Common Folk 1896 -1910
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about the youth of Francie Nolan, a heroine very much like Elizabeth Lillian Wehner, who later became Betty Smith. Smith often said that she wrote the novel "not as it was, but as it should have been." This phrase is quoted in many articles, letters, and interviews with Smith's relatives and associates. It was her pat statement that she trotted out whenever anyone asked, as she knew they would, if A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was true. "Maybe it didn't happen that way. But that's the way it should have been!" Smith quotes her father. But no one knows if Johnny Wehner ever really said that, or if it was another of Smith's fabrications; indeed, it is a problem that her biographer must contend with, that Smith seldom told an unadulterated tale. Consequently, even though A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an accurate portrait of quotidian life in turn-of-the-century Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the characters and events cannot be taken as fact.
There were fans of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn who knew every street and store in the novel, and one wrote to her: "It is so true to life of the low class of Williamsburg I could not help but wonder where you lived"; another was able to retrace Francie's steps and figure out which school she attended from the novel. Smith attributed her memory, from which she wrote, to her mother's power "for almost total recall," and after writing the novel, she felt her memories were exhausted. However, she also said that each character is a composite of other people that she has known. The conclusion is, I think, that we can understand the social details of the novel as accurate urban folklore, the characters as products of her own mental creation, and the events as semi-true. I think we can accept A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an accurate portrayal of Lizzie Wehner's emotional journey through her difficult childhood and adolescence.
The Hummels and the Wehners
The description she later wrote of her grandparents, the Hummels and the Wehners, shows a great resemblance to the family history of the Nolans in the book. Katie's parents Thomas and Marera Hummel, emigrated from Germany. In her unpublished autobiography, written late in life, Smith recalls that the Hummels came from a small town near Schwarzwald and Thomas married Marera when he 30 and she was 15. They came over in steerage class and moved to Bushwick where they had four girls: Marera (Mammie), Lotty, Annie, and Katey. Grandmother Marera died when Smith was 7, but her favorite aunt Annie spent a lot of time with her mother, and Grandfather Hummel lived until Smith was 12. According to Smith, Thomas Hummel took each daughter out of school at age 12 and put them to work, taking the money that they earned. Consequently, they all married and left home as soon as possible. Grandmother Marera was not allowed to see her daughters, so they would visit behind his back. Thomas Hummel was a curmudgeon; in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Thomas Rommely "hated everybody and everything" (43); Thomas Hummel knew some English but pretended he didn't and "was never so happy as when he hated someone" and Thomas Rommely hated Germany but refused to speak in English, and forbade the speaking of English in him home (43). But Smith was not afraid of the old man. She recalled that when she was invited with her brother to lunch with him "My brother and I used to walk around together in the parlor just to shiver at the way his eyes seemed to follow us. One day I suggested that I walk in one direction and he in another to see if Grampa's eye's crossed." Smith's religious orientation had it's source in both of her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was remembered for having carved a church alter, from which he saved the pieces and carved individual crosses, selling them from door to door. Her grandmother was devoutly religious as well as superstitious, and passed this combination on to her daughter, whose letters to Smith are full of exhortions to the saints. Smith's own religion was tempered with her father's agnosticism (and her grandfather's temper).
Like Johnny Nolan in the novel, John Casper Wehner was one of four sons, each a year apart: Franky, Johnny, Ambrose (Andy) and George (Georgy). The Wehner family had come to America many years before. John Wehner's father died young, and his mother, Regina, was possessive of her sons: John Casper went to see her every Sunday and her mother wouldn't talk to him when he came home. This information accords with the novel, in which "The Rommelys ran to women of strong personalities. The Nolans ran to weak and talented men" (51).
Betty Smith's( or Elizabeth Lillian Wehner's or Elisabeth Wehner's) Birth Date
Smith's parents were married when Katie was twenty and John twenty-two, on February 16, 1896. Katie Wehner must have been pregnant within a month, because she gave birth to Smith on December 15th of that year. Although Smith's birth date in the New York Public Library catalogue is listed as 1904 and later she maintained that she was born in 1906, Elizabeth Wehner was born December 15th, 1896 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and christened at Holy Trinity Church on Montrose Ave. Her brother, William Wehner, was born a year later, in 1897, and her sister Regina was born in 1900.
When Smith needed a copy of her birth certificate to get a passport, she was surprised to discover her name listed as "Sophia." Her mother told her: "A midwife officiated and she could speak little English. When she went to report [the] birth, the official kept shouting "name?" at her and the befuddled woman thought he meant her name so she said,`Sophie.'" It seems unlikely that a practiced midwife would be so naive, so perhaps this is an example of Smith remembering things "as it should have been." Smith was baptized as Elizabeth Lillian Wehner, her mother refers to her variously in her letters as Lizzie or Littie, her schoolmates wrote to her as Elizabeth or Beth, and when she first began writing she published her articles under the name Elisabeth Wehner. After her divorce, she began calling herself Betty Smith, and, except for her husband Joe Jones (who called her Elisabeth) that name stuck.
Betty Smith's Mother
Smith had a powerfully ambivalent relationship with her mother. In her autobiographical writings she describes her as a major creative influence:
When Daphne Athas, a novelist and friend of Smith's daughter Mary, went to visit them in her teenage years, she "could make no connection between this woman and Katie Nolan" (25):
It seems clear that her mother favored her brother Bill and left Smith to her own devices. Bill and Regina, Smith's younger sister, lived with Katie for many years, Bill only marrying in middle age. In her autobiographical manuscript, Smith wrote in a meditative mode:
The writer Max Steele remembers a conversation he had with Smith about her mother:
This antagonism, ambivalence, identification and love runs throughout the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith's mother lived nearly as long as Smith herself.
Betty Smith's Father
But her father was the parent with whom she was obsessed, throughout her life. She credits her desire to move to Chapel Hill to the sentimental songs he sang about North Carolina. But her relationship with him must have been troubled as well. John Wehner's occupation is listed on his marriage certificate as laborer, on Smith's birth certificate as bartender, and on his death certificate as waiter. He died at age forty, on December 21, 1915, six days after Smith's nineteenth birthday. Like in the novel, he was buried the day before Christmas. It is probably that he was an alcoholic like Johnny Nolan, since Smith was obsessed, throughout her life, with helping male alcoholics. Also, on his death certificate, the cause of death is listed as pneumonia, the same as Johnny Nolan's in the novel.
In her early years, her parents moved from Brownsville to Williamsburg, one crowded immigrant district to another, closer to Manhattan. Smith is ambivalent about her feelings about her home. On one hand, "It was exciting, churning, bewildering, ever-changing and overcrowded. It was the world of the immigrant." She writes that she is proud of her Brooklyn accent that developed when she went to school with "the children of Irish, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants. We all fought to retain our own speech patterns and accents. A cohesive Brooklyn accent resulted." But Smith also wrote to her editor that
Like the Lower East Side that Jacob Riis documented so well, Williamsburg was a crowded and uncomfortable place, with sub-standard housing and no parks or open spaces. Smith was "Continually cramped by the lack of space and air in the crowded Brooklyn tenements in which she grew up." Immigrant families were squeezed in, one on top of the other, in railroad flats that were "sound boxes" with no privacy; it is likely that Francie's tree was the only green thing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Smith's childhood was lonely. She tried to play with her brother but she felt she couldn't get him away from her mother. There was love between the children, but competition as well. Athas describes how she used to eat in Brooklyn,
She wrote that she pretended that the flagstones were her playmates; she'd talk to the flagstones and pretend that they were talking to her. She personified everything, even kitchen appliances. Her mother told her that she would end up in a loony bin or a booby hatch. Smith's interior life was rich. Her mother remembers she always had a pen in her hand.
Early Dramatic Influence
Smith wrote that, although the only films she was allowed to see were the Chaplin films, "From five to fourteen my brother and I went to the theatre at least twice a week (ten cents in the gallery.)" She saw plays such as "The Old Homestead," "Way Down East," "East Lynne," "Shore Acres," "The Great Divide," "Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl," "Sweeny the Barber," "London After Dark," and Yiddish plays that she did not understand but was "enthralled by the violent physical emotionalism of the actors." She saw Caruso in the performance that led to his death and Sarah Bernhardt, making a farewell tour. In 1911 Smith went to the Lyceum Theatre in Brooklyn and saw a play called "The Two Orphans"; she must have felt strongly about this play, because it is the only program she saved.
Although Smith thrived later in college, her early education was incomplete.
She had articles published in the Bushwick School Bulletin on June 30,
1910, when she was fourteen, the year she graduated from school. Smith's
childhood was short: by the end of 1910 she was working to support her
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003