Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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.
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Elisabeth (Betty) Smith was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 15, 1896, to a family of German immigrants. Smith's father, John Wehner, died when she was still a child, and her mother, Catherine Hummel Wehner, later married an Irish immigrant, Michael Keogh. Smith's early life was shaped by poverty, and the immigrant experience she describes in many of her works has strong roots in her own life. She left school after the eighth grade to help support her family, working in factories, offices, and department stores. Smith loved stories and derived her greatest pleasure from reading books or acting in plays at the Williamsburg YMCA.
In 1924 she married George Smith and with him later moved to Michigan, where she studied literature and he studied law at the University of Michigan. Upon completion of her husband's law degree, Smith moved with him and their two daughters first to New Haven, Connecticut, where Smith studied at the Yale School of Drama, and later to Detroit, where she worked as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
After the marriage ended in divorce in 1938, Smith moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she studied drama rooted in folk culture. Smith was inspired to write A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—a fictionalized reminiscence of her early years in Brooklyn—by her examination of this regional type of drama and her exposure to the autobiographical novels of North Carolina native Thomas Wolfe. Published in...
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