What Mark Zuckerberg could learn from Betty Smith

“Clipping services were Googles for the mechanical age: paying clients submitted what would now be called search terms, and readers — often young women — would go through periodicals, line by line, looking for mentions of those terms. As Valerie Raleigh Yow notes in “Betty Smith,” her biography of the author, Smith herself worked for such a company….”

— From “Why Mark Zuckerberg Should Read ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ ” by Amy Davidson Sorkin in the New Yorker (April 3)


North Carolina meets Betty Smith’s Brooklyn

On this day in 1943: Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” destined to become one of the best-selling novels of all time, hits bookstore shelves across the state.

The author is a former Brooklyn telephone operator who arrived in Chapel Hill on a bus with her two young daughters in 1938. She came only to study play writing at the university but makes Chapel Hill her home.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a warm, coming-of-age story set in a city slum, was rejected by 12 publishing houses before being accepted by Harper and Bros. It will also be made into a movie and a Broadway play.

Although she will die in a Connecticut convalescent home in 1972, Betty Smith returns to be buried in the Chapel Hill Cemetery.

[Betty Smith, inventor of the “beat cop”?]


A tree grew (and grew) in Betty Smith’s garden

“[The ailanthus tree] rarely lives more than 50 years, so any chance of finding [Betty] Smith’s original tree still growing in Brooklyn was out of the question.
“But [Nancy] Pfeiffer told me about the ailanthus her mother planted in the walled-in garden behind her home in Chapel Hill, where Smith lived almost her entire life and where she is buried. Back in 1945, when 20th Century Fox came out with the movie version of Smith’s book (directed by her former Yale classmate Elia Kazan), someone had the clever idea to send ailanthus saplings out to critics….
“Pfeiffer is quite sure the tree [shown in an old photo of the Chapel Hill garden] is one of the saplings from that early publicity campaign. Later on, however, they had to take the tree down when it threatened to topple the garden wall.
“Betty Smith and her family took shoots from the aforementioned ailanthus and planted them around [their] cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In 1993, the cottage and an ailanthus from one of those shoots had to be moved back from the shore because of erosion. The tree continued to grow tall until the house was sold in 2002. Since then the house and tree have been… replaced by a large rental unit.”
— From “Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers….” by Richard Horan (2011)

A triumphant day for ‘No Day of Triumph’

“In an event unprecedented in the South, a Negro last month won North Carolina’s Mayflower Cup, awarded annually by the North Carolina Society of Mayflower Descendants, for the best book by a resident of the State. This year’s winner is 37-year-old J. Saunders Redding, professor of English literature and creative writing at Virginia’s Hampton Institute [and former chairman of the English department at Elizabeth City State College].

” ‘No Day of Triumph’ [commissioned by the University of North Carolina with Rockefeller Foundation funds] is a study of Southern Negro life beginning with Redding’s own family background and finally based on a recent six-month tour of the South. ‘No Day’ scored over 29 competitors, including Betty Smith’s best-selling ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.’ Previous cup-winners include Jonathan Daniels’  ‘A Southerner Discovers the South’ and Archibald Henderson’s ‘Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet.’

“Son of a Wilmington, Del., mailman, Redding was educated (M.A., Ph.D.) at Brown University. In 1939 he published his first book, ‘To Make a Poet Black,’ a critical analysis of Negro poetry and verse.”

— From Time magazine, Jan. 3, 1944

Betty Smith, inventor of the ‘beat cop’?

“Over the course of my career [as police chief in New York, Philadelphia and Miami, the lament I heard repeatedly from citizens was] ‘the only thing I really want is a cop on the beat, like the guy who patrolled the streets when I was growing up.’

“I found this lament was not of recent vintage…. My research [finally] took me to Hollywood, where I think I found our missing beat officer. His name was Officer McShane. He walked a foot beat in the 1945 movie ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.’ Officer McShane knew the problems of the people on his beat intimately. He was around day and night, and he looked after the neighbors on his beat, including the family with the alcoholic father and exasperated wife and two adorable little girls. Eventually and predictably, the father dies from his affliction and Officer McShane is there to ease the widow’s pain….

“Yes, I found the beat officer, or should I say, I found the myth…. It is the job of every police officer and every police chief to help make the myth a reality, or at least make the ideal a goal.”

— From “Beat Cop to Top Cop” by John F. Timoney (2010)

Perfectly cast as McShane in the movie version of Betty Smith’s novel: Lloyd Nolan (no relation to the protagonistic Nolans).

Tip o’ the Miscellany mortarboard to delanceyplace.com