Along the Way: Betty Smith

Betty Smith, author

“Do you have directions to the grave?” Zech asked as Jen drove their car onto the sacred grounds of Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. We had spent the morning at the Occoneechee Speedway and had decided to explore a couple of the regional cemeteries and the notable people buried there. Note: more about the Occoneechee Speedway can be found here: The Occoneechee Speedway.

“Well, sort of,” I replied. “The directions I was sent state: Enter the cemetery at the entrance across from Robinson Street, follow the road to the right and park at the first intersection. The grave is on the right between the intersection and Leopard Road.”

The three of us spread out to search for the author who rests within the sacred grounds. A couple minutes later I heard Jen calling out she had found the grave and I walked over to join the two of them standing at the simple plaque marking the grave of Betty Smith Finch. Beneath her name was the announcement: “Author of / A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

Betty Smith was born Elisabeth Wehner on December 15, 1896, the first of John and Katherine Wehner’s three children. As a child, the family moved around Brooklyn before settling on Grand Street, the place that inspired the Brooklyn locale of her novels.

Smith’s early education was sporadic, but it did not stop her passion to write. She attended school through eighth grade before quitting to go to work in order to support the family. When she turned eighteen, Smith returned to school while working nights. After two years, she again quit school to work.

During her teenage years, Smith was active in the Jackson Street Settlement House, which offered activities for students, and it was here she met her first husband George H.E. Smith. She followed George to Michigan where he attended the University of Michigan. They would marry October 18, 1919 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The couple had two daughters and it would not be until the girls were in school that Smith was able to continue her education as a junior at the local school, but she never graduated. In 1938, the couple divorced, but Betty continued to use the name Smith during her writing career.

Despite Smith having never finished high school, the University of Michigan allowed Smith to take classes allowing her to pursue her passion in writing. While attending the University of Michigan, she won the Avery Hopwood Award for a play she had written, which introduced her writings to the public. After winning the award, Smith was invited to study at Yale, which she did until 1934. Sadly, Smith would never receive a degree from the University of Michigan nor Yale due to never having graduated from high school.

It would be during her time at Yale she met Robert “Bob” Finch, who would become a close friend who encouraged her to write. Smith found work with the Works Progress Administration and began working for the Federal Theatre Project. In May 1936, she and Bob Finch were among a group of writers who were sent to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to work. Smith fell in love with the area and would call Chapel Hill her home.

In the late 1930s, Smith shifted from playwriting and began writing novels. She focused her attention on the place of her birth – Brooklyn. She soon produced her first – and her best-known – novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Published in 1943, it became an immediate bestseller. The semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Francie Nolan growing up in the poverty of early twentieth century Brooklyn.

Also in 1943, Smith would marry Joseph Jones. This marriage was troubled from the start, but lasted until 1953 when the couple finally divorced.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was followed in 1947 with Tomorrow Will Be Better, which is also set in poverty-stricken Brooklyn. It would not be until 1958 that Smith published her third novel, Maggie-Now. At the time her third novel was published Smith was married to her long-time friend Robert Finch. The couple married in 1957 after he divorced his wife. The marriage would not last two years due to Robert’s death in February 1959.

In 1963, her fourth and final novel, Joy in the Morning, was published. It follows a young married couple from Brooklyn who are trying to escape the poverty of the city.

Smith died January 17, 1972 in Shelton, Connecticut. Her body was returned to Chapel Hill and buried next to Robert.

As we stood there paying our respects, a line from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn popped into mind – a quote that has been a part of my own philosophy about writing – “When you write of actual things, it takes longer, because you have to live them first.” With that thought lingering in my mind, we silently departed the resting in the grounds of Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.

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