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Betty Keogh was born on December 15, 1904, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the daughter of Catherine (Wehner) and John Keogh. Unfortunately, her father died when she was a young girl; as a result, after finishing eighth grade at the age of fourteen, she began working at a variety of jobs in order to support her widowed mother and her siblings. Her work included positions in factories and retail outlets. She also served as a reader and editor for the Dramatist Play Service.
Betty married George Smith, an attorney, in June of 1924, and they had two daughters, Nancy and Mary. From 1927-1930, she attended the University of Michigan as a special student, concentrating on writing classes. While at the university, she wrote for several newspapers; she also published several plays and won the Avery Hopwood Prize for Drama. In addition, she studied literature and drama at the University of North Carolina and Yale University, between 1930 and 1934, and became an actress for a short period of time.
In spite of the many plays that she created, Betty Smith is better remembered for her novels, especially those that were about her native Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, a young girl from Brooklyn, became a repeated figure in Smith's literature, appearing in a play and a short story before she became the central character of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is semi-autobiographical. When this first novel was published in 1943, it became a best seller and brought Smith success. The book was made into a successful play, movie, and Broadway musical, and it is still often taught in classrooms today. It has been translated into more than sixteen languages and has sold over ten million copies.
Before she passed away on January 17, 1972, Smith wrote three more novels: Tomorrow Will Be Better (1948), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963). All three of them center on an immigrant daughter struggling to find happiness in the United States, but none of them match the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, even though Maggie-Now won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction in 1958.