Lady in the Dark

Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Robert Sitton

Columbia University Press

Lady in the Dark

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Pub Date: April 2014

ISBN: 9780231165785

496 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $50.00£42.00

Pub Date: April 2014

ISBN: 9780231537148

496 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $49.99£42.00

Lady in the Dark

Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Robert Sitton

Columbia University Press

Iris Barry (1895–1969) was a pivotal modern figure and one of the first intellectuals to treat film as an art form, appreciating its far-reaching, transformative power. Although she had the bearing of an aristocrat, she was the self-educated daughter of a brass founder and a palm-reader from the Isle of Man. An aspiring poet, Barry attracted the attention of Ezra Pound and joined a demimonde of Bloomsbury figures, including Ford Maddox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Arthur Waley, Edith Sitwell, and William Butler Yeats. She fell in love with Pound's eccentric fellow Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis, and had two children by him.

In London, Barry pursued a career as a novelist, biographer, and critic of motion pictures. In America, she joined the modernist Askew Salon, where she met Alfred Barr, director of the new Museum of Modern Art. There she founded the museum's film department and became its first curator, assuring film's critical legitimacy. She convinced powerful Hollywood figures to submit their work for exhibition, creating a new respect for film and prompting the founding of the International Federation of Film Archives.

Barry continued to augment MoMA's film library until World War II, when she joined the Office of Strategic Services to develop pro-American films with Orson Welles, Walt Disney, John Huston, and Frank Capra. Yet despite her patriotic efforts, Barry's "foreignness" and association with such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel made her the target of an anticommunist witch hunt. She eventually left for France and died in obscurity. Drawing on letters, memorabilia, and other documentary sources, Robert Sitton reconstructs Barry's phenomenal life and work while recasting the political involvement of artistic institutions in the twentieth century.

Sitton's book is chock full of fascinating detail and tells a compelling story about an unusual character, a woman who built institutions and contributed to a way of thinking about film that we take for granted today. The result is a much larger and untold history about art, film, and culture.

Haidee Wasson, author of Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema

Museum of Modern Art film legend Iris Barry mattered to cinema history, and this book makes her life matter as well. Sitton's sharp biography spans Barry's life from her fascinating times among the literati of post-Victorian Britain to her famed career in the United States, which entailed her virtually founding the influential MoMA Film Library. This is a rich and captivating story.

Dana Polan, author of Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film, 1915–1935

Iris Barry was film's first great archivist and a crucial figure in turning a curious novelty into the most significant new art form of its century. She has long deserved a biography as graceful and expert as the one Robert Sitton has delivered so handsomely. It offers a lively portrait of modernist New York when it was fresh and new and is the better for the richness of its quotations from Barry's stirring writings. It cannot be praised too highly.

Richard Schickel

I confess that I thought of Iris Barry as an English snob who had rejected many exceptional silents as products of the much-despised Hollywood, but she is so much more interesting—and maddening—than I ever suspected. Her autobiographical fragments are superb, remarkable descriptions of history as it happened—a Zeppelin raid on London in World War 1, the Depression in America making the rich richer. As she describes them, these incidents are as evocative as any film, and the book is beautifully illustrated with excellent-quality portraits. Somebody should film it.

Kevin Brownlow, author of The Parade's Gone By….

Robert Sitton's remarkably well researched and evocatively written biography of Iris Barry's hitherto largely unknown position at the forefront of film appreciation is long overdue and most welcome. She led a fascinating private and public life and had an extremely complicated female odyssey in the world of her times, which she profoundly influenced through her writings and cultural actions. That influence still reverberates today.

Peter Bogdanovich

Sitton exhaustively traces Barry's career from aspiring poet to playwright, biographer and film critic.... Film students will enjoy this book.

Kirkus Reviews

The most fascinating characters tend to be the unsung heroes of their field, and there may be no greater example of this than Iris Barry.... This remarkable story is richly detailed... and is required reading for anyone interested in film, art, or museums.

Library Journal (starred review)

Meticulously researched, lovingly written.... Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film is a must-read biography.


An excellent on Iris Barry's important work at [Museum of Modern Art.]

Lillian Gish's Happy Life

A very welcome and long overdue tribute to a fascinating figure.

Henry K. Miller, Sight & Sound

Robert Sitton's biography makes for lively reading.

Philip Kemp, Times Higher Education

[A] compelling biography... gracefully written, always interesting, and well researched.... Anyone interested in film history, particularly in the history of film history and film preservation, will want to read this book. Iris Barry is a key figure, and she led a fascinating life.

Louise Brooks Society Blog

A terrific new biography.... Sitton brings to light an extraordinary story—or, rather, an extraordinary person, who has been languishing unjustly in the shadows.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Sitton's elegant, accomplished book is the first to elucidate Barry's important work... This is an indispensable account of a woman who was not only a singular pioneering personality but also a diligent, cunning creator of institutions and ways of seeing that are now taken for granted.


A full-fledged biography of the woman who changed the course of American film culture.

Leonard Maltin, Indiewire

[A] fascinating biography of the founder of the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library and the individual who helped institutionalize film studies.

Thomas Gladysz, The Huffington Post

Sitton, a film historian, has done justice to a fascinating and important subject. Following extensive archival research, he's told a dramatic story and ended with an incisive summary of Barry's character and achievements.

Jeffrey Meyers, The New Criterion
List of Illustrations
Foreword by Alistair Cooke
1. Early Years
2. "We Enjoyed the War"
3. "Dear Miss Barry"
4. The Other Bloomsbury
5. Life with Lewis
6. Children
7. Alan Porter
8. The Spectator
9. Splashing Into Film Society
10. Cinema Paragons, Hollywood, and Lady Mary
11. Let's Go to the Pictures
12. Victory and Defeat
13. America
14. The Askew Salon
15. Museum Men
16. Remarriage
17. Settling In
18. Cracking Hollywood
19. Art High and Low
20. On to Europe
21. Going Public
22. The Slow Martyrdom of Alfred Barr
23. Meanwhile, Back at the Library
24. New Work, Old Acquaintances
25. "The Master" and His Minions
26. Temora Farm
27. The Museum Enlists
28. Mr. Rockefeller's Office
29. L'Affair Buñuel
30. The Other Library
31. Divorce
32. Postwar Blues
33. Abbott's Fall
34. Hospital
35. Departure
36. La Bonne Font
37. Things Past
38. The Austin House
39. Readjustments
40. New York and London
41. Final Breaks
42. The End

Read an excerpt from Lady in the Dark:

Web Features:
Listen to Robert Sitton on The Leonard Lopate Show:

One of PopMatters's Best Books of 2014: Nonfiction

One of The Huffington Post's Best Film Books of 2014

Winner of the 2015 PROSE Awards in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

FINALIST - 2015 Oregon Book Awards for the Frances Fuller Victor Award in General Nonfiction

Longlist – 2015 Kraszna-Krausz Book Award for Best Moving Image Book

About the Author

Robert Sitton is adjunct professor of media and culture at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Duke University and worked on the cultural news staff of the New York Times, as director of film education for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and, in the 1970s, developed the Northwest Film Study Center of the Portland Art Museum, fashioned after Iris Barry's collection at the Museum of Modern Art.