finally, when both Kelleys fell ill, Carolyn with a broken leg that never healed and DeForest with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life in 1999, Smith was on hand as their caregiver. Later, in addition to penning several self-help books and tomes about animals, she wrote DeForest Kelley: A Harvest of Memories, a memoir that explored her friendship with the Kelleys and how it changed her life, and which also recounted Kelley’s final weeks. Smith has revised the book, now titled DeForest Kelley Up Close And Personal: A Harvest of Memories and due for release soon. Today, on the 14th anniversary of Kelley's death, StarTrek.com catches up with Smith for an extensive email interview about the Kelleys, her updated book and other projects.
How did you first meet the Kelleys?
SMITH: I met the Kelleys on May 4, 1968. I had heard De was going to be in the Wenatchee Washington Apple Festival Parade and drove with a classmate to meet him. As luck (fate, God) would have it, I ended up parking the car on the same block where the Kelleys hotel room was. I spotted the white car with his name and STAR TREK on it and figured if we loitered shamelessly, maybe we’d actually have a chance to meet him and not have to settle for just watching him pass by.
So we did that. I was very hesitant to approach him at first; I’d met other actors and frankly hadn’t been terribly impressed by the way they treated their fans, so I just stood back and watched for several minutes. As soon as I recognized how appreciative and genuine De was, I decided to go ahead and greet him.
The brief interaction was just amazing—his nature was so warm, friendly, and genuine—so I went home and wrote an essay for my English class called The REAL McCoy about what happened on that glorious day.
My English teacher read the essay, loved it, and said I should send it to Mr. Kelley. I balked mightily! I wasn’t in the habit of writing to TV stars! But the teacher insisted, so I did. De and Carolyn liked the article so much that they had Teresa Victor, Leonard Nimoy’s Girl Friday, submit it to TV STAR PARADE, and that publication wanted to use it as a special holiday story that December. So De wrote to tell me this. I tell ya, my parents had to peel me off the ceiling for weeks! Little did I know that this event was just the opening curtain on a thirty-plus year association with the Kelleys that would have me serving as his personal assistant and caregiver 31 years later!
How did you come to care for him?
SMITH: A.C. Lyles from Paramount/Viacom (a decades-long friend of De’s) called me when he heard from the hospital that De might pass away imminently (in March 1999) and asked if I’d fax him De’s biography right away for the media frenzy he knew would follow, as he didn’t have one on hand and knew I probably would. I had to drive to my workplace, Warner Bros., to get it because I didn’t have a copy handy at home. By the time I’d retrieved the bio and returned home, A.C. had called again and left a message asking if I’d drive to the hospital, get De’s keys and take care of his home, car, and hibernating tortoise Myrtle while he was in the hospital. (Carolyn was already in another hospital with a broken leg and not at home, either.)
What did it mean to you, to him, to Carolyn?
SMITH: De and Carolyn appeared relieved that they had someone to do their bidding, since they were both laid up. For me, it was a chance to thank them in palpable ways for all the times they had been there for me during my evolution as a writer and human being.
What did you learn about him in his final days?
SMITH: I learned how level and steady he was even when he was in dire straits. That laid-back style and attitude was no ruse. He was a true gentleman by nature; it was in his DNA! He remained kind, gentle, appreciative, all the good stuff.
I was also finally able to discern that he and Carolyn really did trust and care about me in ways I hadn’t dared imagine before. Most of my life I’ve struggled with a sense of “not quite measuring up”— perhaps because I’m a Creative and many people outside Hollywood seem to regard writers, actors, musicians, and dancers as “not quite ready for prime time” unless they’re making megabucks. My folks were always beseeching me to keep the “real jobs” I had and stop “dreaming” about becoming a writer. (I fulfilled their prophecy so they wouldn’t worry about me: I nurtured my “real jobs” as an entertainment industry executive secretary and administrative assistant until both of my parents passed away in 1998 and 1999. Since then I’ve written seven books and become a full-time, professional copywriter. Oh, the things we put off, out of fear that other folks’ worries about our fates are bound to come true!)
To have DeForest and Carolyn invite me into their lives in such an intimate way was a confirmation (one I didn’t even know I was seeking!) that I could contribute in a big way when push came to shove. De just had this way of making people feel beloved and adequate; he always made me feel that way, but it wasn’t until I was serving him and Carolyn at the end of their lives that I fully “real-ized” they weren’t just being kind to a fan—that they genuinely cared about and trusted me as a friend! When Terry Lee Rioux wrote De’s bio FROM SAWDUST TO STARDUST I accompanied her on a few interviews with the Kelleys’ longtime friends and received confirmation again that they had considered me a friend for years; at one point Carolyn told me she had forgotten that I’d come to them as a fan. Helping my mom through brain cancer in 1988 and then De through his last months in 1999 with cancer is what it took to convince me I am worth the space and air that I take up on Mother Earth. I grew a lot with that knowledge—so much so that’s it’s more than a little embarrassing to admit all of this. But there it is. It is what it is.
I’m immensely grateful for the lesson, even though it came hard and at the end of De’s life. If he hadn’t called me in to care for him, I probably never would have figured it out. Terry Rioux wrote in her bio of De that I was the daughter the Kelleys never had. When she told me that—in a restaurant, of all places—I started crying and said, “Oh, no, don’t say that. If it’s true, I didn’t do enough for them.” She said, “You did everything they asked, didn’t you?” I nodded but then repeated, “But it wasn’t enough!”
What did De learn about his fans' love near the end?
SMITH: De kept his illness a complete secret. His fans were blindsided by his decline and demise—although fans in the know that stayed closely in touch with them, like me, were aware that things weren’t proceeding as normal in the Kelley household, but we certainly weren’t given the whole picture. They stopped writing notes, stopped sending birthday and holiday cards, got quieter, and isolated themselves more.
Toward the very end, De let the Hollywood folks closest to him know— cast members and staffers stopped by the hospital to see him: Teresa Victor, Nichelle Nichols, Bill Shatner and others. Leonard Nimoy was away in Europe somewhere, so De didn’t want to disturb him with the upsetting information. I know at one point De said he didn’t want the information to get out as he knew he’d be inundated with flowers, gifts and mail, and he didn’t have enough energy to respond to it all. (He always responded to fans’ letters and requests for signed photos, until he just plain couldn’t any more.)
He received a prestigious Golden Boot Award shortly before he passed. What did that award mean to him?
SMITH: The Golden Boot Award meant the world to him, although he only saw it once before it was inscribed and awarded to him officially: Bill Campbell brought it by to show him, as I recall, because De was so near the end of his life. De teared up and said he had been dreaming about receiving it for years. A.C. Lyles accepted the award for him and then gave it to me to present to Carolyn. Later, De also posthumously received the Gene Roddenberry Award; Walter Koenig accepted for him and gave it to me to give to Carolyn. Nichelle Nichols sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and dedicated it to me for taking care of De. I completely “lost it” again because the loss was very recent and I hadn’t been able to properly grieve yet (I was still caring for Mrs. Kelley and needed to be strong for her.). I coulda killed Nichelle when she did that for me, but the memory is immensely precious to me now. Thank you, Nichelle!
What happened to Kelley’s estate?
SMITH: His home and property were sold; his unpresuming Georgian-style, single-level home was razed to the ground and a McMansion was erected in its place. The good news is that the Kelleys’ home still exists in cyberspace if you look it up online. Perhaps the realtor left it up as a memorial to the Kelleys: I like to think they did… Here’s the link (click HERE). As far as the rest of his estate, I presume most of it was consumed by Carolyn’s seven-year hospitalization. Her leg never healed; she lived out the rest of her life (five years longer) as a hospital patient, sad to say. If there was any money left over, I think it went to the hospital as a charitable gift. Personal items went to longtime friends of theirs in Long Beach and elsewhere, I believe.
What do you think remains his legacy -- as an actor, as a person, as a figure in your life, as an animal lover?
SMITH: The people who met him—whether as an actor, a coworker, or an animal activist—will never forget his kindness or the heart he put into his relationships with them. He was an understated, gentle, genuine, funny, sassy friend and an absolutely wonderful celebrity. He treated everyone as a beloved human soul, including pets and animals. He wore kindness on his shirtsleeve. I had an African serval cat who wasn’t a big fan of strangers, but De and Carolyn were easily adopted into his minuscule “pride” the moment we got back together in the San Fernando Valley
As figures in my own life, I regard De and Carolyn as my second set of parents; they “adopted” me, to all intents and purposes, at a very young age before I even knew it but it took me decades to recognize it, as you now know. I back-pedaled a lot, thinking it couldn’t possibly be true! I look back now and simply cannot understand how I could have been so blinded by insecurity that I couldn’t see it before I was called in as his personal assistant and caregiver at the end of his life. Perhaps it’s because he was always so understated and subtle about it—and everything else. Or maybe it’s just because I was blind. Likely a bit of both!
Kelley used to talk all the time about a desert tortoise he owned, Myrtle. Where did he get it?
SMITH: He and Leonard Nimoy got one at the same time, from what I heard, while Star Trek was in production in the 60s. I have no idea how they got them, but Leonard’s didn’t live, from what I hear. (De told this story on stage and once on TV but there were no details other than “Leonard’s turtle died!”
What happened to Myrtle after De died?
SMITH: Myrtle now lives (last I heard) more or less kitty-corner across the street from where the Kelleys lived with a neighbor who was a friend of the Kelleys.
Fill us in on your life since De's passing.
SMITH: I served Carolyn for an additional seven months (more than twice as long as I served De, in fact). Eventually, I returned to Warner Bros (after writing my first book, DeForest Kelley: A HARVEST OF MEMORIES, because I knew I’d never get around to it if I went back to work right away) when it became apparent that Carolyn would be confined to a hospital for the rest of her life and as specific matters of her care became more than an untrained person like me could handle.
Harvest of Memories (which Carolyn loved; she asked for multiple copies) was released in Sept. 2001 just days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, so naturally it didn’t get the mass media attention it otherwise would have; and like the rest of the world, I too was shocked and in no frame of mind to publicize it all that much. I worked at WB until June 2003 and then returned to Washington State to be nearer my two sisters and their families. In the past ten years I’ve written six more books:
The Enduring Legacy of DeForest Kelley: Actor, Healer, Friend is a compilation of the many kindnesses that De showered on other fans; I edited their reminiscences and wrote intros for each section. I hope to write a new edition of it for the 50th anniversary, so if anyone reading this wants to contribute to it, please send your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please Note: There is no compensation for contributions. The effort so far has been strictly a money-neutral labor of love intended as a keepsake tome from fans who met De to fans who are too young to have met him while he was alive.)
Floating Around Hollywood and Other Totally-True Tales of Triumph is a book of humor spotlighting my adventures as a floating secretary in Tinsel Town. Let No Day Dawn That the Animals Cannot Share (foreword by DeForest Kelley, art by Emese Dian) is a mostly-serious collection of my animal “pros-e-try” intended to clutch passionately at the reader’s heart and spirit. Serval Son, Spots and Stripes Forever (the only book De Kelley insisted I write) is a cautionary true tale about what it’s like to own—and be owned by—a wild cat for seventeen years. I wish De were here to read it. Settle for Best: Satisfy the Winner You Were Born to Be is a self-help book of encouragement and strategies that I wrote to encourage people to follow their hearts and satisfy their dreams when it comes to choosing a career, as I finally did after a long stretch of fulfilling other peoples’ prophecies for my life.
Perhaps the best news is that there will be a photo-enhanced, interpersonal communications-heavy edition of DeForest Kelley: A Harvest of Memories -- titled DeForest Kelley Up Close And Personal: A Harvest of Memories -- in time for the 15th anniversary of De’s passing (June 11, 2014) and the 50th anniversary of STAR TREK (Sept. 8, 2016). The new edition has a lot more photos of the notes, cards and other things the Kelleys and I exchanged. The earlier version is earning 5-star reviews at Amazon and elsewhere. I wrote the book to show how deeply De influenced my life and to remind his fans and friends how seamlessly and comfortably he fitted into theirs. I wrote it for the millions of fans who never got the chance to meet De up close and personal, as a gateway into the soul and spirit of a man who trod gently here while leaving soul-deep, giant-sized virtual footprints.”
Since 2007, I’ve been a full-time copywriter, writing web content, articles, brochures, e-books, and other collateral materials for businesses and individuals across the globe. I’m owned by four goats, ten chickens, two cats and two dogs. My sister and I share an acre of property in a suburb of Tacoma/Puyallup, Washington. I work from a home office and love everything about it.
DeForest Kelley Up Close And Personal: A Harvest of Memories will be available shortly. Visit Smith's official site for updates; click HERE.