John Barrymore

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This article is about John Barrymore, Sr. For his son John Barrymore, Jr., see John Drew Barrymore.
John Barrymore
Portrait of John Barrymore.jpg
Barrymore in 1920
Born John Sidney Blyth
February 14 or 15, 1882
Philadelphia, PA, U.S.
Died May 29, 1942(1942-05-29) (aged 60)
Los Angeles, CA, U.S.
Cause of death
Pneumonia and cirrhosis
Resting place
Mount Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1901–42
Spouse(s) Katherine Corri Harris (m. 1910; div. 1917)
Blanche Oelrichs (m. 1920; div. 1925)
Dolores Costello (m. 1928; div. 1934)
Elaine Barrie (m. 1936; div. 1940)
Children Diana Barrymore
Dolores Ethel Blyth Barrymore
John Drew Barrymore
Parents Maurice Barrymore
Georgiana Drew
Relatives Lionel Barrymore (brother)
Ethel Barrymore (sister)
John Drew, Jr. (uncle)
Drew Barrymore (granddaughter)

John Sidney Blyth (February 14 or 15, 1882 – May 29, 1942),[a] known as John Barrymore and Jack Barrymore, was an American actor of stage, screen and radio.[3][4] He first gained attention as a handsome stage actor in light comedy, then high drama and culminating in his 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 death in 1942. The most prominent member of a multi-generation theatrical dynasty, he was the brother of Lionel and Ethel, and was the paternal grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore.

Barrymore is known mostly for his portrayal of Hamlet and for his roles in movies like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Katharine Hepburn's first film A Bill of Divorcement, Grand Hotel (both 1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), Midnight (1939) and Don Juan (1926), the first feature-length movie to use a Vitaphone soundtrack.

Early life[edit]

Barrymore was born in the Philadelphia home of his maternal grandmother.[5] His parents were Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe, an Indian-born British actor who performed under the stage name Maurice Barrymore, and American actress 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 instructed him and his siblings in the ways of acting and theatre life. His grandfather John Drew had died in 1862 when his mother, Georgie, was 6. His maternal uncles were John Drew, Jr. and Sidney Drew. As a result of growing up in a theatrical family, Barrymore and his siblings knew personally some of the many greats of Victorian era theatre such as Edwin Booth, Richard Mansfield, William Gillette and Joseph Jefferson, a personal friend of Mrs. Drew.

Barrymore fondly remembered the summer of 1896 in his youth, spent on his father's rambling estate on Long Island. He and brother Lionel lived a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, attended by a black servant named Edward. Barrymore was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1898 after being caught entering a bordello.[6]

Barrymore (left, with pencil) with his brother Lionel and sister Ethel in 1904. Hollis Alpert in his 1964 biography on the Barrymores, claims this photo is actually two photos blended as one as the trio were seldom photographed together early in their careers.

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. In 1906, another Nesbit lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by Nesbit's husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw. A testimony of questions was prepared for Barrymore to testify at Thaw's murder trial on the issue of Nesbit's morality. Barrymore was never called in as the Thaw trial was decided based on insanity plea and Nesbit's morality being irrelevant to Thaw's murdering Stanford White. Barrymore and Nesbit were never questioned under oath about her "immorality," or, as stated in the prepared deposition, that he had taken her to a doctor for an "appendectomy".[7]


Early stage career and silent films[edit]

Barrymore sought to escape the heritage of the theater by trying to be a cartoonist and reporter. He studied to be an artist and worked on New York newspapers before deciding to go into the family business as an actor. He made his stage debut in October 1903 playing a part in Magda at the Cleveland Theater, Chicago. Soon after he was on Broadway and after two seasons there, he made his first appearance in London with William Collier as Charles Hines in The Dictator.

Barrymore in the play Clair de Lune (1921) with Violet Kemble-Cooper.

Barrymore was staying at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake occurred. He had starred in a production of The Dictator and was soon to tour Australia in the play. As he loathed this prospect, he hid, spending the next few days drinking at the home of a friend on Van Ness Avenue. During his drinking binge, he worked out a plan to exploit the earthquake by presenting 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 at his confession.[8] 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.[8]

At the peak of his triumph on the legitimate stage, Barrymore decided to embark on a career in films. He first appeared in motion pictures in 1912, but took film roles only when Broadway work was unavailable. However, he finally left the stage to devote himself to films. Barrymore entered movies 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. Barrymore and his brother, Lionel, established a record for "brother acts."

He specialized in light comedies; he first starred in Are You a Mason and Half a Husband until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Critics declared that his portrayal of Falder in John Galsworthy's Justice was artistic and self-effacing, (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt and directed by Ben Iden Payne. It was Nesbitt who would introduce him to Blanche Oelrichs who became his second wife.

Barrymore as Hamlet (1922)

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 Barrymore at thirty-five tried enlisting but a physical revealed he had varicose veins. He was invalided from military service.[9] Also in 1917, Barrymore returned to Broadway in Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy's Redemption (1918) and Sem Benelli's The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Shakespeare's 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 as the melancholy Dane, breaking Edwin Booth's record. In February, 1925 he successfully presented his production in London despite the so-called apathy extended toward American Shakespearean actors in Britain.

Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Barrymore's other 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), Don Juan (1926) and The Beloved Rogue (1927).

Transition to sound films[edit]

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 big Duke of Gloucester speech from Henry VI, Part 3 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); and being cast as a suave jewel thief opposite Lionel in Arsène Lupin (1932); with both siblings in The Mad Genius (1931); Grand Hotel (1932), in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel, also including Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo; Rasputin and the Empress (also 1932), with Lionel in the lead and their sister Ethel as the Empress; and Dinner at Eight (1933), with Lionel in the lead.

In Topaze (1933), Barrymore was cast with Myrna Loy and in Twentieth Century (1934) with Carole Lombard. He worked opposite many of the screen's other foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford. 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 years[edit]

With Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932)

In the 1930s, Barrymore returned to the stage with tremendous success. His escapades inspired several plays, The Royal Family and My Dear Children, both later filmed, and two movies, Sing, Baby, Sing and The Great Profile. Playgoers would come back time and again to see him because of his famous adlibbing.

He gave a bravura Shakespeare performance, as an overage Mercutio, in the MGM film Romeo and Juliet (1936), and the following year put in a first-class performance as a Svengali-type character in MGM's Maytime with Jeanette MacDonald, the top-grossing film worldwide of that year and regarded as one of the best film musicals of the 1930s: "Altogether, it's possible that this is one of the best and most competently handled operettas that Hollywood has turned out."[10]

In the late 1930s, Barrymore began to lose his ability to remember his lines. From then on, he insisted on reading his dialogue from cue cards. 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 The Great Man Votes, as well as a notable featured comedic performance in Midnight (both 1939). However, his pictures started losing money and he — along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, and others — was labeled "Box Office Poison" in 1938.

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 1935, 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.

Personal life[edit]

Barrymore in 1922

Marriages and children[edit]

John Barrymore was married four times, each marriage ending in divorce. He had three children: he had one child, daughter Diana Blanche, with his second wife and two children, Dolores Ethel Mae and John Drew with his third wife.

  1. Katherine Corri Harris (1890–1927), 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," who was a poetess, on August 5, 1920 and divorced her in 1928 and became Mrs. Harrison Tweed. They had one child:
  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:
  4. Elaine Barrie (née Elaine Jacobs), (1916–2003), an actress; married November 9, 1936 and divorced 1940.


Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallée's radio show and died in his hospital room, shortly after 10 pm, May 29, 1942. A heavy smoker all his adult life, he also had been suffering from the effects of alcohol dependence, heart problems and pneumonia. His dying words were, "Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him."[this quote needs a citation] 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." "The Great Profile met death with a smile as if anxious for the new adventure."[11] With him at his bedside was his brother, Lionel. Daughter Diana was in the hospital at the time and sister Ethel had remained in Boston to finish her play at Barrymore's request.

Barrymore died of cirrhosis complicated by pneumonia,[12] after an 11-day illness during which Dr. Hugo Kersten had alternately despaired and been optimistic for his recovery. Shortly before Barrymore lapsed into his final coma, Kersten announced that the end was very near. Before his death Barrymore re-embraced the Catholic faith in which he was born, receiving the final rites of the church from Father O'Donnell.[11]

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. That scene 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 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.[13]

He was buried in East Los Angeles, at Calvary Cemetery, on June 2. Surviving family members in attendance were his brother Lionel and his daughter Diana. Ethel was in New York performing The Corn is Green and had spoken with John by telephone. He implored her not to make the transcontinental train trip. Ex-wife Elaine also attended. Among his pallbearers were Gene Fowler, John Decker, W.C. Fields, Herbert Marshall, Eddie Mannix, Louis B. Mayer, and David O. Selznick.[13] In 1980, Barrymore's son had his father's body reinterred at Philadelphia's Mount Vernon Cemetery.[12]


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

Though both his brother and sister won Academy Awards, the only award Barrymore ever received for his screen work was from Rudolph Valentino in 1925 for Beau Brummel. Valentino created an award in his own name and felt that his fellow actors should receive accolades for their screen work.

John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore are all members of the American Theatre Hall of Fame.[14]

In 1982 in celebration of the centenery of the Actors Fund of America, the US Postal Service issued a Barrymore postage stamp featuring the actor and his siblings.

In popular culture[edit]

Barrymore had been a friend and contemporary (and drinking companion) 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, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Orson Welles idolized Barrymore. Barrymore was also portrayed by Christopher Plummer (who was a friend of Diana Barrymore) in the 1996 two-man show Barrymore, later filmed in 2012 and by Errol Flynn in the 1958 biographical film about Diana entitled 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.

In 1953, the comic book artist Graham Ingels (signing his name "Ghastly") used stills from Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde silent film as reference for a homicidal maniac in the comic book story "Horror We? How's Bayou?" which appeared as the cover story for The Haunt of Fear #17, published by E.C. Comics, and introduced by The Old Witch.

In addition, his ghost is a major character in Paul Rudnik's comedy I Hate Hamlet.

A character based on Barrymore, an unnamed dog, appears in three Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons alongside the Goofy Gophers: The Goofy Gophers, A Ham in a Role, and Two Gophers from Texas.

He is featured in Queen's hit music video Under Pressure as Mr. Hyde in his silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Barrymore is a two-person play by William Luce, which first opened in 1996 and which depicts John Barrymore a few months before his death in 1942 as he is rehearsing a revival of his 1920 Broadway triumph as Richard III.

The Fort Lee Film Commission of Fort Lee, New Jersey, successfully petitioned the Borough to change the name of the intersection of Main Street and Central Road to John Barrymore Way on February 15 (Barrymore's birthday) in 2010. This was the site of the old Buckheister's Hotel where in 1900 the then 18-year-old John Barrymore made his stage debut in the play A Man of the World, directed by his father Maurice Barrymore for a Fort Lee Fire House fundraiser.[15][16] Both of his siblings have historic sites named after them, Ethel the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York which she opened in 1928 and Lionel a college theatre in Wisconsin.

Frank Langella plays an eccentric traveling actor in the 1980 romantic comedy Those Lips, Those Eyes. At one point he relates that he saw Barrymore perform Hamlet on stage.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Although the Barrymore family bible gives the date as February 15 – something repeated in a number of reference books – specialist biographies point out that the birth certificate states February 14.[1][2]


  1. ^ Peters 1990, p. 9.
  2. ^ Kobler 1977, p. 26.
  3. ^ Obituary Variety, June 3, 1942.
  4. ^ North American Theatre Online: John Barrymore site offered free to most colleges & universities
  5. ^ Kobler, John Nom. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 25
  6. ^ Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 41
  7. ^ Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 88
  8. ^ a b 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
  9. ^ Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918 p.52 c.1999 by Byron Farwell
  10. ^ Mosher, John, in The New Yorker, March 27, 1937, p.70
  11. ^ a b Billboard, June 6, 1942
  12. ^ a b Donnelley, Paul (2003). Fade to Black: A Book of Movie Obituaries. Music Sales Group. p. 67. ISBN 0-7119-9512-5. 
  13. ^ a b Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 364
  14. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame members". Retrieved February 6, 2014. 
  15. ^ See the book Great times Good Times The Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore by James Kotsilibas-Davis and The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters, as well as the Fort Lee Film Commission ( At the time Maurice Barrymore lived in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee with his son John, and was a member of the Coytesville Fire Department.
  16. ^ John Barrymore Way street sign, the road named after Jack; Fort Lee, New Jersey


External links[edit]