Philip Smith had, shall we say, an interesting childhood. By day, his father, Lew, worked as an interior decorator for the rich and famous. By night, however, he came home to his true calling: acting as a medium that could communicate with the dead and help heal the sick through psychic abilities. Philip, who is now 66, witnessed his father work to help the desperate and curious and watched as a parade of characters — astrologers, curious families, those with a fascination with the occult — entered his home. He had a first-hand view of his father’s clandestine world, one that would it ever be made public, would have had its participants labeled as a Communists or devil sympathizers.
Philip grew up knowing that his dad wasn’t like others. But it wasn’t until he became an adult that he really, fully understood what his father did for other people and began to communicate with him himself after his passing. In his memoir, Walking Through Walls, Philip tells the story of his childhood, his father, and his complicated feelings of being within that world. Here, in his own words, Philip talks about his youth, growing up with the occult, and the burden of carrying on a father’s legacy.
My father was a Polish immigrant. He was very artistically inclined. At 18, he started building sets for Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood. He came back to New York and became an interior decorator. When he moved to Miami in the 1950s, he became this high society interior decorator. He did the presidential palace in Haiti. He worked for the president of Cuba, Walt Disney, Dean Martin.
In the 60’s, he discovered he could talk to dead people and heal sick people. That was pretty unusual back then. He had an amazing gift to help people at a time when medicine was still pretty primitive. There were no cat scans, MRIs, or bypass surgery. If the doctors thought you had cancer because of a shadow on an X-Ray, they’d have to cut you open and do exploratory surgery and look around. But my father could diagnose people. He didn’t even have to be in the same room, country, or zip code. He could look into your body and diagnose exactly what was going on with you.
This was both a blessing and a hindrance, because the culture at the time considered him to be like, the devil or a communist. The FDA and the police would come and harass him. He’d get arrested for practicing medicine without a license. As a kid growing up in this environment, my father had a very dark secret that I couldn’t share with anyone. If I did, they’d call the police on us or tell us we were devil worshippers. It was a strange way to grow up. My father just wanted to help people.
I saw too much. People treated our house like it was theirs. They’d come to the house at three in the morning and bang on the windows and say they were sick or their sister had leukemia or their baby fell and wasn’t breathing. My father felt that he had to help them. Our house became like an emergency room.
And he had friends come by. There were all kinds of wacky people — astrologers and mediums. He was the gathering point for the occult people of Miami. People who had been abducted by flying saucers, all of that. At 14, it was a lot to see. He wanted me to be a part of it. He wanted me to learn. He always felt that I had a real gift for this, so witnessing his work was never off limits.
When I was 17, I went off to Europe with my girlfriend. I had given my father my itinerary. When we landed in Iceland and we were supposed to go to Paris, she said: “Why don’t we just go to Spain? “We changed our itinerary and when we got to Madrid, we checked into a pensionne, and an hour later, I got deathly ill. I was so sick. They called the doctor. The doctor thought I might die. I was delirious with fever. And then, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I opened my eyes and my fever was just gone.
When I got back I called my dad and said I was back home. He said, “What happened in Spain?” He said, “You almost died. You gave me your itinerary and the spirits told me that you were sick but I was looking for you in Paris. I couldn’t find you.” He had to get out an Atlas, and he’d use a pendulum, and he went all over Europe. He said he found me in Spain and then he could finally heal me. He said he was sorry it took so long, but he didn’t know where I was.
When I started writing my book, and I started listening to his tapes — because he taped everything — I thought, oh my god. This guy is a psychopath! I was listening to him talking about being out of his body and all of that.
Around that time, into a friend of mine from high school, 40 years later. He’s a doctor. I told him I had started this book on my father. That I was concerned because of all these weird, really out there stories, and that I thought the guy might have been crazy. My friend said: “No. Your father healed me. He called me and told me what was wrong with me and the doctors couldn’t figure it out and he knew what was wrong and within six or seven minutes, I was completely healed.” He told me my father had a gift.
That gave me the go ahead. But yeah, as a kid, you just accept it because that’s your world. I don’t think I thought about how weird it was.
Ever since I was a kid, my dad always encouraged me to be curious, to have a sense of wonder about things, to really embrace the mysteries of being alive. He was interested in me becoming the best human being I could become. Today, I know that he seems very busy on the other side. He’s studying and doing work. He normally he leaves me alone and lets me live my life. But if something is going on, he’ll tickle my ear like it’s a mosquito. That’s when I know he really needs to talk to me.
His work is just what he did. I knew that other fathers didn’t do this. If I went over to a friends house and their dad sold insurance, I knew they were different from my father, but that was really it. I still don’t talk about my father that much. I think it took years before I could talk about it at all.
I’ve had people walk away from me at parties when I bring it up. I think it’s very threatening to them. And the other side of the coin is: “Oh, can you help me or my daughter? My husband?” It’s a little bit of a burden to carry this around. I’m glad I wrote the book. I wanted to memorialize my father’s life because it was so extraordinary and I felt people needed to know about it.
I know enough sons and daughters of accomplished and famous fathers. It’s always a push and pull, in terms of the expectations. People want to know if these children are going to carry on in the same direction of their parents. If they’re good enough to do it. I have the responsibility, in a way, with my father’s work. It’s important work. I take care of his archives and make sure his work is looked after. It’s a responsibility. I’m happy to assume it, but I think that’s true of any child whose father was really accomplished.