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 1943, the novel was an instant best seller that eventually was translated into twenty languages and sold more than six million copies.
The book’s great popularity transformed Smith into an instant celebrity, wealthy enough to live off her writing. She continued to write plays but is best known for her four novels, three of which deal with her Brooklyn childhood and adolescence. In 1943 Smith married Joseph Jones, a newspaperman, but in 1951 this marriage, too, ended in divorce. The late 1940s and early 1950s were a difficult time for Smith; in addition to suffering the breakup of her second marriage, she incurred injuries in an automobile accident in 1952. Her two novels written during this time, Tomorrow Will Be Better and Maggie-Now, are less optimistic than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A third marriage, to Robert Finch, seems to have been happy but ended with his death in 1959. Smith’s final years were active ones; she acted, taught college, and produced numerous plays, another novel, and two volumes of autobiographical writings before her death on January 17, 1972. Unlike the work of the many naturalistic writers she admired, Smith’s writing is seldom pessimistic. She recognized the reality of grinding poverty, but her heroines are able to break free of the trap of poverty and limited education just as their author did.