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Ashton Stevens Papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Stevens

Scope and Content of the Collection

The Ashton Stevens papers cover a pivotal period in American entertainment when vaudeville and live theatre began to give way to the Hollywood film industry. Correspondents include many important actors, writers, producers, theatre managers, and other entertainers of the time including Ben Bernie, Gene Markey, Gene Fowler, Gilbert Gabriel, William Randolph Hearst, Alva Johnston, Hank Karch, Eddie Peabody, Alfred Lunt, Morris Gest, Abel Green, Ethel Barrymore, E. D. "Cobbie" Coblentz, Milton Wolfe, and Orson Welles. There are also many letters between him and his second wife Kay Ashton-Stevens and other family members, including his brother Landers and wife Georgie Cooper. Works in the collection include clippings of his newspaper writing covering virtually his entire career, feature interview manuscripts, plays and magazine articles as well as several drafts of his play Prospect Avenue. Works by others include two book manuscripts by friend Gene Fowler and sketches written in collaboration with Gene Markey.

The collection also includes biographical materials and a significant amount of correspondence and other materials pertaining to his banjo playing and research. In addition, there are numerous photographs of actors, actresses, and colleagues, many inscribed to Stevens. A small amount of artwork includes portraits and caricatures of Stevens, a few artifacts, audio materials in multiple formats including home recordings made by Stevens, banjo recordings by Stevens and others, and the Friends of the Chicago Public Library luncheon honoring Stevens after his death.


  • Creation: approximately 1850-1952
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1920 - 1940



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Ashton Stevens papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Ashton Stevens papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections.

Biography of Ashton Stevens

Journalist and drama critic.

Ashton Stevens was born on August 11, 1872 in San Francisco, California to James and Hannah Laura Stevens. His brother was Landers Stevens, an actor and father of film director George Stevens. For over 50 years Ashton Stevens reviewed plays, vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, and interviewed actors, actresses, opera stars, and producers. He became known as the "dean of American drama critics," who aimed to be "right if possible, to be read if possibler."

He started his career as a drama critic in 1894 on the San Francisco News Letter, succeeding Ambrose Bierce as "Town Crier." For a brief period he edited the Overland Monthly and served for a year on the San Francisco Morning Call. He began a tenure at the Hearst Newspapers when he joined the San Francisco Examiner in 1897. After ten years at the Examiner he took over the drama critic's post on the New York Evening Journal until moving to Chicago in 1907. Over the next 40 years he covered the theatre world of Chicago, first at the Chicago Examiner, then the Chicago Herald and Examiner, the Chicago American, and finally the Chicago Herald-American where he wrote until his death. He published one book in 1923, Actorviews, a collection of his feature interviews. He wrote several plays, most significantly Prospect Avenue which nearly reached the stage, but fell victim to a lack of funding.

Stevens was a highly regarded and much loved critic who was in the front row, aisle seat at every play opening throughout his years in Chicago. He interviewed and advised such stage luminaries as Ethel Barrymore, Mary Garden, Nat Goodwin, and Sarah Bernhardt. He was a friend and confident to many actors and entertainers such as Ben Bernie, Morris Gest, Gene Markey, and Orson Welles' guardian Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who often wrote to Stevens lamenting Welles' unreasonable behavior. He was known for his sharp wit, satire, puns, and paradoxes, and gave honest, but fair criticism stating, "critics should write about plays and players as they would about the weather, with hardly any regard for the weather's feelings."

He also pursued a lifelong passion for the banjo, which he played with substantial skill. In San Francisco he gave banjo lessons and one of his earliest students was a young William Randolph Hearst. He was known during his lifetime as the "banjo king," and wrote of the banjo often in his columns, defending its integrity as a serious musical instrument. He was an expert on the topic and wrote an entry on its history for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Stevens married twice, first in 1900 to Aleece Ulhorn, the daughter of a San Francisco financier and sister of author Gertrude Atherton. A year after her death in 1926 he married actress Florence Katherine Krug, known after as Kay Ashton-Stevens. They had no children. Stevens was ill much of his later life and succumbed to a heart attack on July 11, 1951.


40 Linear Feet (82 boxes, 5 oversize boxes, 1 oversize folder)


The papers of San Francisco and Chicago journalist and drama critic Ashton Stevens contain correspondence with family, friends, and colleagues from the entertainment world; works including newspaper clippings, playscripts, articles, and interviews; personal materials including biographical information, memorabilia, and materials pertaining to the banjo; photographs of actors, actresses, family, friends and colleagues; artworks and audio recordings; and a small number of artifacts.


Papers are organized in the following series

Series 1: Correspondence, 1899-1952
Boxes 1-22
Series 2: Works, 1901-1951
Boxes 23-43
Series 3: Personal, 1868-1952
Boxes 44-47
Series 4: Photographs, approximately 1850s-1951
Boxes 48-49
Series 5: Artwork, approximately 1925-1949
Box 50
Series 6: Audio Materials, 1935-1952
Boxes 51-54
Series 7: Artifacts, approximately 1940s-1952
Boxes 55-56

Conditions Governing Audiovisual Access

Audiovisual recordings in this collection have not been digitized and are unavailable for use at this time.

Collection Stack Location

1 32 5-6, 1 43 7-8, 1 45 2-3


Bequest of Kay Ashton Stevens, 1982.

Processed by

Lisa Janssen, Kelly Kress, and Shannon Yule, 2007.


This inventory was created with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this inventory do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Inventory of the Ashton Stevens papers, approximately 1850-1952, bulk 1920-1940
Lisa Janssen and Kelly Kress
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States