Meet the Nolans

A scene from the 20th Century Fox production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, featuring Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan (née Rommely).

By Marsha Sorotick, Contributor
December 21, 2019

Family stories endure. It has been 75 years since the publication of Betty Smith’s best-selling novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Since that time, Tree has been hailed as a modern classic and was cited by the NY Public Library as one of the best books of the 20th century. In a national survey conducted by PBS in 2018, it was chosen as one of America’s 100 best-loved novels. As Anna Quindlen wrote in the preface to a recent edition, “This is that rare and enduring thing, a book in which no matter our backgrounds, we recognize ourselves.”

Betty Smith recreated from memory the world of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from 1912-1918. She was born there in 1906 as Elizabeth Wehner to German immigrant parents. Her father was a waiter and also an alcoholic. After his death, her mother married an Irish immigrant. “Lizzie” Wehner dropped out of school to help support her family by working in a factory. After marrying George H.E. Smith, she moved with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was a law student at the university. She had two daughters and after they entered grade school, she completed her education. The university allowed her to take courses even though she hadn’t graduated from high school. The Smiths divorced in 1938. She worked for the WPA and acted in summer stock theatre. Eventually she and her daughters made their way to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As she said in a 1944 radio interview, “Writing A First Novel” – “When I started that first novel, no bells rang, no light shone, no fireworks went off. There was no heavenly music. I just went out and bought some paper and started writing.” In 1943 she married Joe Jones, the editor of The Chapel Hill Weekly. That same year Tree was published.

As her daughter Nancy wrote in an essay called Things I Want To Say About My Mother, “She often said about Tree that she didn’t write it the way it was, but the way it should have been.” Betty Smith gave us an Irish-American family that readers loved – the immortal Nolans of Brooklyn. Johnny Nolan, the alcoholic, soulful waiter who sang his favorite song, “Molly Malone,” coming up the stairs so that everyone would know he was home – “‘Take me,’ he said, ‘I’m nobody, my folks came over from Ireland the year the potatoes gave out. Fellow ran the steam ship company said he’d take the boat fare from his wages. So my father and mother came over. My father was like me – never held a job long.’” Johnny’s wife Katie was born Katie Rommely of Austrian heritage (“We’re all Irish except for Mama.” “And I’m Irish by marriage,” she said). Katie is strong-willed, determined, and head-over-heels in love with Johnny. Her job cleaning the different apartment buildings they live in keeps the Nolans afloat during the times when Johnny’s between jobs. Their daughter Francie is 12 when the book begins. She is a splendid mix of her parents – the head-in-the-clouds dreamer and the practical, no-nonsense hard worker. Francie’s younger brother Neeley is the most carefree family member. He’s just a boy looking out for some snacks and a little bit of fun with his pals.

There are memorable supporting characters as well. Katie’s family – the Rommely women: her stern mother, her kind and calm sister Evy, and most importantly her sister Sissy, saucy and smart with her ever-changing gentlemen friends and unchanging desire for motherhood. She works in a factory and during her time off often visits the Nolans. Francie adores her. “Often people treated children like lovable but necessary evils. Sissy treated them like important human beings.”

In long-ago Williamsburg, everyone is poor (“The Nolans practically lived on stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it.”) What keeps the story relevant and the Nolans alive is that Tree is no study in nostalgia. It is a story suffused with sadness and hope, with memories of a family’s good times, which in memory seem more numerous than the bad times. As Orville Prescott wrote in the original New York Times review “Mrs. Smith finds the great American epic of upward progress toward education, freedom, self-respect, and accomplishment still going on. No matter what happens to the Nolans, they never lose their awareness of the sweetness and wonder of life. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a profoundly moving novel and an honest and true one. It cuts right to the heart of life.” In 1945 a film version of Tree opened at the Roxy Theatre in New York City to rave reviews. The New York Times (3-21-45) called it “warm and compassionate”. The film starred popular young actress Dorothy McGuire as Katie. James Dunn, a song and dance man who at that point in his career was a bit down on his luck, was Johnny. Ample support was provided by vivacious Joan Blondell as Sissy and two gifted young performers, Peggy Ann Garner as Francie and Ted Donaldson as Neeley. Making his directing debut was future award-winner Elia Kazan. The movie won two Academy Awards – one for James Dunn as Best Supporting Actor and a special award for Peggy Ann Garner as “outstanding child actress of 1945.” In 2010 Tree was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It has also become a Christmas TV favorite, lately broadcast during the holiday season by TCM.

The TCM broadcast makes perfect sense. Aside from being warm family fare, there is a part of a chapter in the book which was included in the film adaptation and is beautifully realized on screen. This is the Christmas Eve “tree toss.” “Christmas was a charmed time,” the reader is told, “The holiday season was not so charming for children who stared at the toys in a holiday decorated window, knowing the toys and the dolls wouldn’t be gifted to them.”

“There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree, that they’d ‘chuck ’em at you.’ This was true.” The Christmas Eve episode when Francie and Neely catch the largest tree and with much difficulty drag it home is one of those awful-wonderful moments that one feels will become a favorite “Remember the night?” memory between sister and brother.

Betty Smith, who had originally given Francie Nolan life in an unproduced play, was eventually able to fulfill a dream of having a play on Broadway. Though she had no part in the movie version of Tree and at first resisted the idea of working on a musical version, she changed her mind and co-authored (along with director George Abbott) the book of the show. It opened on Broadway on April 19, 1951. It starred B-list balladeer Johnny Johnston as Johnny and Marcia Van Dyke, a concert violinist who had appeared in one MGM film, as Katie. The casting coup was stage star Shirley Booth as Sissy. Though the show opened to good reviews and a strong box office, it closed on December 18, 1951 – a financial loss. There are many theories as to why the show failed, the main one being that the focus of the show was on Sissy’s misadventures and Johnny and Katie’s romance. Francie didn’t appear until Act III. It wasn’t the Tree that audiences knew from the book and the movie. Thanks to a popular original cast recording and some songs that are New York cabaret favorites, the show has retained a warm spot in the hearts of musical theatre devotees.

After the success of the book, Betty Smith wrote features for the New York Times, many about stateside life during World War II. She also wrote three other novels: Tomorrow Will Be Better, Maggie Now, and Joy In The Morning. She died in 1972.

The tree in the title is the ailanthus (also called “the Tree of Heaven”), which grew in the Nolans’ yard and all over Brooklyn. “It was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in tenement districts. That was the kind of tree it was. It loved poor people.”

The trees still grow in Brooklyn, and there are still girls just like Francie. Even Francie herself knew that would happen. Towards the close of the book, she spies a little girl sitting on the fire escape with a book in her lap, and though she recognizes the child and knows her name isn’t Francie, she waves and calls out “Hello, Francie.”

The girls of 2019, who are the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, may not look or sound like Francie Nolan, but they have the same disagreements with their mothers and younger brothers, who annoy them but whom they love anyway. They have their friends and their days at school. They have big dreams and write out their stories, poems, and thoughts. And most of all, they love to read. You can see a modern-day Francie Nolan now, standing at the entrance to a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Just like all the Francies before her, and in the best of all possible Brooklyns, all the Francies to come, she opens the library door, and goes in.

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