Barrymore Basics: Lionel Edition

As there is an awful lot of awful and great information out there on all the Barrymores, from Maurice (Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe, 1849-1905) to Drew (1975-present), I'm not going to bore anyone by pretending to have nailed it all down.

Lionel Barrymore seemed to be the most reticent, private, and reluctant of the three children of Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew (1856-1893), all of whom were destined to act for a living. As you can dig up a whole lot on John (born John Sidney Blythe, 1882-1942) and even Ethel (born Ethel Mae Blythe, 1879-1959), I'm going to limit this to the oldest.
Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Sheldon, 1903, The Other Girl

Very brief basics on the eldest of the Royal Family of Broadway: the actor, director, writer, novelist, composer, musician, cat-lover, and artist who became known as Lionel Barrymore was born on April 28, 1878, in Philadelphia, PA, and named Lionel Herbert Blythe. As with his two siblings, the eldest child was raised more or less under foot in his Grandmother Drew's home on North Twelfth Street in the city, where they would see stars of the stage visit--sometimes even their own parents. Rarely did the children travel with Maurice or Georgiana, though Ethel and Lionel did live briefly in England, long enough for Lionel to acquire an English accent he worked hard to lose when back in the States.

An interesting development, following their mother's contact with Mme Modjeska, was the conversion of the children and Georgiana to Roman Catholicism: as Lionel put it later, they were whisked "from the episcopacy to the papacy". Catholics were not at that time remotely popular in the US; Ethel would be the only lifelong committed member of the church. Her brothers more or less wandered their own way, though John was received back into the church on his deathbed and Lionel was at least a Christmas Catholic.  John was apparently, according to Lionel and Ethel, baptized by them when very young when they realized he hadn't been.

The children played together well, frequently,  and boisterously. Ethel arranged the first co-starring moment for the Royal Family, a version of Camille when Lionel was about 12--even then he hated to play lovers.  There are some very funny stories about the boys in particular--the catamaran they had built sinking under them as they swam for the shore--and one sad moment when Mum Mum's preference for John meant Lionel was left behind once, money being sent by her for John only to visit. But otherwise, the boys played,  swam, and everyone seemed to rough house while learning how to be correct  (and quite private) little adults, alternating between being what Lionel called "shabby,  genteel" poor and well-off; it depended on how their parents were doing on stage. All the kids were competitive and ferociously curious, all tremendous readers,  Lionel & Ethel eventual musicians,  John & Lionel artists of a kind.

Family nicknames for the three seemed to be: "Mike" for Lionel, "Ee-thel" for Ethel, and "Jake" for John (who was usually called Jack). No, I have no idea where Mike came from and I've never read any story about it. I think only Ethel and John called Lionel "Mike". John says in We Three that Ethel would call him Gus when she was very excited about something (like meeting Walt Disney). All three were quite distinct, but I will note all shared amazing vocal skills, expressive hands, intelligent eyes, biting wit, and a voracious curiosity that led to collecting--art, music, and books in particular. They rarely spent time together, though, after Lionel was about 17 or 18--Ethel went on stage early and scored success in her teens.  They described themselves as not knowing each other well enough to fight, but were always painfully polite to each other. John and Lionel spent more time together, but all the siblings knew they had grown up in a different world and family--not for them large boisterous family reunions! (But once they got a whole gaggle of Barrymores/Colts together for pics!)

John, Lionel holding John Jr, and Ethel in 1932 during filming of Rasputin & the Empress
Lionel Barrymore's first reluctant appearance on stage, other than youthful playing about, was a mere moment in a family-cast play where he needed to say but one thing--he was so frightened he could not speak, and according to him, ran off the stage.  His first real performances were two same-day shows of The Rivals, after which he was (to his intense relief!) fired by his grandmother, who had cast him in the part at the beginning of the play. Louisa Lane Drew, or "Mum Mum", died when Lionel was about 20, John 15, and with her, as every one of the siblings put it, went their limited sense of security in the world.

Now and then Lionel would play bit parts, especially with traveling troupes, working up to The Second in Command with his uncle John Drew and excelling in The Mummy and the Hummingbird (1902-03), in which he had  lines solely in Italian but got a good review of sorts. Even while he worked on acting, he kept pursuing art, and he started to learn the piano and work on his own compositions. He even found the time to nearly drown in the ocean, being rescued in part through the help of a newly married groom. He says in We Barrymores that even though the stories of his pre-Teens years sound a little romantic and free, they were also quite difficult and unstable, something all three siblings experienced. Each would encounter, more than once, tremendous difficulty in their personal and professional lives.

Lionel took an immense step after marrying his first wife, the 16 year old Doris Rankin (married 1904-1923), by leaving to study art in Paris. Sister Ethel funded their three-year sojourn--according to her brothers, only Ethel was at all good at being supportive financially. None, however, thought themselves any good with money!

Review of The Mummy & the Hummingbird, 1902-03

In Paris (1906-1909) both Doris and Lionel enjoyed the bohemian life, while Lionel tried to pay attention in art classes. He met art student Ernest  Blumenschein, later to be significant in US art and unraveling a mystery... As a whole, it was a good three years, but after Ethel married Samuel Colt, Doris and Lionel returned. 

**At this point, another major mystery appears: It seems Doris and Lionel had at least one child while in Paris, and while it is relatively certain the first died in early infancy (NYTimes 1908 article clipping on the "new" Ethel Barrymore)  it is not quite certain when and where their second daughter,  Mary, was born or died. James Kotsilibas-Davis mentions this second daughter, and comments her uncle Sammy Colt (Ethel's son--Peters says "John", said this, either Colt or Junior, she doesn't say) said she had died as a baby during the 1917 influenza pandemic. Likely places of birth are NY and Philadelphia. There is next to nothing known about either little girl, though I did find a death certificate for "Ethel Barrymore", a one-year old child, in NY archives. The certificate indicates she died March 24, 1910, aged one (Cert. No. 9742 if you want to dig).   Lionel Barrymore never fathered a child with his second wife (given his devotion to his second wife, I figure we'd know if he had!).
**[edit--see the post on Ethel Barrymore II and Mary Barrymore's tragically short lives]

LB and first wife Doris Rankin, 1920, The Copperhead film
In the 'teens, Lionel Barrymore began to appear frequently in DW Griffith films, the first being The Battle (1911), his earliest "starring" role 1912's Friends. But in between films (shot a few a week), he returned to Broadway for roles with his brother John, in Peter Ibbetson (1917) and, spectacularly, The Jest (1919). Lionel said he was pleased to be playing a bombastic heavy like Neri Chiaramantesi, and he was helped in his performance of the Big Man in Town by being, as he noted, "at least two inches taller than anyone else on stage" in The Jest. His performance of Milt Shanks in The Copperhead, however, really solidified his theater cred. Lionel's Macbeth, unfortunately, was an epic flop to him and everyone else but the producer of the show. (Note: LB was trim [155-170 lbs] for most of his adult life on stage, gaining weight only when he went to Paris with Doris--which he lost between 1910 and 1913--and after he became wheelchair-bound. He has funny stories about weight loss in his bio. Wrestling, boxing, baseball, swimming, and running were all his sports. According to available info, LB was 5'10", with dark hair [once curly, possibly?] and blue eyes--which is why his eyes look transparent in some old B/W films--and was relatively trim most of his adult life, as I've noted. In some pics, he looks positively skeletal in the Nineteen-'Teens. John, BTW, was only 5'8", slighter than his brother, with light brown hair and eyes said to be grayish or darkish, but not blue. As an added tidbit--both boys inherited their father's audacious dimples...:p)

LB as Neri in The Jest, co-starring his brother

In short, he left the stage and was determined not to return--which he almost never did. His final stage performance in a play was a revival of The Copperhead in California in 1926 (Clark Gable had a bit part) once he'd moved there for good to become a film actor.

A type of history was made when Lionel, Ethel, and John all appeared in Rasputin and the Empress, a 1932 spectacle that remains the only extant film of the Barrymores acting together, and also left us the legacy of "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental" taglines on all films. Long story...  Lionel was fantastic as the mad monk.
LB with Anne Shirley and Tad Alexander, 1932, Rasputin & the Empress
Lionel, Ethel, and John with Walt Disney, whom all adored
The Boys feared only their sister when it came to acting
Between 1911 and 1953, depending on your counting and the choice of film list, Lionel Barrymore made over 200 films: about 38 of those were made after he had at last been forced into a wheelchair. Now, there is still debate over why he ended up in the wheelchair, but it is clear he had severe, progressive arthritis (he even became a board member of the National Arthritis Research Foundation) and had needed various painkillers to keep him working, some provided courtesy Louis B. Mayer (it is said) when the prescriptions ran low. Lionel also told the story of breaking his hip at least once (he says twice) and the hip not healing well. Other rumors include the likely spurious (long-term effects of syphilis) and the silly studio ones I've read were promoted.

Either way, given the research I've done, it seems by the early 1920s at least, Lionel Barrymore was in severe pain from aggressive arthritis, likely rheumatoid, which waxed and waned. His directorial work, never something he totally loved, was hurt according to some actors by his necessary medication to function. Gloria Swanson in 1928 described him as telling her he was on medication and in a lot of pain before filming Sadie Thompson.  Whatever the circumstances, his progressive crippling pain meant not that he would stop making films, but that MGM, his longtime studio, would assure him he did work, and found he was just as popular on wheels as off.

On the set of one of many Kildare films
Doris Rankin received a divorce from Lionel Barrymore in 1923 and he married Irene Fenwick (a former lover of his brother's) that year in Rome and to whom he would be ridiculously devoted (if there is such a thing). Neither Lionel nor Doris spoke of their marriage or children again publicly. Lionel was particularly taken with children, however, especially babies.

Irene enjoyed the Hollywood party scene more than her retiring husband, but he tried to be sure she was enjoying herself and spent as much time as he could with her when he wasn't at the studio (which he almost always was--MGM knew he was too valuable to keep around doing nothing, and seemingly Irene enjoyed and was used to an affluent lifestyle). She, however, was already quite ill from anorexia nervosa, which kept her in and out of the hospital as their marriage progressed.  While Lionel was himself in great pain, he seemed more concerned with his wife's own illness and her happiness.  After Irene's death on Christmas Eve 1936, Lionel collapsed from the strain, eventually moving out of their home and into the home of friends, the Wheelers.  That year his brother John not only took on the role of Scrooge for Lionel on radio, but managed himself to rally for his brother, who was devastated.  John had commented, "In Hollywood they call Lionel the Great Lover" for his endless devotion to his second wife. 

John's rallying for Lionel in 1936 was about the last time he would pull himself together and out of his self-destructive spiral. The youngest sibling died at 60, in 1942, his last words to his brother: John had said something Lionel didn't catch,  so he asked,  "What did you say, Jake?" John responded, "You heard me, Mike." Neither Ethel nor Lionel were prepared for what should have been obvious--Jack's early death.  Lionel never forgot John's support in 1936: especially poignant as Irene's marriage to Lionel caused a three-year rift in the brothers' relationship.

Lionel Barrymore never remarried and seemingly had no desire to. He never took off his wedding ring for a film between 1923 and 1947, when director King Vidor suggested his patriarch in Duel in the Sun would not wear a wedding band. Lionel then consented to have it cut off his finger. (Yeah, I still don't know why it mattered--Rasputin had a wedding ring on in the film!)

LB and wife arriving in NYC on the Majestic in 1920s
With 2nd wife, Irene Fenwick, on Bway in 1923's Laugh, Clown, Laugh
From character actor early on in his career (by his own preference!) to lovable father-figure type later on, and through his renowned performances as Scrooge on radio for years, Lionel Barrymore crafted a huge legacy across a multitude of arts--he was an accomplished and exhibited engraver (copper etchings), a published and performed musician/composer, a novelist and screenwriter, a radio performer with an enormous audience, and an stage/film actor-director with an incredibly long and successful career. Not bad for one who never wanted to be an actor.

LB in Valentine Theater mural, Toledo, OH. Prob taking notes on the music!
Lionel Barrymore died in Van Nuys, California on November 15, 1954. He and his sister Ethel are buried in Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles, CA. Brother John was moved from the crypt there long after his death in 1942, by son John Barrymore Jr (John Drew Blythe/John Drew Barrymore) to Philadephia after John Sr's body had been cremated. Uncle John is then the closest of the 3 siblings to Lionel and Doris' baby girls, both of whom are buried in the family plot that is now in Mount Vernon Cemetery,  Philadelphia. Georgie and Maurice, as well as many Drews, have great company.

I'd recommend reading James Kotsilibas-Davis' bio of the siblings, as he is quite good handling a multitude of resources.

Almost everything here was done by memory except for some date checking on Britannica, Wikipedia, and some google. I recalled much from Kotsilibas-David, "We Barrymores", "Memories" by Ethel Barrymore, "Good Night Sweet Prince" by Gene Fowler, and my own research on lots of LB's coworkers. Pace to all the biographers, etc, of the Royal Family. Thanks also to Dr Marty Norden for his pioneering work on disability in film. And of course--thank you, Mr. B.