Friday, March 24, 2017

Politics, mañana, and Lionel Barrymore: An actor makes political hay in spite of himself.

Lionel Barrymore was rather tastelessly taunted for his disability in 1944 by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, a Franklin D. Roosevelt “attack dog” and, claimeth an article by Westbrook Pegler, “visiting crutch-kicker”:

Fowler's purple prose was rather astonishing, but I have read of this particular moment in time, which Lionel Barrymore did not let bother him, though it bothered others intensely.

This is the picture to which Ickes referred (Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 24, 1944):

Lionel Barrymore, Republican?

There’s no doubt Mr. B was a fiscal Republican of that time, and Mr. B himself confessed to a propensity for “purple prose” when campaigning on behalf of Dewey in California. Thomas Dewey was considered a relatively centrist/moderate Republican (and still is), and was regarded well for his New York anti-racketeering work.  Personally, I’m a big fan of FDR with all his foibles (yes, political too, unfortunately, especially the massive Mistake of his), but Dewey’s platform: to widen unemployment insurance, increase veteran care, expanding medical coverage and social security, etc., for millions more than were covered, is downright appealing to non-centrists! Some to many of the people who supported Dewey were also rather frightened of an unprecedented fourth term after FDR’s already unprecedented third term as US president. I have to admit, reading news from that time, it was a real concern, and not only over the “arrogance” involved—Roosevelt was not well in 1944, and would not live long into his final term.

Lionel Barrymore, however, professed a great admiration not only for the president, but for Mrs. Roosevelt as well—the woman who had him booted off a biopic of FDR because of what she believed he had said (and meant). He confessed she had the right to believe he thought ill of her husband personally, and also claimed in We Barrymores to writing a letter from his Scottie, Jock Barrymore, to Fala Roosevelt, the White House dog, one overly-besotten evening. Fala did not reply, but Mr. B always hoped the pup had been able to read the sincere letter, in which Jock invited Fala to visit and gave clear directions.

I don’t think Lionel Barrymore was any more sincerely political or arch-conservative than many people who would be centrists today are. He did not like the income tax, though the fact he avoided dealing with taxes may have helped that too! His siblings were more politically liberal, but John, Ethel, and Lionel all threw their considerable weight behind the stage strike in the early 20th century on Broadway, and of course all belonged to Equity.  Rather, except when “het up” in conversation (something Lew Ayres liked to do, as he was quite liberal compared to Barrymore’s conservative take), Lionel Barrymore did not seem very interested in sharing his political ideology or, heaven forbid, being a “role model”. He was visibly and busily pro-American (not nativist) during WWII and WWI, lending his considerable popularity to an enormous range of rallies and bond sales during both periods. He indeed registered for the draft as required in WWI, and also registered in spite of his physical disability for WWII, to encourage others. He did everything he could do to help the Allies win a huge war—as much as an actor could who could not, as James Stewart did, physically go over to fight.

Ultimately, I return to his description of himself as a man “whose yearning for mañana is exceeded only by the yearning for more mañana.” He wanted to do what he wanted and engage with people only as necessary. He was reticent, happy composing, drawing, etching, or painting, playing music, reading, and being with a few close friends. Perhaps because of his Edwardian/Victorian childhood, he was reserved in the extreme, not terribly demonstrative, and frankly rather a worrier if he had to think about making a living, etc.  But he was known to good friends as generous, kind, thoughtful, and funny, even profanely so. He was committed to two long-term relationships, and for the failure of his first, he blamed himself totally.

So in spite of my political leaning toward Mr. Ickes/FDR, I think I’ll find Mr. B a very engaging conversationalist in the great hereafter. I hope my conversation will be of interest to him. I’ll keep reading!