In his heyday, E. Forbes Smiley III was larger than life, a man who excelled at virtually everything he set his hand to. Although his name smacked of sitcom pretentiousness, he was never the rich buffoon. Raised in a middle-class, well-educated family in New Hampshire, Smiley became a superb college student, an engaging conversationalist, a gifted woodworker and a generous and loyal friend.
After college, he turned his considerable talents to the rare maps trade, and within a few years was an expert at it. His taste for the good life, however, and zeal for creating his own idealized surroundings eventually outstripped his legitimate income. So he began stealing and selling maps from university and public libraries in an increasingly feverish effort to stay ahead of his bills. He was caught in 2005 and served three years in prison before returning to his family in Martha’s Vineyard, where he has since scratched out a living as a landscaper, laborer and web designer.
The Map Thief, Michael Blanding’s captivating account of Smiley’s career, also provides first-rate summaries of the histories of map-making and collecting, as well as vivid profiles of the principal players who aided Smiley and helped bring him down. Appropriately for such a story, the book is rich with historically important maps and maps that show the territories Smiley occupied during crucial periods of his life. One of the latter is a map of Sebec, Maine, a small town Smiley attempted to transform into his vision of an ideal New England village. This project alone is estimated to have set him back almost a million dollars.
Initially, Smiley agreed to cooperate with the author in writing this book, but after giving two interviews, he withdrew, leaving Blanding to piece together the rest of the narrative through interviews with his friends, business associates and a growing throng of adversaries.
Although this is a sad story brilliantly told, it hardly amounts to a tragedy. Though Smiley’s hubris led to his downfall, he emerges as such a versatile and resilient figure that one expects we will hear from him again.