Smith, who was born Elisabeth Wehner, grew up poor in Brooklyn. She attended Girls' High School, a sought-after center for advanced education and college preparation. She married George H.E. Smith and moved with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he studied law at the University of Michigan. She had never finished high school, so after her two girls were born, she resumed her education, taking classes at the university, especially journalism, literature, writing, and drama. In her early 40s, she divorced and moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she lived for many years, and worked in the Federal Theater Project. In Chapel Hill, she married Joseph Jones in 1943.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, an 11-year-old girl whose hardworking mother supports the family by cleaning apartment buildings and alcoholic father is sporadically employed as a singing waiter. Francie survives with reading, a vivid imagination, and a thirst for education. The book's five parts deal with different times in the girl's life. It ends with Francie, about to turn 17, entering the University of Michigan, with the help of a student friend with whom she envisions having a future relationship. Her father has died and her mother remarries. Her younger brother becomes a ragtime piano player.
The book was adapted as a 1945 film directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dunn, Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner. It won two Academy Awards. In 1951, Smith helped Broadway producer/director and film director George Abbott write a musical based on the book. Arthur Schwartz wrote the music and Herbert Ross did the choreography. Shirley Booth and Marcia van Dyke starred. Francie was played by 12-year-old Nomi Mitty, who later appeared in Hill Street Blues, Picket Fences, Knot's Landing, and L.A. Law on television and in the films Serpico and Melvyn and Howard.
Smith also wrote Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963), which was adapted as a 1965 film starring Richard Chamberlain and Yvette Mimieux.