Zoë Akins (1886–1958)
Zoë Akins was a popular and successful playwright from Missouri. She wrote professionally for over fifty years and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1935. She paved the way for many women writers of the twentieth century. She showed other women how intelligence, creativity, and hard work can lead to success.
Zoë Byrd Akins was born on October 30, 1886 in Humansville, a small town in Polk County, Missouri. Her parents were Thomas Jasper and Sarah Elizabeth Green Akins. Together they had three children. Zoë was the second born, having an older brother James Duff and a younger sister, Marie.
Zoë spent her childhood in Humansville. Her father was a teacher in the public schools before becoming a businessman and politician. Around 1900, Thomas Akins moved his family to St. Louis. He had became involved in state Republican politics and served as assistant U.S. treasurer at St. Louis from 1904 to 1909. He was later appointed postmaster of St. Louis under President William Taft.
Drawn to the Theater
As a teenager, Zoë was sent to be educated at Monticello Seminary in Illinois. She returned to St. Louis to attend Hosmer Hall, a private girls school in Clayton from which she graduated in 1903. Zoë was drawn to the theater at an early age and acted in many productions. By 1905, however, she made the decision to pursue a career in playwriting rather than acting.
For the next five years, Zoë Akins wrote a series of plays while living in St. Louis. She also wrote for local newspapers and began writing for an important Midwest literary magazine called the Mirror. From age seventeen to twenty-nine, she contributed poetry and essays to this magazine and earned a reputation as an intelligent and talented writer.
From Broadway to Hollywood
Sometime after 1910, Akins decided to move to New York City, the center of American theater. Her first New York play appeared in 1913. Akins had several stage failures, but she did not give up. In 1919, her play, Declassee, became a Broadway hit that brought her praise and success. She then had a series of successful plays with top actors cast in them. Her plays were popular and featured women in both funny and tragic roles.
Although she continued to write plays throughout the 1920s, Zoë Akins’s interests turned to Hollywood. She moved to California in 1928 and began writing screenplays for movies. For the next twenty-five years, Akins wrote a series of movie scripts based on her own plays and stories including Girls About Town (1931), Morning Glory (1932), and The Greeks Had a Word for It (1932). She had many screenplay successes such as Camille (1936). Akins enjoyed screenwriting from the beginning and came to like it even more than writing plays for the stage. She married Admiral Hugo Rumbold in 1932, though he died just eight months later.
The highlight of Zoë Akins’s career came in 1935 when she won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. She had adapted Edith Wharton’s novella, The Old Maid, into a play. She also turned it into a screenplay for the movie version starring the great actress Bette Davis.
Throughout her life, Akins wrote poetry and novels in addition to her plays. Her first book of poems, Interpretations, was published in 1912. She dedicated her second volume of poetry, The Hills Grow Smaller, to the writer Willa Cather in 1937. Zoë published her first novel, Cake Upon the Waters, in 1919 and another novel, Forever Young, in 1941.
Zoë Akins’s work as a poet, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter focused on the emotional and social lives of women. She began her career in the early twentieth century in the middle of the country and lived on both coasts. Zoë successfully moved between theater and film as well as fiction and poetry. She proved that a woman can be an independent, creative, and successful artist.
Zoë Akins died on October 29, 1958, at the age of 72. She is buried in San Gabriel cemetery, south of San Marino, California. She left behind a large collection of work that still excites and inspires readers and audiences.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 3–4.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Volume 1: 114–15.