by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During the Progressive era of the early 20th century, some women made significant strides in politics, media, social causes and much else and many of them have long been forgotten in the mists of time. Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a portrait of a local example of this, as Harriet Hayes Barry is unknown now, but she had a very interesting life as a journalist, publisher, clubwoman and activist in greater Los Angeles for more than three decades.
She was born in Wisconsin in 1858 and, at age 22, married George A. Barry, a Civil War veteran who was an insurance agent in Eau Claire until he, Harriet and their sons Richard and Griffin relocated to California just after the turn of the 20th century. George established the Monrovia News, a daily paper, in 1903 and operated it for twenty years with Harriet as the manager.
She, however, also became associated with Charles F. Lummis and his well-known magazine Out West, formerly The Land of Sunshine, and was a committee member on his El Camino Real Association, formed to identify and mark with historic signs and plaques, as well as distinctive mission bells, the Spanish main highway through California linking the missions, presidios and pueblos.
Due to her journalistic endeavors, she served two terms, in 1907 and 1908, as president of the Woman’s Press Club of Southern California. In 1910, at a club meeting at the Hotel Alexandria in downtown Los Angeles, Barry gave a review of the year’s activities and the Los Angeles Herald reported “Mrs. Barry’s talk showed that the members of the club are not only newspaper women, but that there are many poets, dramatists, novelists and short story writers among them.”
Moreover, they were involved in lecturing, scientific endeavor and the writing of magazine articles, works of history and textbooks. These activities “reflect great credit alike upon the intellectuality and the practicality of the members of the club” and it was added that there were fine composers among members, as well.
In her newspaper in early 1911, Barry wrote about the historic school board election, being the first in which women could vote thanks to the granting of woman suffrage in California that year. The following year, she launched her own journal, The Woman’s Bulletin, said by the South Pasadena Record to be “a handsome publication almost entirely free of advertising,” though one wonders how it could survive without the income derived from ads.
It was said that the Bulletin was “a non-partisan monthly magazine expressing the principles of the Woman’s Progressive League of California devoted to the special duties, civil interest and political expression of the woman citizen.” The initial run of 5,000 copies was sold out and the paper concluded with the observation that “the initial number is brilliantly arranged and well-written” with features dealing with clubs, book reviews, travel and editorials.
In late 1913, a combined November and December issue of The Woman’s Bulletin included, reported the Los Angeles Express, “the first published report to the committee on w[o]man suffrage of the United States senate a digest of information showing the actual oepration of suffrage in California.” Included were statistics on how many women voters there were in Golden State cities, civic work conducted because of the onset of suffrage, legislation brought about because of women’s involvement, and more. Among those involved in the report were such prominent local women as Dora Haynes, Mary Foy, Mary S. Gibson, Lloy Galpin and Barry.
In late March 1917, Barry gave a speech on personal responsibility in Long Beach and that city’s Telegram observed that she “is of the pacifist order, believing that every possible means shoudl be employed to prevent war, and she questioned very seriously and earnestly the necessity of mobilization and the somewhat hysterical preparedness movement which threatens to be pushed beyond the preparedness stage into the active war issue.” Just four days later, the United States declared war on Germany and entered the First World War, though Barry seems to have moderated her position during the conflict.
That same talk “was devoted to the better film movement” which had the goal “of eliminating all objectionable pictures and presenting only those of educational, scenic and dramatic value.” This endeavor was supported by many within the women’s club movement, including the national association of college club women, and is reflective of the growing power of women as well as the eternal push and pull between provocative themes in motion pictures and the desire of some to mitigate what it considered excesses that were harmful to the moral character of theatergoers. Incidentally, her son Richard did write screeenplays for at least two produced films in 1916 and 1917.
Back in the coastal city in February 1918, Barry continued the discussion with her “Better Moving Pictures” lecture as part of her role as the national chair of the Federation of College Women’s Clubs and a member of the Long Beach City Woman’s Club. The Telegram stated that she “posesses magnetic, sympathetic personality” as she talked about patriotism as “the right kind of civics” and she “paid tribute to President Wilson as the epitome of democracy.” She called for more involvement of such groups as school teachers to emphasize more educational value in movies. Moreover, she added,
It is the biggest duty of women today to have a part in the control of the industry, and to establish a mutually agreeable partnership, not asking for the best might of the week [in which to show “better films”], but content to mould public opinion, thru the evening the management is willing to give, until he is convinced of the superiority of the method. Pictures are a commodity, and should be selected with discriminating care.
She advised that monies raised from the showing of these “better films” in theaters be given to the Red Cross or Red Star funds for wartime relief and hoped that, as men were for military service, women would register to serve in the cause. In the Long Beach Press, Barry called for “a committee to carefully select a group of pictures, which will be entertaining, have pep and punch as well as be clean and wholesome.”
In May 1919, her Monrovia News reported that Barry was named president of a new Federation of National Organizations of Women, which formed in New York and which was “designed to promote systematically the production of better motion pictures.” Among the thirty or so sponsoring entities were the Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, the National Council of Women, and American College Women.
The paper quoted New York press accounts as saying that Barry told the assemblage:
We all know what the trouble with censorship is; it is too prone to fall under the influence of politicians. In addition, the best censorship is public opinion, and we propose to give it an excellent chance to assert itself. Meanwhile, I am anxious to have theatrical people know ttheriothgi pious or silly about our organization. We are not prudes. We know picture stories have to be told dramatically and realistically. What we want is pictures with a message. We propose to get them by combining with exhibitors through our local committees in every town and city.
The Los Angeles Herald was said to have reported that Barry and former Photoplay editor Myra Kingman Miller had spoken to such film luminaries as Adolph Zukor (Paramount Pictures) and actors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lois Weber and obtained their approval for the organization’s goals. It was assumed that public pressure would support these objectives, as well, and force filmmakers to produce these “better films.”
At the end of September 1919, the Express noted that the Woman’s City Club of Los Angeles, of which Barry was a director, provided the funds for the screening of a film called “Surprising Carlotta” and a photo showed Barry, the president of the Club and Fred Miller of the Miller Amusement Company signing a contract for therrangement, said to represent “the first time in America that a picture will be shown controlled exclusively by a national organization of women accomplishing its work through local units.”
The paper averred that “this cooperation is the result of a conviction among progressive theater men that a clean and live picture under the control of women who demand ‘better’ films will establish new records in picture history.” Moreover, it stated that “the national organization was the outgrowth of successful work done with films uring the past few years when, with the demand for clean films, there as everywhere present the imperative call for funds by the women for their war work.”
With this assumed drawing power created by women, “it was a logical step to the combination of these ethical and economic forces to make the motion picture a real civic asset.” Yet, while “Surprising Carlotta,” produced by a former Utah juvenile court judge named Willis Brown, did complete a two-week run at the Alhambra Theatre, located on Hill between 7th and 8th streets, but it was said that box office receipts were not as high as hoped.
Barry continued to be a staunch advocate for “better films” into the early 1920s, but it appears that the showing of “Surprising Carlotta” was the limit to which the “better films” movement could achieve in Los Angeles, though a decade or so later, the implementation of the Hays Code, which lasted from the mid-Thirties through the late Sixties did realize at least some of the spirit of the earlier movement.
In 1923, George Barry, who was eleven years Harriet’s senior, retired and the Monrovia News was sold, though she did briefly run a daily paper in the adjoining city of Arcadia, after which she joined the highly successful Frank Meline organization as a realtor. By the later part of the decade, Harriet was writing features on the arts, including exhibitions at the California State Exposition Building, now the site of the California Science Center, in Exposition Park and ocasiony av lectres on radio.
George died in 1930 and Harriet spent some of her later years in Portland, Oregon, before returning to live in Santa Monica. She was there about a year when she was involved in an accident that led to a stay at a Glendale sanatarium, where she died in September 1936 at age 78.
The Monrovia News-Post (formed by a merger) lauded her for being “endowed with a keen mind and a ready wit” and observed that “she wrote with force and originality” and that “her personal charm and loyal character won her many friends.” Columnist John L. Wiley called her “a brilliant woman” and “a leader of thought among her sex . . . [and] an outstanding figure wherever she was.” He noted she gave him his first job in journalism for his column “Little Stories of the Town” and ended by observing that “she was a very suave and easy employer for whom it was a pleasure to work.”
The image featured here was taken by noted Los Angeles photographer George Steckel (who took a series of portraits of the Temple family in October 1919) and there is a date stamp on the reverse from the Reference Department of the Newspaper Enterprise Association from 14 December 1923. A pencil inscription, however, noted that she was chair of the “better film com. Woman’s City Club L.A.” and “pres. Natl Assn Better films” which indicated that the photo was probably from 1919, when “Surprising Carlotta” was shown.
In any case, it is a representation of a prominent local woman who has been long forgotten, but whose work was notable in greater Los Angeles for roughly thirty years during the early 20th century.