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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.
Betty herself had a rough childhood, growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn at the dawn of the 1900s. The family moved several times before settling in a top-floor tenement on Grand Street that served as the model for the Nolan family’s flat in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Her immigrant parents struggled in their impoverished new environment. Her mother Katie was tough as nails, yet passed on to Betty (who in her youth went by the name of Lizzie ) a love of storytelling. Her father, about whom little is known other than his alcoholism, died when she was nineteen. Betty borrowed from her own experiences in the details of her novels, from the various jobs she held to her personal life and family ties.
A young mother and an education
In The Heroine’s Bookshelf, Erin Blakemore encapsulates Betty’s formative years:
Faced with a painful home life, Lizzie was eager to create her own family. Her parents forced her to leave school and start working at age fourteen, and insecure, resentful Lizzie quickly moved to associate herself with education and upward mobility. Brooklyn’s settlement houses were her social center: there, she danced, debated, studied, and met George Smith, a driven young man who wanted to get out of Brooklyn as much as she did.
When he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to study law, she followed. But life as a young wife was no easier than it was during the lean years of her childhood … The intervening years had brought two daughters, Nancy and Mary. Now a young mother, Lizzie felt even more pressure to educate herself. She petitioned to attend the local high school, an unusual request for a married woman. But though she worked hard, life constantly interrupted her studies.
Worse still, the man she had followed to this far-off place became more distant with each passing year. It seemed that George’s burgeoning legal practice and rising political career had no place for a naïve, heavily accented wife. But Lizzie had aspirations of her own. She turned a blind eye to George’s affairs and focused instead on her new plan: to become a writer.
Lizzie restyled herself as Betty Smith the aspiring writer. When her two daughters entered grade school, she began her studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As a student she excelled, winning the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award in dramatic writing, and enjoying an education in journalism, literature, and drama.
Betty’s marriage unraveled as the couple’s lives diverged. Their attempts to reconcile proved futile and they separated for good in 1933. George Smith would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate and had a successful legal career.
Immersed in theater
Betty followed her studies at the University of Michigan with three years at the Yale Drama School in New Haven. While there, she wrote and published seven one-act plays. Overwhelmed with the cost of tuition and the care of her children (it’s unclear why her successful ex-husband wasn’t doing more to support them), Betty returned to New York City with them and moved in with her mother.
It was in the depths of the Depression that Betty fortuitously found a position in the Works Projects Administration. She was assigned to the Federal Theatre Project as a play reader, and in May of 1936, she was transferred to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. By then, she had become an accomplished playwright, and by the end of her career, had written some seventy plays. More awards would come her way, including the Rockefeller Fellowship in drama and a Dramatists Guild-Rockefeller Fellowship in playwriting.
Betty Smith’s lasting legacy is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
It was during her Chapel Hill years that began working on her first novel. Originally titled They Lived in Brooklyn, the manuscript was rejected by a number of publishers before Harper and Brothers accepted it. It was released in 1943 released with the title 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. Betty Smith became a public figure.
Francie Nolan was a modern heroine for the times. Somewhat plain and awkward, growing by dint of sheer determination and hard work rather than genius or dazzling personality. Francie endures loss and hardship, yet savors the small joys and triumphs of her world in a corner of Brooklyn. Comparing Betty’s life with that of Francie’s, it’s easy to see the parallels.
Just days before the book that made her famous was published, Betty married Joseph Piper Jones, a columnist for the Chapel Hill Weekly.
Betty Smith helped write the film adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Screenwriting, and another change in partners
In 1945, Smith helped write the screenplay for the film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though it was somewhat altered and compressed compared with the timeline of 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.
It was that same year that Betty and Joseph Piper Jones divorced. Not long after, she married Robert Voris Finch, whom she had met during her studies at Yale. He died in 1959, after which Betty remained unmarried.
Though known as a novelist and playwright, Betty was also as a cultural historian. Her novels and plays are richly detailed records of life in the early twentieth century. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is considered one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. Though she left Brooklyn as a young woman, it never left her. She said of her place of origin:
“Brooklyn is not a city. It is a faith. You cannot become a Brooklynite. You have to be born one. I was born in Brooklyn. For a long time, I wanted to write about it the way I knew it. One day I bought a ream of paper and started to write.”
She 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
- Books by Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and More
- How Betty Smith Came to Write A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in Her Own Words
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
- Joy in the Morning (1947)
- Maggie-Now (1958)
- Tomorrow Will Be Better (1963)
Biographies about Betty Smith
- Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Valerie Raleigh Yow
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