Barrymore, Diana (1921–1960)

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Barrymore, Diana (1921–1960)

American actress. Born Diana Strange Blythe on March 3, 1921; committed suicide in New York City on January 25, 1960; daughter of Blanche Oelrichs Thomas Barrymore Tweed (who, as poet and playwright, used the pseudonym Michael Strange) and John Barrymore; attended Garrison Forest boarding school; married Bramwell Fletcher (divorced); married John Howard (a tennis player); married Bob Wilcox.

Diana Barrymore was born Diana Strange Blythe (the actual name of the Barrymore family) in March 1921. Her father was John Barrymore, a matinee idol; her mother was poet, playwright Michael Strange , who "wore jackets in the style of Alfred de Musset," writes Vin Packer, "open-collar shirts, and a man's soft fedora; she wore wide-cuffed, rough leather riding gloves and carried a man's walking stick." Michael Strange had been married before to Leonard Thomas of Newport, Rhode Island, and had two sons. Shortly after Diana's birth, her parents parted, and Diana would not meet her father again until she was 14. Hers was a lonely existence; her mother remarried and the rebellious Diana was packed off to boarding school, the first of 16 she would attend.

At age 16, she began to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and took on the part of what she later called the "irrepressible madcap daughter of madcap Jack Barrymore and gifted, unpredictable Michael Strange," plunging headlong into café society. In 1938, columnist Cholly Knickerbocker dubbed her "Debutante of the Year." When Diana signed for a season of summer stock at the Ogunquit Playhouse in 1939, its publicity director saw a chance for national publicity; that July, decked out in a bathing suit, she was on the cover of Life magazine.

When Diana made her Broadway debut as Caroline Bronson in Romantic Mr. Dickens, Brooks Atkinson gave her a glowing review. Then came a Hollywood contract and the alcoholism to which many of the Barrymores fell prey. She began drinking in L.A., became brash and quarrelsome, and made few friends. On the night Eagle Squadron, her first movie previewed, her father died of acute alcoholism. In despair, she married actor Bramwell Fletcher, 18 years her senior. Five pictures later, when Diana was 23, Hollywood was through with her, and she returned to New York. The following year, in 1944, she and her husband opened in the Theatre Guild production of Rebecca.

But the downward spiral continued. In 1946, with her half-brother dead from pills and whiskey, her marriage in shambles, and her name a magnet for bad publicity—one story had her appearing on an NBC comedy show with a hangover—she swallowed 30 sleeping pills. Her stomach was pumped and she recovered. Barrymore then began a second marriage to tennis player John Howard which lasted six months. A break came when she was offered "The Diana Barrymore Show" by CBS, for which she was to play hostess to guest celebrities. On the night of the telecast, she arrived drunk, and the network hastily replaced her with Faye Emerson . She married again, went through the trust funds, couldn't find work, took a job in vaudeville (once following a juggling act), then turned to her Aunt Ethel Barrymore for a loan. After numerous fresh starts and many affairs, Barrymore made one last comeback following another suicide attempt in April 1955. With the help of Gerold Frank, she wrote her autobiography. Too Much, Too Soon was a bestseller in 1957 and made into a film by Warner Bros., starring Dorothy Malone . But the $150,000 in profits went fast. After some stage success on the road with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she became obsessed with Tennessee Williams whom she was determined to marry. Diana Barrymore's maid found her dead of suicide on January 25, 1960. She was 38.


Alpert, Hollis. The Barrymores. NY: Dial Press, 1964.

Packer, Vin [Marijane Meaker]. Sudden Endings. NY: Doubleday, 1964.

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Barrymore, Diana (1921–1960)

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