The man who founded a theatrical dynasty that is still going strong in its fourth generation with actress/producer Drew Barrymore was born in far off and exotic Fort Agra, India practically within shade of the Taj Mahal on September 21, 1849.
Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe was the son of a surveyor for the British East India Company and his wife Charlotte Matilda Chamberlayne de Tankerville. The youngest of seven children, his mother died of complications from his birth. He was largely raised by his double aunt Amelia Blythe his mother’s sister who had married his father’s brother.
When he was old enough young Herbert was sent to England for an elite education at Harrow and then on to Oxford to prepare for the law—the profession chosen by his father. At Oxford the strapping young man preferred athletics. He was captain of the football (soccer) team. He also took up the manly sport of boxing. Although the Marquess of Queensberry Rules were established, bare knuckle bouts were still popular and the wayward young scholar fought in several. In fact he was a damn fine fighter and in 1872 won the Middleweight Championship of England.
As if the sporting life was not enough of an embarrassment to his family Blythe took up with actors and soon abandoned his father’s chosen profession for a life on the stage. To spare the family humiliation he assumed the last name of noted early 19th Century thespian William Barrymore after seeing his name on an old poster. He adopted a French first name in honor of his mother’s heritage. As Maurice Barrymore he sat for his first theatrical photo portrait shortly after winning his boxing title.
Two years later he was on board the SS America sailing to Boston and putting an ocean between himself and the disapproving Blythes. Soon after arriving he joined the established touring company of Augustine Daly and made his American debut in Under the Gaslight. A year later in 1876 he was starring on Broadway in Pique.
During the run of that play Barrymore became enamored of a young actress with a small part, Georgiana Drew, the sister of his friend and established star John Drew. After a whirlwind courtship the couple married on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1876. Georgiana, affectionately known as Gerogie, was a great beauty and would rise to stardom herself. The two would appear both together and separately causing sometime lengthy separations during which Barrymore frequently indulged in affairs with co-stars or star struck ingénues. The couple had three children, Lionel born in 1878, Ethel born in1879, and John born in 1882. While the couple toured, the children were left in the keeping of Georgiana’s mother in Philadelphia and spent summer on their father’s Staten Island farm where he kept a collection of exotic animals.
The handsome Barrymore quickly became one of the most famous leading men on the American stage appearing opposite almost all of the top female stars of the day including Helena Modjeska, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Olga Nethersole, Lillian Russell, and Lily Langtry.
But his career was nearly cut short while on tour in Marshall, Texas on March 19, 1879. Barrymore and cast mate Ben Porter had indulged in a poker game—a common pastime for an actor who prided himself on being a sporting man—and had relieved a notorious gunslinger named Jim Currie of a tidy sum of money. Later that evening after a performance Barrymore, Porter and actress Ellen Cummins went to the White House Saloon for a late supper. A drunken and enraged Currie confronted them. Barrymore stood to confront him and challenged him to a fist fight, confident in his skills as a boxer. Unfortunately Currie preferred pistols. He drew and shot Barrymore point blank in the chest and Porter in the stomach. Porter died in agony and Barrymore was rushed to a doctor’s office where the physician worked feverishly to save his life with an operation.
Seven months pregnant with Ethel, Georgiana rushed from New York to be with her husband. Barrymore recovered due largely to his strength and constitution. Currie was brought to trial for murder and attempted murder. Barrymore returned to Texas to testify and dozens of witness saw the shooting of the un-armed men. But it took a Texas jury ten minutes to clear Currie. Perhaps because his brother was Governor of Louisiana and the family had plenty of money and clout to spread around.
During his recover Barrymore wrote a melodrama. He invited Georgiana to accompany him on a touring production along with her close friend the Polish born actress Helena Modjeska who had convinced her to convert to Catholicism and baptize the children. Despite their closeness, Georgiana knew that her friend had been one of her husband’s lovers. On tour she discovered that Barrymore and Helena had renewed their romance under her nose. For some reason Barrymore had signed over the rights to the play to his wife, who promptly withdrew them in mid tour causing the play to shut down. The producer’s sued but did not prevail. The reason for the abrupt closure was never explained to the press, although the gossips columns of the day often noted the actor’s indiscretions.
Barrymore continued to write plays and Georgie remained watchful but loyal. In 1884 the couple and their small children sailed to England where he was to collect an inheritance from his aunt Amelia and hoped to impress the rest of his family with his success in America. Returning from an American tour on the same ship was French legend Sara Bernhardt. In hopes of enticing her to produce it, he gave the actress an un-copyrighted copy of his new play Nadjezda. Two years later Bernhardt premiered in Paris in a new play, La Tosca by Victorien Sardou which is now best remembered as the source material for Puccini’s opera. Barrymore detected similarities between that play and his and sued the author for stealing his work. He suffered a humiliating defeat in court. A judge ruled that the only similarity between the two plays was the sacrifice of the heroine’s honor to save her lover, but that was an old plot device that had been used many times going back to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Aside from his continued indiscretions with young women, Barrymore liked to spend time with athletes, especially boxer and wrestlers. He kept fit by sometimes working out with them. Among his pals were wrestler William Muldoon, and Heavyweight Champions John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett. He may have coached them on their own forays on the stage. He encouraged his growing sons to take up the support and actually arranged an amateur bout between Lionel and actor Hobart Bosworth.
Tragedy struck on July 2, 1893 when the frail Georgiana succumbed to consumption. Barrymore was both heartbroken and set adrift without his anchor. He hardly knew what to do with the children, who were left for most of the summer on the Staten Island farm attended only by the man hired to feed the animals. In need of a mother for his brood, Barrymore wed as soon as a respectable mourning period was complete. On the one year anniversary of Georgiana’s death he married Mamie Floyd. Fifteen year old Ethel, who doted on her father, was crushed and shocked to see her mother replaced. Lionel would leave home as soon as he was able, following his father on the stage.
In the later years of the Gay 90’s Barrymore had some of the greatest success of his career. In 1895 he co-starred with Mrs. Leslie Carter in the Civil War romance The Heart of Maryland.
The following year he became the first genuine star of the Broadway stage to perform in Vaudeville. The variety stage was rapidly gaining in audiences and, as elegant theaters were built just for it, in respectability. Barrymore would tour doing scenes from his most famous roles or doing Shakespearian soliloquies. Barrymore found it a good way to earn money between stage engagements and tours—his lavish life style often left him embarrassed for cash. The tours also built audiences for play appearances. In the wake of Barrymore’s success, other actors would follow his example.
In 1899 he had his biggest Broadway success to date opposite Mrs. Fisk in Becky Thatcher, an adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. Then he set off on a lengthy tour in The Battle of the Strong, a mediocre melodrama. Back in New York Barrymore returned to booking Vaudeville shows.
In 1901 Barrymore was on a vaudeville stage in Harlem when, according to the New York Times “he suddenly dropped his lines and began to rave.” The next day he became violent had to be taken to Belleview by his son John was admitted to a ward for the insane. He was found to be suffering from an advanced stage of syphilis which often led to mental collapse and was then incurable.
All three children were now working on the stage, but Ethel, a young beauty, was already a star she undertook her father’s medical expenses and had him transferred to a more comfortable private institution in Amityville. She visited him almost daily but his condition continued to deteriorate and violent episodes became more common. On one visit he attempted to strangler. Another time the still athletic patient picked up an attendant, lifted him over his head in the manner of a wrestler and threw the man several feet.
On March 25, 1905 Maurice Barrymore died in his sleep at the age of 55. Ethel had him interred next to her mother in Philadelphia. Later, when that cemetery was closed both of their graves were moved to Mount Vernon Cemetery in the same city.