Childhood & Early Life
Ethel Barrymore was born as Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15, 1879, to Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew, in Philadelphia. She was second of the three children born to the couple.
Young Ethel belonged to the Barrymore family of actors; her parents, brothers, aunts and grandmother were professional actors. As such, it wasn’t unlikely for Ethel to follow the family footsteps and enter the world of entertainment.
Academically, she received training from various Roman Catholic schools. Interestingly, she had initially planned to become a concert pianist. However, Barrymore could not resist the lure of the stage for long.
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After the untimely death of her mother in 1893, Ethel made her foray into the stage. She was roped in by her grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew’s company as a stage performer. Barrymore made her professional debut during the New York City season of 1894.
She was a natural on stage; her distinctive voice and strikingly pleasurable presence aiding in the process. Her first appearance in Broadway was for the play, ‘The Imprudent Young Couple’ in 1895. Following year, she appeared in the play ‘Rosemary’.
In 1897, she went to London to don the role of Miss Kittridge for William Gillette’s play ‘Secret Service’. Her youthful stage presence and natural talent for acting earned her an opportunity to act with the great English stage performer, Henry Irving. What followed was a full London tour during which she performed in two plays, ‘The Bells’ in 1897 and ‘Peter the Great’ in 1898.
Post her terrific success in London, Barrymore returned to America. Her reputation as a stage actor had been established. Immediately thereafter, she was cast in Charles Frohman’s ‘Catherine’ and later in ‘His Excellency the Governor’.
While Ethel was enjoying a successful career, she achieved a major breakthrough in 1901 with Clyde Fitch’s play, ‘Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines’. Her performance as Madame Trentoni earned her widespread acclaim and recognition and she became a star of her own right. After the tour, she had surpassed prominent actresses of her time in terms of popularity.
Following the superlative success with ‘Captain Jinks’, she starred in some of the most notable plays including ‘A Doll’s House’, ‘Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire’, ‘Mid-Channel’, ‘Trelawney of the Wells’, ‘Déclassée’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Second Mrs. Tanqueray’, ‘The Constant Wife’, ‘Scarlet Sister Mary’ and ‘Whiteoaks’.
In 1928, she inaugurated the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, which was named in her honor, in New York City. The first play staged at the theatre was ‘The Kingdom of God’. The theatre exists till date and operates by the same name.
Despite stage being her first love, Barrymore did not shy away from silver screen, recognizing the potential of the new medium. She made her big screen debut in 1914 with the film, ‘The Nightingale’. Until 1919, she starred in more than 15 silent films.
She was a firm supporter of Actors Equity Association and played a dominant role of an activist. She actively supported the actor’s strike of 1919 and played a high profile role in the same.
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Between 1920s and 1930s, she starred in a single film, ‘Rasputin and the Empress’ that had her star opposite her two brothers, John and Lionel. It is the only film that stars the three siblings.
For a decade after ‘Rasputin and the Empress’, she bid goodbye to Hollywood and instead channelized her energy on stage. It was during this time that she came up with her most engaging stage performance in ‘The Corn is Green’.
In 1940s, she moved base to Hollywood. In 1944, she donned the role of an impoverished Cockney mother in the pensive, ‘None But A Lonely Heart’. The film earned her, her first Academy Award, in the category of Best Supporting Actress. She earned an Academy Award nomination in the same category for ‘Pinky’ in 1949.
During the 1940s, she performed in several movies including, ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1946,), ‘The Paradine Case’ (1947) and ‘The Portrait of Jennie’ (1948). Her last film as an actor was ‘Johnny Trouble’, released in 1957.
While doing films, Barrymore made her mark in television as well, appearing as a guest in NBC’s All Star Revue and in radio show ‘What’s My Line?’ In 1955, her memoir ‘Memoir, An Autobiography’ was published.
Barrymore’s highpoint in her career came with the show, ‘Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines’. The show had her don the character of Madame Trentoni. Immediately after her performance, she became a star, earning acclaim as a talented and youthful stage artist. What followed was a series of stage shows, in which she played the lead role, including ‘A Doll's House’, ‘Alice By the Fire’, ‘Mid-Channel’ and ‘Trelawney of the Wells’.
After making her mark on stage, she tried her hand at the big screen. She starred in more than 15 silent films in her career, but her best performance was seen in ‘None But A Lonely Heart’ which won her an Academy Award.
Personal Life & Legacy
During her London tour in 1898, Ethel had befriended young Winston Churchill, who in turn was so smitten by her beauty, grace and poise that he proposed marriage to her. She, however, refused the proposal as she did not wish to be a politician’s wife.
She tied the nuptials with Russel Griswold Colt on March 14, 1909. The couple was blessed with three children. The marriage hit the rocks early, with Ethel having filed for divorce as early as in 1911 only. The two eventually separated in 1923. Though she deserved alimony, she instead demanded the wealth to be provided to her children.
After years of suffering from heart problems, she finally died of cardiovascular disease on June 18, 1959. She was interred at Calvary Cemetery.
Much before her death, she started a legacy with Ethel Barrymore Theatre which exists till date and reminds all of the immense contribution made by Barrymore as a theatre artist and performer.
She was a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame, along with her brothers, John and Lionel.