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Margaret Ayer Barnes papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: BMC-M53

Scope and Contents

The Margaret Ayer Barnes papers consist of the correspondence, writings, legal documents, and personal memorabilia of Margaret Ayer Barnes, novelist, playwright, and Bryn Mawr class of 1907. The collection contains both finished and unfinished manuscripts and stories, documentation relating to a lawsuit brought by Barnes and Edward Sheldon against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as well as much of Barnes’ personal correspondence with Sheldon.

This collection is organized into four series: “Series I: Correspondence” and “Series II: Writings,” “Series III: Legal Papers,” and “Series IV: Other Materials.” “Series I: Correspondence” is organized into Outgoing Correspondence and Incoming Correspondence. Margaret Ayer Barnes’ letters to Edward Sheldon comprise the entirety of the Outgoing Correspondence category and a portion of Incoming Correspondence. Letters between Barnes and Sheldon are concerning the works they have co-written, personal matters, and their joint lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The remaining incoming correspondence is between Barnes and Ferris Greenslet, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishers, P. Reynolds, theatrical producer Charles Frohman, and lawyers Dennis O’ Brien and Albert Driscoll and miscellaneous contracts regarding the lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The second series, “Series II: Writings” is organized further into Novels, Short Stories, Plays, and Published Works. Novels consists of parts I, II, III, and IV of Years of Grace (1930), Bridal Wreath, and the first chapter and synopsis for an untitled novel, a romantic melodrama which was never completed. Barnes’ short stories in the collection are as follows: “Arms and the Boy”, “Charmer”, “Cordelia on the Styx”, “Deceiving Husband”, “Dinner Party”, “Eye of Youth”, “Feather Beds”, “Home Fire”, “Lady of Letters”, “Perpetual Care”, “A Question of Temperature”, “Quotation from Scripture”, “Set a Thief”, “Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves”, “A Square Meal”, “Stardust”, “Whopping Success”, “Sauce for the Gosling”, and an assortment of Barnes’ writings taken from magazine publications, brochures and newspapers. Barnes’ plays included in the collection are as follows: "Age of Innocence", "Dishonored Lady", "Edna His Wife", "Jenny", and "Johnny". Additionally, a number of Barnes’ works have been published in Cosmopolitan, Golden Book, Graphic, Harper’s, Pictorial Review, and Red Book magazines. The majority of the documents in “Series III: Legal Papers” are regarding Barnes’ and Sheldon’s lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “Series IV: Other Materials” includes portraits of the Barnes family, publicity photos for Barnes’ plays, and four oversized scrapbooks titled, Edna His Wife, Westward Passage, Wisdom’s Gate, and Within the Present.

Barnes was a successful novelist, winning a Pulitzer prize in 1930 for her book Years of Grace, a work of fiction which was based on her experiences at Bryn Mawr. In 1933, she filed a joint lawsuit with Edward Sheldon against MGM claiming that they had plagiarized portions of her play, Dishonored Lady. The lawsuit was settled 7 years later, with Barnes and Sheldon winning. The collection provides insight into Barnes’ writing process, her personal and working relationship with Sheldon, and her lengthy lawsuit against MGM.


  • 1920 - 1938


Limitations on Accessing the Collection

The collection is open for research.

Copyright and Rights Information

The Margaret Ayer Barnes papers are the physical property fo the Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns.

Biographical / Historical

Margaret Ayer Barnes, BMC 1907, was a novelist, playwright, and short story writer. She was born on April 8, 1886 in Chicago, Illinois and attended Bryn Mawr College between 1903 and 1907. She returned to Chicago shortly after graduating. In 1910 she married Cecil Barnes, a lawyer, and between 1912 and 1919 had three sons, Cecil Jr., Edward Larrabee and Benjamin Ayer. In 1920, Barnes was elected alumnae director of Bryn Mawr and served three years. As director, she helped to organize the Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, which offered an alternative educational program for women workers within a traditional institution. Consisting mainly of young, single immigrant women with little to no academic background, the summer program offered courses in progressive education, liberal arts and economics. Women in the program were encouraged to develop confidence as speakers, writers and leaders in the workplace. Barnes was also a public speaker, strongly supporting higher education for women.

In 1925, on vacation in France, Barnes was seriously injured in an automobile accident. During her lengthy convalescence, she was encouraged by her childhood friend and playwright Edward Sheldon to develop her writing. A year later, her first short stories were accepted by the Pictorial Review. Next, Barnes and Sheldon worked together to dramatize Edith Wharton's novel Age of Innocence (1920). The play was produced in 1928 with Katharine Cornell in the lead and was an instant success. In 1929, Barnes again collaborated with Sheldon on Jenny, a comedy, and in 1930 on Dishonored Lady, a melodrama based on the 1857 trial of a British woman, Madeleine Smith, for the murder of her lover. Both of these plays ran for more than a hundred performances on Broadway. Despite the success of Dishonored Lady, Barnes and Sheldon were unable to turn the work into a screenplay. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer later purchased the rights to the novel Letty Lynton, by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, based on the same case and used the material for a movie with the same title. Barnes and Sheldon filed a suit in 1933 claiming that MGM plagarized portions of their play, Dishonored Lady. Seven years later, the case was decided by the Supreme Court in favor of Barnes and Sheldon.

Barnes also had great success as a novelist. In 1928, she published Prevailing Winds, a collection of eight short stories which had originally appeared in the popular magazines Pictorial Review, Harper's, and Red Book. In 1930, Barnes' most successful and best-known novel, Years of Grace, won the Pulitzer Prize. Bryn Mawr College, along with the characters of college presidents M. Carey Thomas and Marion Park figure prominently in this work. The story, beginning in the 1890's and continuing into the 1930s', chronicles the life of Jane Ward Carver from her teens to age fifty-four. This novel follows many of the same themes as Barnes' other works. Centering on the social manners of upper middle class society, her female protagonists are often traditionalists, struggling to uphold conventional morality in the face of changing social climates. In the next eight years, Barnes would publish four additional novels, Westward Passage (1931), Within This Present (1933), Edna His Wife (1935), and Wisdom's Gate (1938).

Barnes had been a prolific writer into her forties, but after the publication of Wisdom's Gate, her writing slowed and then ceased. She lived the remainder of her life quietly and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 26th, 1967. Gift of Edward L. Barnes, Benjamin Ayer Barnes, and the Barnes Family.


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Margaret Ayer Barnes (1886-1967) was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College (class of 1907). She was a novelist, playwright, and short story writer. In her three years of service as the College's alumnae director, beginning in 1920, Barnes helped to organize the Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. Barnes’ short stories were first published in 1926, and she continued to write consistently throughout the next decade. Barnes is especially well known for her contribution to the critically acclaimed stage production of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, as well as her novel Years of Grace (1930), for which Barnes won the Pulitzer Prize. This collection consists of correspondence primarily concerning the joint lawsuit she and playwright Edward Sheldon had against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other personal matters, as well as varying versions of her published and unpublished works, legal papers pertaining to the lawsuit, and photographs, some of the Barnes family and others of stage actors in promotion of Barnes’ plays.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Edward L. Barnes, Benjamin Ayer Barnes, and the Barnes Family.



Margaret Ayer Barnes papers
Emily Houghton, Celeste Ledesma, Melissa Torquato, Cassidy Gruber Baruth
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