Zoë Akins (AY-kihns) was an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. Her best work treated the challenges and limitations that confronted women, rooted in the social conventions and gender expectations of their day. Akins was the daughter of Thomas Jaspard Akins and Sarah Elizabeth Green. Her family moved to St. Louis, when Akins was twelve, where her father served as the city’s postmaster and as a member of the Republican National Committee. Akins demonstrated an early interest in literature, writing poems, plays, and essays while still in school.
The early promise of Akins’s work was recognized by William Marion Reedy, editor of the St. Louis Mirror. He published some of Akins’s work in his magazine and became her mentor. Determined to pursue a career as an author, Akins moved to New York in 1909. There, she began submitting poetry to various magazines, including McClure’s, at which novelist Willa Cather served as editor. Cather was not impressed by Akins’s verse but encouraged her to write for the theater. Some of Akins’s early plays, such as her comedy Papa, were produced in New York but failed to attract sustained attention. While in New York, Akins suffered a bout with tuberculosis that had lasting effects on her health. She persisted in her efforts as a playwright, however, choosing to write society dramas that focused on strongly developed woman characters. Her first play in this vein, Déclassée, starring Ethel Barrymore, became a hit, running successfully at the Empire Theatre.
Following upon the success of Déclassée, Akins wrote Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting, another successful venture. Her work through the remainder of the 1920’s was uneven, some plays faring well with audiences and critics, others, especially her more serious dramas, falling flat. In 1930 her fortunes turned with the popularity of The Greeks Had a Word for It, a comedy that followed the experiences of three former “Ziegfeld girls.” This play was later adapted for the screen by Sidney Howard as The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932) and formed the basis, along with Loco by Dale Eunson and Katharine Albert, for the popular film How to Marry a Millionaire (1952).
Akins believed that California provided a climate conducive to her health, and intrigued by the possibilities of writing for the cinema, she moved to Hollywood in 1928. By 1930 she had signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. At Paramount she wrote a series of successful screenplays for films that starred Ruth Chatterton, including Sarah and Son, in 1930. While in Hollywood, Akins also met Hugh Cecil Levinge Rumbold, a British set designer and stage director. They were married in March, 1932. Shortly after their marriage Rumbold died suddenly, following minor surgery. Akins continued to direct her energies into her work and was well paid for her efforts. She purchased an estate in Pasadena, which she named Green Fountains, choosing to separate herself socially from the Hollywood set.
For Akins the 1930’s proved to be a productive decade in which she wrote or contributed to sixteen screenplays. In 1933 she adapted Gilbert Frankau’s novel Christopher Strong, at the request of Dorothy Arzner, who had directed Sarah and Son. The film’s female lead was played by Katherine Hepburn, who won her first Academy Award for her performance in Morning Glory , based on another work by Akins. In 1934 Akins moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and...
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