The Desperate Barrymores

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Ethel, a year younger than Lionel and less haunted than either of her brothers by the memory of their drunken father, was the most stable of the three. Beautiful and stately, with huge, expressive eyes and a voice that one of her many spurned suitors, Winston Churchill, remembered as “soft, alluring, persuasive, magnetic … liquid gold,” she was less a great actress than a magnificent presence. She was uniformly protective of her personal life, telling one intrusive reporter that if he wanted to know what she had done, he could look it up in the index of The New York Times . She too was an alcoholic, her marriage to a brutal, unfaithful stockbroker proved disastrous, and she was only slightly more competent as a mother to her own three children than her own mother had been to hers. Still, she stayed faithful to the stage for fifty years despite shifts in theatrical fashion that made suitable parts harder and harder to come by, then made a second, successful career playing dauntless old ladies on film, a medium for which she never entirely lost her scorn. “You work about two minutes,” she said, “then go to your dressing room and read a detective novel.”

Adopting a pattern common among the offspring of alcoholics, Lionel and Ethel had sought approval as children by being dutiful solid little citizens who tried to bring order to a world in which their parents were more childlike than they. Their brother, John, took the opposite tack, vying for his grandmother’s attention through relentless misbehavior: pilfering stage jewelry from her dresser drawer, draining her dinner guests’ half-empty wineglasses until he passed out, drawing pictures of the demons that haunted his dreams, secretly blaming himself for all the troubles of his chaotic family.

When he was fifteen, events conspired to reinforce his worst feelings of unworthiness. First, his father’s young and beautiful second wife seduced him, an event that further intensified his guilt—and infused him with the chronic distrust of attractive women that was to wreck all four of his marriages. Then his beloved grandmother died: “He never felt safe after that,” his brother would write. “I am inclined … to the theory that he was in revolt against the whole insecure pattern of life, and that the insecurity sprang from the collapse of his frame of reference when Mum Mum died when he was fifteen.”

From roughly that time on, John confessed to a doctor, he was “more or less a chronic drunkard.”

At first his acting outshone his alcoholism. Few performers have ever received the adulation John Barrymore won onstage. He began in light comedy, where the easy charm and celebrated profile he had inherited from his father were all he needed, but he soon eclipsed the memory of Maurice Barrymore, playing an injustly imprisoned man in John Galsworthy’s tragedy Justice in 1916, then scoring still greater triumphs in Shakespeare, first as Richard III and then, most memorably, as Hamlet.

Given the world in which the Barrymores struggled to grow up, it’s hard to see how they managed to accomplish anything.

Eva Le Gallienne, who saw his Hamlet four times, thought him “the greatest actor we ever had,” and she may have been right. We have only a handful of late film performances from which to judge him, but in the best of these— Grand Hotel, A Bill of Divorcement , and Twentieth Century , for example—he remains mesmerizing. Despite his thinning hair and puffy eyes and the continuing tension that comes from watching him teeter on the edge of self-parody, it is virtually impossible to look at anyone else when he’s on-screen. Not Greta Garbo or Katharine Hepburn or Carole Lombard—not even his own shamelessly hammy brother—can distract us for long.

But John Barrymore’s great success served only to deepen his inbred sense of failure. Convinced of his own worthlessness, he had little but contempt for those who praised him. He disdained his art as he disdained himself, and by 1925 he had joined Lionel in Hollywood to begin what turned out to be seventeen years of appallingly public disintegration. Alcohol ravaged his body and destroyed his memory; his lines had to be scrawled on off-camera blackboards. He battled with wives and ex-wives, fell hopelessly into debt, drank perfume when desperate friends denied him liquor, compulsively pursued teenaged starlets, and, if Barrymore’s boozy friend and first biographer Gene Fowler is to believed, may even have tried to bed his own tormented daughter, Diana.

In Playmates , his fifty-seventh film, he was reduced to cruel burlesquing of the great actor he had been. Called upon to intone Hamlet’s soliloquy to a comic called Ish Kabibble, he drew himself up and, with tears slipping down his face, delivered the speech with as much of his old power as he could muster. The set fell silent. “That’s the funniest-tasting gin I ever drank,” he said, and turned away.

He finally died at sixty on May 29, 1942, from an accumulation of ills most of which were caused by alcohol. Even on his deathbed Barrymore continued to perform as best he could—pretending to proposition nurses, motioning Gene Fowler to lean down for a final word, then whispering, “Tell me, is it true that you are the illegitimate son of Buffalo Bill?”

But as he drifted in and out of consciousness, Lionel heard him call again and again for Mum Mum, the severe little woman who had provided the only stability he had ever known.