Betty Smith Biography


  • Elizabeth Lillian Wehner is born December 15, 1896, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, and christened at Holy Trinity Church. She is the daughter of John and Catherine Wehner, German immigrants, who married February 16, 1896. Her parents call her Lizzie or Littie, and her friends refer to her as Elizabeth or Beth. She begins calling herself Betty in 1938.
  • Completes eighth grade at P.S. 23 in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1910 and leaves school at age 14 to work.
  • Works at a succession of jobs from 1910 to 1915, including at a factory making tissue flowers and at a clipping bureau, where she reads 200 newspapers a day.
  • Attends Girl's High School, 1915 to 1917. She is editor of the school newspaper.
  • Elizabeth's mother marries Michael Keogh in 1918. Elizabeth takes her mother's new husband's last name, becoming Elizabeth Keogh.
  • Elopes with George Smith, June 6, 1919, moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • From 1927 to 1930, Elizabeth enrolls at the University of Michigan. She also takes playwriting classes and begins writing plays, including Wives-in-Law and A Day's Work.
  • In 1930, Elizabeth is awarded the Avery Hopwood Award, for her play Jonica Starrs.
  • Attends Yale University Drama School from 1931 to 1934. Elizabeth has two one-act plays produced, Mannequin's Maid and Blind Alley in 1932.
  • In 1933, Elizabeth and George Smith legally separate. She falls in love with Bob Finch, a fellow playwriting student at Yale.
  • In 1937, Elizabeth wins a Berkeley Playmakers award for her play So Gracious in the Time. She wins the same award in 1938 for Three Comments on a Martyr.
  • Elizabeth and George divorce in 1938, and she begins calling herself Betty Smith.
  • In 1939, Betty receives a $1,200 Rockefeller Fellowship. In 1940, she receives a $1,000 Rockefeller & Dramatist Guild Award.
  • Betty begins writing an autobiographical novel in the late 1930s, which will eventually become A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943. Twentieth Century Fox purchases the film rights, with half the money going to the publisher, Harper & Brothers. Finch drinks to excess and is jealous of Betty's success. Their relationship ends, and he leaves Chapel Hill.
  • In 1943, Betty begins writing to Joe Jones, a columnist for the Chapel Hill Weekly. They marry on August 7, 1943.
  • The film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opens in 1945. By the end of 1945, Betty has earned nearly $110,000 from the sale of more than 3 million copies of the book.
  • Betty's second novel, Tomorrow Will Be Better, is published in August 1948.
  • In 1951, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opens as a musical comedy at the Alvin Theater on Broadway. Betty and Joe separate, and she is again seeing Bob Finch, although he is married to someone else.
  • Betty divorces Joe after the musical's successful opening.
  • Betty and Bob Finch marry in 1957, after his wife agrees to a divorce.
  • Betty's third book, Maggie-Now, is published in 1958.
  • Betty's last novel, Joy in the Morning, is published in 1963.
  • Betty Smith dies January 17, 1972, in Shelton, Connecticut, of pneumonia. She is buried in Chapel Hill at the Legion Street Cemetery, next to Bob Finch.

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