As a star of stage, screen, and radio, John Barrymore, born on February 15, 1882, was one of the most famous men in America. During the 1920s his name recognition was right up there with Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and Al Capone.
Starting off on the stage, he was a prominent leading man, arguably America’s foremost Shakespearean actor. Beginning in 1914, silent movies spread his image far and wide. In the 20’s, he portrayed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Don Juan, Captain Ahab, Francois Villon, and Beau Brummell. His superb stage voice enabled him to make a seamless transition from silents to talkies. His leading man persona shone as brightly on screen as it did on the stage. His nickname was the Great Profile.
Given his heredity and environment (theatrical families on both sides), it is not surprising that he would take to the stage. His sister Ethel and his brother Lionel were also thespians with long careers. Since Ethel was more involved with theater than movies, she is pretty much forgotten today. Lionel, essentially a character actor, occupies a unique niche in popular culture thanks to his role as the parsimonious Mr. 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 his life was free of speed bumps.
If you like tales of profligate, self-destructive artists, the life of John Barrymore is for you. He drank too much, to put it mildly, but he also got married too much. He tied and untied the knot four times – too arty women with varying levels of talent. We can’t chalk it up to youthful indiscretion, as he was 28 at the time of his first marriage. He was certainly old enough to know what he was getting into.
His first wife (from 1910 to 1917) was Katherine Corri Harris, a debutante and minor silent movie actress who appeared in a few of Barrymore’s films. The marriage got off to a rocky start when her father refused to attend the wedding. Barrymore later referred to his first marriage as a “bus accident.” Nevertheless, he was at her side when she died of pneumonia ten years after their divorce. By that time she was on her third husband.
His second wife (from 1920 to 1925), Blanche Oelrichs, was also a socialite. Born into a prominent family in Newport, Rhode Island, she mingled with the Astors and the Vanderbilts while growing up. At the time Barrymore met her, she was a divorced mother of two, a suffragette, and a stage who wrote under the pen name Michael Strange. She was an early member of the Lucy Stone League, an organization devoted to women retaining their maiden names after marriage.
Clearly, this woman’s background had more red flags than a May Day Parade in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Barrymore had knocked her up, so perhaps he felt obligated to her.
After Oelrichs had divorced Barrymore, she 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 wife (from 1928 to 1934), should have been a kindred spirit, as she was born into a theatrical family and fashioned a respectable career as a silent movie actress (in 1926 she co-starred with Barrymore in The Sea Beast, a very loose adaptation of Moby Dick). Her career dwindled after the coming of talkies and motherhood, but she had one last memorable role in her next to last film, The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’ next directorial effort after Citizen Kane.
Costello’s father had been a leading man during the cinema’s infancy so that she might have caught a glimpse of daddy in Barrymore. Daddy, by the way, did not approve of the match and did not show up for the wedding. In fact, he and his wife disagreed so vehemently that they divorced over the subject. At any rate, Dolores Costello bore Barrymore another daughter and a son, John Drew Barrymore, who had a modest career acting in TV and movies. In turn, he fathered Drew Barrymore.
John Barrymore’s fourth wife (from 1936 to 1941) was Elaine Barrie, a wannabe actress who was something of a groupie. In fact, she had changed her last name from Jacobs to Barrie as a tribute to Barrymore. At age 19, she visited him a hospital where he was being treated for alcoholism and somehow managed to finagle him into marrying her a couple of years later. Unlike her three predecessors, she did not bring much to the table. The main event of her life was marrying Barrymore (divorced at age 26, she never remarried). In 1964, she published All My Sins Remembered; the Story of My Life With John Barrymore. Basking in reflected glory was her sole claim to fame. Of his three surviving ex-wives, she was the only one to attend his funeral.
Had he lived longer, Barrymore might have gotten married again. “Now I’m free to resume my search for the perfect mate,” he declared after his fourth divorce. “I am thinking of taking a fifth wife. Why not? Solomon had a thousand wives, and he is a synonym for wisdom.”
Clearly, neoteny was a factor in Barrymore’s behavior, as he had a yen for younger women. His first wife was only 17, eleven years his junior. His second wife, 29 at the time of marriage, was closest to him in age (8 years difference), but wife number 3 was 25 when he was 46, and his last mate was only 21 when he was 54.
The huge age gap in his final marriage may have been an attempt to recapture his youth. At the time he met Elaine Barrie, his health and his career were both on borrowed time. He had started out the 1930s in A-list movies, but as the decade passed, his career declined. He was still a working actor, but now he was relegated to B movies, such as Hold That Co-Ed, The Invisible Woman, and Bulldog Drummond potboilers
Actors earn their paychecks by interpreting the words of playwrights or screenwriters, but Barrymore was also something of a wit, suggesting that he could have written some snappy dialogue and could have had a career as a writer if he wanted. His comments on women strongly suggest that he was ahead of his time, MGTOW-wise:
Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.
In Genesis, it says that it is not good for a man to be alone; but sometimes it is a great relief.
When archaeologists discover the missing arms of Venus de Milo, they will find she was wearing boxing gloves.
My wife 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 woman is with your hat – grab it and run.
The question one must ask is why didn’t Barrymore take his own advice? Given his fame, intelligence, wit, charm, and good looks, he never had any trouble attracting females – indeed he was as notorious for his womanizing as for his drinking. What did he think he would gain by making it legal…again…and again…and again? Since actors are frequently accused of being a little light in the leotards, were his marriages attempts to prevent any such rumors from starting? He seems to have had little interest in being a family man.
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, he was a member in good standing of the Bundy Drive Boys, 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 his drinking buddies (actors 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 Boys in his book Minutes of the Last Meeting, wrote “These men lived intensely, as do children and poets and Jaguars.” Understandably, the wives of the married members of the Bundy Drive Boys did not approve.
Barrymore’s boozing eventually led to edema, kidney failure, and cirrhosis. After his death, the medical examiner estimated that Barrymore must have consumed 3,200 gallons of alcohol in his 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 his own doing. Habitual self-destructive behavior should be a tip-off that a man is not a good marriage prospect, but Barrymore’s charisma blinded women to his failings (his starring role in Svengali, a 1931 talkie, may have been type-casting). He 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 his 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 men is to court trouble. A lot of men – 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, he would have spared his ex-wives a lot of grief. Today a MGTOW may have no interest in rescuing a damsel in distress, but at least he’s not distressing her by marrying her.