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Betty Smith | Biography


Early Years

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is based on author Betty Smith's life. Born Elizabeth Wehner in Brooklyn, New York, on December 15, 1896, Smith, like her protagonist Francie Nolan, grew up in poverty. Some of the family's difficult circumstances were due to alcoholism. Smith's father was an alcoholic, and so he did not work regularly. Despite her early hardships, which included having to drop out of school after the eighth grade, Smith was determined to improve her life.

The daughter of first-generation German Americans, Smith fell in love with books at a young age and spent many hours at the Leonard Street public library.

After leaving school, she worked a series of odd jobs until she met and married her first husband, George H.E. Smith. With his encouragement, Betty resumed her education. The couple moved to Michigan, where George attended the University of Michigan law school. Betty attended the university as a special student from 1928–30, studying playwriting. While at the University of Michigan, Smith won the Avery Hopwood playwriting competition. Heartened by this recognition, she went on to study at the Yale University School of Drama from 1931–34. She then moved on to the University of North Carolina, where she was sustained by scholarships from the Dramatists Guild and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Getting Published

Smith divorced George and moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was there that she wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Already a successful playwright, Smith turned inward to mine her life for inspiration. For several years she typed 10 pages a day. Meanwhile, she submitted pages and chapters in progress to publishers. She later submitted a draft of her manuscript to the Harper & Brothers 125th Anniversary Nonfiction Contest. When she wrote shortly thereafter asking for her manuscript to be returned so she could continue working on it, Elizabeth Lawrence, who would become Smith's editor and confidante, sent her a note. The manuscript was labeled a novel, and as such ineligible for the competition. It was, however, sent up the editorial ladder to Eugene F. Saxton, who wrote saying the book was being held up because it had aroused much interest.

Smith did not want the publication opportunity to pass her by. She informed Lawrence that she would be arriving in New York in about a week to discuss the book. They met, and when she returned to Chapel Hill, she received a call that her book would be published.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Other Works

Published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an instant best seller. It was essentially the first book of its kind: a novel about a working-class American family written by an American working-class woman. Moreover, it was written in an accessible style that included local dialect, which made it appealing to an even broader reading audience than it would have been otherwise. Characters inspired by family and childhood friends provided further authenticity.

Smith continued to write novels, which included Tomorrow Will Be Better (1948), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963). None, however, reached the level of success enjoyed by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She also wrote plays, which were well received.

Smith died on January 17, 1972, at age 76, in a Shelton, Connecticut, convalescent home, after suffering from pneumonia.

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