One Woman’s Wild Ride
Carmel’s Herma Smith Curtis is a personality who rubbed elbows with history.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Hitler patted her head in Vienna. She dodged bullets and survived the Nazi occupation in Austria. She later served cocktails to celebrities. And she eventually became a woman who many called the Queen of Real Estate on the Monterey Peninsula.
You might say Herma Curtis’ adventures could fill a book. That book is finally here: occasional Weekly contributor Tony Seton, founder of The Living Proof Project, a Monterey-based publishing company that compiles extraordinary folks’ untold stories into books, recently took on the challenge of recording and transcribing her epic. The result: From Terror to Triumph: The Herma Smith Curtis Story.
A visit to her home at the mouth of Carmel Valley reveals that Smith Curtis, at 81, is as lively as she was in her 20s.
“I’ve had a colorful life,” says Smith Curtis. “How many people can say they’ve even seen Hitler or seen people buried alive?”
The book, told linearly from her memory and with the help of about 25 interviews from friends and colleagues, follows Smith Curtis across two continents, multiple wars and run-ins with historical icons and celebrities.
What begins as the tragic tale of a young girl who knew the sound of air raid alarms like her mother’s voice – and whose father was killed in Auschwitz – ends with Smith Curtis becoming a well-respected real estate agent.
“When you go through a lot of stuff, you grow up fast,” she says, adding that when Hitler patted her on the head during a parade, she was age 8 going on 20, in terms of maturity level. “I’m glad I’m still alive, since half my family was murdered – sometimes I wonder how I could have done so many unbelievable things in my life.”
“WHEN YOU GO THROUGH A LOT OF STUFF, YOU GROW UP FAST.”
Her tales of Vienna are vivid depictions of mass unemployment, hunger and bomb shelters. “My mother gave me all of our jewelry and fur coats and told me to run, so I took off and the planes started shooting at me,” says Smith Curtis, who remembers avoiding dead bodies that “looked like porcelain dolls.”
After witnessing such trauma, her two husbands and her son Herman helped to keep her feeling young, she says. The book is speckled with stories of her adventures with Chester Smith, her first husband and a lieutenant in the American army, whom she met on a merry-go-round in Vienna and who took her to the exotic land of Tampa, Florida where her fur coat made her stick out like a sore thumb.
Her When Harry Met Sally-type of relationship with her second husband, Donn Frederick, who owned a Japanese restaurant in the Monterey area, is no less entertaining.
And her memories of singing in piano bars in the ’50s and ’60s – when, she bashfully admits, men would stick $100 bills in her cleavage – and meeting people who travelled to the Peninsula from all over the world, paint a vibrant portrait of the glory days of Monterey.
“This place has lost a lot of its charm since those colorful days,” says Smith Curtis. “Now freeways go through the places I used to work.”
While working as a cocktail waitress in Monterey in the ’50s, Smith remembers waiting on Richard Burton and recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor.
“She wasso beautiful, she took my breath away,” Smith Curtis says of the actress. “But she had the mouth of a truck driver!”
Though she witnessed more death and destruction in her childhood than most people will experience in a lifetime – and saw her son die suddenly in his sleep at 19, and her husband die a couple of years after being in a serious car accident – Smith Curtis retains an incredible sense of humor, still offering a glass of wine to anyone who wants to hear the story of her botched christening at age 5, when she had to be chased down the street after the priest said he was going to put salt on her tongue.
“Herma is a character – she’s vivacious and beautiful,” says Bert Cutino of the Sardine Factory, who worked with her as a restaurant busboy in 1956. “She’s been through a lot in Europe and the tragedy of losing her son and her husband; but she’s tough.”
That toughness translated to business. Smith Curtis and her agents moved more than 10,000 units over the course of her decorated real estate career. When she sold to Coldwell-Banker in 1987, she had 90 agents operating out of five offices.
“With her personality, there was no doubt that she would be successful,” says Cutino. “We’re all proud of her accomplishments.”
From Terror to Triumph: The Herma Smith Curtis Story is available at www.hermasmithcurtis.com or Amazon. For more about The Living Proof Project, visit www.livingproofproject.com.