When Abilene Barker was five years old, her father caught her stealing an orange from the local grocer. “He was mortified,” Ms. Barker later recalled in her first best-selling autobiography, Keep ’Em Kickin’, Abilene. “Not only did he make me return it, he made me spend the entire day with the grocer, stocking shelves and attending to customers. And I was only five years old!” The experience, Ms. Barker noted, gave her an inside look at how a business was run, setting off a spark that would drive her to become one of the most successful women in American history. “And all because I was a rotten, no-good thief,” Ms. Barker once wrote. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t turn your little boat around.”
A fountain of wisdom, entertainment, and general sass for the majority of her life, Ms. Barker (née Fontaine) died last Wednesday at her home in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. She was 114. Her eldest daughter, the famed astronaut Elspeth Barker-Ayala, told the Associated Press that Ms. Barker had died of natural causes. “She’d spent over a century here and decided the party was probably livelier on the other side,” Barker-Ayala quipped, showing a tinge of her mother’s humor. “She’s probably raising Hell in Heaven as we speak.”
Born Abilene Mae Fontaine on August 11, 1899, to Earl and Lucretia Parker of Peoria, Illinois, whom she described as “proud but restless wanderers” in her second tell-all, Lean Mean Abilene, the young Ms. Barker spent much of her childhood toiling on her family’s farm, tilling soil, and selling vegetables at a local stand. “It was hard work, but it was important work,” she wrote. “We had dirty faces and dirty clothes, but my father always told us we were providing for ourselves and for others. It takes a lot of guts to sprinkle seeds in the dirt and have faith that they’ll grow.”
At the age of 17, Ms. Barker was spotted at a local barn dance by Harrison Barker, a bit player with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Taken by her beauty and irrepressible personality, Barker suggested that she screen test for Sennett’s famed “Bathing Beauties.”
“I told him to kick rocks,” Barker recalled in a 1989 interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Get back to me when the pictures have sound. I’m not interested in being a pretty face without a voice.”
“I fell in love with her right there,” said Barker, who died in 1978 of heart disease. “I’d never met anyone so sure of themselves before. Being around her was like being around lightning. You were just always in awe of the light around her, the power.”
The couple married in 1917; 4 children, 13 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren followed.
Ms. Barker, of course, did eventually break in to show business, though it was New York, and not Hollywood, that provided a platform for her voice. She did not need to leave her house to be discovered: After one of their famed dinner parties, the Barkers held an impromptu reading; it is said that Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., himself stood up after the reading, demanding to know who “the genius behind this madness” could be. When Ms. Barker revealed herself to be the author, several guests at the party offered to finance a one-woman show. Ms. Barker got to work, writing in the middle of the night, as her two eldest children slept. The result, The Lady Speaks, was produced in 1921. A theatrical call for equality, women’s rights, and sexual liberation, it was deemed “scandalous,” “outrageous,” and “the work of a sinner” upon its initial release. “Of course,” Ms. Barker said, “All that meant was that we were sold out for three years straight.” Almost 80 years later, in 1999, Time magazine pronounced it “one of the most important feminist statements of the 20th century, if not all time.”
The Lady Speaks was followed by 21 more plays, including Violet Remnants From the Scarlet Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1958. At the time of her death, Barker had completed 13 novels, 8 screenplays, 4 collections of poetry, and 5 autobiographies. Her work has been translated into at least 80 languages, and is taught at several universities across the world.
Among her most lasting legacies is the Abilene Action Foundation, an organization Barker founded in 1936 to help small businesses owned by women succeed during the Great Depression. “I’d made my millions just saying what every woman I knew wanted to say,” Barker would later recall. “I was in a position to put my money where my mouth was, and I didn’t hesitate.” Barker’s knack for business, evidenced in her securing publishing rights on all of her works as well as investing wisely in early technologies, led to an influx of wealth, which she was all too happy to give away. Forbes estimated the value of the Abilene Action Foundation at $486 million in 1993, by which time Barker had already donated nearly $500 million to businesswomen across the country.
“My mother was a pioneer,” said Barker-Ayala, who made headlines of her own by heading into space in 1968. “When I was a kid, she told me I could do anything I wanted, and she meant it. I said, ‘Mama, all I want to do is see the stars up close,’ and she said, ‘Kid, there’s nothing in your way but a few lousy clouds and people who don’t know how to dream.’” ♦