Betty Smith (December 15, 1896 – January 17, 1972), an American novelist and playwright, is best remembered for her evocative coming-of-age story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Born Elizabeth Wehner, she shared a birthdate — December 15 — with the heroine of that beloved novel, Francie Nolan, though the author’s birth year was five years earlier than Francie’s.
Smith herself had a rough childhood, dropping out of school at age 14 and going to work to help support her family. Smith borrows everything from her own life to use in her novels, drawing from the various jobs she held, as well as her personal life.
A young mother
At 18 she was already a mother, she entered the University of Michigan, where excelled winning the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award in dramatic writing. Continuing her studies at Yale’s drama school, she wrote and published seven one-act plays.
Betty Smith’s lasting legacy is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
An accomplished playwright
After separating from her husband, Smith was left with two daughters to support. She moved to Chapel Hill, NC to work for the Federal Theater Project. After a time, she also began teaching in the drama program and trying her hand at writing fiction. By the mid-1930s, she had become an accomplished playwright.
In addition to her four novels, Betty Smith went on to write some seventy plays.
Smith helped write the film adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
It was during her Chapel Hill years that she wrote her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even before its 1943 publication, Twentieth Century Fox snapped up film rights. What followed was nothing short of astounding success, quickly selling millions of copies and was translated into multiple languages.
In 1945, Smith helped write the screenplay for the film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though it was somewhat altered and compressed from the book. She also assisted in the screen adaptation for Joy in the Morning. In 1951, she helped write and put together the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
She’s known as a novelist and playwright, but she was also as a cultural historian — her stories are detailed records of life in the early twentieth century. Betty Smith died of pneumonia in 1972 at the age of 75, in Shelton, Connecticut.
You might also like: Memorable Quotes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
More about Betty Smith on this site
- Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” on the Screen
- Memorable Quotes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Biographies about Betty Smith
- Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Valerie Raleigh Yow
Articles, News, etc.
- Betty Smith on Wikipedia
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – an Online Dissertation
- Reader discussion of Betty Smith’s books on Goodreads
- Betty Smith page on Amazon
Film and stage adaptations
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
- The Betty Smith Papers 1909-1971 – Wilson Library at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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