Betty Smith

Betty Smith

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.

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.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1943) cover

Betty Smith’s lasting legacy is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

After separating from her husband, Smith was left with two daughters to support. By the mid-1930s, she had become an accomplished playwright.

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.

It was there 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. 

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn film 1945 film Poster

Smith helped write the film adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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.

In addition to her four novels, Betty Smith wrote some seventy plays. 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.

Betty Smith young

You might also like: Memorable Quotes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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