Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Very First Barrymore

Herbert Arthur Chamberlain Hunter Blythe was born in India in 1849.  His father , a British citizen, worked in Fort Agra as a civil servant.  Growing up in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Herbert later boasted that in deference to the local sacred cows, he was raised on goat’s milk.  That, he often told his friends, caused his children’s odd behavior.

As a young man, Herbert shocked his family when he traveled to London and took up boxing.  He was so good in the ring that in 1872, he won the Marquis of Queensberry Cup, which was awarded annually to the best amateur boxer in any class.  He also found work in the theater.  One evening his boxing prowess, along with his desire to act, joined forces when he came across the stage comedian, Charles Vandenhoff.  The entertainer was trying to protect his girlfriend from two attackers.  Herbert stepped in and saved the day with his fancy fisticuffs.  Vandenhoff was so grateful, he gave the young hero a job in his stock company.  To save the Blythes from any further embarrassment, Herbert then changed his name to Barrymore—Maurice Barrymore.  Legend has it that he saw the name on an old playbill hanging in the Haymarket Theater.  Wherever he found it, the extraordinary name he chose was destined for distinction.
Eventually, the handsome actor came to the United States where he found great success on the stages of New York.  He also found a best friend—actor John Drew.  Drew brought Barrymore to his mother’s house In Philadelphia.  The family matriarch, Louisa Lane Drew, a popular actress and manager of Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theater, disliked Barrymore immediately, but her daughter Georgiana was smitten.  After a quick courtship and against her mother’s wishes, the couple married on New Year’s Eve in 1876.  Their first child, Lionel, arrived on April 28, 1878. 

Georgie soon found herself expecting again.  Unfazed by his personal responsibilities, Barrymore, left his pregnant wife and infant son in the care of his mother-in-law and went west with a traveling troupe.  Unfortunately, the actor crossed paths with an outlaw and was shot in Marshall, Texas where he underwent extensive surgery that saved his life.  Upon his return to Philadelphia, Georgie delivered a girl, Ethel, on August 15, 1879. 
A recovered Barrymore continued working in the theater.  His good looks and quick wit earned him matinee idol status, but by the time their third child, John Sidney, was born on February 14, 1882, Barrymore was spending less and less time at home.  His drinking and philandering put a strain on the marriage.  Nonetheless, when Georgie died from tuberculosis in 1893, her death hit him hard—for a bit.  He soon found comfort in a much younger woman and married her without even telling his children. 

Eventually, Barrymore’s hard living caught up with him.  Divorced from his second wife, he began acting irrationally.  Always a quick study, he experienced difficulty remembering things and then became delusional often falling victim to rages.  Doctors diagnosed him with end-stage syphilis for which there was no cure at the time.  The disease ravaged him both physically and mentally forcing his children to commit him to the Long Island Home in Amityville.  Originally given six months live, Barrymore lasted four years in the sanitarium.
Barrymore passed the time feverishly writing.  He filled page after page of foolscap paper explaining to anyone who would listen that he was penning a new play.  Upon closer inspection, his handwritten words revealed the phrase ‘It was a lovely day n June’ written over and over again.  Finally on March 25, 1905, Maurice Barrymore died and his children buried him in the family plot in Philadelphia. 


  1. I guess I celebrated the family. I was at the Ethel Barrymore theater the other night seeing Alan Cumming's Macbeth. Was not happy with the production. John Barrymore would have done a better job...not innovating beyond what the play's significance is like Cumming did. Here's my review. http://caroleditosti.com/2013/04/23/alan-cummings-macbeth-not-shakespeares/

  2. Barrymore was an incredible actor and your review was very well written. Thanks for dropping in, Carole!. Please come again!