Ms. Smithkin started modeling, appearing in campaigns for eyewear by Karen Walker and clothes by Mara Hoffman She was labeled a “92-year-old style legend” by The New York Post’s Page Six, which described her dancing at the Jane Hotel in the West Village without noticing that her scarf had caught fire from a nearby candle. Another partygoer doused the flames with champagne.
To those boogieing at the Jane Hotel, Ms. Smithkin might have seemed a figure from vaudeville, her flamboyant get-up amusing enough for a turn in the spotlight. But she had a “stable of mentees,” consisting largely of artists, who knew better, said one of them, the actor Erik Liberman.
“She noticed who was pulled in by the color and light, and who wanted to understand the source of the color and light,” Mr. Liberman said. “For those who sought deeper conversation, off came the hats, the fabulous scarves and eventually even the eyelashes.”
Mr. Liberman often showed up at Ms. Smithkin’s studio at a moment’s notice to take naps between Broadway performances. When, as an aspiring actor in his late 20s, he began spending time with Ms. Smithkin, he brought along notebooks to record what she said. She instructed him to take his own creative powers seriously, rather than view acting as a form of subservience to someone else’s vision.
“That altered the entire course particularly of my young career,” Mr. Liberman said.
Ms. Smithkin was born Ilona Rosenkranz on March 27, 1920. Her father, Mordko, was an engineer; her mother, Frida (Lubinski) Rosenkranz, was a homemaker.