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Issue: Issue Fall 2008

Good Night, Sweet Prince The Last Home of John Barrymore


 
 

 

In the East, a house’s pedigree might include an assertion that “George Washington slept here.” Historic homes are marked with plaques designating their original owners and year of construction. In Hollywood, the provenance of homes can include one or more famous and infamous names going beyond the first illustrious resident to generation after generation of famous occupants. Similar to an artistic masterpiece, a home’s previous tenants add to its marketability and allure.

That certainly was the case when I first saw a home in the historic Outpost Estates area of the Hollywood Hills had been built by the immensely gifted and notorious John Barrymore. Subsequent owners Lee Marvin, Andre Previn and James Coburn added their touches here and there. Somewhere along the way, a second floor bedroom and bath that compliment the original structure, were added. Born in Philadelphia in 1882, John Barrymore, “The Great Profile,” was known for his roles as a handsome leading man and gifted actor. He took on and conquered parts that ranged from swashbuckling adventurers to serious and
complex character roles.

Barrymore was born into a theatrical family. His parents Maurice and Georgiana Barrymore were well established and successful actors. Educated in England, he studied painting in Paris, then turned to the stage and made his U.S. debut in 1903. He was popular in light comedies, but it was for his serious roles that he scored major triumphs both on Broadway and in London.
It wasn’t long before Barrymore appeared in silent films, making 13 features from 1914 to 1919. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” filmed in 1920, with his uncanny metamorphosis from the kindly Dr. Jekyll to the evil Mr. Hyde brought him the motion picture fame he deserved. The film remains a classic to this day. Although he only made thirteen films s during the 20’s, they were well-chosen and on great stories such as Sherlock Holmes and Don Juan.

As a stage actor, Barrymore had no problem with the transition to the sound era. Working for MGM, he took part in some of the truly great films of the 1930’s such as “Grand Hotel” (1932), “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932), “Rasputin and the Empress”(1932), “Dinner at Eight” (1933), and “Romeo and Juliet” (1936).
Though his talents were legendary, and he was considered one of the greatest and handsomest actors of the age, more stories abound about his outrageous behavior than his superior acting abilities. Late in his career, his extravagant living and alcoholism caught up with him, and he was reduced to lesser quality films.

Unlike his siblings Ethel and Lionel, John never won or was nominated for an Academy Award; he is now considered the finest actor of the three. His 1922 “Hamlet” was the longest-running Broadway production of the play with 101 performances until John Gielgud played the part for 132 performances in 1936. Barrymore was known as the greatest Hamlet and Richard III of his time, and is still considered the greatest American actor to play those roles.

His sharp wit never left him. There is one story that when he was dying, a priest came to administer the last rites, accompanied by an exceedingly homely nurse. When the priest asked him if he had anything to confess, Barrymore is said to have replied, “Yes, Father. I am guilty, at this moment, of having carnal thoughts.” “About who?” asked the shocked priest. “About her!” replied John, indicating the nurse.

There are many Barrymore stories, but perhaps the last of the Barrymore stories that involved his close friend and drinking pal, Errol Flynn, sums up all the others. After Barrymore’s death, his friends, including Flynn and Raoul Walsh, gathered at a bar to commiserate on John’s passing. Walsh, claiming he was too upset, pretended to go home. Instead, he and two friends went to the funeral home and bribed the caretaker to lend them Barrymore’s body. Transporting it to Flynn’s house, it was propped up in Errol’s favorite living room chair. Flynn arrived, opened the door, turned on the lights and stared into the face of John Barrymore. It was an antic that Barrymore himself would have appreciated.

It was in his latter years that Barrymore acquired the property and built his home on Outpost Drive. The house itself appears to be a hideout, and perhaps it was. His reputation and drinking had become problematic by this time, and he would die only three years later.

The house nestles behind a high wall surrounded by flowering bushes. Its design is hacienda-like. All rooms open onto a lush inner garden and courtyard with a tiled fountain. It’s hard to imagine that this house and its gardens was the home of such a larger than life, notorious personality.

The home today is a tranquil oasis with dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves of surrounding of foliage. Birds sing and hummingbirds nuzzle blooms in the garden. After reading about this man’s boisterous life and sorry end, one can hope that this place provided some peace to one of the true greats of Hollywood. John Barrymore’s granddaughter, actress/producer Drew Barrymore, carries this great theatrical family’s tradition into its third century.