The Barrymore Book: The Royal Family of Actors, In Their Own Words

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In charming, singsong prose, she portrays herself as a Broadway-bound Cinderella, pushed onto the stage by her estranged, eccentric family after her mother’s death. Infinitely charming and curious, she toured the world, enchanting almost everyone she met (according to her own account).

“All of a sudden I knew people and they were my friends,” Ethel writes. “Maybe one of the reasons was that I was always interested in everything – books, painting, politics, baseball and, above all, people.” It includes a letter from her great friend Katharine Hepburn, extolling her social gifts. “She has more friends than anyone I know, but she is not a dear, gentle soul,” Hepburn writes. “The Barrymores don’t come like that.”

Much of the book reads like a Victorian gossip column. Ethel flees a scared Oscar Wilde, is locked in the White House elevator with Alice Roosevelt by Kermit and Quentin Roosevelt, and Henry James tells her she reminds him of a Gothic building. Her servile adoration for her little brother John and her distant respect for Lionel are evident, though she subtly berates them both for fleeing the stage for the screen. (The perpetually broke Ethel would eventually join them in a film, starring with her brothers in 1932 Rasputin and the Empress and win an Oscar for 1944 None but the Lonely Heart.)

Ethel comes across as the most functional of the Barrymores, ignoring her own personal demons. According to Peters, Ethel’s book omitted her long battle with alcoholism, her abusive marriage, and her propensity for legendary catfights with the likes of Tallulah Bankhead. “The good thing about an autobiography,” she once joked, according to Peters, “is that you can leave out some things.”

The character

The eldest of the Barrymore brood, Lionel was also its dark horse: the loneliest and the most eccentric. A character actor who claimed to be a “fraud”, he vocally preferred fighting, painting and composing to acting. Ironically, he would be the most prolific Barrymore, appearing in over 200 films, including Key Largo, you can’t take it with you, and It’s a wonderful life.

The gruffest of the brood, that of Lionel We Barrymores (a book which, according to Peters, he dictated to his ghostwriter while he sat in his Oldsmobile, chain-smoking) turns out to be the most revealing and sensitive of the family’s autobiographies. It is true that he sidesteps his own heartaches, including the death of his two daughters, the death of his second wife from anorexia, and his own addiction to morphine and cocaine (recounted by Peters). But he spends much of the book trying to unravel the tragedy of John, his frequent drinking partner, and on-screen one-upmanship.

Throughout the book, he repeatedly revisits John’s disappearance, connecting it to everything from their grandmother’s death to their father Maurice’s alcoholism and madness. “They seem to have possessed precisely the same talent, the same imbalance, the same boredom with success, the same integrity and the same ability to hurt each other,” he writes.

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