Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections





Margaret Ayer Barnes Papers

Part I: Description

Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Collection Number: M 53

Copyright © 2005 by Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library




Total Boxes: 5
Linear Feet: 2.5

Administrative Information


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

Ownership & Literary Rights

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

Cite as:

Margaret Ayer Barnes Papers, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library.

Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research.




Margaret Ayer Barnes (1886-1967)


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 (to the right is a photo of Barnes on her graduation day). She returned to Chicago shortly after graduating, greatly inspired by Bryn Mawr's feminist college president, M. Carey Thomas. In 1910 she married Cecil Barnes, a lawyer, and between 1912 and 1919 had three sons, Cecil Jr., Edward Larrabee and Benjamin Ayer. The couple are shown in the photo below, dated a year after their marriage. 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 herself was a commanding public speaker who strongly supported 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.

Information for this article was found in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, in an essay by Grace Eckley.


Organization of the Collection:

The collection is divided into four sections: Correspondence, Writings, Legal Documents, and Other Materials.

Correspondence is organized into Outgoing Correspondence and Incoming Correspondence. The majority of letters are between Margaret Ayer Barnes and Edward Sheldon concerning their co-written work. Often the letters are in reference to an attached draft of work to which Sheldon has added his thoughts and comments. Barnes, in her letters to Sheldon, includes her own thoughts about the work and responses to his suggestions. In both cases there is some mention of personal matters, family trips, upcoming holidays, etc. Letters sent after 1933 deal with their joint lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as does the incoming correspondence from Barnes' lawyers Dennis O'Brien and Albert Driscoll. Letters from Ferris Greenslet, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishers, concerns Barnes' published and in-process works.

Writings are organized into Novels, Short Stories, Plays and Printed Works. Included within Novels is the completed version of Years of Grace in four parts, with handwritten changes by the author, as well as a plot synopsis of her story Bridal Wreath and an untitled, unfinished novel. Short stories are typed, many with handwritten changes by the author or alternative versions; some have been clipped from published sources. Plays includes Age of Innocence, Dishonored Lady (the author's copy as well as the director's and producer's), Jenny, and Johnny; some copies include handwritten notes and are signed. Barnes' printed materials includes her short stories in their final form within complete issues of Harper's, Pictorial Review, Cosmopolitan and others.

Legal Papers includes briefs, opinions, and other material relating to the plagiarism lawsuit brought by Barnes and Sheldon against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Also included are continuity scripts held by Barnes and her lawyers from the film Letty Lynton, as well as a summary of the trial of Madeline Smith, the historical source about whom the later screenplays were written, and summaries of the novel Letty Lynton, the play Dishonored Lady, and the movie Letty Lynton, all of which provides background to the case and a basis for comparison between the materials. Depositions and stenographer's notes also give a sense of the unfolding lawsuit.

Other Materials includes portraits of Margaret Ayer Barnes from her college graduation and on her wedding day, photos of herself with her family and children and publicity photos from stage productions of her plays. Also included in Other Materials are a small amount of juvenilia, school publications, Alumnae Bulletins, transcripts of her speeches to the alumnae board, and four oversized clipping books titled: Edna His Wife, Westward Passage, Wisdom's Gate and Within this Present. These books contain book reviews, playbills, reviews of her plays and excerpts from bestseller lists which feature her various publications. Also included are newspaper interviews with Barnes about a variety of topics, ranging from prohibition to her feelings about being a wife, mother, and writer; many articles contain biographical information as well.

Most of Barnes' more personal papers are held by her family.

PART I: Collection Description
PART II: Box and Folder List

  • Correspondence
  • Writings
  • Legal Papers
  • Other Materials

    Processing and guide by Emily Houghton.




    Full List of Guides to the Collections
    Abbreviations Used in Guides

    November 14, 2013 Special Collections at