Hailing from America’s most distinguished acting family, Ethel May Barrymore was born in Philadelphia on August 16, 1879. Her parents, Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew, spent much of her childhood on tour, so she and her two brothers, Lionel and John, were cared for by their maternal grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew. One of the leading stage comedians of the 19th century, Drew was also the manager of Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theater for 30 years. At six, Ethel was sent the Academy of Notre Dame, the convent boarding school her mother had attended. In 1893, however, her mother removed her from the academy so that the girl could accompany her to California. Ill with tuberculosis, Georgiana Drew hoped the warm climate would restore her health, but instead she died after several months. Ethel, only 13, was left to arrange for her return to the East and the shipment of her mother’s casket.
In Philadelphia, Ethel went back to school, but soon her education came to an end. As her grandmother left her post at Arch Street and her father remarried, she was told that she would have to go to work to earn her own livelihood. The situation put an end to her childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist. Instead, she practically turned to the family business. “Acting was, after all, the only thing I could do best,” she later remarked. Barrymore made her stage debut in 1894, appearing in a touring production of The Rivals starring her grandmother. She was then taken under the wing of her uncle, John Drew, one of Broad- way’ s greatest stars. He arranged for her to appear in a series of small stage roles while serving as the understudy for more substantial parts. Her early appearances earned her an invitation to appear in Secret Service (1897) in London. The arrival of the American beauty not only excited theatergoers—it also thrilled English high society, who quickly embraced the sophisticated, yet fresh Barrymore. When she returned to New York City, she left behind a number of rejected suitors, including the future prime minister Winston Churchill. To Barrymore’s surprise, she found that her London success had made her a celebrity in her native land. She was soon being offered leading roles and in 1901 became an established star in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. Widely admired for her regal manner, Barrymore was particularly popular with young women, who took to emulating the clothing and hairstyles she wore on stage. Cast increasingly in ingenue roles, Barrymore longed for more serious, substantial parts. She was particularly eager to show off her acting in order to combat rumors that was just a beautiful clotheshorse with little real talent. In 1910, she finally earned the respect she craved playing a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage in MidChannel. The success came on the heels of her own marriage to Russell Griswold Colt, the wealthy son of the president of the United States Rubber Company, in 1909. The couple had three children— Samuel, Ethel, and John.
In 1918 Barrymore had another success with Déclassée, which ran for more than 200 performances. Her triumph, though, ushered in a period of professional and personal turmoil. She appeared in a series of lightweight, badly-received plays and had a brief, disastrous run as Shakespeare’s Juliet, a part she was deemed too old to play. At the same time, her marriage to Colt fell apart. The two were divorced in 1923.
Barrymore’s fortunes reversed in 1926, when she was cast in the lead in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife. She appeared in the play for three years in New York and on tour. Now recognized as the grande dame of the American theater, she received a permanent monument to her achievements when the Shubert brothers named their new theater after her in 1928. Despite Barrymore’s fame, she continued to have difficulty finding good vehicles for her talents as she grew older. Adding to her frustration over the lack of good roles, she also faced a battle with the Internal Revenue Service, which held that she owed a fortune in back taxes. Her desperation led her to set aside her disdain for the film industry and accept a high-paying offer to appear in Rasputin and the Empress (1932). The film also starred her brothers Lionel and John, both of whom had earned their own substantial reputations as actors. The movie marked the only time the three Barrymore siblings performed together. To further dispel her financial crisis, Ethel Barrymore also performed in her own radio program on NBC, in which she played many of the roles she had made famous on the stage.
By the late 1930s, Barrymore had returned to the theater but did not find a solid role until 1940, when she starred in The Corn Is Green. In her greatest stage success, she played Miss Moffitt, a Welsh schoolteacher determined to educate a young coal miner. Receiving the best reviews of her career, she gave 461 performances on Broadway. While touring with the show, she appeared in the film None But the Lonely Heart opposite Cary Grant. Her performance won her an Oscar as best supporting actress in 1944.
Soon afterward, Barrymore suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. Concerned about her health, she decided to move to California. In demand ever since her Academy Award win, Barrymore made 20 films between 1946 and 1957, appearing mostly in supporting roles. Her late film work brought her three more Oscar nominations for The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), and Pinky (1949). She also briefiy hosted her own television program, The Ethel Barrymore Theatre. After more than 60 years of acclaim, Barrymore died on June 18, 1959, and was buried next to her brothers in a Beverly Hills cemetery, reuniting in death the most celebrated siblings in American theater and film.
Barrymore, Ethel. Memories: An Autobiography. New York: Harper, 1955.
Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
None But the Lonely Heart (1944). Turner Home Video, VHS, 1998.
Rasputin and the Empress (1932). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1993.
The Spiral Staircase (1946). Anchor Bay Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 2000.