Akins, Zoe (1886–1958)

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Akins, Zoe (1886–1958)

American playwright and screenwriter who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her stage adaptation of Edith Wharton's novella The Old Maid. Born Zoe Akins on October 30, 1886, in Humansville, Missouri; died of cancer on October 29, 1958, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Thomas J. Akins and Elizabeth (Green) Akins; attended Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois, and Hosmer Hall in St. Louis, Missouri; married Hugo C. Rumbold, in 1932 (Rumbold died a few months later); children: none.

Selected plays:

The Magical City (1916); Papa (1919); Declasse (1919); Footloose (1920); Daddy's Gone a-Hunting (1921); The Varying Shore (1921); Greatness (published as The Texas Nightingale, 1923); A Royal Fandango (1924); The Moon-Flower (1924); First Love (adaptation, 1926); The Crown Prince, Thou Desperate Pilot (1927); The Furies (1928); The Love Duel (adaptation, 1929); The Greeks Had a Word For It (1929); The Old Maid (1935); O Evening Star (1936); The Human Element (adaptation, 1939); Mrs. January and Mr. X (1948); The Swallow's Nest (1950).

Selected screenplays:

(with Doris Anderson ) Anybody's Woman (1930); Sarah and Son (1930); Working Girls (1931); Women Love Once (1931); Girls About Town (1931); (with Samuel Hoffenstein) Once A Lady (1931); Morning Glory (1933); Christopher Strong (1933); Accused (1936); (with Joseph Anthony) Lady of Secrets (1936); (with Frances Marion and James Hilton) Camille (1937); The Toy Wife (1938); Zaza (1938); The Old Maid (film adaptation of her play, 1939); (with Marguerite Roberts ) Desire Me (1947); How to Marry a Millionaire (1953); Stagestruck (remake of Morning Glory, 1958). Novel: Forever Young (1941).

Stagestruck from childhood, Zoe Akins left an affluent life in the Midwest to pursue a career as an actress. After several years of struggling in New York without success, she turned to writing. What had been a youthful avocation soon developed into a lucrative career that spanned several decades and, in 1938, garnered Akins the Pulitzer Prize for her stage adaptation of Edith Wharton 's novella, The Old Maid.

Ironically, Akins' life was not unlike that of novelist Wharton. Akins spent much of her adult years in Pasadena, California, living in an opulently furnished Edwardian mansion complete with British servants. In 1932, she had married the son of Sir Hugo Rumbold, former British ambassador to Austria-Hungary. The marriage had ended sadly with Rumbold's early death that same year. Wharton, born to a well-to-do New York family, also lived a pampered life and, like Akins, married a man of considerable wealth, though her marriage ended in divorce. Neither women remarried and both were childless.

Wharton and Akins also created similar characters. Each wrote about unorthodox or rebellious women who struggled with society's conventions. Compare Wharton's House of Mirth with Akins' film adaptation of Gilbert Frankau's novel Christopher Strong (starring Katharine Hepburn and directed by Dorothy Arzner ). Each story concerns a heroine struggling with social norms that eventually destroy her.

From 1916, when the Bandbox Theater produced her first play, The Magical City, through the late 1940s, Akins was a solid presence in the New York theater. In 1928, though she claimed to have moved to the West Coast for her health, she quickly launched a second career as a screenwriter. Beginning with Dorothy Arzner's Sarah and Son, Akins wrote or co-wrote such classics as Camille, starring Greta Garbo , Zaza, starring Claudette Colbert , and Morning Glory, which served as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn's first Academy Award.

Critically, Akins received decidedly mixed reviews for both stage and screen. When Ethel Barrymore starred in Akins' 1919 hit, Declasse, The New York Times reviewer wrote that it was "the richest and most interesting play" that had fallen to Barrymore in "all her years upon the stage." Accused, the film that starred Douglas Fairbanks and Delores Del Rio , was hailed by Variety as having "brilliant, incisive dialogue." But of the 1931 film, Women Love Once, Variety cracked that it "heaves too much in the clinches." And though Christopher Strong secured Hepburn's place as a star, Akins' script was taken to task by Variety as "overloaded with playwright device and nothing more."

Akins' happiest professional collaboration was probably with director George Cukor. The two met in New York in the early 1920s, when Cukor was a stage manager and Akins had already made her reputation as a prominent playwright. Within five years, Cukor's career as a director was in full swing. In 1928, he directed Akins' play, The Furies, starring Broadway legend Laurette Taylor . Cukor followed Akins to Hollywood where he became one of the motion picture industry's most legendary figures.

Akins was important to Cukor's budding Hollywood career and would often consult with him on the scripts for his films. Though Cukor eventually eclipsed Akins in his overall contribution to the screen, he remained a loyal friend, despite his feelings that the mercurial Akins could be troublesome. (It was common for Akins to call at all hours and read an entire play over the phone to him.)

No doubt the pinnacle of the Akins-Cukor collaboration was the wildly successful Camille, the story of courtesan Alphonsine Plessis , which starred Garbo. Though three writers are credited on Camille, it is reputed that the script Cukor shot was written entirely by Akins. Cukor and Akins also worked together on Zaza, Pride and Prejudice, and Desire Me, though on the latter, Cukor was replaced by director Mervyn Leroy.

Though Akins' career continued into the 1950s, her last plays, Happy Days, Another Darling, and Mrs. January and Mr. X, did not do well at the box office. At the time of her death from cancer in 1958, Akins was working on Heller With A Gun, a screenplay for producer Carlo Ponti and Paramount Pictures. Said fellow screenwriter Sonya Levien , Akins "was brilliantly young and vital to the very last."


McGilligan, Patrick. George Cukor: A Double Life. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Slide, Anthony. American Screenwriters. Edited by Robert E. Morsberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1984.

Variety Film Reviews: 1930–1933 (Vol.4) and 1934–1937 (Vol. 5). NY: Garland, 1983.

Obituary. Variety. November 5, 1958.

Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California