Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe (September 21, 1849– March 25, 1905)—stage name Maurice Barrymore—was a British-born stage actor. He was the patriarch of the Barrymore acting family, father of John, Lionel and Ethel, and great-grandfather of actress Drew.
Born Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe in Amritsar, India, he was the son of William Edward Blythe (1818-1873), a surveyor for the British East India Company, and his wife Charlotte Matilda Chamberlayne de Tankerville (1822-1849). Herbert, the youngest of seven had an older brother named Will and two sisters named Emily and Evelin. Three other siblings had died in infancy. Matilda, after a difficult pregnancy, died shortly after giving birth to Herbert on September 21, 1849. In his formative years Herbert was raised by his Aunt Amelia Blythe, his mother’s sister, and later by other family members. Amelia, a Chamberlayne by birth, had married a brother of Herbert’s father and was a Blythe by marriage. Herbert was sent back to England for education at Harrow School, and studied Law at Oxford University, where he was captain of his class football team in 1868. Herbert also became enamored of the sport of boxing. The Marquess of Queensberry rules were firmly established at this time but it wasn’t unusual to see bare knuckle fights. On 21 March 1872 Herbert won the middleweight boxing championship of England. Years later many of Herbert’s friends would be sports figures of the day, particularly boxers and wrestlers such as William Muldoon, John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett and a young actor named Hobart Bosworth, the latter of whom Herbert would stage in an amateur bout with his son Lionel. Herbert’s father expected him to become a barrister, but Herbert fell in with a group of actors, which scandalized the elder Blythe. That same year 1872 Herbert sat for his first posed theatrical photographic portrait by noted photographer Oliver Sarony, an older brother of the better remembered Napoleon Sarony. In order to spare his father the “shame” of having a son in such a “dissolute” vocation, he took the stage name Maurice Barrymore (though he never legally changed from “Blythe”), inspired by a conversation he had with fellow actor Charles Vandenhoff about William Barrymore (1759-1830),an early 19th-century English thespian, after seeing a poster depicting Barrymore in the Haymarket Theatre. He wanted his first name to be pronounced in the French manner (môr-ĒS) instead of the English (MÔR-is). His friends avoided that altogether by simply calling him “Barry”.
On December 29, 1874, Barrymore emigrated to the USA, sailing aboard the SS America to Boston, and joined Augustin Daly’s troupe, making his début in Under the Gaslight.
He made his Broadway début in December 1875 in Pique; in the cast was a young actress, Georgiana Drew, known as Georgie. Maurice and Georgiana had been introduced earlier by her brother John Drew Jr. who had befriended Maurice when he first arrived in America. After a brief courtship, Barrymore and Georgie married on December 31, 1876, and had three children: Lionel (born 1878), Ethel (born 1879), and John (born 1882). While their parents were on tour, the children lived with Georgiana’s mother in Philadelphia. Maurice also owned a farm on Staten Island to keep his collection of exotic animals. Georgiana died July 2, 1893, from consumption. For a summer in 1896, Lionel and John were left on the farm in the care of the man who fed the animals. Barrymore remarried exactly one year after Georgie’s death to Mamie Floyd, much to Ethel’s consternation. During his career, Maurice Barrymore played opposite many of the reigning female stars of the time including Helena Modjeska, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Olga Nethersole, Lillian Russell, and Lily Langtry.
On March 19, 1879, in Marshall, Texas, Barrymore and fellow actor Ben Porter were shot by a notorious gunfighter and bully named Jim Currie. Barrymore and Porter had played cards earlier with Currie, winning some money from him. That evening, while Barrymore, Porter and the actress Ellen Cummins dined at the White House Saloon, an intoxicated Currie began insulting and goading them into a fight. Barrymore challenged Currie to a fistfight. Currie shot him in the chest and then shot Porter in the stomach. Porter was killed, while doctors spent the night operating on Barrymore to save his life. Georgie, then several months pregnant with Ethel, rushed to Texas to be at her husband’s side enduring a long train trip. He made a full recovery, and returned to Marshall for the legal procedures that followed. Currie’s brother was mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana and apparently used his influence to secure a not guilty verdict (after a 10-minute deliberation).An enraged Barrymore vowed never to return to Texas.
According to a 2004 A&E Biography piece, after the Ben Porter tragedy, Barrymore asked Georgiana to tour with him and Helena Modjeska in a play he had written. Georgiana and the children had converted to Roman Catholicism under Helena’s influence. Learning that he and Helena had resumed their romance, Georgiana, who had been given ownership of the play by Barrymore, forced his hand by closing it. Helena’s husband, its producer, sued her. The real reason for Georgiana’s actions never got into the press. However, Barrymore’s many dalliances did make the newspapers.
In 1884, Barrymore wrote a play titled Nadjezda (meaning “hope”).During this period he sailed with his wife Georgiana and their children Lionel, Ethel and John, then respectively 6, 5 and 2, to England to visit relatives he hadn’t seen since migrating to America. (He had inherited some money from his aunt Amelia, who had raised him.) During the trip Barrymore met the great French actress and star Sarah Bernhardt. Without copyrighting his play, he gave her a copy of the manuscript. In 1886, Victorien Sardou wrote his play La Tosca, which later achieved great fame as an opera. Barrymore claimed that Bernhardt had given his play to Sardou and that La Tosca plagiarized it, and sought an injunction to stop Fanny Davenport from putting on further performances. In affidavits read out in court Bernhardt said that she had never seen the play and knew nothing about it, and Sardou said that preliminary material for the play had been in his desk for fifteen years. In fact, the only resemblance to La Tosca is the unholy bargain the heroine makes to save her husband’s life, similar to that of Tosca and Baron Scarpia. As Sardou pointed out in his affidavit, this plot device is a common one and had been notably used by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure.
In 1896, Barrymore became the first major Broadway star to headline in Vaudeville—a brave foray at the time that he and Georgie speculatively would have later made into motion pictures had they lived. In the 1895 theater season on Broadway he co-starred with Mrs. Leslie Carter in The Heart of Maryland. In the 1899 season on Broadway he had a success playing opposite Mrs. Fiske in the part of Rawdon Crawley in Becky Sharp.This play was based on a character from William Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. Becky Sharp was Barrymore’s last Broadway success. In 1900, Barrymore toured the U.S. with a play called The Battle of the Strong. In the company of this play was a five-year-old child actress, Blanche Sweet, who grew up to be a silent movie actress and acted with Lionel in his first film. When the Battle of the Strong company stopped in Louisville, Kentucky Barrymore sat for his last posed photograph. Also during this time he got to spend time with his son John, who was now in his late teens. Lionel and Ethel were on the road in theater companies, having already started their careers.
The March 25, 1905, The New York Times reported: “He was playing a vaudeville engagement at a Harlem theatre when he suddenly dropped his lines and began to rave”. The following day he became violent and was taken to Bellevue insane ward by his son, John, who lured him under the pretense of starring in a new play. At Bellevue and later Amityville he was diagnosed with the lingering effects of syphilis, an incurable disease in his day. During his stay at Bellevue he almost strangled his daughter Ethel when she paid a visit to him. Ethel, through her early success on the stage, would pay for her father’s stay in the institutions. A trained boxer, Barrymore’s strength remained, as in a scuffle with one of the Bellevue attendants, he picked the man up over his head and threw him into a corner. He died at Amityville in his sleep, and Ethel had him buried at Glenwood Cemetery in Philadelphia.When the cemetery was later closed his remains were moved to Mount Vernon Cemetery, also in Philadelphia, where his first wife and her family are buried. Barrymore had lived long enough to see all three of his children grow to adulthood and enter the family business of acting. There are no photographs that survive of Barrymore taken with any of his three children.
In honor of his life, Michael J. Farrand penned the memorial narrative poem “The Man Who Brought Royalty to America” in 2000, based on the definitive biography Great Times, Good Times: The Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore by James Kotsilibas Davis (Doubleday, 1977).