Barnes, Margaret Ayer (1886–1967)

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Barnes, Margaret Ayer (1886–1967)

American novelist and playwright, who won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Years of Grace. Born Margaret Ayer on April 8, 1886, in Chicago, Illinois; died on October 25, 1967, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; daughter of Janet and Benjamin F. Ayer (general counsel to Illinois Central Railroad); sister ofJanet Ayer Fairbank (a novelist); educated at University School for Girls, Chicago, 1904, and Bryn Mawr College, 1907; married Cecil Barnes (lawyer), on May 21, 1910; children: three sons, Cecil Jr. (b. 1912), Edward Larrabbee (b. 1915) and Benjamin Ayer (b. 1919).

Selected works:

(play) The Age of Innocence (1928); (play) Jenny (1929); (play) Dishonored Lady (1930); Years of Grace (1930); Westward Passage(1931); Within This Present (1933); Edna His Wife (1935); Wisdom's Gate (1938).

While touring French cathedral towns in 1925, Margaret Barnes suffered broken ribs, vertebrae, and a fractured skull when her car met another car head-on. Consigned to bed, first in the American Hospital in Paris, then home in Chicago, and desperate for entertainment, Barnes laid a notepad on her chest, took pen in hand, and scribbled stories. The jottings not only saw her through her recuperation, they launched her writing career.

Raised in a wealthy Chicago community, Barnes bucked tradition in 1904 when she chose Bryn Mawr College over finishing school and a proper debut. She was a Bryn Mawr leader, popular, outspoken and intelligent. Back in Chicago after graduation, she was an active alumnae through her 1910 marriage to Cecil Barnes and the birth of their three sons. In 1920, she accepted the post of alumnae director, determined to make learning available at all economic levels. Barnes spearheaded the Working Women's Institute at Bryn Mawr which provided scholarships for women, particularly those who took industrial positions during World War I, only to lose them when the soldiers returned home. The program was so successful that it became a model for other institutes around the country.

Barnes retired from the board in 1923 and returned to the normal family routine: summers in Mt. Desert, Maine, winters performing with a small community theater group. Since childhood, she had maintained a friendship with playwright Edward Sheldon, who urged her to continue writing after the 1925 auto accident. Reunited with Sheldon in New York City during a follow-up operation, Barnes showed him her stories. With his help, the Pictorial Review accepted one for publication. By 1928, all the pieces she had written during her rehabilitation had found their way into magazines.

Sheldon, suffering from disabling arthritis and failing eyesight, was doing little of his own writing and remained eager to champion Barnes' career. When she expressed an interest in dramatizing Edith Wharton 's The Age of Innocence, he offered her advice and encouragement. Actress Katharine Cornell accepted the leading role, and the play was a hit. Sheldon became her writing partner for the plays Jenny (1929) and Dishonored Lady (1930), the latter again starring Cornell. When a movie production company bought the movie rights, then rejected the Barnes-Sheldon screenplay but used uncredited portions of it anyway, the authors received $500,000 to settle a subsequent plagiarism suit.

While none of her novels inspired the critical acclaim of her Pulitzer-Prize winning Years of Grace, Barnes continued to write while living in Chicago, attempting to "re-create in written words the conclusions I had drawn from life itself." Predominant among her subjects were the social history of the upper-class Midwest, and the need, regardless of financial or social status, for women to have a "vocation" to broaden the scope of their daily lives.

All three of Margaret's sons attended their father's alma mater, Harvard University. When her husband Cecil grew ill in the 1940s, Barnes stopped writing and cared for him until his death in 1949. Following her death in 1967, her manuscripts were donated to the Harvard and New York Public libraries.

suggested reading:

Taylor, Jr., Lloyd C. Margaret Ayer Barnes. NY: Twayne, 1974.

related media:

Dishonored Lady, film starring Hedy Lamarr , produced by United Artists, 1947.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

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Barnes, Margaret Ayer (1886–1967)

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