The Prolific Zoe Akins

Here’s a delightful revelation for your day: Laurie Metcalf’s great aunt was an important American writer of the early 20th century. Her name was Zoe Akins (1886-1958), and she made her greatest success as a playwright, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her 1935 dramatization of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid, which later became a 1939 film with Bette Davis. She is also remembered for The Greeks Had a Word for It (1930), which was adapted into the 1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire (with Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall), after two earlier screen versions in 1932 and 1938.

Born raised and educated in Missouri, Akins made it to Broadway with The Magical City in 1915. Papa (1919) closed quickly but got great reviews from H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan. Declassee (1919-20) starring Ethel Barrymore, was her first long-running hit, and was made into films in 1925 and 1929. The Moon Flower (1924) was made into a film with Betty Compson and Jack Holt the following year. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting was on Broadway in 1921, then filmed in 1925. The Furies premeried onstage in 1928; became a film in 1930. In 1930 she adapted Timothy Shea’s Sarah and Son for the screen, starring Ruth Chatterton and Fredric March. In 1933 her unproduced play Morning Glory became a film with Katharine Hepburn, Adolphe Menjou, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It was later made as Stage Struck (1958) with Henry Fonda, Susan Strasberg, and Christopher Plummer. Christopher Strong (1933) with Hepburn was another Hollywood hit. She also contributed to the screenplays of Camille (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938) and Zaza (1938), among dozens of others.

In the ’40s she returned to Broadway for two more plays, The Happy Days (1941) and Mrs. January and Mr. X (1944). Throughout the 1950s, numerous of her early plays were adapted for live television. She also contributed poems and criticism to magazines, and wrote several novels in addition to her dozens of plays and screenplays.

Akins is thought to be one of show business’s pioneering lesbians. She was in a lavender marriage with set designer Hugo Rumbold during the last year of his life (1932) and is believed to have been in a long term relationship with Jobyna Howland. Her famous friends and colleagues included Anita Loos and Willa Cather.