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Photographed on December 12, 1937
   

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Often called “the first lady of the American stage,” Ethel Barrymore came from an historic theater family. Her grandmother, an actress and theater manager in Philadelphia, had several children who also became successful actors, including Ethel Barrymore’s mother, Georgiana. Georgiana married a British actor, Herbert Blythe, who, using the stage name Maurice Barrymore, became a popular leading man. Maurice and Georgiana had three children: Ethel, Lionel, and John. All three had celebrated acting careers, earning them the nickname, “The Fabulous Barrymores.”

In her youth, Ethel Barrymore was strikingly beautiful and graceful. The term “glamour girl,” some say, was coined to describe her. Talented as well as attractive, she began appearing in significant roles on stage before she was twenty and soon earned a reputation as an actress capable of intelligent as well as charming performances. Her first major success, a 1901 appearance in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines by Clyde Fitch, led to additional lead roles, generally in light and romantic works.

Though some were skeptical of her ability to play serious, difficult parts, Barrymore sought out challenging characters and performed them beautifully. In 1905, she took the part of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in spite of the fact that among many in the theater community, “any thought of her ability to realize the deeper notes of Nora’s development was regarded as little short of folly.”1 Barrymore proved her talent and skill by giving an outstanding performance; one reviewer wrote, “it is difficult to see how any one . . . can fail to admit that she has fully justified her claims to be considered seriously.”2 Nevertheless, Barrymore continued to pursue diverse roles. Of her appearance in Somerset Maugham’s social comedy Lady Frederick, a New York Times critic wrote:

  The character of a young widow . . . departs sufficiently from the familiar lines of the typical Miss Barrymore role, but she adapts herself to it so snugly, with such genuine suggestion of good humor, and such admirably facile method, that it might have been written to her order, so well does it take her measure.3

During these early years of her career, Barrymore was the subject of much romantic attention; one of the many marriage proposals she declined was from a young man named Winston Churchill. When Barrymore finally married Russell Colt in 1909, it was a troubled match. Colt beat her regularly, often brutally. They separated on several occasions and finally divorced in 1923.

In spite of her personal difficulties, Barrymore’s career soared. She appeared in one Broadway successafter another. As she aged, she moved effortlessly from the enchanting youthful roles for which she was well known to more mature characters. Among her most impressive parts, in fact, was that of Miss Moffat in a 1940 production of Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green. Barrymore thought that the schoolteacher Miss Moffat was her greatest part, “I like it better than anything I’ve ever had,” she said. “It has everything in it that I care about.”4

Barrymore devoted herself to a stage career, but she did make occasional films. It was in a 1932 film, Rasputin and the Empress, that the three “Fabulous Barrymores” made their only appearance together. Though most of Ethel Barrymore’s films were forgettable, she received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1944 for her performance with Cary Grant in None but the Lonely Heart.


1 “Miss Barrymore’s Nora A Fine Achievement” New York Times 3 May 1905
2 New York Times 3 May 1905
3 “Miss Barrymore in ‘Lady Frederick’” New York Times 10 Nov. 1908
4 Sidney M. Shallet “Miss Ethel Barrymore Moffat” New York Times 22 Dec. 1940

 

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