Born Lillian Clatten (Slatten?), 19 November 1882, near Brownsville, Illinois; died 25 February 1951, Ossining, New York
Married Edgar Selwyn (divorced)
A midwest farm girl, Lillian Clatten (sometimes given as Slatten) adopted the stage name Margaret Mayo when she went to New York City in search of a career. While still in her teens, Mayo toured in Charley's Aunt and Secret Service and, between 1899 and 1903, had a few minor roles on Broadway. Dissatisfied with women's character parts, she adapted Ouida's novel Under Two Flags so that she could play Cigarette, but Belasco's competing version opened first. Mayo spent one season in London and then appeared in a New York company with the popular idol Grace George, who asked Mayo to dramatize The Marriage of William Ashe (produced 1905) for her.
The play's success prompted producers to commission vehicles for other stars. Mayo collaborated with her playwright husband (from whom she was later divorced) on the book to a musical, Wall Street Girl (1908; produced 1912). Her own farce Baby Mine (1911; produced 1910) was one of the decade's most successful plays. In 1917 Mayo and her husband joined Sam Goldfish in a film company; amalgamation produced the corporate name Goldwyn, which Sam took for his own when the partnership dissolved. In 1918, Mayo headed a unit of the Red Cross "Over There" theater; her own act included a solo dance.
Mayo's first original play, Polly of the Circus (1908; produced 1907), was a sentimental comedy. Bareback rider Polly is taken to the local minister's house after a fall. Under his influence, she loses her fiery temper and slangy speech, and becomes gentle, literate, good at amusing children, and beloved. She runs back to the circus to protect him from gossip—but, of course, he follows her and love conquers all. In 1917 the play became the Goldwyn Company's first film; reviewers agreed that it fulfilled Goldwyn's promise to elevate the state of the art. A second movie version in 1932 starred Clark Gable as the minister.
Farce, however, and not sentimental romance, was Mayo's real talent. Baby Mine is typical. Alfred Hardy is absurdly jealous, and his wife Zoie is a chronic (though innocent and featherbrained) liar. Alfred leaves; she decides to get him back by giving birth to a son. She lines up a baby from a foundling home and sends Alfred the telegram—and then the baby's mother changes her mind, so that Zoie and her husband's friend Jimmy Jinks (the role Fatty Arbuckle chose for his return to Broadway in 1927) spend the second act scrambling to beg, steal, borrow, or buy a baby. No mother will make a permanent arrangement, babies appear and disappear, the police press in with kidnapping charges, Alfred clasps his "son" to his bosom and hears a spare baby crying elsewhere, Jinks climbs in the window with yet another—and somehow everything is straightened out two minutes before the final curtain.
Baby Mine played London, Paris, and cities from Singapore to Cape Town; it was filmed in 1928 and made into a musical by Herbert Reynolds and Jerome Kern (Rock-A-Bye-Baby, produced 1918). Commencement Days (1908), Twin Beds (1931; produced 1914), and Seeing Things (1920) also display Mayo's mastery of traditional farce. The characters are simple and rigid, the situations flirt innocently around the edges of the risqué, and in the climactic scene most of the characters are stowed away in closets, under the bed, behind curtains, and in the laundry basket, so that when the spring is wound up tight they can begin to pop out again.
Mayo cared little for literature; she said that she had never read a play before she began writing them. Her only nondramatic work, Trouping for the Troops (1919), is a slender, sentimental account of her wartime tour. She used an entertainer's skills to put together scripts that would play. Polly of the Circus let the producer add as many circus acts as the proscenium and the budget would accommodate; Wall Street Girl featured Will Rogers and his vaudeville routine. One reason Mayo's plays have not survived is that she tailored them so individually to the performer's talents; she did, for example, three different versions of Sardou's Cyprienne for three different actresses. She was often called in to doctor other writers' scripts. Her fast-paced, superficial, mechanical, and highly visual farces were a natural for silent films, but by the 1930s and 1940s the sound remakes already looked creaky and out-of-date.
The Love Thief (1926; film version, 1926). The Poor Simp (revised by Mayo from the version by Zellah Covington, 1935).
Zierold, N., The Moguls (1969).
Green Book (Oct. 1913). McClure's (Sept. 1912). NYT (24 Dec. 1907, 10 Sept. 1913, 15 Aug. 1914, 26 Feb. 1951).