The Desperate Barrymores

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According to recent studies, alcoholics “have stronger expectations about how alcohol will affect them than other drinkers do. Alcoholics believe that alcohol transforms their personalities,” making them more relaxed, entertaining, sexually alluring. This is also more or less the sort of transformation actors hope for when they take the stage. “An actor is much better off than a human being,” John Barrymore once said. “He isn’t stuck with the paltry fellow he is. He can always act his better and non-existent self.” And so it is really not surprising that acting and alcoholism often seem to go together, though rarely have they been so sadly intertwined as in the lives of the Barrymores—Lionel, Ethel, and John—newly chronicled in The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters (Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95).

Theatrical biography is never easy. Live performances die on paper, the titles of plays and movies and the names of critics and cast members quickly pall, and triple biography is triply difficult. The story of the Barrymore clan remains irresistible, but this latest retelling is badly undercut by arch asides that seem to suggest that the author’s familiarity with her subjects has bred something like contempt.

Surely, compassion is called for. Given the unsteadiness of the world in which the Barrymores struggled to grow up, it’s hard to see how they managed to accomplish anything at all. Their self-obsessed, quarrelsome parents evidently did little more for them than bring them into the world. Georgie Drew was a gifted comedienne, the heir to a great theatrical tradition and celebrated for her wit and beauty, but so distant and so rarely home that even though John, the youngest of her children, was eleven when she died of tuberculosis in 1893, he could truthfully say he had never known her.

The children knew their father all too well. Maurice Barrymore was a British drawing-room comedian—his real name was Blythe; he had lifted “Barrymore” from an old playbill—remarkably handsome, utterly irresponsible, and so self-dramatizing, his daughter recalled, that when he heard that his favorite New York Giants had lost a crucial game, he got off the train on which he was riding and strode up and down the platform, waving his arms and shouting, “God! How could they do this to me!” until she fled in embarrassment. He was a noisy and flamboyant drunk—“Staggering is a sign of strength,” he taught his admiring sons; “weak men are carried home”—and a chronic philanderer. Returning home one Sunday morning after a night in a brothel, he found his wife and children on their way out and asked where they were going. “To church,” his wife is supposed to have said, “and you can go to hell.” He did, more or less, ending his days as a victim of syphilitic paresis in the Long Island Home for the Insane, shouting lines from forgotten plays, convinced he was still on tour.

The children’s grandmother, Mrs. John Drew, in whose Philadelphia home they were brought up until financial reverses forced them to be farmed out among relatives and friends, was the lonely rock to which they clung. She stood less than five feet tall and had a sour temper and none of the family’s good looks, but she was capable simultaneously of performing onstage, managing her own theater, and overseeing her household while somehow persuading Philadelphia society that although hers was a theatrical family, it was still worth knowing. She impressed upon all three of the grandchildren who called her Mum Mum her conviction that “one never disclosed one’s deepest feeling.”

Lionel, born in 1878, was the eldest of the three, the least enthusiastic about acting, and the most determinedly reticent about himself. Despite diligent research, Peters has been unable authoritatively to answer such basic questions as whether his first child survived infancy or precisely what it was that confined him to a wheelchair for the last seventeen years of his life. But he suffered from the same insecurities that plagued his siblings, and bad reviews of his Macbeth in 1921 so wounded him that he abandoned the stage altogether, supporting his simultaneous addictions to alcohol, morphine, and cocaine instead with undemanding character parts on radio and in the movies (he played crusty old Dr. Gillespie, first seen in the Dr. Kildare films, fourteen times). When a friend suggested that his reputation would not survive such wholesale squandering of his talent, he was unmoved: “You don’t know Barrymores. We survive anything that pays.”