We who play, who entertain for a few years, what can we leave that will last? -Ethel Barrymore
While the U.S. has no monarchy, it has certainly had its share of Hollywood royalty. For over three generations, the Barrymore dynasty has provided theater and film with some of its most important actors. However, one set of siblings is especially legendary–that of Ethel, Lionel, and John.
In order to delve into the history of this fascinating trio, I must first introduce some key players that preceded this group. To begin our exploration of the Barrymores and their Philadelphia ties, I must initiate by introducing a woman named Louisa Lane Drew.
Louisa was from an ordinary background, but carried herself as though she were royalty. Despite her short height and complete lack of formal education, she possessed a commanding presence. Furthermore, she claimed that all she needed to know was taught through the stage. Possessing a strong work ethic and sardonic sense of humor, Louisa Lane Drew garnered respect from her theatrical peers and family. While being a devoted grandmother to Lionel, Ethel, and John, she was a prominent figure in Philadelphia, managing one of the city’s most frequented theaters.
For 31 years, Louisa Lane Drew managed Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre, which sat approximately two thousand patrons per performance. The likes of Fanny Davenport, Joseph Jefferson, Charlotte Cushman, and many other popular players graced its regal stage. Although Philadelphia possessed other theatrical venues, the Arch Street Theater was particularly special because of Louisa’s presence. She was affectionately known as “The Duchess” in town. A. Frank Stull’s excerpts from the March 1905 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly offer the following images of Louisa:
“Mrs. Drew had a way of putting up for a long time with things that she felt should be remedied; but, little by little, as her patience ebbed, her silence would become more pronounced, like the lull before the storm; then, some day, upon arriving at the theatre, she would walk into the box office and don a certain red Paisley shawl which…fittingly reflected her mood. So long as that shawl was in evidence, all the people of the Arch, from stage carpenter to leading man, realized that perfection in the performance of duty was the smallest return they could give for their salaries…”
Louisa also played several roles in theatrical productions enacted by her theatrical company, as she had come from a theatrical background. Her paternal grandparents Louis Rouse and Thomas Haycraft Lane were both English actors. Rouse and Lane had a son, Thomas Frederick, who worked in a theater. Thomas Frederick married singer Eliza Trenter, and Louisa was their only child. Louisa was born 19 days before the passing of King George III. His death prompted British theaters to remain dark for a month of mourning. This extended time of bereavement caused difficulties for actors who depended upon performance in order to make a living. Therefore, the Lanes traveled throughout England to perform, with baby Louisa in tow.
Eliza carried a 12-month-old Louisa in her arms and walked across the stage, and Louisa provided a deeply organic and believable performance in her first role of–you guessed it–“crying baby.” As she grew, Louisa the toddler would squeal with delight at the sight of bright lights and an audience. Louisa would play numerous children’s roles, and would have to be fed cherries backstage in order to keep quiet when not performing.
Louisa’s father died when she was 29, prompting Louisa and her mother, Eliza, to join the Park Theater Company and sail to New York City in 1827. Eliza made her American debut at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater, while Louisa added many male roles to her credits. Within a year, Louisa’s talents were noticed, particularly when she played five different characters a production of Twelve Precisely at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Theater.
At this point, Eliza remarried, and Louisa’s new stepfather was an actor and the stage manager of the Walnut Street Theater. At this point, Louisa’s popularity caused her to receive an invitation to a presidential reception in Washington, D. C., where she met President Andrew Jackson.
After two failed marriages, Louisa met an Irish-born actor named John Drew. They married in 1850, and with Louisa being seven years his senior. They continued to work together in the theater until Drew and his business partner William Wheatley began to manage the Arch Street Theater–briefly renamed Wheatley and Drew’s Arch Street Theatre.
The couple settled in Philadelphia, where their first child, Louisa, was born, followed by John and Georgiana. However, the demands of running a theater did not correspond with John Drew’s preference to live a carefree lifestyle. He left his managerial position to pursue an acting career. He left his wife to raise the children, while also leaving to headline at the competing Walnut Street Theater. Despite John Drew’s philandering, Louisa never showed that it bothered her. Instead, she busied herself with the Arch Street Theatre.
The stockholders of the Arch Street Theatre realized that John Drew was not an effective businessman, and asked his wife to manage The Arch instead. Located near Benjamin Franklin’s grave and the Betsy Ross House, the playhouse soon became known as Mrs. John Drew’s Arch Street Theatre. Louisa took over the recently renovated theater just as the American Civil War erupted. Her sense of business and theatrical contacts ushered The Arch into its prime over the next three decades.
While managing The Arch, it was not atypical to see Louisa play in dozens of roles each season. She would work alongside the most popular actors of the day, including Tyrone Power Sr., father to matinee idol, Tyrone Power. Another actor with whom she worked was John Wilkes Booth, who is, of course, associated with the infamous Lincoln assassination. Prior to the assassination, Booth was a well-known stage star who also had roots in Philadelphia. In many cases, he was considered a heartthrob and hit at the by the Arch Street’s audiences.
Some of Booth’s family descendants continue to reside in Philadelphia, and have archived parts of his theatrical career. Louisa Lane Drew comes up in their artifacts, as an ever-domineering Duchess. The Booth descendants shared the following information with a Philadelphia news outlet:
“Louisa Lane Drew, an actress and an ancestor of the Barrymore acting family who operated the theater, didn’t think that much of Booth as an actor, but he was popular and she had to sell tickets. Booth was scared to death of her.
She was the grand old lady of the theater, and he was 24. They would be in rehearsal, and, with mock sweetness, she’d pretend to ask him advice about where she should stand in a scene.”
A prominent member of society at this point, Louisa had her own pew reserved at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and her own silver offering dish engraved with her name. At Louisa’s insistence, her youngest daughter Georgiana regularly taught Sunday school at the same church.
After debuting at The Arch when she was just 15, Georgiana soon established herself as a talented comedic actress. Georgiania’s brother, Jack, had the good looks and confidence needed to charm the public. Encouraged by his mother, he left for New York to take a role in a production of Hamlet. Also appearing in that play was a relatively unknown English actor and former boxer, Maurice Barrymore. The two immediately struck up a friendship and enjoyed their time off in New York when not rehearsing and performing. Once the show closed, Jack took Barrymore to his family’s home in Philadelphia.
Louisa was not impressed by Maurice, and did not find his personal charm endearing. However, Georgiana did, and the two married in 1876. They then sought theater work in New York.
When Georgiana became pregnant, the couple returned to Pennsylvania. In spite of their differences, Louisa took Maurice and Georgiana in, wanting to secure a good Philadelphia home for her daughter and grandchild. While Barrymore respectfully addressed his mother-in-law as “Ma’am,” she called him “You!”
The first Barrymore child, Lionel Herbert, was born on April 28, 1878. Georgiana was soon expecting a child again. When her husband headed west with an acting troop, she remained in Philadelphia with her mother and son. A daughter, Ethel Mae, was born on August 15, 1879. The children found the strength and stability in their grandmother that their parents lacked. With the deep love and security they received from Louisa, the children would call her “Mum-Mum.”
A third child, John Sidney, was born on February 14, 1882, at his grandmother’s house. “Mum-Mum” was immediately enamored with the baby and nicknamed him “Green Goose” after a favorite storybook character.
Shortly after John’s birth, Louisa’s ever-growing family moved to a larger residence at 140 North Twelfth Street. Various family members, including an uncle, and Louisa’s aging mother, also lived in the same home. White marble steps led into the dark, three-story brick house. The house was dominated by large, drafty rooms connected by long hallways with two attics on the top floor. Whisperings that the place was haunted made it even more intriguing to the children. A favorite memory occurred with a mischievous Lionel. After Mum-Mum scolded Lionel for having too many pet mice, the boy released them from their cages in their Uncle Googan’s room. The house staff was horrified by the many little creatures but Uncle Googan wasn’t above feeding them by hand. “Mice,” he’d say, “keep Philadelphia from being dull.”
There was also a tombstone-making dwarf who lived across the street. He sported a weathervane mustache and showed his work in his front yard. The somber stone angels and sad-eyed doves that he made by hand prompted Georgiana to christen their new home “The Tomb of the Capulets.”
In 1892, Louisa began to face dwindling ticket sales at The Arch. After 32 years of managing the business, she resigned. Moreover, Georgiana was severely ill. Doctors suggested that she rest in warm weather, so she sailed to the Bahamas. While the climate seemed to improve her health temporarily, she was diagnosed with an advanced case of tuberculosis. She was sent to California in the care of 13-year-old Ethel, because the rest of the family had commitments on stage. Three weeks after her arrival, Georgiana died on July 2, 1893, days shy of her 39th birthday. Ethel accompanied her mother’s body to Philadelphia on an eight-day train trip alone.
Louisa buried Georgiana in the family plot at Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery, and took on the responsibility of trying to provide stable lives for Ethel, Lionel, and John, as their father was on tour. Louisa gave up the Philadelphia residence and moved to a boardinghouse on Staten Island. The children lived nearby with their Uncle Googan, along with his wife and son.
Eventually, Louisa developed dropsy–a painful condition which caused her ankles and feet to swell. Her 15-year-old grandson, John, cared for her, as the rest of the family had professional obligations. Each day, he would help her down two flights of stairs so she could enjoy the view from her new home in Larchmont, New York. John would wash her feet, put her to bed, and make sure that she was asleep before he went out. On August 31, 1897, Louisa passed away at the age of 77 in John’s presence.
Louisa had been the only figure of stability in John’s life. Lionel later stipulated that life without Louisa was the beginning of John’s many insecurities. Louisa returned to Philadelphia to be buried alongside Georgiana and John Drew.
Now that we have a clear understanding of whom I consider to be the matriarch of the Barrymore dynasty, we can begin to delve into the lives of Lionel, Ethel, and John.
Lionel attended the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, although each of the Barrymore children were raised Roman Catholic, as were Ethel and John. At some point, Georgiana secretly converted to Catholicism, per the inspiration of renowned Polish actress Helena Modjeska. Ethel would be the only Barrymore to remain devout.
Lionel begun his acting career when sharing the stage with Louisa in the early 1890s. He appeared on Broadway in his early twenties, and often appeared on stage with his siblings. Lionel, Ethel, and John were all under the tutelage of Broadway producer Charles Frohman, and were therefore frequently cast alongside each other.
Unlike his siblings, Lionel would never develop the more heightened persona of a stage actor. Rather, Lionel established a career as a character actor for films. Lionel was well on his way to becoming a character actor on the stage, prior to moving towards cinematic roles.
In 1904, Lionel married actress Doris Rankin and spent several years in Paris together. Later, Lionel would return to the Broadway stage, often acting alongside his wife. He would appear in occasional film roles for D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios, but spent much of his early career on the stage. In the meantime, Lionel and Doris had two daughters, but neither child survived infancy. Lionel never recovered from the losses of his daughters, which added strain to his relationship with Doris. The couple divorced in 1923.
After several short-lived theatrical performances, Lionel was convinced to seek a career in films. Lionel acted in one last play in 1923 with Irene Fenwick, who he married that same year.
Before the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, Lionel forged a positive relationship with Louis B. Mayer. In fact, when he was on his honeymoon with Irene in Italy, the two also worked on filming The Eternal City for Metro Pictures in Rome. Lionel worked on several silent films for Metro, but most of them are now lost.
Lionel worked almost exclusively for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While working on the film Dinner at Eight (1933), Lionel befriended actress Jean Harlow, who was born around the same time as his daughters were. Therefore, had his daughters survived, they would have been about Jean’s age. Lionel developed a fatherly admiration for Jean, and mourned her as though she were family after her untimely passing in 1937.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Lionel was often stereotyped as a grouchy but lovable elderly man. This character may be evidenced time and again, but most notably in On Borrowed Time (1939), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), and Grand Hotel (1932).
Lionel portrayed Doctor Gillespie in a series of Doctor Kildare films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He continued to carry out this role during the MGM radio series that debuted in 1950 and was later syndicated. Barrymore had broken his hip in an accident, so he played Gillespie in a wheelchair. Later, his worsening arthritis kept him confined to the chair.
The causes of his disabilities are up for debate, but his performance in Captains Courageous (1937) was one of the last times he would be seen standing and walking unassisted. Afterward, Barrymore was able to get about for a short period of time on crutches even though he was in great pain. During the filming of You Can’t Take It With You, the pain of standing with crutches was so severe that Lionel required hourly shots of painkillers. By 1938, Lionel used a wheelchair exclusively and never really walked again. He could, however, stand for very short periods of time.
His best known role, thanks to perennial Christmastime replays on television, is arguably his portrayal of Mr. Potter, the greedy banker in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Lionel had played the role of Scrooge in the past, and channeled an unreformed Scrooge into his characterization of Mr. Potter.
Lionel registered for the draft during World War II, despite his age and disability, to encourage others to enlist in the military. He expressed an interest in appearing on television in the 1950s, but felt compelled to remain loyal to his old friend and employer, Louis B. Mayer and MGM.
Lionel was also a prolific composer. His works ranged from solo piano pieces to large-scale orchestral works, such as “Tableau Russe.” His piano compositions, “Scherzo Grotesque” and “Song Without Words”, were published by G. Schirmer in 1945. Additionally, Lionel was a skillful graphic artist. For years, he maintained an artist’s shop and studio attached to his home in Los Angeles. His etchings and drawings are prized by collectors around the world.
Lionel died from a heart attack on November 15, 1954.
Ethel was named after her father’s favorite character in William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Newcomes. She attended Roman Catholic schools in the Philadelphia area.
Ethel and Lionel’s childhood essentially ended when Georgiana died in 1893, and they were forced to go to work still in their teens. Ethel’s Broadway debut occurred in 1895, leading her to perform in the states and in London. Men seemed to be smitten with her, including Winston Churchill, who asked Ethel to marry him. Not wishing to be the wife of a politician, she refused.
She had, at the age of 19, while on tour in England, been rumored to be engaged to the Duke of Manchester, actor Gerald du Maurier, writer Richard Harding Davis and the aforementioned Churchill. Upon her engagement to Laurence Irving, son of Sir Henry Irving, an old friend of Mrs. John Drew, she cabled her father Maurice who responded with a cable, “Congratulations!” When she broke up with Irving she cabled Maurice who wired back, “Congratulations!”
After a successful season in London, Ethel returned to America. Frohman finally gave Ethel the role that would make her a star: Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which opened at the Garrick Theatre on February 4, 1901. Unbeknownst to Ethel, her father Maurice had witnessed the performance as an audience member and walked up to his daughter, congratulated her and gave her a big hug. This was the first and only time he saw her on stage. When the tour concluded in Boston in June, she had out-drawn two of the most prominent actresses of her day.
Ethel married Russell Griswold Colt, grandnephew of American arms maker Samuel Colt, on March 14, 1909. The couple had been introduced when Colt had strolled by the table where she was having lunch with her uncle, actor John (Uncle Jack) Drew, in Sherry’s Restaurant in New York. The couple had three children: Samuel, Ethel, and John Drew.
Barrymore’s marriage to Colt was precarious from the start, with Barrymore filing divorce papers as early in the marriage as 1911, much to Colt’s surprise, and later recanted by Ethel as a misunderstanding by the press. At least one source, a servant, alleged that Colt abused her and also that he fathered a child with another woman while married to Ethel. They divorced in 1923 and she did not seek alimony from Colt for herself. However, she demanded that his entailed wealth provide for their children. A devout Catholic, Ethel Barrymore never remarried.
Following her triumph in Captain Jinks, Ethel gave many notable performances. In Thomas Raceward’s Sunday, she uttered what would be her most famous line, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.” This became a popular catch phrase in the 1920s and 1930s. Many references to it can be found in the media of the period, including the 1933 Laurel and Hardy film Sons of the Desert.
In 1928, the Ethel Barrymore Theatre opened in New York City. It was not merely named after her–it was built for her. The Ethel Barrymore Theatre is the only surviving theatre of the many which Lee and J.J. Shubert built for performers who were affiliated with them.
Ethel appeared in her first motion picture, The Nightingale, in 1914. Members of her family were already in pictures; Lionel had entered films in 1911 and John made his first feature in 1913 after having debuted in Lubin short films in 1912. She made 15 silent pictures between 1914 and 1919, most of them for Metro Pictures. Most of these films were made on the East Coast, as her Broadway career and children would always come first. A few of her silent films have survived.
In the 1940s, she moved to Hollywood. When growing up in Philadelphia, she and her brothers put on homemade plays together, often with Lionel the hero, John the villain, and Ethel the heroine. The only two films that featured all three siblings—Ethel, John and Lionel—were National Red Cross Pageant (1917) and Rasputin and the Empress (1932). The former film is now considered a lost film.
Barrymore won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film None but the Lonely Heart (1944) opposite Cary Grant, but made plain that she was not overly impressed by it. On March 22, 2007, her Oscar showed up on eBay.
Ethel also made a number of television appearances in the 1950s. In 1956, she hosted 14 episodes of a TV series Ethel Barrymore Theatre, produced by the DuMont Television Network and presented on the DuMont flagship station WABD just as the network was folding. Unfortunately none of the episodes were preserved on kinescope. A 1952 appearance on What’s My Line? survives, however, in addition to several radio broadcasts.
Ethel Barrymore died of cardiovascular disease in 1959, at her home in Hollywood, California, after having lived for many years with a heart condition. She was less than two months shy of her 80th birthday.
Much of John Barrymore’s early life was unsettled. As a child, Barrymore was sometimes badly behaved, and he was sent away to schools in an attempt to instill discipline. The strategy was not always successful, and he attended elementary schools in four states. He was sent first to the boys’ annex of the Convent of Notre Dame in Philadelphia. One punishment that he received there was being made to read a copy of Dante’s Inferno; he later recounted that, as he looked at the illustrations by Gustave Doré, “my interest was aroused, and a new urge was born within me. I wanted to be an artist.” He was expelled from the school in 1891 and was sent to Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey, where Lionel was already studying. John was unhappy at Seton and was soon withdrawn, after which he attended several public schools in New York, including the Mount Pleasant Military Academy.
In 1895, John entered Georgetown Preparatory School, then located on Georgetown University Campus, but he was expelled in November 1897, for one of two potential reasons. One reason is that he was caught waiting in a brothel, but biographer Michael A. Morrison theorizes that John was expelled after the staff saw him inebriated. By the time he left Georgetown he was already in the early stages of a chronic drinking problem. 1897 was also the year that his grandmother died.
Barrymore traveled with his father to England in 1898, where he joined King’s College School, Wimbledon. A year later he joined the Slade School of Fine Art, to study literature and art. After a year of formal study, he left and “devoted much of his subsequent stay in London to bohemianism and nocturnal adventures”, according to his biographer Margot Peters. Barrymore returned to New York in the summer of 1900, and by November he found work as an illustrator on The New York Evening Journal, at a salary of $50 a week.
John had always professed a dislike of the acting profession, but in 1900 he was persuaded by his father to join him on stage for a few performances of a short play. He appeared in the same piece again the following year, but he still thought of the experience as merely a way to supplement his income, rather than as a possible future career. In October 1901, Ethel was appearing in Philadelphia when one of the younger actors became temporarily unavailable. She persuaded the director to allow John to accept the part of the minor character, and Barrymore traveled from New York, learning his lines on the train. In the first act, he stopped in the middle of his dialogue, unable to remember the text, and asked the audience and his fellow actors, “I’ve blown up. Where do we go from here?”, which led the cast to improvise the remainder of the scene.
In May 1902, John was fired from his newspaper position after crafting a poor illustration for the paper while hung over. He spent time as a poster designer but realized it was not lucrative enough for his lifestyle. In a discussion with Lionel, John concluded, “It looks as though I’ll have to succumb to the family curse, acting.” John later admitted that there no romance regarding how he came to have a career on the stage. He simply felt that he needed the income.
John gained his first leading role in early 1907, in the comedy The Boys of Company B at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. He received positive reviews, but continued unprofessional stage behavior. John was mentored by actor William Collier, who taught John a great deal. However, Collier became frustrated with John’s alcoholism, which led to missed performances, drunken stage appearances, and general misbehavior. Nonetheless, John’s skills as an actor were growing and garnering attention.
In mid-1910 John met socialite Katherine Corri Harris, and the couple married in September that year. Harris’ father objected to the relationship and refused to attend the wedding. John‘s increasing dependence on alcohol was also a cause of marital problems, and he explained that “unhappiness increased the drink, and drink increased the unhappiness.” Katherine would complain about not seeing her husband as often as she should, while John equated the whole marriage to a bus accident. They divorced after seven years of marriage.
Critical responses to John’s next few roles were not as stellar. While John traveled and performed at various locales, he eventually transitioned into a career in film. John may have appeared in his first films in 1912. In four short films, a cast member is listed as “Jack Barrymore”; this is probably John, but his presence cannot be confirmed. The four films were Dream of a Motion Picture Director, The Widow Casey’s Return, A Prize Package (all 1912) and One on Romance (1913). The films were produced by the Philadelphia-based Lubin Manufacturing Company and were lost in an explosion and fire at the Lubin vaults in 1914.
In late 1913, John made his first confirmed feature film, the romantic comedy An American Citizen, with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company. Despite the success of this film, John continued to seek stage work. He spent much of the following years shifting between stage and film performances. After many lighthearted comedic roles, John shifted to the dramatic. His portrayal in Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde was considered a masterpiece. In fact, the film was so successful that the U.S. Navy used stills of Barrymore in its recruiting posters.
After planning for over a year – largely in secret –John played his first Shakespeare part, the title role in Richard III. Conscious of the criticism of his vocal range, he underwent training with Margaret Carrington, the voice and diction trainer, to ensure he sounded right for the part, and the pair worked together daily for up to six hours a day for six weeks. Although a commercial and critical success, the play closed after 31 performances when John collapsed, suffering a nervous breakdown. He had worked ceaselessly, appearing on stage in the evenings, while planning or rehearsing the next production during the day, and by the time he appeared as Richard, he was spending his day times filming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
During the summer of 1920, suffragist Blanche Oelrichs became pregnant with John’s child, and a quick divorce was arranged with her husband, which left her and John free to marry in August that year; a daughter, Diana Barrymore, followed in March 1921. Soon after the birth, he began rehearsals for Clair de Lune, which his wife had adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs.
John also continued to explore Shakespearian tragedy when he starred as the title character in Hamlet. His portrayal of the ill-fated prince proved to be a definitive moment in his career. The neews of John’s success in Hamlet piqued the interest of Warner Bros., which signed him as the lead in the 1924 film Beau Brummel. Although the film itself was mediocre, John received generally positive reviews. At this point, John decided to actively pursue a career in films. He felt that the repetition of a role, as typical for stage actors, could be detrimental for actors. John wanted to take on the challenge of experiencing new characters.
John went on to work in several successful films. He also began an affair with one of his co-stars, Dolores Costello, and divorced Oelrichs. Both he and Oelrichs were in committed relationships with other people. He and Dolores married in 1928, welcoming a daughter, Dolores, in April 1930, and a son, John Drew, in June 1932.
Afterwards, John signed a non-exclusive contract with MGM, appearing in the 1932 film, Grand Hotel. While the film was a major success and pioneered the ensemble cast, John received mediocre reviews this time. In his final film of the year, Rasputin and the Empress, Barrymore, Ethel and Lionel co-starred. Physically, John had deteriorated, and he had gained weight because of his drinking. The film was a critical and commercial failure, and MGM lost significant amounts of money. The New Yorker thought the three Barrymores had produced their worst work.
In December 1933, John agreed with RKO to film Hamlet. He underwent screen tests and hired Carrington to act as vocal coach again, but during one session, his memory failed him again, and the project was eventually scrapped. Barrymore starred in two films released in 1934, the drama Long Lost Father and the screwball comedy Twentieth Century, alongside Carole Lombard. In the latter film, Barrymore played madcap Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe, demonstrating “rare genius as a comedian.” In 2011, the film was added to the National Film Registry, where it was described as Barrymore’s “last great film role.”
In May 1934, Barrymore was filming Hat, Coat and Glove for RKO when, during the filming of one scene, he again forgot his lines and even the name of his character. Filming was postponed until the following day, but the result was the same. After he took a break for a few days, he returned to the set, but he still could not remember any of the script, so he was replaced. Soon afterwards, he suffered a mental and physical breakdown and was hospitalized. Costello confirmed that his drinking over the previous two years had worsened, and she described him as a “hopeless alcoholic.”
Around this time, John began a relationship with 19-year-old Elaine Barrie, and their affair was highly publicized. Costello filed for divorce in 1936, and John and Elaine married that same year.
Because of his drinking habits, many studios were reluctant to hire John. In response, John began to work more conscientiously on film and radio sets. With his memory still being a problem, John would often utilize cue cards. Nevertheless, crew members and co-stars would refer to him a Mr. Barrymore, as a sign of respect.
John acted alongside Elaine in stage plays, as well as in the film Midnight. When starring in the play My Dear Children, Barrymore would often ad-lib through the story if his memory failed him. At other moments, he would greet members of the audience during the show, using profanity freely. Word spread that he would arrive late and confuse his lines, but he would always put on a good show. His work in My Dear Children was considered a triumph. John and Elaine divorced in 1940, in the midst of the play’s run.
During the last two years of his life, John was reduced to playing a type of clown in Rudy Vallee’s show. His act was essentially self-parody, with John joking about his marital issues, drinking habits, and declining career. On May 19th, 1942, John collapsed when recording a line for the show. He returned to his Catholic faith and died at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital on May 29, from cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure, complicated by pneumonia. The youngest of the Barrymore siblings passed away first, and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.
While Philadelphia is a deeply historic town, not many edifices remain that would have been of significance to the Barrymores.
The home in which Lionel, Ethel, and John grew up under Louisa’s care was razed in order to make way for a convention center. Had the home stayed, it would be in the absolute heart of the current convention center, and in the middle of the underpass. This is the location as it stands today:
The Episcopal Academy which Lionel attended exists as an entity, but is no longer in the same building that Lionel would have frequented. The school relocated from its campus on Locust and Juniper. Its former building made way for the Hotel Sylvania–a luxurious hotel made especially popular during the days of bootlegging.
Here is the Episcopal Academy as Lionel would have remembered it:
The Hotel Sylvania was then in its stead:
With the recession in the 1970s, tourism to Philadelphia decreased, and the Hotel Sylvania was one of the recession’s casualties. The hotel was converted into apartments, although the ballroom and cocktail lounge were restored in 2008. The original edifice still stands.
Louisa had a pew at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, and could frequently be seen at mass. She also contributed financially to the church.
Here is St. Stephen’s as Louisa would have known it:
The church still stands at 19 S. 10th Street in Philadelphia.
Several of the Barrymores and Louisa are buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery, located at the intersection of Ridge and Lehigh. Mt. Vernon requires that you make an appointment at least 24 hours in advance in order to visit there. The phone number to call is 215-229-6038. They get back to you within 24 hours of your call, within business hours.
John wished to be buried in the family plot at Mount Vernon, but he was originally laid to rest in a crypt at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles. Lionel and Ethel would also be interred there, with Lionel in close proximity to his brother.
In 1980, John’s son had his father cremated and reinterred in Mount Vernon Cemetery. The cenotaph remains in Los Angeles. For a more thorough account of the move, I highly recommend reading Mark Masek’s Hollywood Remains to Be Seen. John’s new location has been the subject of concern in Philadelphia, as the plot has been lacking upkeep in recent years.
So many members of America’s acting dynasty received their first experiences in performance at Louisa’s beloved Arch Street Theater on 613 Arch Street. After Louisa’s tenure ended in 1892, the theater’s stature went into a slow decline until the building itself was demolished in 1936.
Today, the Federal Reserve building is situated on the former sight of the Arch Street Theatre, at 100 6th St, Philadelphia. However, all traces of the Barrymores have not been erased completely near The Arch. While both the theater and the early careers of the Barrymore siblings exist in Philadelphia’s memories, a historical marker does stand on the past location of The Arch Street Theatre. Right outside the Federal Reserve building, on the corner of 6th Street and Arch Street, you will find that the Barrymores do not necessarily need a theater in order to receive billing. The historical marker stands as tribute to what was once a widely renowned theater, employing some of the best actors of its day.
I’ll close this entry by a line made famous by Ethel, who received so much applause at the end of Sunday that she uttered these words to finally end the curtain call:
“That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.”
This article was published as part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon.