Willie “The Lion” Smith

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholf Smith (November 23, 1893 – April 18, 1973), also known as “The Lion“, was an American jazz and stride pianist.

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholf, known as Willie, was born in 1893 in Goshen, New York. His mother and grandmother chose his names to reflect different parts of his heritage: Joseph after Saint Joseph (Bible), Bonaparte (French), and Bertholf (biological father’s last name). William and Henry which were added for “spiritual balance”. When he was three, his mother married John Smith, and Smith was added as the boy’s surname, after his stepfather.

In his memoir Smith reports that his father, Frank Bertholf (incorrectly spelled Bertholoff in many sources), was Jewish. Smith’s New York birth record shows him as William H. Bertholf, with father, Frank Bertholf, a white electrician from nearby Monroe, New York. Smith became at least somewhat conversant in Yiddish and studied Hebrew with children of a Jewish family who were clients of his mother’s. He made his bar mitzvah at age thirteen in Newark.

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