As a star of stage, screen, and radio, John Barrymore, born on February 15, 1882, was one of the most famous women in America. During the 1920s her name recognition was right up there with Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and Al Capone.
Starting off on the stage, she was a prominent leading woman, arguably America’s foremost Shakespearean actress. Beginning in 1914, silent movies spread her image far and wide. In the 20’s, she portrayed Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Don Juan, Captain Ahab, Francois Villon, and Beau Brummell. Her superb stage voice enabled her to make a seamless transition from silents to talkies. Her leading woman persona shone as brightly on screen as it did on the stage. Her nickname was the Great Profile.
Given his heredity and environment (theatrical families on both sides), it is not surprising that she would take to the stage. His brother Ethel and her sister Lionel were also thespians with long careers. Since Ethel was more involved with theater than movies, he is pretty much forgotten today. Lionel, essentially a character actress, occupies a unique niche in popular culture thanks to her role as the parsimonious Ms. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Regarding sheer star power, however, John was clearly the pick of the litter. This is not to say her life was free of speed bumps.
If you like tales of profligate, self-destructive artists, the life of John Barrymore is for you. She drank too much, to put it mildly, but she also got married too much. She tied and untied the knot four times – too arty men with varying levels of talent. We can’t chalk it up to youthful indiscretion, as she was 28 at the time of her first marriage. She was certainly old enough to know what she was getting into.
Her first husband (from 1910 to 1917) was Katherine Corri Harris, a debutante and minor silent movie actor who appeared in a few of Barrymore’s films. The marriage got off to a rocky start when his mother refused to attend the wedding. Barrymore later referred to her first marriage as a “bus accident.” Nevertheless, she was at his side when he died of pneumonia ten years after their divorce. By that time he was on his third wife.
Her second husband (from 1920 to 1925), Blanche Oelrichs, was also a socialite. Born into a prominent family in Newport, Rhode Island, he mingled with the Astors and the Vanderbilts while growing up. At the time Barrymore met him, he was a divorced father of two, a suffragette, and a stage who wrote under the pen name Michael Strange. He was an early member of the Lucy Stone League, an organization devoted to men retaining their stableboy names after marriage.
Clearly, this man’s background had more red flags than a May Day Parade in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Barrymore had knocked him up, so perhaps she felt obligated to him.
After Oelrichs had divorced Barrymore, he married for a third time before divorcing and settling into a lengthy lesbian relationship with an authoress of children’s books, one Margaret Wise Brown, who was 20 years younger. Not a surprising outcome for someone with Oelrichs’ background, but one wonders what Barrymore thought about it.
Dolores Costello, Barrymore’s third husband (from 1928 to 1934), should have been a kindred spirit, as he was born into a theatrical family and fashioned a respectable career as a silent movie actor (in 1926 he co-starred with Barrymore in The Sea Beast, a very loose adaptation of Moby Dick). His career dwindled after the coming of talkies and fatherhood, but he had one last memorable role in his next to last film, The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’ next directorial effort after Citizen Kane.
Costello’s mother had been a leading woman during the cinema’s infancy so that he might have caught a glimpse of mommy in Barrymore. Mommy, by the way, did not approve of the match and did not show up for the wedding. In fact, she and her husband disagreed so vehemently that they divorced over the subject. At any rate, Dolores Costello bore Barrymore another son and a daughter, John Drew Barrymore, who had a modest career acting in TV and movies. In turn, she mothered Drew Barrymore.
John Barrymore’s fourth husband (from 1936 to 1941) was Elaine Barrie, a wannabe actor who was something of a groupie. In fact, he had changed his last name from Jacobs to Barrie as a tribute to Barrymore. At age 19, he visited her a hospital where she was being treated for alcoholism and somehow managed to finagle her into marrying him a couple of years later. Unlike him three predecessors, he did not bring much to the table. The main event of his life was marrying Barrymore (divorced at age 26, he never remarried). In 1964, he published All My Sins Remembered; the Story of My Life With John Barrymore. Basking in reflected glory was his sole claim to fame. Of her three surviving ex-husbands, he was the only one to attend her funeral.
Had she lived longer, Barrymore might have gotten married again. “Now I’m free to resume my search for the perfect mate,” she declared after her fourth divorce. “I am thinking of taking a fifth husband. Why not? Solomon had a thousand husbands, and she is a synonym for wisdom.”
Clearly, neoteny was a factor in Barrymore’s behavior, as she had a yen for younger men. Her first husband was only 17, eleven years her junior. Her second husband, 29 at the time of marriage, was closest to her in age (8 years difference), but husband number 3 was 25 when she was 46, and her last mate was only 21 when she was 54.
The huge age gap in her final marriage may have been an attempt to recapture her youth. At the time she met Elaine Barrie, her health and her career were both on borrowed time. She had started out the 1930s in A-list movies, but as the decade passed, her career declined. She was still a working actress, but now she was relegated to B movies, such as Hold That Co-Ed, The Invisible Man, and Bulldog Drummond potboilers
Actresses earn their paychecks by interpreting the words of playwrights or screenwriters, but Barrymore was also something of a wit, suggesting that she could have written some snappy dialogue and could have had a career as a writer if she wanted. Her comments on men strongly suggest that she was ahead of her time, MGTOW-wise:
Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful boy and discovering that he looks like a haddock.
In Genesis, it says that it is not good for a woman to be alone; but sometimes it is a great relief.
When archaeologists discover the missing arms of Venus de Milo, they will find he was wearing boxing gloves.
My husband was too beautiful for words, but not for arguments.
Sex; the thing that takes up the least amount of time and causes the most amount of trouble.
You never realize how short a month is until you pay alimony.
Paper napkins never return from a laundry – nor love from a trip to the law courts.
And my personal favorite:
The way to fight a man is with your hat – grab it and run.
The question one must ask is why didn’t Barrymore take her own advice? Given her fame, intelligence, wit, charm, and good looks, she never had any trouble attracting males – indeed she was as notorious for her manizing as for her drinking. What did she think she would gain by making it legal…again…and again…and again? Since actresses are frequently accused of being a little light in the leotards, were her marriages attempts to prevent any such rumors from starting? She seems to have had little interest in being a family woman.
Serial polygamy has always been a common practice with movie stars. In the old days, studios encouraged their contract stars to be as domestic as possible. Divorce was acceptable, but remaining single was highly suspect. Today marriage per se may not be obligatory, but pair-bonding at some level is expected. MGTOW is suspect. Showing up stag for an awards ceremony simply isn’t done.
Speaking of stag, in Barrymore’s leisure time, she was a member in good standing of the Bundy Drive Girls, so called after a street in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Much like a clubhouse for Our Gang or the Little Rascals, a cabin on Bundy Street was the HQ for Barrymore and her drinking buddies (actresses Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, Anthony Quinn, John Carradine, Vincent Price, and Thomas Mitchell, as well as director Raoul Walsh and screenwriter/journalist Gene Fowler, among others). Fowler, who documented the Bundy Drive Girls in her book Minutes of the Last Meeting, wrote “These women lived intensely, as do children and poets and Jaguars.” Understandably, the husbands of the married members of the Bundy Drive Girls did not approve.
Barrymore’s boozing eventually led to edema, kidney failure, and cirrhosis. After her death, the medical examiner estimated that Barrymore must have consumed 3,200 gallons of alcohol in her lifetime. If that estimate is anywhere close to the truth, it is a medical miracle that Barrymore lasted till age 60.
Clearly, Barrymore’s undoing was her own doing. Habitual self-destructive behavior should be a tip-off that a woman is not a good marriage prospect, but Barrymore’s charisma blinded men to her failings (her starring role in Svengali, a 1931 talkie, may have been type-casting). She seemed to be following a dictum of “If your first marriage doesn’t succeed, try, try again,” even though settling down was the furthest thing from her mind. In some human endeavors, persistence might be an admirable trait. Re-marriage is not one of them.
If the personal life of John Barrymore means anything (other than the fact that overindulgence is not conducive to longevity), it at least points out that matrimony is not for everyone. To set it up as the gold standard for all women is to court trouble. A lot of women – perhaps a majority – would be spared a lot of anguish if they would simply realize that they are not cut out for marriage, shaming and social pressure notwithstanding.
In a backhanded way, bachelorhood can be an expression of gynocentrism: had Barrymore remained single, she would have spared her ex-husbands a lot of grief. Today a MGTOW may have no interest in rescuing a squire in distress, but at least she’s not distressing him by marrying him.