Betty Smith

Born - Dec 15, 1896   |   Died - Jan 1, 1972   |   Genres - Drama

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Betty Smith was one of the most popular novelists of the mid-20th century and one of the few popular novelists of the 1940s whose work is still read. Born Elizabeth Wehner in Brooklyn, NY, in 1996, Smith was the daughter of an Austrian immigrant family. It was while growing up amid the slums of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn that she first started to write poetry and prose, and, at the age of 11, two of her poems were published. Although her formal education ended in the eighth grade with the death of her father, her dedication to learning, coupled with her writing skills, allowed her to enter the University of Michigan, where she took special courses to make up for her lack of a high school education. She also married George H. E. Smith, whom she later divorced after having two daughters. The family lived on very little money while Smith completed her college degree and her story Francie Nolan, which earned her a 1500-dollar literary prize. She later studied at the Yale Drama School, began writing scripts, and earned a playwriting scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She wrote 70 one-act plays for amateur productions and worked as an actress to support her family, all the while working on a book that she'd had germinating for years about her impoverished childhood in Brooklyn. That was finally published by Harper & Row in 1943 as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which sold 300,000 copies in its first three weeks and went on to sell in excess of seven million copies over the ensuing decades,with over 37 printings and translated into more than a dozen languages. The book was later licensed by 20th Century Fox and turned into a hit movie by Elia Kazan in 1945, his debut as a director. It became one of the studio's biggest successes of the decade and helped establish Kazan's reputation. Smith's two subsequent books, Tomorrow Will Be Better (1948) and Maggie Now (1958), also dealt with her life growing up in Brooklyn, while Joy in the Morning (1963) was inspired by Smith's early married life and her struggle to support her family; it was made into feature film in 1965. Smith died in 1972 at the age of 75. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was remade into a TV-movie in 1974.