James Clinch Smith, 56, was a descendant of the legendary Richard "Bull Rider" Smith, founder of Smithtown, Long Island, New York. He was born on April 3, 1856, one of eleven children of Judge John Lawrence Smith of Smithtown and his wife, Sarah Nicoll Clinch Smith. His mother was the niece of Mrs. Cornelia Stewart, who married A.. T. Stewart, owner of New York's first department store. The youngest of the Smith sisters, Bessie Springs Smith, married the famous architect, Stanford White, in 1884.
After the death of A.T. Stewart in 1876, his elderly, childless widow was very generous to her relatives. Among her many gifts to the Smith family was a house on Fifth Avenue. When she died in 1886 there was a prolonged court battle over her will which was settled in 1890, and the Smith family members finally received their share of the estate.
Clinch grew up in Smithtown at the family homestead and graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1878. He practiced law in New York City at 10 Wall Street and later in the Stewart Building at Broadway and Chambers Street. The name of the firm was Smith and Keene.
Clinch was a popular figure in New York society and was one of Mrs. Astor's "400". He was a member of many of New York's most elite clubs. He was an expert yachtsman and horseman and won many prizes at the New York Horse Show. In Smithtown he built his own race track.
In 1895, at the age of 39, he married Bertha Ludington Barnes of Chicago, an accomplished musician and composer. The couple became well known in New York, Long Island and Newport society. The Smiths owned a beautiful villa in Newport, "The Moorings", overlooking the harbour. Their harvest dinner dance, with its unique farmyard decorations, was one of the highlights of the 1902 Newport social season.
In 1904 they moved to Paris, where Bertha pursued her musical career and received much attention for organizing an orchestra consisting only of women.
Although he spent most of his time in Paris, Clinch returned to America at least once every year. On June 25, 1906, he went to the opening of a new musical comedy "Mamzelle Champagne" at Madison Square Garden. During the show, he witnessed the murder of his brother-in-law, Stanford White, by Harry K. Thaw. Because he had been talking with Thaw shortly before the murder, he was asked to testify at two of his trials, in 1907 and 1908.
By 1911, Bertha's obsession with music was causing problems in the marriage, and there were rumours of a legal separation or divorce. Clinch returned to Smithtown in April of that year, but in January of 1912 he returned to Paris at Bertha's request. The couple were reconciled, and Bertha agreed to give up her career and go back to Smithtown to live. Bertha had planned to travel home with her husband, but at the last minute the plans were changed, and it was decided that Clinch would go back alone to prepare the homestead for her return in a few months.
On April 10, 1912, James Clinch Smith boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg as a first class passenger (17764, £30 13s 11d). He occupied cabin A-7. Also on the voyage was one of his oldest friends, Col. Archibald Gracie. On the ship Smith, Gracie and Edward Kent, an architect from Buffalo, became friends with Helen Churchill Candee, Mauritz Hakan Bjornstrom-Steffanson, Edward Colley and Hugh Woolner. The group called themselves "Our Coterie". Colley, Kent and Smith did not survive the sinking.
On April 15, 1912, James Clinch Smith died in the sinking of the Titanic. In his book The Truth About the Titanic, Gracie described the sinking and the part Clinch had played in helping save the lives of the women and children. He said Clinch "showed no sign of fear" and called him "a noble gentleman and a man of dauntless courage".
A memorial service was held at St. James Episcopal Church, St. James, Long Island on May 11, 1912. Bertha Smith survived her husband by only a little more than a year. She died on 19 August 1913 in a sanatarium in Leysin, Switzerland, where she was being treated for tuberculosis. It was said that she had never recovered from the loss of her husband and that the real cause of her death was "a broken heart". In St. James Church there is a memorial stone in memory of Bertha and James Clinch Smith.