December 15th – Betty Smith

“The world was hers for the reading.” 

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was born on December 15, 1896, in Brooklyn, New York. Her given name was Elisabeth Lillian Wehner. Her father, a first-generation American with German roots, was a waiter. She had a warm relationship with her father, but he was an alcoholic and not always able to provide for the family. Her parents, along with her and her two younger siblings, lived in tenements throughout Brooklyn during her childhood. Her father died on December 21, 1913, at the age of 40. Her mother remarried in 1918, and Smith had a strained relationship with her stepfather that recounted in her later works.  

Betty showed a great aptitude for the written word and did well at school, but she quit to help support the family at the age of fourteen. At eighteen, she attempted to attend school during the day and work at night, but after two years quit the strenuous schedule to work a day job for the postal service. 

In 1919 Betty married George H.E. Smith and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her new husband was pursuing a law degree. They had two children, Nancy Jean, born in 1922, and Mary Elizabeth, born in 1924. After having her two children Betty resumed her schooling, returning to high school as a junior although she was in her twenties. Her husband’s career made it hard to keep up with her education. When George later quit his law career to study politics, Betty took classes at the University of Michigan as well, focusing on honing her writing skills. She couldn’t obtain a BA since she had not completed high school. 

In 1933 the couple separated and legally divorced in 1938. At the University of Michigan, Smith began writing plays and was awarded the Avery Hopwood Award, which came with recognition and a handsome monetary sum. After the award, she was invited to study drama at Yale under George Pierce Baker. She studied at the school from 1930 until 1934, but she could not pursue a master’s there without an undergraduate degree. 

She returned to her children, who had been staying with her sister. In 1935 got a position with the Works Projects Administration and moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, in a one-room house, she rose at 5:30 in the morning to write. She says that she was inspired to write about Brooklyn by Thomas Wolfe after reading Of Time and the River (1935). Wolfe also studied under George Pierce Baker (at Harvard) and attended Chapel Hill University, then moved to Brooklyn to write about his home of North Carolina. Smith decided to write about her home in Brooklyn from North Carolina. 

Her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was published on August 17, 1943. It was an instant best-seller, selling 150,000 copies and ultimately over six million. Twentieth Century Fox bought the movie rights for $50,000, and the film adaptation won three Academy Awards. Smith was 47 years old at the time of publication.

A few days before the publication of A Tree Grows in BrooklynSmith married Joseph Piper Jones. They divorced in 1951. 

Smith followed the publication of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Tomorrow will be Better (1947), another novel set in the tenements of Brooklyn, focused on young people looking for a brighter future. 

In 1957, at the age of 61, she married Robert Voris Finch, who she had first met at Yale Drama School in the 1930s. The following year she published her third novel, Maggie Now, about an Irish immigrant family in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Her husband died on February 4, 1959.

Joy in the Morning (1963)Smith’s last novel, was a semi-autobiographical continuation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It follows the early years of her marriage to her first husband, George. It was adapted into a film of the same name. 

Betty Smith died of pneumonia on January 17, 1972, in Connecticut, and is buried in Chapel Hill with her third husband, Robert Voris Finch. 

Lesson from Smith

I am here all day for the women who raised kids and pursued an education and wrote unbelievable books. No excuses. No barriers. Just unabashedly pursuing their calling and passion. And sending bright light of comfort and inspiration into the world through books.

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