The first actor of the name was Maurice Barrymore, 1847-1905, b. Agra, India. His original name was Herbert Blythe. He graduated from Cambridge, took a law degree, but renounced law for the stage. After appearing in the provinces in England he went to the United States (1875) and joined Augustin Daly's company, making his first appearance in Daly's melodrama, Under the Gaslight. A handsome actor, he was leading man to many of the famous actresses of the period.
Maurice Barrymore's wife, Georgiana Drew Barrymore, 1856-93, b. Philadelphia, whom he married in 1876, began her career in the company of her parents, John and Louisa Lane Drew. She then appeared in Daly's company in New York City, and after her marriage to Maurice Barrymore she acted with him in Mme Modjeska's company. One of the great comediennes of her day, she appeared under the management of the Frohmans and acted with Lawrence Barrett and Edwin Booth.
The Barrymores' older son, Lionel Barrymore, 1878-1954, b. Philadelphia, first appeared in minor roles in the company of Louisa Lane Drew, his grandmother, and John Drew, his uncle. A much admired character actor, he is best remembered for his work in films, e.g., Dinner at Eight (1933), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and in 15 Dr. Kildare films. He received an Academy Award in 1931 for his performance in A Free Soul. His portrayal of Scrooge in Dickens's Christmas Carol won him a wide radio audience from 1936. In later life, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, he became known for his portrayals on radio. Barrymore, who loved art and music more than the theater, composed over 100 unpublished musical pieces and was a member of the American Society of Etchers. He also wrote a novel, Mr. Cantonwine: a Moral Tale (1953).
Lionel's sister, Ethel Barrymore, 1879-1959, b. Philadelphia, also began her career under the auspices of her relatives. After an engagement with Henry Irving in London she returned to New York City, where, under the Frohman banner, she appeared in Clyde Fitch's Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901) and achieved instant success. Although her original desire was to become a concert pianist, she made the theater her home and gained a reputation as an actress of dignity and warmth. Her most endearing portrayal was in The Corn Is Green (1940-42). Her work in films was limited, although in 1944 she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in None But the Lonely Heart. A theater bearing her name was opened in 1928 in New York City.
Lionel and Ethel's younger brother, John Barrymore, 1882-1942, b. Philadelphia, tried his hand at painting and cartooning before turning to the stage. After his debut in 1903, he became a matinee idol to millions of playgoers and movie fans because of his dashing nature and good looks. His portrayal of Hamlet in 1922 electrified the public. After 1912 most of his work was confined to films and radio; his last appearance, in 1939, was on the stage in My Dear Children, a pathetic burlesque of his baroque private life. He was four times married; his tempestuous personality passed on to two of his four children, Diana and John, Jr. (John Drew Barrymore), who also became actors. Diana died at the age of 38, shortly after the publication of her autobiographical Too Much Too Soon (1958).
Lionel and John Barrymore appeared together on the stage in Peter Ibbetson and The Jest. The three Barrymores, Lionel, Ethel, and John, appeared together only once, in the movie Rasputin and the Empress (1932). The Royal Family (1934), a play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, is based, to some extent, on the Barrymore family.
See H. Alpert, The Barrymores (1964). See also John's autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1926); Lionel's autobiography, We Barrymores (1951); and Ethel's autobiography, Memories (1955).