October 30, 1886|
Humansville, Missouri, US
|Died||October 29, 1958
|Occupation||Playwright, screenwriter, novelist, poet|
|Magnum opus||The Old Maid|
|Awards||Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1935)|
Zoë Akins (October 30, 1886 – October 29, 1958) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, poet, and author.
Zoë Byrd Akins was born in Humansville, Missouri, second of three children of Thomas Jasper and Sarah Elizabeth Green Akins. Her family was heavily involved with the Missouri Republican Party, and for several years her father served as the state party chairman. Through her mother Zoe Akins was related to prominent figures like George Washington and Duff Green. Her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri when Zoe was in her early teens. She was sent to Monticello Seminary in nearby Godfrey, Illinois for her education and later Hosmer Hall preparatory school in St. Louis. While at Hosmer Hall she was a classmate of poet Sara Teasdale, both graduating with the Class of 1903. It was at Monticello Seminary that Akins wrote her first play, a parody of a Greek tragedy. Following graduation Akins began writing a series of plays, poetry and criticism for various magazines and newspapers as well as occasional acting roles in St. Louis area theatre productions.
Her first major dramatic work was Papa, written in 1914. The comedy failed even though it greatly impressed both H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, and she continued to write. She followed up with two other plays, The Magical City and Déclassée. The latter play, which starred Ethel Barrymore, was not only a great success but "something of a sensation, and her days of waiting were over."  During this time several of her early plays were adapted for the screen. These adaptations were mostly failures, released as silent films in a time when the industry was transitioning to sound. While some "talkie" stars had notable roles in the films (Walter Pidgeon and a young Clark Gable), most of the films are now believed to be lost. Eventually, Akins found a small measure of fame with the play, The Greeks Had a Word For It, produced in 1930. The play about gold-digging women and the men they fool became the young playwright's first notable production.
In the early 1930s, Akins became more active in film, writing several screenplays as well as licensing minor adaptations of her work—such as The Greeks Had a Word for It which was adapted twice, in 1932 (as The Greeks Had a Word for Them) and 1938 (as Three Blind Mice) – neither was a hit. Two highlights of this period are the films Sarah and Son (1930) and Morning Glory (1933), the latter film remade as Stage Struck. While both films earned their respective female leads (Ruth Chatterton and Katharine Hepburn) Academy Award nominations, neither was enough to launch Akins' career.
Finally, Akins received recognition. In 1935, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her dramatization of Edith Wharton's The Old Maid, a melodrama set in New York City and written in five episodes stretching across time from 1839 to 1854. A film version of The Old Maid followed in 1939, starring Bette Davis.
Akins also adapted the Alexandre Dumas novel, La dame aux camélias which was adapted into the film Camille in 1936. The film starred Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, and Lionel Barrymore, and earned Garbo her third Oscar nomination.
To Akins' surprise, she was thrust into notoriety again in 1953, when Jean Negulesco directed an adaptation of The Greeks Had a Word for It. The film, titled How to Marry a Millionaire, became a box office sensation and helped launch the career of its star, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe's role in the Akins' play helped the rising star become a cultural icon, and encouraged Akins to pursue a short stint as a writer for several television variety programs.
Despite the fame afforded her, Akins didn't pursue a screenwriting career beyond her early successes. In 1932, she married Hugo Rumbold, and after several Hollywood films, she returned to writing plays and spending time with her family. She was the great-aunt of actress Laurie Metcalf. She lived for a short time in Morrisonville, Illinois.
Akins died in her sleep on the eve of her seventy-second birthday, in Los Angeles.
- Déclassée (1925)
- Her Private Life (1929)
- The Right to Love (1930)
- Christopher Strong (1933)
- Accused (1936)
- Dictionary of Missouri-Biography, Lawrence O. Christensen, University of Missouri Press, 1999.
- "Zoe Akins Arrives", The New York Times, October 12, 1919.
- "Modern Drama; Plays by Miss Akins and Mr. Howard in New Series", The New York Times, April 26, 1914.
- H.L. Mencken, My Life as Author and Editor, p. 267.
- "The Play: Vine Leaves in a Heap" by J. Brooks Atkinson. The New York Times September 26, 1930.
- "Zoe Akins to be Wed to Hugo Rumbold" The New York Times, March 8, 1932.
- Zoë Akins at the Internet Movie Database
- Zoë Akins at the Internet Broadway Database
- Index Entry for Zoe Akins at Poets' Corner