Barrymore, Ethel (1879–1959)

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Barrymore, Ethel (1879–1959)

Actress known as the First Lady of the American Theater and the last of the "fabulous" Barrymores. Born Ethel Mae Blyth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 15, 1879; died on June 18, 1959; daughter of actors Georgiana Drew (1854–1893) and Maurice Barrymore (whose actual name was Herbert Blyth); educated in Philadelphia at the Convent of Notre Dame; sister of American actors John and Lionel Barrymore; granddaughter of Louisa Lane Drew; aunt of actressDiana Barrymore ; grandaunt of actressDrew Barrymore (granddaughter of John Barrymore); married Russell Griswold Colt, on March 24, 1909 (separated 1920, divorced 1923); children: Samuel (b. 1910), Ethel Barrymore Colt (b. 1912), and John (b. 1913).


The Nightingale (1914); The Final Judgement (1915); The Kiss of Hate (1916); The Awakening of Helen Ritchie (1917); The White Raven (1917); The Call of Her People (1917); The Lifted Veil (1917); Life's Whirlpool (1917); The Eternal Mother (1917); An American Widow (1917); Our Mrs. McChesney (1918); The Divorcée (1919); Rasputin and the Empress (1933); None But the Lonely Heart (1944); The Spiral Staircase (1946); The Farmer's Daughter (1947); Moss Rose (1947); Night Song (1947); The Paradine Case (1948); Moonrise (1948); Portrait of Jennie (1949); The Great Sinner (1949); That Midnight Kiss (1949); The Red Danube (1949); Pinky (1949); Kind Lady (1951); The Secret of Convict Lake (1951); It's a Big Country (1952); Deadline USA (1952); Just For You (1952); The Story of Three Loves (1953); Main Street to Broadway (1953); Young at Heart (1955); Johnny Trouble (1957).

One evening in June 1959 at the Broadway performance of Lorraine Hansbury 's A Raisin in the Sun, the audience was told that the curtain would go up late that night. At precisely eight o'clock, the house lights dimmed to half for five minutes in silent tribute to the woman for whom the theater had been built and named 31 years before. Ethel Barrymore, the actress with the flashing eyes, had died early that morning, at 80 years of age, and her passing marked the end of the American theater's "royal family."

Like many royal families, the Barrymores—Ethel and her two brothers, Lionel and John—could claim an impeccable family tree. Their maternal grandfather was John Drew (1827–1862), the leading tragedian of the 19th-century American stage and a beloved Shakespearean actor. Their maternal grandmother was Louisa Lane Drew , who had been an even more formidable presence on the stage than her husband, and who was said to be the only fellow thespian of whom Edwin Booth was afraid. Born in England, Louisa had first appeared on the stage at the tender age of 12 months ("I played a crying baby," she would drily remark), moved to Philadelphia, married John Drew, and eventually managed that city's most famous theater of the time, The Arch. She was known in the theater world as "The Duchess," and no one with hopes for a future on the stage got on her bad side.

John and Louisa Drew's children went on the stage almost as soon as they could talk. Georgiana Drew became the favorite comedienne of discerning Gilded Age audiences; her brother Sidney was a noted comedian, and her second brother John (1853–1927) was eventually dubbed "the First Gentleman of the American stage." To complete the picture, Georgiana married a dashing young Englishman just making a name for himself in American theater. Herbert Maurice Blyth (sometimes spelled Blythe) had been born in India of Anglo-Indian parents, proper civil servants during the British Raj. Horrified that their son had plans to become an actor, they begged him to at least change his name before taking to the boards. Grabbing the nearest book, Herbert put his finger on the first character name he came to and pronounced himself thenceforth Maurice Barrymore. He arrived in America in 1874, secured his first stage role the following year, and shortly afterward married Georgiana Drew.

Drew, Georgiana Emma (1854–1893)

American actress. Name variations: Georgiana Emma Drew Barrymore, Georgie. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 11, 1854; died in Santa Barbara, California, on July 2, 1893; daughter of John Drew andLouisa Lane Drew (both actors); younger sister of actor John Drew, Jr.; married Maurice Barrymore (1847–1905, an actor), in December 1876; children: Lionel (b. April 28, 1878–1954),Ethel Barrymore (1879–1959), and John Barrymore (b. February 15, 1882–1942).

Allowed backstage during her parents' Friday night performances, Georgiana Drew was stagestruck. The 15-year-old actress who was to excel in comedy made her theatrical debut in the 1872 production of The Ladies' Battle at her mother's Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia; she was so successful that she was allowed to quit school and join the company. Three years later, along with her brother John Drew, Jr., Georgie joined Augustin Daly's repertory company at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City. There, she met Maurice Barrymore whom she married on New Year's Eve, 1876. When her husband began working with Helena Modjeska rumors began to circulate. Initially, Georgie was jealous, but, when the tales proved false, she and Modjeska grew to be close friends. Modjeska influenced Georgie's conversion to Catholicism and her rebaptizing of all her children from Episcopalian to Catholic.

For years, while performing in her husband's formidable shadows, Georgie Drew raised her children. But when his career wavered, hers took off. Known for her wit, she once sent a lengthy telegram while on tour to Charles Frohman, begging for new costumes; when his telegrammed reply was a terse "No," she just as tersely telegrammed, "Oh." Her comedic talents were shown to best advantage in The Senator which opened in January 1890. That same winter, she caught a terrible cold which would not loosen its grip. Despite a racking cough, she stayed in the show for almost two years until she was forced to leave the cast in December of 1891 because of tuberculosis. The following year, still ill, she had to cancel another season in San Francisco. She made her stage farewell in New York in February 1893, then journeyed to Santa Barbara, accompanied by her daughter Ethel, seeking a drier climate in which to convalesce. When a doctor in Santa Barbara examined her and asked who was going to care for her, she replied, "My little girl." The 36-year-old Georgie Barrymore and her 13-year-old daughter Ethel enjoyed some happy times before Georgie died there a few months later, on July 2, 1893. Alone, Ethel Barrymore transported her mother's coffin back to New York by train.


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

Ethel, the second of Maurice and Georgiana's three children, was a year younger than her brother Lionel and two years older than John. The children enjoyed an unusually stable childhood given the peripatetic profession of their parents. While Georgiana and Maurice were frequently on tour, the children's grandmother, Louisa, ran the large, comfortable home on Philadelphia's North 12th Street. "Mummumm," as her grandchildren called her, conducted her charges to their classes at local Catholic convent schools, mediated their disputes, and entertained them with stories of the theater. Then there were visits from Uncle Jack or Uncle Sidney, on their way to or from engagements, and houseguests from the best society of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston brought home for long weekends by Georgiana and Maurice. There were trips to England and the Continent when their parents were engaged to play the West End. Born into the aristocracy of American theater, Ethel and her brothers never knew the rough-and-tumble side of the stage world.

Summers were spent at a camp on Staten Island, where 11-year-old Ethel made her acting debut in a homegrown production of Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias, with her brothers in the supporting cast. They charged a penny admission to sit in a barn on the camp property which they had converted to a theater. Preparing for her death scene, Ethel practiced a tubercular cough to such effect that a camp supervisor feared she had a bone stuck in her throat. The mimicry, however, may have been learned at home. Her 34-year-old mother Georgie would die of consumption in Santa Barbara two years later.

Although Ethel wanted to be a concert pianist, and Lionel and John aspired to be artists, it seemed inevitable that they would all go on the stage. Acting was the family business and had been providing it with a good living for two generations. At 15, Ethel's first professional appearance in New York City, in 1894, was in a scene with her Uncle Jack in a production of Sheridan's A School for Scandal in which he was then starring. Ethel also played opposite the English actor Sir Henry Irving in England in 1898, appearing in the popular plays The Bells and Peter the Great.

"Nobody in our family ever taught me anything about acting, except by absorption," Ethel wrote many years later, and she absorbed from some of the best talent in the profession, her own family. The hallmark of the Barrymore style was its naturalness; never, as she put it, "let anyone see the wheels going around." The roles she would find most challenging during her long career were those in which she played "normal" people, with whom the audience could readily identify. She would become known for these finely turned, exquisite character roles.

Despite her name and family connections, Barrymore didn't have an easy task when she began visiting agents and casting people as an 18-year-old. There were walk-ons and small parts, and she appeared several more times with her Uncle Jack before audiences in New York and Philadelphia, but it wasn't until 1900 that she was given her first leading role by the most famous impresario of the time, Charles Frohman. She had appeared in minor roles in several of Frohman's productions, and, when he bought the rights to a frothy romantic comedy called Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, he cast Ethel in the lead over the playwright's objections. The show opened at Philadelphia's venerable Walnut Street Theater in late 1900 to a packed house, eager to see how the newest Barrymore would handle her first leading role.

Her entrance as the curtain rose was not auspicious. She was to appear at the top of a ship's gangplank, carrying a small dog, then descend to the stage while burbling winsomely about how good it was to be back in America after such a long time in England. But stagefright got the better of her, and her voice refused to travel as far as the footlights. Encouragement from the audience was immediate: "Speak up, Ethel! You Drews is all good actors!" urged one patron. "We love your grandmother, Ethel, and we love you, too!" shouted another. The show went on, but the next morning's notices were less than encouraging. Barrymore would remember many years later, word for word, the review that stated, "If the young woman who played Madame Trentoni had possessed beauty, charm, or talent, the play might have been a success."

There are certain sounds that seem to me characteristically American. One of them is the soughing wind in the pine forests. Another is the voice of Ethel Barrymore.

—Alexander Woollcott

Despite the poor reception in Philadelphia, Frohman decided to open the show at his Garrick Theater in New York early in 1901. Barrymore, stung by her ordeal, dreaded opening night on Broadway. "I had for the first time the terrible sense of responsibility which ever since has made every first night a kind of little dying," she remembered in her autobiography. This time, however, her Madame Trentoni was a triumph. Barrymore recalled walking to the theater one afternoon, after the show had been running for some weeks: "As we approached the theater, the lights in front of the house looked different to me. … I glanced up again and suddenly stood frozen to the spot. ETHEL BARRYMORE was up there in lights."

Among the admirers waiting backstage on opening night was her father Maurice, who presented her with a rose, kissed her on the cheek, and complemented her on her performance. It was a particularly poignant moment for Ethel, for her father had not been well and had not appeared on stage in many months. Later that year, after behaving erratically for some time, Maurice was declared legally insane, the result of syphilis contracted shortly after he had arrived in New York as a young man. The family had little choice but to commit him to an asylum, and it was Ethel's painful duty to sign the commitment papers. He would remain institutionalized for the rest of his life.

Captain Jinks ran for months. Ethel installed herself at the swank Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue and eventually went on a national tour with the show, reaching an even larger audience. Although not every production in which she appeared over the next several years would be as successful, her place in the Barrymore royal lineage was now firmly validated. Her leading roles in A Doll's House by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen in 1905, and Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire by Scottish dramatist James M. Barrie in 1906, established her as one of the foremost actresses in the American theater. Her portrayal of Lady Helen Haddon—a lower-class woman who enters high society by marriage, only to be destroyed by it—in Zoe Akin 's Déclassé was another of her successes in the early 1900s. It prompted then fledgling theater critic for Vanity FairDorothy Parker (not yet the jaundiced, biting reviewer of her New Yorker days) to state precociously: "If, during my theater-going lifetime, there has been one other performance so perfect as the one Ethel Barrymore gives, I can only say I had the hideous misfortune to miss it." Parker would be a consistently loyal fan of the Barrymores in years to come, though Ethel would have nothing to do with the infamous Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel.

Another admirer was Russell Colt, the son of a millionaire inventor, who was a frequent backstage visitor and escort. In 1909, Ethel married him and set up house at the sprawling estate in nearby Mamaroneck, New York, given to them as a wedding present by Russell's father. While Russell commuted to Wall Street every morning, Ethel retired from the stage to give birth to three children between 1910 and 1913: Samuel, Ethel Barrymore Colt , and John. Russell's success on Wall Street, however, was less than spectacular, and it would be some time before he would come into his inheritance; by the end of the decade, it was apparent that his interests lay more with other women than with providing for his family. In 1920, the couple separated (they would divorce in 1923) and Ethel, with three youngsters to raise, went back to work.

The same drama in which she had first appeared as an 11-year-old on Staten Island, The Lady of the Camellias, would reintroduce her to Broadway. The play opened in a new adaptation in 1918, telling Dumas fils' story in flashback, and opening and closing with the title character's moving deathbed scene. So effective was Barrymore's dying six nights a week that New York's bright young theatergoers could be seen rushing to the production crying, "Let's go and see her die!" In 1919, Ethel, Lionel, and John were prominent in the historic actor's strike against the unfair practices of theater owners and managers. Appearing at benefit performances and public rallies, the Barrymores were instrumental in the success of the strike, which forced theater managers and agents to recognize the unionization of the profession under Actors Equity.

While Lionel and John were as busy as their sister on stage, they had been spending increasing amounts of time over a garage on West 61st Street, which contained the offices and studios of Metro Pictures. Metro was one of many hastily formed companies in New York exploiting the potential of the new medium of film. The two brothers publicly extolled the dramatic possibilities of film acting but privately told Ethel that it was the money that was the main attraction. Anxious to legitimize their product as more than a sideshow novelty, the early film companies were willing to pay large sums to established actors. With three children to raise, Barrymore admitted it was the "dough" that brought her to All Star Pictures, which offered her $15,000 to appear in her first film, The Nightingale, in 1914. Much of the film was shot on the streets of New York, although Barrymore, playing a poor street singer, refused to shoot outside a mansion on Madison Avenue which happened to be the home of Mrs. Whitney Reid, a longtime family friend. She was horrified that Mrs. Reid might emerge to find her begging for pennies on the front steps. A two-year contract with Metro Pictures followed, at $60,000 a year, for which she shot five films between 1915 and 1917, all of them well received. The New York Times critic particularly liked her performance in a Klondike adventure film, The White Raven, calling her "lovely to look upon, and never more so than in the sketchy costume of the dance hall" and noting that she "has adapted her fine skill as an actress to the new medium."

Barrymore, whose heart remained on the stage, seemed almost embarrassed by the substantial sums she was paid for her film work and defensively told a newspaper reporter that "it doesn't matter how much we earn, it all goes … and gracious knows where it disappears." In later years, she would publicly acknowledge only one of these early Metro films, an adaptation of Margaret Deland 's The Awakening of Helena Richie. The rest, she said, were too horrible to remember. She was dismissive of "talkies" when they first appeared in 1927. "People don't want their ears insulted," she said, although Winston Churchill, an early admirer, described her voice as "soft, alluring, persuasive, magnetic." Barrymore agreed to do a voice test for Paramount but refused the contract they offered, as she did all film offers between 1919 and 1933. "I am lost without my audience," she wrote.

Indeed, she was never to forsake her audience for the rest of her professional life. She played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in 1922, and Ophelia in Hamlet and Portia in The Merchant of Venice in 1925. In December 1928, she opened the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City, appearing in The Kingdom of God. Other plays in which she starred included School for Scandal by Sheridan (1931), The Twelve-Pound Look by Barrie (1934), and The Corn Is Green by the British playwright Emlyn Williams (1942). Throughout the 1930s and '40s, the name Barrymore became synonymous with acting. Certain public figures were said to have a "Barrymore voice," and, after having delivered a particularly rousing speech, were said to have "done a Barrymore." Ethel Barrymore's professionalism and sang-froid on the stage became legendary among her fellow actors. Her co-star in The Corn is Green remembered one performance when he became aware that she had forgotten her next line. Before the audience noticed, Barrymore—still in character—merely said to him, "Don't move," went to the stage-left door, peered out to where the prompter was standing, then returned to her chair. "I thought there was someone at the door," she said. Unperturbed, she carried on with the scene, equipped with the forgotten line.

Despite her disdain for film work, Barrymore was enticed by a $90,000 offer from MGM's head of production, Irving Thalberg, to appear with her two brothers in 1933's Rasputin and the Empress, the story of the mad monk's rise and fall in pre-revolutionary Russia. It was the first time in over 35 years that the three Barrymores appeared ensemble, and everyone worried that the shoot might be fraught with clashing sibling egos and merciless scene-stealing. Thalberg was convinced that casting the three Barrymores in the same film would be box-office gold ("something like a circus with three white whales," Lionel remarked), and Ethel duly appeared on the set laden with fake jewels and a heavy gown as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna , to swoon before Rasputin (Lionel) and watch in horror his murder by Prince Chegodieff (John).

There were, to be sure, the expected rivalries among the three. Typical of them was the argument between John and Lionel as to how much of the camera frame each would get in a particular scene, as they were interrupted by Ethel, in full regalia, who reminded them loudly, "You two can argue about the camera all you want, but I still have a voice, you know."

Colt, Ethel Barrymore (1912–1977)

American actress and singer. Born in April 1912; died on May 22, 1977; daughter of Ethel Barrymore (an actress) and Russell Griswold Colt; attended the Notre Dame convent school outside Philadelphia; attended private school in Verona, Italy; married Romeo Miglietta (a petroleum executive); children: John Drew Miglietta (an actor).

Often asked what kind of mother Ethel Barrymore had been, Ethel Barrymore Colt once replied, "Her relations with us were extraordinary in spite of the fact that we were put under the care of governesses and were sent to boarding schools because she was away a good deal of the time. We would see her, after babyhood, at the Ritz in Boston, in Chicago at Christmas, Atlantic City in Easter. We weren't over-mothered by any means. She was a goddess to us. She was wonderful and warm, but let's face it, she did not change our pants."

Ethel Colt, known as Sister in the family, made her professional debut at 18 in a supporting role opposite her mother in Scarlet Sister Mary (1930). Her 16-year-old brother Jack Colt was also in the cast. Ethel also appeared in Scandals, George White's Scandals, Under Glass, Laura Garnett, L'Aiglon, London Assurance, Orchids Preferred, Whiteoaks, Come of Age, Curtains Up!, Take It from the Top, and A Madrigal of Shakespeare. In 1971, she appeared in the featured role of Christine Crane in Stephen Sondheim's long-running Follies. She also gave recitals, toured with her one-woman show, and made guest appearances with several opera companies, including the New York City Opera.

The real problem, however, was exactly that—Ethel's voice; and it became apparent in the first scene she played. By her own choice, she had been absent from films since 1919 and, unlike her brothers, had no experience in playing to a microphone. At the end of the scene, in which even Barrymore admitted she had been "moaning, flailing my arms, and touching curtains all over the set," Lionel approached her.

"Ethel," he gently asked, "what the hell are you doing?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," she confessed, at which point the Barrymore professionalism came to the fore as Lionel and John gave her a few lessons in moderating her voice for the microphone. All went well from then on, even though Ethel insisted on so many retakes during the shoot that, instead of "Empress of the Russians," the crew dubbed her "Empress of the Rushes." Barrymore never saw the finished film until 25 years later, on television. "I thought it was pretty good," she remarked, "but what those two boys were up to, I'll never know. Wasn't Lionel naughty?" She would go on to appear in 22 films during the next 45 years and win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1945 for her performance as Cary Grant's mother, Ma Mott, in the screen adaptation of Richard Llewellyn's None But The Lonely Heart.

Like her brothers, Barrymore had trouble with alcohol. Early in life, she had turned to the bottle for consolation. In her late 30s, however, unlike John, Ethel went teetotal. "No one in my family should drink," she once said, "because

it's poison to us." Rumors persisted throughout her life, however, that she was last seen reeling across a stage. Her non-drinking was especially amazing in the light of constant money and IRS problems that plagued her throughout the 1930s. When Adela Rogers St. Johns asked how she handled these difficulties, Barrymore replied: "I suppose the greatest thing in the world is loving people, wanting to destroy the sin and not the sinner. And not to forget when life knocks you to your knees, which it always does and always will—well, that's the best position in which to pray, isn't it? On your knees."

Barrymore continued working until heart disease forced her to slow down and eventually retire in 1958. Through it all, she managed to raise her three children to adulthood—"the most important thing in my life," she said. All three would dabble in theater and film but ultimately abandon them for other pursuits. Ethel outlived both her brothers; John died in 1942, Lionel in 1954.

As for men in Ethel's life, her daughter claims that her mother's existence after the divorce was almost nunlike. Barrymore once told a close friend, "It's not the church affiliation that prevents me from marrying again. The plain truth of the matter is that I've never met the man I would want to be married to." She had many close friends, among them Mrs. Jacques Gordon (who because her first name was Ruth, was often confused with the actress Ruth Gordon ), Ethel's intimate for over 20 years, as well as Evelyn Walsh McLean, Eleanor "Cissie" Patterson , and Alice Roosevelt Longworth .

During her final illness, many of Hollywood's stars, who had been just entering the business when Barrymore was at her peak, came to her Beverly Hills home to pay their respects like so many courtiers attending their dying queen. One of them, Katharine Hepburn , brought Barrymore fresh flowers nearly every day. At 80 years of age, and despite her illness, "she was beautiful to look at," Hepburn recalls. "Wonderful hair, exquisite skin, not much makeup, and eyes that, well, scared the death out of you."

At three o'clock in the morning, on June 18, 1959, Ethel Barrymore died, ending a career that stretched from the red plush and gaslights of Gay Nineties music halls to television drama. "All of us work hard in the theater," Helen Hayes said at a memorial service on Broadway, "but none of us can ever give it the luster that she did." Ethel Barrymore is still honored today for setting the tone and style of American acting, long before Stanislavski's Method or other rigorous training programs were developed to keep hidden "the wheels going around." "She lifted the standards of American acting," remarked author Cornelia Otis Skinner , "and gave all who knew her an impetus to live on her level."


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

Barrymore, Ethel. Memories: An Autobiography. NY: Harper Brothers, 1955.

Kotsilibas-Davis, James. The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood. NY: Crown Publishers, 1981.

Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. NY: Alfred E. Knopf, 1990.

Norman Powers , writer and producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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