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John Barrymore

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John Sidney Blyth Barrymore (February 15, 1882 – May 29, 1942)[1] was a Roman Catholic American actor, frequently called the greatest of his generation. He first gained fame as a stage actor in light comedy, then high drama and culminating in groundbreaking portrayals in Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Richard III. His success continued with motion pictures in various genres in both the silent and sound eras. Barrymore's personal life has been the subject of much writing before and since his passing in 1942.

A member of a multi-generation theatrical dynasty, he was the brother of Lionel Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, and is the paternal grandfather of Drew Barrymore.

Early life

Barrymore was born in the Philadelphia home of his maternal grandmother.[2] His parents were Maurice Barrymore and Georgie Drew Barrymore. His maternal grandmother was Louisa Lane Drew (aka Mrs Drew), a prominent and well-respected 19th century actress and theater manager, who instilled in him and his siblings the ways of acting and theatre life. His uncles were John Drew, Jr. and Sidney Drew.

Barrymore fondly remembered the summer of 1896 in his youth, spent on his father's rambling estate on Long Island. He and Lionel lived a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, attended by a black servant named Edward. John was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1898 after being caught entering a bordello.[3]

While still a teenager, he courted showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in 1901 and 1902. For years, rumors swirled that Nesbit had become pregnant and that Barrymore had arranged an abortion, disguised as an operation for "appendicitis". Several years later, another Nesbit lover, famed architect Stanford White, was murdered by Nesbit's husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw. Barrymore was subpoenaed to testify at Thaw's trial in defense hopes of showing that Nesbit had a history of "immorality." Both Barrymore and Nesbit denied the abortion story under oath.[4]

Barrymore was staying at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake struck. He had starred in a production of The Dictator and was booked to tour Australia with it. Since he loathed this prospect, he hid, spending the next few days drinking at the home of a friend on Van Ness Avenue. During this drinking jag, he worked out a plan to exploit the earthquake for his own ends. He decided to present himself as an on-the-scene "reporter", making up virtually everything he claimed to have witnessed. Twenty years later, Barrymore finally confessed to his deception, but by then, he was so famous that the world merely smiled indulgently at his admission."[5] His account was written as a "letter to my sister Ethel". He was sure the letter would be "worth at least a hundred dollars." In terms of publicity it earned Barrymore a thousand times that amount.[5]

Barrymore was also great friends and a drinking buddy with baseball legend Mike Donlin. Donlin eventually appeared in two of Barrymore's silent movies, Raffles The Amateur Cracksman and The Sea Beast.

Early theatre and film career

Barrymore delivered some of the most critically acclaimed performances in theatre and film history and was widely regarded as the screen's greatest performer during a movie career spanning twenty-five years as a leading man in more than sixty films.

Barrymore specialized in light comedies until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Thereafter Barrymore created a sensation in John Galsworthy's Justice (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt. It would be Nesbitt who would introduce him to Blanche Oelrichs. He followed this triumph with Broadway successes in Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy's Redemption (1918) and The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Richard III in 1920. Barrymore suffered a conspicuous failure in his wife Michael Strange's play Clair de Lune (1921), but followed it with the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on Broadway for 101 performances and then took to London in 1925.

Barrymore entered films around 1913 with the feature An American Citizen. He or someone using the name Jack Barrymore is given credit for four short films made in 1912 and 1913 but this has not been proven to be John Barrymore. Barrymore was most likely convinced into giving films a try out of economic necessity and the fact that he hated touring a play all over the United States. He could make a couple of movies in the off-season theater months or shoot a film in one part of a day while doing a play in another part. He also may have been goaded into films by his brother Lionel and his uncle Sidney, who had both been successfully making movies for a couple of years. Some of Barrymore's silent film roles included A. J. Raffles in Raffles the Amateur Cracksman (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924), Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926), and Don Juan (1926).

When talking pictures arrived, Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading of the major Richard III speech from Henry VI, part 2 in Warner Brothers' musical revue The Show of Shows ("Would they were wasted: marrow, bones and all") , and reprised his Captain Ahab role in Moby Dick (1930). His other leads included The Man from Blankley's (1930), Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931), Grand Hotel (1932) (in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel), Dinner at Eight (1933), Topaze (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934). He worked opposite many of the screen's foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. In 1933, Barrymore appeared as a Jewish attorney in the title role of Counsellor at Law based on Elmer Rice's 1931 play. As critic Pauline Kael later wrote, he "seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer...but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His 'presence' is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest."

Later career

Barrymore suffered a relapse on his boat, The Mariner, in 1929 off the coast of Mexico while on honeymoon with wife Dolores. This entailed a quick trip to shore by his crew and admittance into doctor's care. Much of his newly occurring health problems most likely stemmed from his consumption of bad and sometimes nearly poisonous illegal alcohol during the period of Prohibition in the United States.

In the late 1930s, Barrymore began to lose his ability to remember his lines, and his diminished abilities were apparent in a surviving screen test that he made for an aborted film version of Hamlet in 1934. From then on, he insisted on reading his dialogue from cue cards. He gave one last bravura Shakespeare performance, as an overage Mercutio in the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet. He continued to give creditable performances in lesser pictures, for example as Inspector Nielson in some of Paramount Pictures' Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and offered one last bravura dramatic turn in RKO's 1939 feature The Great Man Votes. After that, his remaining screen roles were broad caricatures of himself, as in The Great Profile (with "Oh, Johnny, How You Can Love" as his theme music) and World Premiere. In the otherwise undistinguished Playmates with band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore recited the "To Be, or Not to Be" soliloquy from Hamlet.

In 1937, Barrymore visited India, the land where his father had been born. In his private life, during his last years, he was married to his fourth and last wife, Elaine Barrie, a union that turned out to be disastrous. His brother Lionel tried to help him find a small place near Lionel's house and to convince him to stay away from impetuous marriages, which usually ended in divorce and put a strain on his once large income.

He was known for calling people by nicknames of his own creation. Dolores Costello was known in his writing alternately as "Small Cat," "Catkiwee," "Winkie", and "Egg." He called Lionel "Mike", and Ethel called John "Jake". He called Blanche Oelrichs "Fig" and called their daughter Diana "Treepeewee".


Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show and died some days later in his hospital room. His dying words were "Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him." Gene Fowler attributes different dying words to Barrymore in his biography Good Night, Sweet Prince. According to Fowler, John Barrymore roused as if to say something to his brother Lionel; Lionel asked him to repeat himself, and he simply replied, "You heard me, Mike."

According to Errol Flynn's memoirs, film director Raoul Walsh "borrowed" Barrymore's body before burial, and left his corpse propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home from The Cock and Bull Bar. This was re-created in the movie W.C. Fields and Me. Other accounts of this classic Hollywood tale substitute actor Peter Lorre in the place of Walsh, but Walsh himself tells the story in Richard Schickel's 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies. However, Barrymore's great friend Gene Fowler denied the story, stating that he and his son held vigil over the body at the funeral home until the funeral and burial.[6]

He was buried in East Los Angeles, at Calvary Cemetery, on June 2. Among his active pallbearers were Gene Fowler, John Decker, W.C. Fields, Herbert Marshall, Eddie Mannix, Louis B. Mayer, and David O. Selznick.[6] Years later, Barrymore's son John had the body reinterred at Philadelphia's Mount Vernon Cemetery.


For his contribution to the motion picture industry, John Barrymore has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6667 Hollywood Boulevard.

Barrymore had been a friend and contemporary (and drinking buddy) of his fellow Philadelphian W. C. Fields. In the 1976 film W.C. Fields and Me, Barrymore was played by Jack Cassidy. Cassidy, like Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. idolized Barrymore. Barrymore was also portrayed by Christopher Plummer in the 1996 one-man show Barrymore, and by Errol Flynn in the 1958 film Too Much Too Soon.

He is mentioned in the lyrics of the song "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)" by Harry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin, written in 1929, which became the theme song of the Apollo Theater in New York, and which was recorded by many artists including Doris Day in 1950.


  1. Katherine Corri Harris (1891–1927), an actress who starred in the 1918 film The House of Mirth, on September 1, 1910 and divorced in 1917 .
  2. Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs (1890–1950), aka "Michael Strange," on August 5, 1920 and divorced her in 1925 . They had one child:
    • Diana Blanche Barrymore (1921–1960), who died at age 38 of an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. A semi-autobiographical story of her life was depicted in Too Much, Too Soon, starring Errol Flynn as John Barrymore
  3. Dolores Costello (1903–1979), actress and model best known for Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1941); they married on November 24, 1928 and divorced in 1935. They had two children:
    • Dolores Ethel Mae Barrymore (born 1930)
    • John Drew Barrymore (1932–2004) (father of Drew Barrymore)
  4. Elaine Barrie (née Elaine Jacobs), (1916–2003), an actress; married November 9, 1936 and divorced 1940

Stage appearances

  • Glad of It (December 28, 1903 - January 1904) (Broadway)
  • The Dictator (April 4 - May 30, 1904; return engagement August 24 - September 1904) (Broadway and San Francisco)
  • Pantaloon / Alice Sit-by-the-Fire (December 25, 1905 - March 1906) (Broadway)
  • His Excellency the Governor (Revival) (April 4 - May 1907) (Broadway)
  • The Boys of Company B (April 8 - July 1907) (replacement for Arnold Daly) (Broadway)
  • Toddles (March 16 - April 1908) (Broadway)
  • Stubborn Cinderella (January 25 - April 10, 1909) (Broadway)
  • The Fortune Hunter (September 4, 1909 - July 1910) (Broadway)
  • Uncle Sam (October 30 - December 1911) (Broadway)
  • A Slice of Life (January 29 - March 1912 (Broadway and national tour)
  • The Affairs of Anatol (Revival) (October 14 - December 1912) (Broadway and national tour)
  • Believe Me Xantippe (August 19 - October 1913) (Broadway)
  • The Yellow Ticket (January 20 - June 1914) (Broadway)
  • Kick In (October 15, 1914 - March 1915) (Broadway)
  • Justice (April 3 - July 1916) (Broadway)
  • Peter Ibbetson (April 17 - June 1917) (Broadway)
  • The Jest (April 9 - June 14, 1919; return engagement September 19, 1919 - February 28, 1920) (Broadway)
  • King Richard III (Revival) (March 6 - April 1920) (Broadway and London)
  • Clair de Lune (April 18 - June 1921) (Broadway)
  • Hamlet (Revival) (November 16, 1922 - February 1923; return engagement November 26 - December 1923) (Broadway and London)
  • My Dear Children (January 31 - May 18, 1940) (Broadway)


Year Film Role
1914 An American Citizen Beresford Kruger
The Man from Mexico Fitzhugh
1915 Are You a Mason? Frank Perry
The Dictator Brooke Travers
The Incorrigible Dukane James Dukane
1916 Nearly a King Jack Merriwell, Prince of Bulwana
The Lost Bridegroom Bertie Joyce
The Red Widow Cicero Hannibal Butts
1917 Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman A.J. Raffles
National Red Cross Pageant The Tyrant (Russian episode)
1918 On the Quiet Robert Ridgeway
1919 Here Comes the Bride Frederick Tile
The Test of Honor Martin Wingrave
1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Edward Hyde
1921 The Lotus Eater Jacques Leroi
1922 Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes
1924 Beau Brummel Gordon Bryon "Beau" Brummel
1926 The Sea Beast Captain Ahab Ceeley
Don Juan Don Jose de Marana / Don Juan de Marana
1927 When a Man Loves Chevalier Fabien des Grieux
The Beloved Rogue François Villon
1928 Tempest Sgt. Ivan Markov
1929 Eternal Love Marcus Paltran
The Show of Shows Richard III in Henry VI Part III
1930 General Crack Duke of Kurland / Prince Christian
The Man from Blankley's Lord Strathpeffer
Moby Dick Captain Ahab Ceely
1931 Svengali Svengali
The Mad Genius Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov
1932 Arsène Lupin Arsène Lupin
Grand Hotel The Baron
State's Attorney Tom Cardigan
A Bill of Divorcement Hilary Fairfield
Rasputin and the Empress Prince Paul Chegodieff
1933 Topaze Prof. Auguste A. Topaze
Reunion in Vienna Archduke Rudolf von Habsburg
Dinner at Eight Larry Renault
Night Flight Riviere
Counsellor at Law George Simon
1934 Long Lost Father Carl Bellairs
Twentieth Century Oscar Jaffe
1936 Romeo and Juliet Mercutio
1937 Maytime Nicolai Nazaroff
Bulldog Drummond Comes Back Colonel Neilson
Night Club Scandal Dr. Ernest Tindal
Bulldog Drummond's Revenge Col. J.A. Nielson
True Confession Charles "Charley" Jasper
1938 Bulldog Drummond's Peril Col. Neilson
Romance in the Dark Zoltan Jason
Marie Antoinette King Louis XV
Spawn of the North Windy Turlon
Hold That Co-ed Governor Gabby Harrigan
1939 The Great Man Votes Gregory Vance
Midnight Georges Flammarion
1940 The Great Profile Evans Garrick
The Invisible Woman Professor Gibbs
1941 World Premiere Duncan DeGrasse
Playmates John Barrymore


  1. Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 24
  2. Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 25
  3. Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 41
  4. Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 88
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts: The San Francisco Earthquake, Stein and Day, New York and Souvenir Press, London, 1971; reprinted Dell, 1972, SBN 440-07631, page 212
  6. 6.0 6.1 Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 364

Further reading

  • Good Night, Sweet Prince (1944) by Gene Fowler
  • The New Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace
  • The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee
  • Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore (1977), by John Kobler

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at John Barrymore. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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