Betty Smith was born in Brooklyn and went to college in Michigan. Enrolled as a part-time student at the University of Michigan, she studied writing, particularly playwriting, almost exclusively. In 1930 she published two short plays in a volume written by drama students at Michigan, and in 1931 she won the first prize of one thousand dollars in the Avery Hopwood competition, mainly for her work in fiction. Even then she was developing the material she used later in her novels; one of her winning stories was called “Death of a Singing Waiter.”
She continued her studies at the Yale School of Drama and was awarded playwriting fellowships by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Dramatists’ Guild. Although she published or produced more than seventy one-act plays, it was not until the publication of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that she received widespread public recognition. The novel was praised mainly for its lyrical treatment of naturalistic subject matter and for its realistic dialogue. She collaborated with George Abbott to write a musical version for the stage.
She again turned from her interest in drama to writing novels, returning to the Irish section of Brooklyn for her settings. Yet she never equaled her first success, which, many critics believe, overshadowed her subsequent books.