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The Desperate Barrymores

May 2024
6min read

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.”

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.

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