Margaret Ayer Barnes

Margaret Ayer Barnes

Margaret Ayer Barnes (April 8, 1886 – October 25, 1967) was an American novelist, playwright, short-story writer, best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Years of Grace (1930).

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Margaret Ayer was the youngest of four siblings. From an early age, she was quite competitive and regularly had debates with her two older brothers and sisters. Intelligent and curious, she had an interest in theater and was an avid reader.

These interests led her to befriend Edward Sheldon, a playwright who would later encourage her to become a writer. Margaret and Sheldon had much in common and enjoyed discussing the literary merits of plays. Years later, Sheldon went on to begin his playwriting career in New York. The two remained friends and would later reconnect as Barnes began her literary career.

 

Education and family life 

Margaret attended the Pennsylvania campus of Bryn Mawr College and was an outstanding member of her class. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy in 1907. During her years at Bryn Mawr College, she was inspired to write about contemporary feminism due to a challenge from Carey Thomas.

Three years after receiving her first degree, she married Cecil Barnes, a prominent Chicago attorney, on May 21, 1910. The couple had three sons, Cecil Jr., Edward Larrabee, and Benjamin Ayer. Even as a mother and wife, she never let her domestic responsibilities take over her life.

When her sons grew up and attended boarding school, and later Harvard, she took up outdoor activities, including swimming and hiking. She also became more involved with theater.

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Returning to Bryn Mawr College

Margaret returned to Bryn Mawr College in 1920, this time to work, serving as alumnae director for three years. The position led to numerous speaking opportunities, and she used her platform in part to help organize the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry.

The school served as an alternative educational program for women workers and mainly served young, single, immigrant women with little to no educational background. The program, which offered courses in progressive education, liberal arts, and economics, helped build women’s confidence as speakers, writers, and leaders in the workplace.

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Margaret Ayer Barnes page on Amazon
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Stepping into theater while recovering from injury

In 1926, at the age of forty, Margaret’s life changed irrevocably. While vacationing in France, she was a passenger in a limousine that collided head-on with another car. She suffered a fractured skull, back, and three ribs.

Doctors predicted that she would be bedridden for the remainder of her life due to the multiple injuries, but she fought to resume the life she feared she may have lost. To keep herself occupied as she was healing, she started writing and developed a special interest in short stories.

While enduring a painful path to recovery, Margaret and Edward Sheldon’s paths crossed again. By this time, he was completely disabled with arthritis and on the brink of losing his eyesight. He still believed in her. With the encouragement of her long-time friend, she realized her passion for theater and playwriting. They worked as a team to dramatize Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence (1920). The play was an instant success after it was produced in 1928.

Between the years of 1926 and 1930, she created many short stories and three plays. Together with Sheldon, she worked on a comedy titled Jenny and Dishonored Lady. The Age of Innocence and Jenny were performed more than a hundred times on Broadway, but Dishonored Lady was never staged. 

 

Lawsuit against MGM

That same year, there was a lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for copyright infringement. The lawsuit claimed that the script MGM used for the motion picture Letty Lynton (1932) plagiarized material from the play Dishonored Lady by Edward Sheldon and Barnes.

Seven years later, the lawsuit was settled favorably for Barnes and Sheldon. As a result of the lawsuit, the film has remained unavailable.

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1947 movie poster for Dishonored Lady 

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Themes in Margaret Ayer Barnes’ works 

Margaret used a fictional approach to portray the social history of the upper-middle class during the Spanish-American War through the Great Depression. She illustrated places and people with great accuracy and tended towards conservative beliefs.

Years of Grace (1930) is a novel that reflects her views on economics. It allows readers to admire the benefits of having lived a dull, secure life and meeting old age with a sufficient money in the bank account and a beautifully furnished home. William J. Stuckey argued that it’s difficult to view Margaret Ayer Barnes  as someone who pushes for conservatism when she writes on themes of feminism in all of her fiction works.

In 1931, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Years of Grace. 

 

Film adaptations

Westward Passage (1931) was made into a 1932 movie of the same name. 

Margaret Ayer Barnes’ 1928 dramatization of Edith Wharton’s beloved novel, The Age of Innocence, was made into a 1934 movie. 

Her novel, Edna, His Wife (1935), was adapted into a play by American author and actress Cornelia Otis Skinner in 1937. 

Her 1930 play written with Sheldon, Dishonored Lady, was made into a 1947 movie starring Hedy Lamarr, released by United Artists.

 

Legacy of Margaret Ayer Barnes

Margaret Ayer Barnes received an honorary degree in Doctor of Letters from Oglethorpe University in 1936.

She spent the remainder of her life in Cambridge, Massachusetts and died there on October 26, 1967. She once said that “the story of a life may be poignantly told in five thousand words, if the proper facts emphasized and suppressed.”

Her son, Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915–2004) is remembered as a noted architect. Her older sister, Janet Ayer Fairbank (1878–1951), was a suffragette, a member of militant women’s organizations in the early twentieth century who fought for the right to vote in public elections. A niece, Janet Fairbank (1903–1947), was a well-known operatic singer.

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Margaret Ayer Barnes


More about Margaret Ayer Barnes

Major works

  • Prevailing Winds  (1928)
  • Jenny  (1929)
  • Dishonored Lady  (1930)
  • Years of Grace  (1930)
  • Westward Passage  (1931)
  • Within This Present  (1933)
  • Edna, His Wife  (1935)
  • Wisdom’s Gate  (1938)

Biographies

  • Margaret Ayer Barnes by Lloyd C. Taylor, Jr. (1974)
  • The Essential Writer’s Guide : Spotlight on Margaret Ayer Barnes,
    Including Her Education, Personal Life, Analysis of Her Best Sellers … by
     Gaby Alez (2012)

More information and sources

Skyler Isabella Gomez is a 2019 SUNY New Paltz graduate with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Black Studies. Her passions include connecting more with her Latin roots by researching and writing about legendary Latina authors.

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