Betty Smith

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Betty Smith
Betty Smith.jpg
BornElisabeth Lillian Wehner
(1896-12-15)December 15, 1896
Brooklyn, New York, United States
DiedJanuary 17, 1972(1972-01-17) (aged 75)
Shelton, Connecticut, United States
EducationUniversity of Michigan
Notable worksA Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith c. 1943

Betty Smith (born Elisabeth Lillian Wehner; December 15, 1896 – January 17, 1972) was an American author. She is best known for her 1943 bestselling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is considered one of the great American novels of the 20th century.


Early years[edit]

Smith was born Elisabeth Lillian Wehner on December 15, 1896, in Brooklyn, New York, to first-generation German-Americans John C. Wehner, a waiter,[1] and Katherine (or Catherine) Hummel.[2] She had a younger brother, William, and a younger sister, Regina.[3] At the time of her birth the family was living at 207 Ewen Street (now Manhattan Avenue). When she was four, they were living at 227 Stagg Street, and would move several times to various tenements on Montrose Avenue and Hopkins Street[4] before settling in a tenement at the top floor of 702 Grand Street that served as the basis for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.[5] As a child, she made great use of the then-new public library on nearby Leonard Street.[6] Smith attended PS 49 through fourth grade before transferring to PS 18 and then finally PS 23 in Greenpoint. While some sources report she attended Girls' High School,[7] her biographer reports that she was obliged to quit school by her mother to help support the family, as her alcoholic father worked only sporadically.[8] These early experiences in Williamsburg and Greenpoint Brooklyn, served as the framework to her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).

Smith became an active member of a social service center on Jackson street called the School Settlement Association. It was likely there, rather than near her apartment, that the tree grew which gave name to her best-known novel.[9] There, in 1917, she first met her future first husband, George H. E. Smith, the coach of her debate team and a fellow German-American, whose family name had been changed during WWI from Schmidt.[10]

Marriage and motherhood[edit]

After moving briefly to Richmond Hill, Queens, with her mother and stepfather, she eloped with George Smith to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he pursued a law degree at the University of Michigan. They married October 18, 1919.[11] During the couple's extended stay in Ann Arbor, Smith gave birth to two girls and then waited until they were in school before endeavoring to complete her education. Although she had not finished high school, the university allowed her to enroll in classes. There Smith honed her skills in journalism, literature, writing, and drama, winning a prestigious Avery Hopwood Award. She was a student in some of the classes of Professor Kenneth Thorpe Rowe.

In 1933, she and George H. E. Smith legally separated. She used the Smith surname throughout her writing career and up until her death, even though she divorced Smith in the 1930s, and subsequently married two additional times.

Federal Theatre Project[edit]

She attempted to continue her drama studies at Yale, but the expense of tuition and the care of two children proved overwhelming, and she returned to live briefly in her mother's house in Woodside, Queens. An opportunity with the Works Projects Administration fortuitously arose and, in 1935, Smith was transferred to the Federal Theatre Project as a play reader. In May 1936, she and three other Federal Theatre Project members were shifted to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to participate in regional theater activities. In Chapel Hill, Smith finally found a place to call home, and despite continuing struggles with money, she began to write more earnestly.

Novelist and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn[edit]

While living and working in Chapel Hill, Smith produced a novel titled They Lived in Brooklyn, which was rejected by several publishers before Harper and Brothers showed an interest in 1942. After she worked on it with editors, her novel was accepted for publication the following year, and released with the title A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A film adaptation, directed by Elia Kazan, was released in 1945. In 1974, a second film adaptation was released.

Eleven days before A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published, on August 7, 1943, she married Joseph Piper Jones, a columnist for the Chapel Hill Weekly. (Note: Smith's entry in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Vol. 5, P-S, states she married Jones three days before the book's publication.[12] Whether eleven or three days prior is correct will depend on which date was used for the publication of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At any rate, Smith married just a few days before the publication of the book which made her a public figure.) After eight years of marriage, Jones and Smith were divorced in December 1951. Shortly thereafter, she married Robert Voris Finch, whom she had known since her days at Yale. He died February 4, 1959, and Smith never remarried.[12]

Smith teamed with George Abbott to write the book for the 1951 musical adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Throughout her life, she worked as a dramatist, receiving many awards and fellowships including the Rockefeller Fellowship and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship for her work in drama. Her other novels include Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958) and Joy in the Morning (1963). Joy in the Morning was adapted into a 1965 film of the same name.


On January 17, 1972, Smith died of pneumonia in Shelton, Connecticut at the age of 75.[12] She is buried in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Partial filmography[edit]


  1. ^ 1900 United States Federal Census
  2. ^ New York, State Census, 1915
  3. ^ New York, State Census, 1905
  4. ^ "The Borough of Writers: Betty Smith: 'Francie or Sophina?'" by Brad Lockwood. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 21, 2008.
  5. ^ Betty Smith: Life of the Author of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Valerie Raleigh Yow. Wolf's Pond Press, 2008. ISBN 9780970224934 pgs 7-12
  6. ^ Betty Smith: Life of the Author of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Valerie Raleigh Yow. Wolf's Pond Press, 2008. ISBN 9780970224934 pgs 18
  7. ^ "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".
  8. ^ Betty Smith: Life of the Author of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Valerie Raleigh Yow. Wolf's Pond Press, 2008. ISBN 9780970224934 pgs 34
  9. ^ "School Settlement Is a Haven for All: Myriad Activities Enjoyed by Those Attending House Mentioned in 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'" by Ruth G. Davis. The Brooklyn Eagle, April 1st, 1945 pg 12
  10. ^ Betty Smith: Life of the Author of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Valerie Raleigh Yow. Wolf's Pond Press, 2008. ISBN 9780970224934 pgs 40
  11. ^ Michigan Marriages, 1868-1925, database with images, FamilySearch ( : 4 December 2014), George H. E. Smith and Elizabeth Wehner, 18 Oct 1919; citing Ann Arbor, Washtenaw, Michigan, p 279 rn 160, Department of Vital Records, Lansing; FHL microfilm 2,342,733.
  12. ^ a b c Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Vol. 5, P-S edited by William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979, p. 372.

Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson, Carol Siri. The Life and Work of Betty Smith, Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. University of New York, 1995. OCLC 36285365
  • Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Betty Smith: A Life of the Author of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Wolf's Pond Press, 2008. ISBN 0970224931

External links[edit]