Wife and Mother 1919-1927
Any treatment of Smith's marriage has to contend with the her final semi-autobiographical novel, Joy in the Morning. With this novel, and with the return to autobiography, Smith achieved the clear and persuasive voice that she had lost in her two middle novels, which were written under pressure. Joy in the Morning is the continuation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which a young girl from New York City, Annie Brown, moves to the midwest to marry a law student. On June 6, 1919, Smith eloped to marry George Casper Smith, a law student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; the service was performed by a Methodist Minister. She was 23, he was 21; they met in 1917 at the Settlement House for the children of immigrants in Brooklyn, and in 1918 became secretly engaged. In an autobiographical statement written at the request of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (who made a film of the novel), Smith gave an account of the courtship and marriage in which she states that the reason for the secrecy was that she was under age. Since she was actually two years older than George, it is much more likely that both the parents would object to the marriage, much like the parents of Carl and Annie in Joy in the Morning, and Frankie and Margy in Tomorrow Will Be Better. Both were hardworking and ambitious: early on they decided that George would go to Ann Arbor and enroll in law school and Smith would follow him there when he was settled. By doing so they ensured a life of hardship for themselves, but they also ensured that they would have the possibility to go beyond the economic status of their families.
Ambivalence in the Relationship
In the novel the ambivalence in the relationship is present from the beginning. While the fat judge, breathing heavily, slowly reads the ceremony, Carl checks his watch because he does not want to miss the big college football game. When their rented room is not ready for them, Carl molests Annie on the porch, and she becomes furious with him. But the novel is not about a perfect marriage: Smith wrote to her editor "In JOY I just wanted to prove that two very young people could make a go of marriage against all odds." Eventually they do make love, live together and they enjoy each other despite their differences.
Sexual abuse is part of the theme of this novel. When Carl and Annie are getting married, Annie has a flashback to a conversation with her mother in which her mother accuses her of getting married because she "had" to. Annie tries to explain that the reason she "had" to get married was because of the way her stepfather was kissing her at night, but her mother thinks that's unimportant. Then, when the judge finishes the wedding ceremony, he stepped forward saying "`I believe that I have the privilege of kissing the bride' [but] Annie threw herself at Carl and buried her face in his coat. `Don't let him touch me,' she whispered hysterically. `He's like my stepfather'" (9). Thus, this theme of sexual abuse is within the very first pages of Joy in the Morning.
It will probably never be possible to tell if Smith was sexually abused in her life, but in a letter to a friend she wrote mysteriously:
There is nothing else in Smith's copious files that refers to this mysterious experience of pain and terror. However, she did have a habit of putting her life into her work.
The positive years of their marriage are separated basically into three parts: Smith as wife of a student at Ann Arbor, attending Ann Arbor High School and trying to finish her degree; graduation and the move to the small town of Belding, and then to Grand Rapids, where George moved from country to city lawyer; and the return to Ann Arbor, where George got his master's degree and Smith was able to attend college for the first time. This last move had special consequences for Smith: it enabled her to define herself as an individual for the first time since her marriage, and it led to her decision to be a writer.
Joy in the Morning is a beautiful evocation of the struggles of a young couple trying hard to live together and make ends meet. It is so undramatic that, when MGM decided to make a movie of it, they had to add an ending wherein Annie considers leaving Carl but changes her mind. In the book there is no such question: Annie and Carl are simply trying to do what hundreds of thousands of young couples do every year: live together. Their main problem is money. In the novel, Carl's mother stops sending him his weekly $5 allowance when he got married; Smith recalls that it was his father who stopped sending him money: he said to George, "If you're old enough to marry, you're old enough to support a family."
Making Ends Meet
The young couple lived simply and sparingly. George worked several jobs: teaching ice-skating, delivering the college paper and tutoring failing law students. Smith worked briefly as counter girl in a restaurant, and a few weeks as an apprentice in a beauty shop. She wanted to attend the University, but she couldn't because she had only completed two years of high school, so she enrolled in Ann Arbor High School. According to Smith, the "Principal thought it irregular for married woman to be high school junior but could find no law against it." It must have been difficult for her to fit into this new world, but by now she was used to being an outsider, and once again, she became the editor of the school paper, the "Optimist".
In Joy in the Morning, Annie and Carl run out of food when Annie is seven months pregnant. In desperation, Annie writes to her mother who responds, telling her that she doesn't have any money to send her, but advising her to write to her stepfather: "Write with a feck shown and he will send you money. He always had a feck shown for you like you was his own daughter and he will send money I know" (197). This letter is nearly a transcription of one that her mother wrote to her:
Annie in the novel is too principled to write to her stepfather for money, but Smith probably did. The next month she also must have sent them a picture because her mother reports that "Dad said you look wonderful on your picture an said you wood win the beauty prize."
Three years after their elopement, on Nov. 11th, 1922, Nancy was born. The account of pregnancy is also sensitively handled in Joy in the Morning. In fact, it is one of the few books that follows the course of a pregnancy with such realistic and sympathetic views. In her later disclosure for MGM, she contrasts her real-life experience in a Catholic hospital with the birth episode in Joy in the Morning: "The interns and nurses in the hospital are fictional. They are the kind of interns and nurses I would have liked to have. My nurses were nuns" and she was in labor for two days. But the joy of this experience, although they were poverty-stricken and had a troubles, is also clearly expressed in Joy in the Morning.
But once again, Smith was not able to graduate from high school. George passed the bar exams and got a job in a the mill town of Belding, Michigan, doing mainly divorces. Two years later, when Mary was born, they lived 60 miles away from the hospital and (according to Smith) George was in another town defending a rapist. She had a practical nurse with her and a doctor got there, through a storm, just in time for the birth. But Smith wrote: "These two years and the two that followed were the happiest and most serene of all my life. I was so glad to have the babies and my whole world settled down into a calm and lovely period."
George was ambitious and Belding was just one stop on the road to success. George advanced from country lawyer to city attorney to county prosecutor to nominee to the House of Representatives, and was defeated. At the same time he was becoming more and more interested in international affairs and increasingly disillusioned with the law profession. In 1925 George got a job in Detroit, and the moved to Grand Rapids, "then a mushroom-like prosperous boom city." In one account Smith writes that, although George was extremely successful, and wanted to live beyond his means to attract a wealthy clientele:
George was appointed secretary to the League of Nations, but Smith's loyalties remained with the working-classes and with the poor: "I was one of the three `professional' ladies of the town and found it very difficult to keep setting and upholding social and class standards. I thought the mill people more interesting than the professional and monied people."
This underlying conflict is also illustrated in Joy in the Morning: Annie's most interesting interactions are with the taciturn Native-American storekeeper and his wife, the florist and her landlady. There is also a conflict about Annie's working-class accent: Carl continually tries to correct her grammar and pronunciation, and Annie tries, but cannot. This conflict probably also accurately reflects Smith's feelings about her New York accent in the midwest. Later, when Smith moved to Chapel Hill, she was able to enjoy her accent and the accents of others: she often told the joke "When I first came here I just couldn't understand the Southern accent. Paul Green would go around saying I am an impo'tent man. I thought, why would he go around saying he's impotent?"
Overall, these years present the picture of a young couple learning how
to get along with each other, and at the same time, growing up. Joy
in the Morning is a "slice-of-life" from the day-to-day
realities of Betty and George Smith. At the end, the couple is happy but
it is not clear that they will remain so, and indeed that was not the
case. As George became more and more successful, Smith started to become
successful as a writer. If Smith's plays can be understood as semi-autobiographical
as well, it is possible George had one or more affairs with other women,
and Smith took the opportunity eventually to leave him. Although they
valiantly tried to stay together for several more years, they were destined
to have a warm but distant relationship of ex-spouses.
Carol Siri Johnson © 2003