There have been plenty of self-destructive stars in Hollywood, but few could measure up to John Barrymore. He was a consummate talent, beloved by those who knew him and scores of fans—but sadly, all the admiration and success in the world couldn’t steer Barrymore from his dark path. As we’ll see, when it comes to Hollywood tragedies, few on-screen tales of woe could live up to the sad story of John Barrymore.
1. He Was Born Into A Dynasty
Barrymore’s fate was set up for him from the moment that he came into the world. Consider these two factors: His parents came from two prominent acting families, the Drews and the Barrymores, with stage careers going all the way back to his great-grandparents. On top of that, he was born on February 14—that Valentine’s Day birth foreshadowing his future heartthrob status.
However, no early portent could’ve predicted his eventual downfall.
2. He Kept Getting Into Trouble
Unfortunately, the same family dynamic that set Barrymore up for success also made for a tumultuous childhood. His parents were constantly on tour, and after one such tour, simply left John and his siblings behind with another actress they knew. Did I mention that she was also his father’s mistress? All this upheaval had a disastrous effect on John, and he began acting out in school.
Multiple schools expelled him—but that was nothing compared to the catastrophe on the horizon.
3. His Parents Were Absent
When John Barrymore was just 11 years old, he suffered a heartbreaking tragedy. That year, his mother died of tuberculosis. But how can you properly mourn the loss of something you never really had? Because of her career and his issues at school, John had already spent more time apart from his mother than he had with her.
Things weren’t much better on the paternal side, as his father rarely saw John and his siblings. As you can imagine, all this turmoil and alienation led the young Barrymore down a perilous path as he became a teen…
4. He Picked Up A Problem
So, what kind of trouble was John Barrymore getting up to in his adolescent years? Well, Barrymore’s teenage rebellion took a scandalous form. When he was just 15, his school expelled him after staff caught him visiting a “night house”. Or at least, that’s how one version of the story goes. One of Barrymore’s biographers claims that he was expelled for drinking—but this is far from being a funny story of teen mischief.
It was actually the beginning of a dire drinking problem that would plague Barrymore for the rest of his life—and things were about to get worse.
5. He Had A Racy Secret
After his expulsion from Georgetown, Barrymore had more time to spend at home. If you’re imagining an idyllic time where he was able to connect with his father and his new stepmother, think again…because Barrymore was hiding an incredibly twisted secret. He was actually having an affair with his father’s new wife, Mamie Floyd—and the details were absolutely shocking.
6. He Suffered The Consequences
John Barrymore’s affair with his stepmother was racy, sure—after all, there’s an entire corner of the internet dedicated to that sort of thing—but it was also incredibly damaging. Grappling with the fact that his first intimate encounter took place with his father’s wife left Barrymore with lifelong trauma and it directly affected all of his later romantic relationships.
That’s not to mention the guilt that he felt over it—and the fact that it occurred during one of the most difficult periods of his life.
7. He Lost The Woman Who Raised Him
While John’s father hadn’t exactly been a steady presence in his life, there was someone else who had been—his maternal grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew. She fell ill the same year that Barrymore was having his affair with his stepmother. Spending time with her was a reprieve from the tumult of his daily life, but she couldn’t hold on forever. When she died, John was in the room, and something in him broke.
As his older brother Lionel said, “He never felt safe after that.” Without her, he was adrift—and now he had to search for something to hold onto.
8. He Reunited With His Dad
Barrymore had no interest in joining the acting profession as so many family members had, and when he went to England to finish school, he studied literature and art. After graduation, when he found work as an artist back in New York, his father approached him with an unexpected offer: The elder Barrymore wanted John to appear in a play with him.
John agreed—but he had no idea what he was getting into.
9. He Lost His Grip
The experience of acting together brought John Barrymore and his father Maurice closer than they’d ever been. But just as John finally settled into the nurturing relationship he’d always wanted with his father, a horrifying incident shattered it all. One night in 1901, Maurice began acting erratic onstage and burst into a disgusting anti-Semitic rant in front of the shocked audience.
John was at a loss what to do—but his nightmare was just beginning.
10. He Had To Step Up
It was clear that something was wrong with his father. Maurice was unpredictable and growing more and more paranoid by the day. While his siblings were at a loss, John took action. He told Maurice that they were going to appear in a play together, but then took him to Bellevue Hospital. The diagnosis was dire. A long-untreated case of syphilis had driven Maurice mad…and at that time, there was no cure for it.
11. He Lost His Father
For, ahem, more than one reason, this sequence of events left John absolutely terrified. Still, he did what had to be done, and obtained a court order to have his father committed. Maurice never recovered, and passed on in an institution in Amityville, Long Island. John had such a brief bright spot in his relationship with his father before it all fell apart, and the loss hit him hard.
Barrymore often joked that the “family curse” was acting—but when he thought of what happened to his father, he had to face the fact that it was much darker than that.
12. He Fell In Love
Barrymore didn’t spend too much time worrying about his familial woes, as he had a pretty serious distraction. He had fallen in love for the first time. Her name was Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful young model—but there was just one problem. She was a kept woman. Mistress isn’t the right word, as coercion was a factor, but Nesbit was already “with” a wealthy older man.
However, Barrymore wasn’t going to let something like that stop him.
13. She Rejected Him
Barrymore had fallen hard for Nesbit, and he thought that love would be enough to see them through the bizarre love triangle they were caught in. Sadly, Nesbit’s mother prioritized financial security over love, and when Barrymore proposed, she pushed Evelyn to say no. Barrymore was heartbroken—but as we’ll see, that wouldn’t be the last he heard of Nesbit.
14. He Got The Boot
Barrymore was still toiling as an illustrator—until one day, when the newspaper he worked for suddenly fired him. The reason why was a dark omen for the future. Barrymore’s drinking had increased, and as a result, his work had suffered. Finally, he gave into the path that had been laid out for him. It wasn’t out of passion or a sense of tradition.
No, John Barrymore, one of the greatest actors in history, got into it because he was flat broke.
15. He Kept Messing Up
However, breaking into the acting world with a famous family wasn’t quite the same then as it is now. Barrymore struggled to find his place, despite his pedigree and his excellent mentors. Part of this was his own fault; Barrymore’s drinking got in the way of his career more than once, leading to frustration from co-stars and producers.
Eventually, it got so bad that his sister had to step in.
16. She Tried To Set Him Straight
John’s older siblings Ethel and Lionel had both seen their fair share of struggle while building their careers, so watching their baby brother needlessly get in his own way was infuriating. Finally, Ethel came up with a plan to put John in his place. She convinced the producers of the play that he was in to fire him. John was shocked—but it was all a part of Ethel’s plan. The next morning, the producers re-hired him. John was scared straight…well, at least he was for a little while.
17. He Was In The Middle Of A Catastrophe
Just before John’s father Maurice Barrymore had passed, he’d had an episode where he yelled at Lionel and insisted that San Francisco had “been destroyed by earthquake and fire.” A year later, as John lay sleeping in a friend’s home in SF, his father’s bizarre prediction came true. The initial shock of the earthquake threw John across the room.
He shook his host awake and then went to check on his hotel room. Things looked fine, so Barrymore went for a nap—but the disaster was just beginning.
18. Things Escalated Quickly
An aftershock rattled the building, but Barrymore still managed to get to sleep, hoping that the next day he could continue on his journey to Australia with an acting company as planned. When he woke up the next day, the city was on fire. Barrymore wrote to his sister Ethel, relating tales of adventures helping troops to clear the roads and friends retrieving their belongings from their burning homes. There was just one problem—none of it was true.
19. He Was Telling A Tall Tales
Barrymore’s tales of his heroics during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire became part of his legend when he got famous—but he was hiding a dark secret. Really, he’d made it all up. Barrymore had hoped that he could sell his story to the papers back in New York, who were hungry for news about the catastrophe. Eventually, he gave up playing correspondent and made the journey to Australia—and when he came back, things really began to move for John Barrymore.
20. They Flocked To Him
As Barrymore took on more leading roles, he also drew the attention of the ladies—a certain kind of lady, that is. It went something like this: an actress or chorus girl is dating or is married to a rich financial type who keeps them in diamonds and furs…but on the side, she takes up with handsome leading man John Barrymore. He couldn’t support them in the way they were accustomed to, but he could certainly keep them entertained, if you catch my drift.
Repeat this process with woman after woman—until one came along who didn’t need a man to buy her anything.
21. He Fell In Love
John Barrymore was 27 and making a name for himself as a titan of the stage. Katherine Corri Harris was just 17 and making her debut in New York high society. Considering the company he normally kept, it shouldn’t have made sense—but Barrymore found himself enchanted by Katherine. Her father opposed the match, but Barry had an unexpected ally on his side.
22. They Had Powerful Allies
Not only had Barrymore swept Katherine off her feet, but he’d also charmed her mother and her grandmother. They conspired to unite Katherine with their mutual crush, and despite her father’s objections, the pair tied the knot in 1910. But quickly, after the whirlwind, the newlyweds faced a harsh reality. Despite her family’s riches, Barrymore had to go back to work to support them.
He left his bride and went off again on tour with a show. For the first year of their marriage, Barrymore barely saw his new wife. This was not a great portent for the rest of their marriage…
23. He Had Different Priorities
After their first year of marriage, Barrymore’s wife Katherine made a disturbing realization. It wasn’t that she came second to his career. It was that she came in third, after acting and drinking. She became his co-star in number of productions, hoping to mend the gap between them. Sadly, it was an exercise in futility—but before she gave up, she followed him on yet another new adventure.
24. He Became A Movie Star
Both of John’s older siblings made the transition from stage to silent screen—and with their success, the studios came looking for him. For Barrymore, it was a no-brainer. The hours were way better than long touring productions, and he was happy to sacrifice the trials and tribulations of the road for a soft bed and his local watering hole.
Of course, his marital bed wasn’t always kept warm for him…
25. She Stepped Out On Him
Did John Barrymore drink because he was unhappy, or was he unhappy because he drank? It was a question that his wife Katherine constantly had to grapple with—until eventually, it became too much for her. She’d expected wedded bliss, and she wasn’t getting anything of the sort, so she began cheating on John, and that’s not even the most scandalous part.
One of her paramours was his best friend, James Montgomery Flagg, but Flagg was in for a rude awakening of his own: He broke it off with her when he realized he wasn’t her only side piece.
26. He Couldn’t Give Her What She Needed
The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference—and while John Barrymore was incredibly jealous, his reactions to his wife’s infidelity were telling. While there were some small demonstrations of jealousy, he remained mostly preoccupied with friends and drink. Specifically, he was much more focused on his newfound relationship with playwright Edward Sheldon, who was acting as his mentor.
When Barrymore and Sheldon traveled to California in hopes that it would help with Sheldon’s arthritis, Katherine came along too—but she wasn’t there to soak up the sun.
27. She Left Him
Katherine had actually gone to California to establish residence there so that she could file for divorce from John. Their statements to the judge reflect Barrymore’s apathy toward married life. Eventually, the judge granted Katherine a divorce on the grounds of desertion—yet the story didn’t end there. While they clearly didn’t work as a married couple, there was still a lot of respect there.
Even though Katherine remarried twice, when she fell ill and passed on ten years later, it was John who was at her bedside.
28. He Got Serious
John Barrymore had been a success on both stage and screen at this point, but mostly in comedies. His friend and mentor Edward Sheldon saw the potential in him as a dramatic actor, but Barrymore struggled to find roles. Although Barrymore had often treated his profession cavalierly, he finally began to take it all more seriously, thanks to Sheldon’s encouragement—but distractions both big and small got in the way.
29. He Never Made It To The Front
Were it not for one thing, Barrymore’s story could’ve ended up a lot shorter and a lot bleaker. When the US joined WWI, Barrymore tried to enlist in the Army like many other men his age. However, they rejected him because he had varicose veins. Barrymore then began to, ahem, help in the war effort in his own way—by having an affair with a woman whose husband was posted in France.
But, as we’ll see, what seemed like a temporary arrangement soon became more permanent.
30. He Became An Even Bigger Star
In the years following WWI, Barrymore did some of the best acting of his life, with critics heaping praise on him for his work in plays like Tolstoy’s Redemption and the film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where he took the dual leading role. In his corner were his champions and sources of constant support: his siblings, Edward Sheldon, and perhaps unexpectedly, his married paramour, Blanche Oelrichs.
See, their affair had turned from just that into something a lot more serious…
31. He Waited For Her
When Blanche Oelrichs’ husband returned home after the end of WWI, she’d told him the truth about what she’d been up to with John Barrymore. He gave her an ultimatum. He wanted her to go six months without seeing Barrymore, and she agreed. Barrymore was disappointed but willing to wait it out. He distracted himself by dating every eligible young woman in New York, including starlet Tallulah Bankhead.
But during that time, he kept writing Oelrichs ardent letters expressing his passion—and, well, when you know, you know…
32. It Became Too Much For Him
Barrymore was in overdrive. He’d finally won Oelrichs, who’d asked her husband for a divorce. And since even before that, he’d been working tirelessly, appearing in plays almost every night for nearly two years. Something had to give—and in 1920, Barrymore finally snapped. During a performance in Shakespeare’s Richard III, he collapsed. He was in the throes of a total nervous breakdown.
33. He Shifted His Focus
What happened the night that Barrymore collapsed bore eerie similarities to the incident that had preceded his father’s institutionalization. Barrymore followed his doctor’s orders, taking a few months off from the stage—but his personal life didn’t slow down at all. When he found out that Oelrichs was pregnant, he proposed and the two tied the knot in August of 1921.
Sadly, their wedded bliss wasn’t meant to last…
34. He Didn’t Know How To Be A Father
In March of 1921, Blanche Barrymore gave birth to a daughter that she and John named Diana. It was her third child and John’s first—but his reaction was chilling. He was happy, but he also found himself at a loss over what to do with her. He was scared to pick her up and had no idea how to interact with her. About a month after her birth, he gave his wife full guardianship of Diana, feeling that she was a better caregiver than he could ever be at that point in his life.
35. She Cheated On Him…
Fatherhood wasn’t the only problem. His marriage to Blanche was already falling apart. They went on a trip to Europe together on vacation, but it only made things worse. While they were there, Blanche became involved with someone else. When it came time for Barrymore to film Sherlock Holmes, they went their separate ways, hoping absence might make the heart fonder.
Well, spoiler alert: it didn’t.
36. …And He Cheated Right Back
After a 101-show run of Hamlet in New York where critics heaped praise on him, Barrymore was a hotter commodity than ever before. His next film role was opposite actress Mary Astor, and the two quickly began a steamy affair—but there was a dark side to it. While Barrymore was 40, Astor was only 17. Her father would drop her off every afternoon at his hotel for “acting lessons”—but they were obviously getting up to much more than that.
37. They Finally Gave Up
A tour of Hamlet ultimately tore the two lovers apart—and brought Barrymore firmly back to his estranged wife in Europe, where she’d been living. A successful run in London reunited them, but when it was over, it was all over, and the pair agreed to divorce. Barrymore returned stateside to fulfill a fresh film contract with Warner Bros.—and repeat many of the same mistakes he’d made before.
38. He Rebounded
While he wanted Mary Astor to be in his next picture, the studio instead hired an actress named Dolores Costello. Barrymore swore, “I fell in love with her instantly. This time I knew I was right”—but of course, everyone he knew had heard that one before. History repeated itself in more than one way, too. Costello’s father didn’t approve of Barrymore, but he easily charmed her mother. This had an unexpected side effect, though.
39. He Tore Her Family Apart
Some people are “Three strikes and you’re out” types. Barrymore was more of a “Third time’s the charm” guy. He knew he wanted to tie the knot with Costello and make her his third wife. As mentioned, her parents disagreed—and the consequences were disastrous. While Barrymore did manage to wed Costello, her parents actually wound up divorcing as a result of their disagreement about it. Not a great omen, if you ask me…
40. They Created A Life Together
Nevertheless, Barrymore threw his entire self into this marriage, buying a large estate for him and Dolores. It was more than enough space for them to have a family, which they promptly did. First came a daughter whom they named Dolores, after her mother. Then came a son, who they named John. I guess the only source of inspiration in the room each time was a mirror.
41. He Couldn’t Hide It Anymore
As many actors struggled during the transition from silent to sound films, John Barrymore had a secret weapon. He’d already been through years of voice coaching, and easily made the jump to talkies. He was more in demand than ever—but behind the scenes, he was falling apart. Barrymore’s drinking had gotten progressively worse each year, and now, the cracks were starting to show.
42. He Deteriorated Physically
People had called John Barrymore “the Great Profile” because of his chiseled good looks and Roman nose. He even had his face pressed into the cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater instead of his hands! But as the years and the drinks wore on him, Barrymore gained weight and his face changed. And, the busier he got, the more apparent his problem became…
43. They Fired Him
In 1933, Barrymore appeared in a run of five films for MGM. The part that critics praised the most was that of a washed-up alcoholic actor, if that tells you anything. At the end of it, MGM let him go, claiming that the Great Depression had depleted their funds—but many suspected the truth was much darker. People whispered that it was because he was losing it.
Sadly, it took very little to confirm their suspicions.
44. They Lost Patience With Him
Barrymore could still get hired, but his struggles on-set belied his personal problems. He had trouble finishing takes and often forgot his lines. His co-stars and crews would grit their teeth and get through with it, but each time, patience wore thinner and thinner—until it finally blew up in his face. RKO gave him a few days off after a few incidents, but when he came back he still couldn’t get it together, so they replaced him.
It was a wake-up call for Barrymore—but it also sent him spiraling.
45. He Had A Breakdown
When producers replaced Barrymore in the RKO picture, the aftermath was devastating. Barrymore had a full mental and physical breakdown and landed in the hospital. He lived in fear that his wife would have him institutionalized the way he’d had his father committed, but instead of getting his act together, he fled the country.
46. He Ran Away From His Problems
Barrymore spent time in London and India before eventually coming back to the US—but instead of returning to the home he had with his wife, he went to New York. He spent a month in the hospital with bronchitis and the flu. A young fan named Elaine Barrie began to visit him, and when he got out of the hospital, he actually stayed with her and her mother. Can you see where this is going?
47. He Became A Tabloid Figure
Barrymore wasn’t exactly one to learn from his mistakes. Falling for Elaine while he was still married was obviously a terrible idea—but this time around, he had no idea how bad it would be. Barrymore was a full movie star now, and the tabloids gleefully swooped in on his failing marriage and budding romance with Barrie, nicknaming them after characters in The Tempest.
The spotlight was bad enough at this point—but it was about to get so much worse.
48. There Was A Huge Spectacle
Barrymore couldn’t make up his mind. His wife wanted a divorce, but after a fight with Barrie, he fled to Los Angeles to be with Costello. Barrie then made a very public show of trying to stop Barrymore in his tracks, even putting out a plea for him to come back to her. It was an embarrassing spectacle for everyone involved.
When it was all over, Costello continued her application for divorce and Barrymore and Barrie reunited—but he couldn’t run from his problems forever.
49. They Tried To Get Him To Work
Barrymore was such a talented Shakespearean performer that some studios were still willing to risk hiring him in their adaptations. MGM wanted him to play Mercutio in their version of Romeo and Juliet, but didn’t want to deal with him forgetting his lines—so they came up with a plan. They essentially put him into rehab before filming, in hopes it would stick long enough to complete the movie.
Long story short: it didn’t work.
50. He Gave It A Fourth Try
News of Barrymore’s on-set disruptions while making Romeo and Juliet spread like wildfire, leaving even fewer people willing to work with the aging star. His tumultuous personal life didn’t help either. His divorce from Costello went through and he tied the knot with Barrie. They both hoped that this would be happily ever after—but instead, it was a horror story.
51. He Went Bankrupt
The (new) Barrymores still had to contend with a lot of media attention, and after a blow-out fight saw their names splashed across tabloids, John checked into rehab yet again. However, this time he was footing the bill himself. Barrymore quickly discovered that he didn’t quite have the same financial power that MGM did. His efforts to dry out were driving him toward bankruptcy—a stress that sent him straight back to the bottle.
52. It Was Relentless
Barrymore was caught in a never-ending cycle—and the hits kept coming. He’d barely made it out of rehab when he collapsed on yet another film set. Then came divorce papers from Barrie, just two months after they’d tied the knot. Finally, he had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. It may not have been rock bottom, but it certainly felt like it—and Barrymore, at least at this point, still had the wherewithal to try and climb out of it.
53. He Tried To Improve
Barrymore’s next job was on an adaptation of Shakespeare for radio, and although it wasn’t quite the silver screen, he knew that how he acted in the studio had the potential to change his fate. He was on his best behavior, and even reconciled with his wife before their divorce went through. His plan worked, and the studios came back with a number of supporting roles for him that would help him climb out of the debt he was in.
54. He Made A Joke Of It
Part of the reason why people seemed to lighten up on John Barrymore was that he was a bit more self-aware of his failures and apt to crack jokes about his problems, including his 1940 divorce from Barrie. Sadly, his sense of humor was hiding the dark truth. Barrymore’s drinking was as bad as ever. His gimmick worked at first, but within a year or two, it grew tired.
Now, when Barrymore played up the stereotype of the boozy, washed-up Shakespearean ham, it just made people sad.
55. He Reunited With His Daughter
The Barrymore name had a lot of gravitas, and John’s daughter Diana had used it to her advantage when making her successive debuts on Broadway and in Hollywood. In the early 40s, he finally got to connect with her in a way that he never had before. Sadly, no reunion can be perfect—and John definitely overstepped his boundaries.
One night, when he was stuck in bed sick, he got Diana to call up one of his girlfriends for him. As the woman marched up the stairs, Diana angrily left the house—not knowing that it would actually be the last time she ever spent there. Later, she talked about how much she regretted judging her father and how she wished she could’ve stayed with him longer.
56. He Lost His Battle
In 1942, John Barrymore suddenly collapsed while rehearsing and was rushed to hospital. This time, his stay would be brief—but not because he quickly recovered. Ten days after his collapse, John Barrymore died at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 60. The main causes were cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure. He paid the ultimate price for his lifelong struggle with alcohol.
It was a terrible loss for those who knew and loved him, and for Hollywood—but his story didn’t end there.
57. He Was Part Of A Bizarre Practical Joke
As mentioned earlier, Barrymore really loved a good joke toward the end of his life—and whether he liked it or not, he actually ended up at the center of a macabre prank after his death. As the story goes, director Raoul Walsh apparently “borrowed” Barrymore’s body shortly after he passed. He then set it up at actor Errol Flynn’s house so that Flynn would find “John” sitting in a chair when he came home after a night of partying.
For a long time, this seemed like an urban legend, but John’s granddaughter Drew eventually confirmed it. And speaking of Hollywood lore…
58. His First Love Came Back To Haunt Him
One of Barrymore’s most scandalous stories involved a secret that he kept hidden for decades. Back in 1906, a name that Barrymore hadn’t heard in years was suddenly splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the country. His first love, Evelyn Nesbit, was at the center of what people were calling “the trial of the century.”
Her husband had shot another former lover to death—and as the court date approached, Barrymore began to feel immense dread about having to take the stand.
59. He Didn’t Want To Expose Their Secret
Barrymore knew that he might have to testify to Nesbit’s character—but he lived in fear that he’d be forced to reveal the dire secret they’d been keeping. During their brief affair, Nesbit had gotten pregnant. He’d arranged for her to have an “appendectomy”—AKA, a secret abortion. Luckily for both, the trial ended before it really began, and Barrymore never had to testify.
It probably would have backfired on him even more spectacularly than he anticipated—as Nesbit had had two other “appendectomies” before that.
60. People Think They’re Cursed
Thanks to the dark fate of John Barrymore and so many other family members, there have long been whispers of a Barrymore family curse. After John’s death, his daughter Diana plunged into an abyss of addiction and depression before her death at 38. His son John Drew Barrymore suffered similar problems as well. At least three of John Drew’s children, including actress Drew Barrymore, have admitted to having dealt with addiction as well.
However, many other branches of the family tree have stayed away from the film industry and appear to live normal lives. It could be a so-called “family curse”—or, simply a combination of genetics and the harsh effects of growing up in Hollywood.