- President of Arca Foundation
- Trustee of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation
- Strong supporter of leftist political figures, including Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro
Born in New York City on April 1, 1935, Smith Bagley was an heir to the fortune of his grandfather, Richard Joshua Reynolds, who founded the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1875. After graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Bagley served as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. He joined the Democratic Party in 1952, and later (in 1959) launched a career in philanthropy when he became a trustee of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a post he would hold for the rest of his life. He would also spend many years as president of the Arca Foundation.
In 1968 Bagley made an unsuccessful bid for a North Carolina seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the mid-1970s he became an early supporter of Jimmy Carter‘s presidential campaign, and he later served as the Democratic National Committee’s national finance vice chairman.
In 1979 Bagley became embroiled in controversy when he faced criminal charges in a stock-manipulation and conspiracy case, but a U.S. District Court jury in Richmond, Virginia found him and four other defendants innocent on all counts.
In a related case the following year, Bagley settled a civil suit with the Securities & Exchange Commission over government charges that he and others had artificially inflated the stock price of the Washington Group, a North Carolina textile-and-food conglomerate which Bagley headed.
In 1989 Bagley founded SBI, an Arizona-based cellular company that was also active in New Mexico and Colorado. By this time, however, he was devoting most of his time and effort to philanthropy and social-justice causes.
Over the years, Bagley played host to number of left-wing luminaries at his family’s picturesque Musgrove estate on St. Simons Island, Georgia—a secluded 600-acre property that his mother, Nancy Susan Reynolds, had purchased in 1938. The family commonly made this facility available, on an invitation-only basis, as a retreat venue for progressive policy makers, opinion shapers, and activists from around the world. Among those whom Bagley hosted at Musgrove were Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barbra Streisand. Bagley’s ties to the Clintons were particularly stong. Indeed, he contributed some $30,000 to Bill Clinton’s Legal Defense Fund between 1998 and 2000, and was a major donor to Hillary’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2000.
Bagley was a longtime pro-Castro activist who advocated tirelessly for a lifting of U.S. sanctions against the Communist Cuban dictator. As Jose Cardenas, Washington spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation, once put it: “Smith Bagley and the Arca Foundation is the pro-Castro lobby’s sugar daddy. Arca is a walkup window for free checks passed out to any and all comers with an ideological ax to grind against U.S. policy on Cuba.”
On January 2, 2010, Bagley died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from a stroke he had suffered on Christmas Eve while vacationing in Musgrove. Upon his death, he was succeeded as Arca Foundation president by his daughter, Nancy Bagley, who: (a) had been a staffer with the Clinton–Gore presidential campaign of 1992; (b) had worked on the healthcare initiative in the early Clinton White House; and (c) was a trustee on the board of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
In addition to his philanthropic work, Bagley was the chairman of Catholic University’s Board of Regents, and also served on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.