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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

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Article 3

Biographical Information for Betty (Wehner) Smith

from Contemporary Authors

Personal Information: Family: Born December 15 (some sources say December 19), 1904 (some sources say 1896), in Brooklyn, NY; name originally Elisabeth Keogh; died January 17, 1972; daughter of John and Catherine (Wehner) Keogh; married George H. E. Smith, June, 1924 (divorced, 1938); married Joseph Piper Jones (a newspaperman), 1943 (divorced, 1951); married Robert Finch, June, 1957 (died, 1959); children: (by first marriage) Nancy, Mary. C/o Harper & Row, Publishers, 49 East 33rd St., New York 16, NY. Education: grammar school, Brooklyn, NY, after completing only the eighth grade; attended the University of Michigan, 1927-30, as a special student; attended Yale University Drama School, 1930-34. Memberships: Authors League, Dramatists Guild.

Nationality: American

Education: grammar school, Brooklyn, N.Y., after completing only the eighth grade; attended the University of Michigan, 1927-30, as a special student; attended Yale University Drama School, 1930-34.

Career: After leaving school at the age of fourteen, worked in factory, and in retail, and clerical jobs in New York City; later was a reader and editor for Dramatists Play Service, actress and playwright for the Federal Theater project, and a radio actress. While attending the University of Michigan, 1927-30, she began having her one-act plays published, and also worked as a feature writer for NEA (a newspaper syndicate) and wrote columns for the Detroit Free Press. She was a member of the faculty of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1945-46.

Membership(s): Authors League, Dramatists Guild.

Awards/Honors: Avery and Jule Hopwood first prize of $1,000, 1931; Rockefeller fellowship in playwriting and Rockefeller Dramatists Guild playwriting fellowship while at Yale; Sir Walter Raleigh award for fiction, 1958, for Maggie--Now.

Writings:

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Harper, 1943.
  • Tomorrow Will Be Better, Harper, 1948.
  • Maggie--Now, Harper, 1958.
  • Joy in the Morning, Harper, 1963.

Plays:

  • (With Jay G. Sigmund) Folk Stuff (one act), French, 1935.
  • (With Finch) His Last Skirmish (one-act), French, 1937.
  • (With Finch) Naked Angel (one-act comedy), French, 1937.
  • (Compiler, with Finch and Frederick Henry Koch) Plays for Schools and Little Theatres: A New Descriptive List, University of North Carolina Extension Division, 1937.
  • (With Finch) Popecastle Inn (one-act comedy), French, 1937.
  • (With Sigmund) Saints Get Together (one-act), Dension, 1937.
  • (With Sigmund) Trees of His Father (one-act), French, 1937.
  • (With Sigmund) Vine Leaves (one-act comedy), French, 1937.
  • (With Finch) The Professor Roars (one-act comedy), Dramatic Publishing, 1938.
  • (With Finch) Western Night (one-act), Dramatists Play Service, 1938.
  • (With Sigmund) Darkness at the Window (one-act), Dramatic Publishing, 1938.
  • (With Finch) Murder in the Snow (one-act), French, 1938.
  • (With Sigmund) Silvered Rope (one-act Biblical), Denison, 1938.
  • (With Finch) Youth Takes Over; or, When A Man's Sixteen (three-act comedy), French, 1939.
  • (With Chase Webb) Lawyer Lincoln (one-act comedy), Dramatists Play Service, 1939.
  • Mannequins' Maid (one-act), Denison, 1939.
  • (With Sigmund) They Released Barabbas (one-act), Eldridge, 1939.
  • (With Finch) A Night in the Country (one-act), Row, Peterson, 1939.
  • (With Finch) Near Closing Time (one-act comedy), Denison, 1939.
  • (With Finch) Package for Ponsonby (one-act comedy).
  • (With Finch) Western Ghost Town, Denison, 1939.
  • (With Clemon White) Bayou Harlequinade, French, 1940.
  • Fun After Supper, French, 1940.
  • (With Finch) Heroes Just Happen (three-act comedy), French, 1940.
  • Room For a King (one-act Christmas play), Eldredge, 1940.
  • (With Finch) Summer Comes to the Diamond O (one-act comedy), Dramatists Play Service, 1940.
  • (With Finch) To Jenny With Love (one-act), Eldridge, 1941.
  • (Complier) 25 Non-Royalty One-Act Plays for All-Girl Casts, Greenberg, 1942.
  • 20 Prize-Winning Non-Royalty One-Act Plays, Greenberg, 1943.
  • Boy Abe, W. H. Baker, 1944. Young Lincoln, Dramatists Play Service.
  • Young Lincoln, Dramatists Play Service.
  • (With George Abbott) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (musical), Harper, 1951.
  • (Editor, with others) A Treasury of Non-Royalty One-Act Plays, Garden City Books, 1958.
  • Durham Station (one-act), North Carolina Centennial Commission, 1961.

Has published or produced many other plays.

Sidelights:

"One night,. . . I, an obscure writer living quietly and on modest means in a small Southern town, went to bed as usual. I woke up the next morning to be informed that I had become a celebrity. My first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, had been published," wrote Betty Smith. With the advent of Brooklyn, the main character, Francie Nolan, became almost a national figure. "To this day" continued Miss Smith, "people write or phone me asking where Francie Nolan. . . is living now; has she married, how many children has she, is she happy? . . . One fifth of my letters start out, 'Dear Francie."'

The book was described as heart-warming, nostalgic, honest, realistic. Orville Prescott commented: "Here is a first novel of uncommon skill, an almost uncontrollable vitality and zest for life, the work of a fresh, original and highly gifted talent. . . A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a warm, sunny, engaging book as well as a grim one. It is also a rich and rare example of regional, local-color writing, filled to the scuppers with Brooklynese, Brooklyn folk ways, Brooklyn atmosphere. I shouldn't be surprised if Miss Smith had written the best novel of the Year."

Diana Trilling, however, tried to separate sentiment from literary value: "I am a little bewildered by so much response to so conventional a little book. . . . I have seen [it] compared to the novels of James Farrell, and all to the credit of Miss Smith's novel. This makes me very sad both for the condition of fiction reviewing and for Mr. Farrell, whatever his faults as a novelist of stature. Of course Francie Nolan's story is more cheerful than Danny O'Neill's, and a more popular commodity, but surely popular taste should be allowed to find its emotional level without being encouraged to believe that a `heart-warming' experience is a serious literary experience."

The setting of Miss Smith's next two books remained Brooklyn. Tomorrow Will Be Better was generally a disappointment to the critics, but Maggie--Now engendered some guarded enthusiasm. Newsweek said of the latter: "The face is familiar, but the charm has faded." Joy in the Morning, a strongly autobiographical novel, moved to the Midwest where Miss Smith had attended the University of Michigan with her law student husband. She changed locale because she felt she had exhausted her Brooklyn memories, but more important, because she was unsure of the connection of the Brooklyn of today and the Brooklyn of her fiction. "An era has come in which little advances aren't important any more. The exhilaration that came to a family when they were able to move from one flat into another flat that cost $5 a month more, the excitement of wanting a $30 coat and finding the price suddenly reduced to $20--these things are no more. Things are too easy to come by now. That's why I can't write about Brooklyn any more. Even with Maggie--Now, I kept wondering whether readers will recognize the old ways."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, of which 4,000,000 copies have been sold, has been translated into sixteen languages, and was made into a motion picture. Miss Smith collaborated with George Abbott in preparing it for production as a musical comedy. Before publication of the book, she had offered to sell it to Hollywood for $5,000 and was refused. Because of its success, the movie offer went up to $50,000 but Miss Smith held out for $55,000. She still wanted that $5,000.

Biographical/Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

  • Yale Review, autumn, 1943;
  • Nation, September 4, 1943;
  • Saturday Review of Literature, August 21, 1948;
  • New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1948;
  • Life, June 6, 1949;
  • Good House-keeping, January, 1958;
  • Newsweek, February 24, 1958.

2001 by Gale Research, 835 Penobscot Bldg. Detroit, MI 48226-4094

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