A tree grew in Chapel Hill, too

CorrespondentMarch 9, 2013 

This story was adapted from a longer version that appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review. To read the original story, visit bit.ly/Betty_Smith.

Seeds come in many shapes and sizes, and for writers and artists, in many forms. Rooted among Chapel Hill’s literary forest is a tree whose branches, grown out seven decades, stretch across the town and state, up to New York and the heart of Broadway. Its author’s reach soars, casting such shade that it can only be measured one way. In stories.

Her name was Betty Smith, and in a cottage apartment on East North Street in the early 1940s, she wrote the great novel of growing up in America, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

A divorced mother of two daughters who had to quit school after eighth grade, Smith arrived in Chapel Hill on a Federal Theater Project job. She soon became best friends with legendary playwright Paul Green. For a few years, she lived in poverty, writing commercial one-act plays, teaching classes and doggedly writing the memoir of her childhood.

With the novel’s 1943 publication and its runaway commercial success, Betty Smith became Chapel Hill’s star, and for nearly 30 years, she rocked the town, casting herself as a reverse Thomas Wolfe who moved South to capture Brooklyn.

She packed as much drama into her life as she put on her page. With her first royalty check, the girl who grew up in a tenement bought a grand home at East Rosemary and Hillsborough streets. There, she wrote three more novels and divorced her second husband to marry her longtime lover and collaborator on plays. She helped rear her grandchildren, planted a garden, occasionally acted and kept fighting a losing battle toward happiness.

Her own story’s end was heart-wrenching. In her 70s, she lost her ability with words, then her memory. Her family admitted her to a state mental institution in Butner, and she died in a Connecticut nursing home in 1972.

Still, Smith remains part of Chapel Hill’s landscape. The bulk of her papers are housed at UNC libraries. She is buried in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. Her home, now known as the Mickel-Mangum-Smith House, inspired the creation of the Chapel Hill Preservation Society.

America lauds “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as a classic, and the New York Public Library named it one of the Books of the Century. Betty Smith is forever associated with Brooklyn. Perhaps that explains why North Carolina does not exactly remember or revere her.

Some stories take time to see, and time to tell, like reading a tree’s age by examining a cross-section of the trunk. That is what author Valerie Raleigh Yow has done with Betty Smith’s story. Although the two women never met, no one person knew Betty Smith as well as Yow knows her. She spent seven years immersing herself in Smith’s papers, finally publishing a biography that leaves nary a detail of Smith’s life off the page. “Betty Smith, Life of the Author of ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ ” (Southern Sky, 2008), reveals how much of Smith’s personal experience shaped her characters and the things that happened to them.

“What a complicated person!” Yow says. “She was always such an outsider, even here, which clearly became her home. She remained on the margin, whether the circle was literary, academic or social.”

Few of her subjects did not spring from personal experience. Smith wrote more than 30 plays that delved into marriage, infidelity, abortion, hunger, jealousy and spiritual angst. After studying Smith’s personal letters, Yow pieced many of the events to the art it inspired.

The heroine of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is 11-year-old Francie Nolan, a character Smith drew so vividly and with such heart that for years, people wrote her notes addressed, “Dear Francie.” In the book, an older Francie, now 15, forced to quit school and find work, utters a fervent prayer:

“Dear God,” she prays, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry ... have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

The story ends when Francie Nolan is only 16. In Betty Smith’s life, that prayer was answered.

Legacies are born in words and flesh. Betty Smith’s daughter, Nancy Pfeiffer, is both. Smith’s first-born child, Pfeiffer was the only family member to graduate from college and the one who also became a writer of children’s books, Pfeiffer is 89 and lives in Connecticut. Her younger sister, Mary, died in 1979.

“I have never run across anybody who believed in herself more,” she says by phone. “She knew she was good. ... It was never ‘if I have a play on Broadway or if I sell a novel. It was always ‘When.’ ”

Fact can be difficult to discern from memory or, in her mother’s case, myth. What people forget, Pfeiffer says, is that Smith had a long apprenticeship as a playwright before she wrote her first novel. At 19, she had married Pfeiffer’s father, George Smith, a law student at the University of Michigan. For years, Betty Smith took classes (for no credit, since she had no high school diploma) in journalism and play-writing. A play she wrote about a Brooklyn girl named Francie Nolan won the Hopper Prize at University of Michigan, and inspired George Baker of Yale to invite her to come study with him as part of the famed “Baker’s Dozen.”

By the time the mother and daughters landed in Chapel Hill in 1938, Smith was 40. She had been married and divorced (and arrived with Bob Finch, her writing partner and lover, who was 13 years her junior); she had known poverty and the comforts of middle class. She also knew theater, having accomplished all the work for undergraduate and graduate degrees.

“Chapel Hill gave her the distance from those roots so she could look at them with an unbiased eye,” Pfeiffer says.

In almost every way, Betty Smith stood out, but irresistibly so. A petite brunette just over five feet tall, she was feminine, but in a way far different from pearl-clad Southern belles. She loved red lipstick, smoked while she wrote and walked around campus in slouchy Russian-style leather boots that her daughter still remembers.

After the Federal Theater position funding dried up, Paul Green helped Smith get a Rockefeller grant to remain in Chapel Hill. She wrote in the mornings before the girls were up. She sent Harper’s a manuscript in 1941 as a memoir. They saw it was fictionalized, but they saw she could write. A year later, Smith mailed the finished manuscript of “Tree.”

During those limbo months between the sale and launch, Smith found herself without children, man or manuscript. Finch returned to Montana and married his childhood sweetheart. By May, Pfeiffer had decided she wanted to live on campus for her final year of college. And Smith’s younger daughter Mary, after only one year at Carolina, left school to wed. So, as she had done before, Betty Smith edited her circumstances with the power of her pen. In a matter of weeks, she got herself a young, handsome, Southern husband.

Joe Jones was a nature-lover who had a popular column in the Chapel Hill Weekly. He enlisted in the war, and was stationed at Fort Story, Va., as editor the Post Enlisted Men’s Paper.

Smith wrote him a one-sentence fan letter. He wrote back. The letters passed back and forth, sometimes twice a day, for about eight weeks. She typed up his essays and found a publisher for a collection. By the time she took a train for Norfolk to meet him in person, he had made up his mind to propose. Their accounts differ, but the fact is, she married him a few days later, without telling anyone, even her daughters. All of it happened three weeks before her book came out.

Finch, Pfieffer says, was the love of her mother’s life. But when he was gone, Jones was by her side.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” sold 300,000 copies in the first six weeks. Fame hit with speed and fury. Her daughters, no longer children but not fully grown, were left in its wake.

All her life, Smith bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have a college degree. But when her first child graduated from Carolina in May 1944, Smith, the town’s most famous citizen, was not there.

“It was really very hard for me,” Pfeiffer remembers. “I was all alone; everybody had a family coming. I was Phi Beta Kappa. I went to the stadium by myself.”

Pfeiffer has had a long time to contemplate the motives behind her mother’s actions.

“She was constituted not to be happy,” Pfeiffer says. “She had all this economic stuff stacked up against her; her own background. Personally, she was always looking for something she couldn’t ever find. Her only outlet was writing. She created a lot of the life she would have liked to have had and didn’t.

If there were one material thing Smith really wanted and got, it was her home. She often told a story of passing by it with a friend in the lean days, wondering aloud how one got to live in a place like that.

“You’re born there,” the friend said. To which Smith vowed that she would do something big someday and buy that house.

One year after the book was published, Smith got word that the 1855 Mickel-Mangum house was available. She paid cash.

“She fell in love with that house,” her daughter says. “It was part of her persona, a part of her life.”

Smith had a low stone wall built around the property – not to keep fans out, she insisted, but to give passersby a place to sit and think. Filled with her children and young grandchildren, the house was fertile ground for writing. She wrote a play and another novel, “Tomorrow Will Be Better.”

It was fertile ground for drama, too. By 1951, the musical version of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” hit Broadway to mixed reviews. Smith divorced Jones and invited Finch to her house in Nag’s Head to work on a new play. By Christmas, Finch was living in the house on East Rosemary Street. Jones continued to work at the Chapel Hill Weekly just down the street, but they never spoke to each other again.

As the years passed, Smith had various roommates and caretakers. After her death in 1972, a developer wanted to buy the property. But Ida Friday and Georgia Kaiser organized a group to buy it, and in doing so, the Chapel Hill Preservation Society was formed.

The house retains its physical and literary allure. About 10 years ago, another female writer noticed the house on her morning walks to campus. She wondered who had lived there, what stories were undoubtedly contained within. A friend told Valerie Yow that the house once had belonged to Betty Smith, and really, someday, someone ought to write a book about it.

One writer’s development can be shaped by the shade of another’s blooming. Daphne Athas, novelist and lecturer in the UNC Creative Writing Department for more than 40 years, knew Smith from the time Athas was a girl as young as Francie Nolan. She and Smith’s daughter, Mary, were best friends.

Athas aspired to be a writer like Louisa May Alcott or Carson McCullers. What she saw up close was Smith, a woman so not intellectual and so marked by poverty that she panicked when someone stole her bag of groceries at a play.

Retired from teaching in 2009, Athas still lives in Carrboro, still writes and still helps young, talented writers find their way. That is the legacy Betty Smith left her.

The young woman watched from close range as Smith’s life changed. She asked Smith to read her first manuscript, but overwhelmed by the whirl of publicity, Smith rejected her.

Athas went to Boston and New York for a couple years, then returned to work on another novel. Not long after, she was surprised to get a call from the gravelly voiced woman, offering to read it. Athas demurred that she wasn’t finished, but she walked the manuscript over to the big house. She didn’t see it again until it was a finished book, with the title “The Weather of the Heart.”

Smith introduced Athas at her first reading. She connected her to other writers and stayed in touch through the years.

“I adore her more in retrospect than perhaps in reality,” Athas says. “I loved the idea of her, but her? She was a mystery to me.”

Legacies can grow from generosity, and inspiration. In downtown Manhattan, another of Smith’s offshoots has taken root, and grown in ways even she may not have imagined.

William Ivey Long, chairman of the American Theater Wing, starts his morning with handwritten letters. One is addressed to one of his former college roommates from Yale, Meryl Streep. Before Yale, half a lifetime before Long became Broadway’s most famous costume designer, another of his roommates was an aging, ailing Betty Smith. She had known his parents when they all worked on the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony.”

“The red lips. The leopard coat. Cigarettes. The powder,” he croons, remembering. “She was kind of Duchess of Windsor – an attractive person who learned how to make herself more so. She was a Doll of ‘Guys and Dolls.’ She was Maggie the Cat to me.”

By then, she was a widow who rented out two rooms of her house to students. When Long was to start graduate school in art history at Carolina, Smith told his parents, “Have Billy stay here.”

But from the time she issued the invitation until Long arrived, something happened. Words suddenly eluded her.

With a background in theater, Long understood the language of pantomime, and this became their means of communication. In some ways, he says, they were playmates. He brought costumes home and let her try on the ones she liked. He redecorated and hosted parties at her house. He borrowed her Cadillac to go on dates, and often found her waiting in the driveway. In her more lucid moments, Smith urged him to leave Carolina and apply to Yale to study costume design.

For almost two years, Long was her main caretaker, but not the only one.

“Everybody in the town knew about Betty,” he says. “We all cared for and protected her.”

People helped walk her home. The postmaster, Yow writes in her book, painted a spot of red nail polish on her post office box as a prompt.

Long left Carolina to spend the summer in Florence, Italy. When he returned, there was an acceptance letter from Yale. But Smith was gone. Her family had moved her to the facility in Butner.

He feels such guilt that he left for Italy, that he couldn’t rewrite her ending, that ... the words dissolve.

But Yale led to New York, and the rest of his story. Next to his five Tony Awards, his homes are filled with Betty Smith ephemera: furniture, paintings, photographs, even the sign from the house that says, “Betty Smith, 315 E. Rosemary.”

What he remembers more than anything is the way he would find her most mornings, sitting silently in the sunroom at her desk.

She couldn’t type. Couldn’t talk. He believes she was still writing like always, just in her head. Dreaming, perhaps, so that not one little piece of living was ever lost.

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