Collaboration, Not Competition: How Betty Smith Helped Her Fellow Writers
Rachel Gordan on the Epistolary Relationships Maintained by the Author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
“I have long felt the need of someone to take hold where I begin to fall down. I know of course that no one can breathe the breath of life into a dead thing, but I have more favorable reviews, letters, etc. on all my work than most writers collect in a lifetime, yet something has been lacking. Either through laziness, lack of technique, skill or whatnot, I’m aways failing by a hair.”
These were the words of Jay Sigmund, a successful Grand Rapids, Iowa, insurance executive by day—and poet and writer in his spare time. Sigmund was explaining his writing struggles in one of several letters he mailed to Betty Smith in 1936-1937. Smith would become famous for her bestselling novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943.
But at the time, Smith was a Yale Drama School-educated, struggling playwright, and single mother of two, living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the Works Projects Administration had assigned her to work as a play reader for the Federal Theatre Project. Both writers were in difficult stretches of their lives—yet holding fast to their writing ambitions; both would gain substantially from the connection they forged.
There was good reason for Sigmund to feel comfortable revealing his insecurities to Smith, for she had disclosed her own rejections and jilted dreams: “Like you, I have been disappointed so many times, as far as writing is concerned” Smith wrote to Sigmund, “So many times, has a book, or a play come right up to the verge of success and then dropped through the vagaries of producer or publisher. So I shall hope for everything… and expect nothing. I have found this to be a good working philosophy.”
In the same letter, in place of a curriculum vitae, she recounted the major chapters of her life: her education and jobs—even an explanation of her husband’s livelihood. In the next paragraph, Smith added, “I no longer have a husband. The above material was given so that there would be no break in the, I suppose, story of my life.”
These facts of her life included financial struggles. The primary caregiver and provider for her daughters, Smith was constantly seeking paid work. She was upfront with Sigmund about her methods: “I earn perhaps five hundred dollars a year by a six week’s concerted drive of writing for the pulp magazines, mostly confession and love story magazines. I only do this when I need money terribly.” For the same reason, Smith had placed an advertisement in Writer’s Digest announcing her editing services.
Sigmund had seen the ad, and it had rekindled his hope in a writing dream. He’d already realized a few of his writing dreams, having published his poetry and some short fiction, both of which caught the attention of famous writers, including Carl Sandburg and Sherwood Anderson. But with Smith, Sigmund ventured into new territory: playwriting.
Their initial correspondence has the fumbling feeling of first dates. “I saw your little ad in the Writer’s Digest,” Sigmund wrote in his first letter. “I do not know whether you will be interested any in me or whether you have something that will interest me but as a starting place I am submitting three one-act play manuscripts so that you can judge whether or not there is any meeting of minds of the service you have to offer.”
Practical and frank in her correspondence, Smith wasn’t one to waste her time or money. “I received your three plays by mail and what is it you wish me to do with them?” she wrote to Sigmund. Explaining her menu of services and fees, Smith told him, “I shall not do anything with your plays until I hear from you. Let me know whether you want them criticized or returned and if the latter, please send postage.”
Sigmund mailed his $2.00 along with his request for which of the plays he wanted Smith to read.
Surprising herself and Sigmund, Smith enjoyed his script more than she expected. It was a “natural comedy,” Smith assured Sigmund. She explained that “the play has its faults but they are so minor, merely little odds and ends of technique. The main thing; the thing that cannot be taught is there.” Smith made Sigmund an unusual offer “which might not meet your approval.” What she really wanted, she wrote, was to collaborate with him, “that is to take your play and re-write it as co-author rather than hired writer.” Smith believed that after revising his draft, she could sell it by drawing on her playwriting connections. They would share the proceeds, fifty-fifty.
The offer delighted Sigmund. What had felt like a dead-end in playwriting, now seemed like it just might sail through. In his response, typed on his Cedar Rapids Life Insurance Company stationary, Sigmund disclosed more about his situation: “You may guess that my role has been a rather lonely one. From the letterhead you can see that I am a business man, but I have been writing poetry and short stories for years and have published several volumes of each.”
Sigmund’s life was not actually lonely in the conventional way. That is to say that he led an entirely conventional life: married with children and a profession in which he excelled. Sigmund was fully engaged in the civic and cultural life of Cedar Rapids; he was a friend to painter Grant Wood and to poet Paul Engle, who would establish the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. But Sigmund had difficulty when he reached the revising stage of a piece. And until Smith’s services, Sigmund had not known where to find the support he needed.
Perhaps his relationship with Smith was helped by its epistolary nature. Sigmund never had to watch the expression on Smith’s face as she read his work or as she told him her feelings about his writing. Sigmund felt free within the confessional of their correspondence to reveal, for instance, that “If I had a little more faith in my work and would get a little more wrought up over failure it would probably be a good thing, but I’ve had so much joy in my work that nothing else mattered much.” Now, Sigmund admitted to Smith, he was more interested in publication, because he was beginning to think about “permanent preservation” for some of his writings. With Smith’s co-authorship, Sigmund was able to sell a few of his plays.
Less than six months later, Sigmund would accidentally kill himself during a hunting trip.
Sigmund’s son wrote to Betty after his father’s death, not realizing it would be “the hardest letter which I should be called on to write,” for Smith was “so very kind to my father, and helped him so much in his hobby of writing.” Sigmund Jr. asked Smith, “Can you realize the importance which he placed in your kind judgment, and also the fine spirit of cooperation which you lent to make his writing life easier?” The “fine spirit of cooperation” is not usually what writers are known for contributing to the world, but it likely made a big difference in the lives of these two writers.Having helped another writer up, it was easier to believe she could lift herself up, too.
Sigmund and Smith never met in-person. But their exchanges benefited both writers: Smith revised Sigmund’s plays and helped him sell a few; Smith received much-needed income. Her confidence was bolstered, too. Here was a male writer, a decade older than Smith, who had already achieved success in other genres, trying to find his way in playwriting. Both writers were a little less lonely for the correspondence. Both received some of the feedback for which they hungered, but was so difficult to find.
A few years after Sigmund’s death, Smith began drafting A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the novel which ultimately brought Smith fortune and fame and allowed her to establish herself as a writer. Although she was proud of having supported her daughters and herself through her writing even before she sold the novel, Smith had spent those years struggling. “I’d be so glad to concentrate all my abilities, experiences and education on one thing,” she explained to Sigmund in 1937 of her desire to focus on one major writing project “I work hard at even these odds and ends and it would be nice work hard for some one purpose.”
In her late forties as her first novel was about to be published, Smith seemed to be looking out onto the horizon of possibilities. Playwrighting had been the great dream of Smith’s life for so long—and she had been relatively successful, at least in terms of selling plays and winning prizes. But the money was not sufficient to keep her from feeling like she was always scrambling for work. Novels seemed to offer a more secure path. They would remain her primary genre, with three more following A Tree Grows.
When publication of A Tree Grows was imminent, but her publishers were contemplating a delay, Smith urged them to move as quickly as possible and to enter her novel in the appropriate prizes. “With so many good men writers tied up in in the War,” Smith pointed out, “I’d never again have so good a chance in competition.” Timing was crucial. Smith was determined not to lose her chance. As she explained to Harper & Row: “I’d like to have the beginnings of an established place in American novel writing so that I could sail on or I’d like to know definitely otherwise so that I could then console myself with a four hundred dollar a week movie job.” Hollywood was calling. But Smith viewed film writing jobs as a second choice.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was a way for Smith to finally declare herself a particular kind of writer: a novelist. But it wasn’t only that. It was her chance to make something of herself after so many years of feeling she was not fully succeeding. A few years earlier, in Jay Sigmund, Smith had caught a reflection of herself, and it wasn’t entirely flattering: a middle-aged writer still trying to really make it. Sigmund had written to her that he knew what it felt like to be a writer always failing by a hair. And Smith had understood him. But she did not want to live there anymore. And the possibility of sailing on into her future as a novelist was now so close at hand, she could practically touch it. Having helped another writer up, it was easier to believe she could lift herself up, too.