Mayo, Margaret, 1882-1951

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Margaret Mayo (November 19, 1882-Februrary 25, 1951) was an American actress and dramatist. She was born as Lillian Slatten in Brownsville, Illinois, to Warren Slatten and Elizabeth Slatten (née Cavender). After her parents divorced, Mayo moved with her mother to Portland, Oregon, where she attended school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Salem, Oregon. Mayo moved to New York City in her early teens and won a small part in the play Thoroughbred at the Garrick Theatre in 1896. She took the stage name of Margaret Mayo and continued to act until 1903. Mayo met her husband Edgar Selwyn in 1897 when they were both acting in William Gillette's play Secret Service and the pair married in 1901. Mayo began her writing career that same year, when she wrote a dramatization of Ouida's novel Under Two Flags. In 1903, Mayo was commissioned for two projects- to write the American adaptation of the French farce Divorcons and to dramatize Mary Augusta Ward's bestselling novel The Marriage of William Ashe. She also won a widely-publicized contest when she wrote a four-act play in twenty-four hours (The Mart).

In 1907, Mayo wrote a dramatization of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and an original play, Polly of the Circus. The Jungle was considered a failure, but Polly of the Circus became a popular play for stock companies to produce and was adapted for film twice-as a silent film starring Mae Marsh in 1917 and as a talking picture starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable in 1932. In 1910, Mayo wrote Baby Mine, a play about a young wife passing off an orphan baby as her own to win back her estranged husband. Mayo famously wrote it in three days after she was inspired by the newspaper headline "Three thousand husbands in Chicago fondling babies not their own." This play became her most successful work. It was produced at Daly's Theatre and ran for 287 performances. It was also translated into French, Japanese, Spanish, and Russian and performed globally. A musical version, Rock-A-Bye-Baby, was performed in 1918, and a film version was produced in 1928. Mayo's other plays include Commencement Days, Crippled Hearts, and Twin Beds.

Mayo wrote plays with Aubrey Kennedy and their most popular collaboration, Seeing Things (1920), was inspired by Mayo's interest in automatic writing. Kennedy was a talented playwright and inventor whose professional life was prematurely cut short due to alcoholism and mental illness. In 1940, Kennedy worked on the Ave Maria Hour radio show and lived at the Graymoor monastery of the Franciscan Friars in Garrison, New York, and throughout the 1940s Kennedy worked in temporary positions at various resorts, hotels, and ranches in New York and Florida.

In 1917, Edgar Selwyn and his brother Archibald founded Goldwyn Pictures Corporation with Samuel Goldfish (who would later change his name to Goldwyn) and Mayo became head of the scenario department. She left this position in 1918 to head the Overseas Theatre League. She wrote and performed in her own acting troop, known as Mayo's Shock Unit, and entertained troops in France. She later wrote an account of her experience abroad called Trouping for the Troops. At the close of the war, the league dissolved but was later recreated as the Overseas Theatre League of the Y.M.C.A.

Upon her return to the United States in 1919, Selwyn and Mayo divorced. Prior to this, they had been seen as one of the most happy and successful married couples in the entertainment industry. They had collaborated on the script for the 1912 musical Wall Street Girl and Selwyn's production company, Selwyn & Co., produced and managed most of Mayo's work. After the divorce, Mayo hired the law firm of Watterson and Gore to examine the Selwyn & Co. accounts for money owed to her. This case was further complicated as Selwyn & Co. sold stock rights of some of Mayo's plays to the American Play Company when they merged in 1914. Both the American Play Company and Century Company were stock-leasing companies that represented Mayo's work, while Hugh Massie & Company represented the foreign rights of the same works.

After her divorce, which coincided with her semi-retirement from the entertainment industry, Mayo lived full-time at Sunny Acres, a river-front estate in Harmon-on-the-Hudson, New York which she and her mother had bought in 1910. By this time, her mother was living with her and had legally changed her name to Elizabeth Mayo. While she still occasionally wrote and submitted plays, Mayo began her second career in Hudson Valley real estate. Under the auspices of the Gomay Realty Corporation, of which she was the president and sole owner, Mayo began buying and selling land, and renting out properties. Mayo lost a large portion of her wealth in the stock market crash of 1929 and her once successful real estate venture subsequently suffered. She also entered into two notable legal cases. She lost a ten year litigation against the City of New York regarding the diversion of water from her property for the Catskill aqueduct, but won a case against New York Central Railroad when Mayo proved that some land belonged to her estate through royal grant.

In addition to writing and real estate, Mayo was interested in spiritualism, inventing new household products, and animal welfare. For over twenty years, she used automatic, or spirit, writing to communicate with the spirit world. Mayo took notes upon waking to synchronize her conscious, subconscious, and psychic minds. She often used automatic writing to generate dialogue and ideas for plays, as well as to seek professional guidance. Mayo credited the conception of at least one play, Woman's World, to a message from the spirit world. She also invented products, built prototypes, and sought patents for her inventions, an interest she shared with Aubrey Kennedy who invented airplane parts. Mayo had many cats and dogs and was interested in animal welfare topics at the time, particularly in shelters and humane methods of euthanasia. She wrote an unpublished book from a dog's perspective called A Dog's Life.

Mayo's assets were frozen off-and-on in the late-1930s and early-1940s and she experienced ever increasing financial hardship. Mayo contacted the Aurthors League Fund for financial assistance and left her estate to the Fund upon her death. She died in Ossining, New York.

Source: Felicia Hardison Londré. "Mayo, Margaret";; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Mon Jun 3 2013.

From the guide to the Margaret Mayo papers, 1882-1970, 1901-1950, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn H.A. Condell stage and costume designs [graphic] / H.A. Condell, 1930-1959 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Mayo, Margaret. "The jungle" [microform] : a play in five acts and five scenes / by Margaret Mayo and Upton Sinclair ; dramatized from Mr. Sinclair's famous novel of the same name. University of Missouri -- Columbia, MU Libraries; University of Missouri; MU; Ellis Library; University of Missouri Columbia
creatorOf Margaret Mayo papers, 1882-1970, 1901-1950 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Otto Harbach Papers, 1870-1990, 1895-1963 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Stark, Samuel. Theatre scrapbook collection, 1860-1950. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Hoschna, Karl L., 1877-1911. The Wall street girl; musical comedy by Margaret Mayo & Edgar Selwyn. Lyrics by Otto Hauerbach; music by Karl Hoschna. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Carlo, Monte, 1883-. I want you : song / lyric by Margaret Mayo and Aubrey Kennedy ; music by Carlo and Sanders. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Taylor, Treva. Harlequin Romance collection of Treva M. Taylor. 1967-1996 (bulk 1974-1996). Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Stark, Samuel. Theatre scrapbook collection., 1860-1950 Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Carlo, Monte, 1883- person
associatedWith Condell, H. A. (Heinz A.) person
associatedWith Harbach, Otto, 1873-1963 person
associatedWith Hoschna, Karl L., 1877-1911. person
associatedWith Samuel Stark person
associatedWith Sinclair, Upton, 1878-1968. person
associatedWith Stark, Samuel. person
Place Name Admin Code Country


Birth 1882-11-19

Death 1951-02-25



Ark ID: w6sj3f6p

SNAC ID: 59534766