Ellis Smith was a longtime friend of Rose Kransky and reentered her life when she was badly in need of all the friendship she could find. Rose worked in her father's store with her brother, Jacob and felt hemmed in by her conservative Orthodox Jew father, Abe Kransky. Abe constantly pressured Rose to marry and raise a family. Against Abe's wishes, Rev. Dr. John Ruthledge loaned Rose the money to attend secretarial school, and in time, she became executive secretary to a handsome publisher named Charles Cunningham. Soon Rose and Charles began an affair, which was duly discovered by his shrewish wife, Celeste Cunningham. A messy divorce ensued, in which a weak Charles denied his involvement with Rose. To add to Rose's troubles, her father died of influenza and she found herself pregnant by Charles! Rose gave birth to a son, whom she named Johnny. Enter her friend Ellis Smith.
Ellis was the antithesis of Dr. Ruthledge, with whom he had many a debate about the human condition. A born cynic, Ellis believed that the basic nature of man was selfish and hypocritical. To Dr. Ruthledge and others in Five Points, Illinois, Ellis appeared to have no emotional or familial ties, earning him the nickname "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere." In actuality, Ellis was the son of a wealthy family who vehemently opposed his dream of becoming an artist. Disgusted by his family's extravagance and superior airs, Ellis swore them off and became a drifter. His reunion with the valiant and self-sufficient Rose inspired Ellis to put down roots in Five Points. Rose gave Ellis the courage and creative nerve to paint again, and he nobly offered to marry her and be a father to little Johnny. Charles, however, begged Rose for another chance. Rose succumbed to his charms once more and they planned to marry. Then tragedy struck. One of Jacob Kransky's friends accidentally left the front gate open, and Johnny wandered out into the street, where he was hit by a car and killed. At this point, Rose broke off the engagement to Charles.
After the tragedy, Ellis and Rose remained close friends and their lives took some fascinating turns. Ellis was blinded in a suspicious fire in his own art studio. Later, an art student named Nancy Stewart moved to Five Points. Ellis knew -- though Nancy did not -- that she was his daughter from a brief and disastrous marriage to a Chicago debutante. Ellis struck up a friendship with Nancy, but she reacted badly once she learned he was her father. Ellis also befriended the showgirl Torchy Reynolds, who was as worldly as he but more optimistic. At the same time, Ellis met an enigmatic woman named Iris March who shared his tastes and his persistent cynicism about humanity. Torchy became extremely jealous of Iris and briefly dated Martin Kane, with whom she organized a campaign to train seeing-eye-dogs to help blind war veterans. Eventually, Ellis and Torchy ended up together. In addition,Ellis's blindness was cured by surgery and he reconciled with Nancy.