The curtain parted swiftly with a clang of rings on rod.
“I repeat, Madam, what would you do if I tried to throw you off the terrace?”
The scene is a twentieth-floor apartment on East 79th Street, Manhattan, the year 1940. “Madam” is Elaine Barrie, aka Elaine Barrymore, and the speaker is her husband, John Barrymore.
And no, he wasn’t rehearsing.
Those are the first two lines of Elaine’s autobiography, ripely titled All My Sins Remembered. Her ghost writer, given due credit on the jacket, was Sandford Dody. As was the style with such memoirs back in 1964 when it was published, All My Sins Remembered reads more like a novel, with florid descriptions and elaborate conversations no one could possibly recall in such screenplay detail.
It’s structured like a script, too. As the curtains part in the first line, Barrymore has been in a coma, a not-infrequent occurrence as late-stage alcoholism kept nudging him toward the grave. Once he awakens, and sees the handsome male nurse assigned to keep him from dying, Barrymore terrorizes the man into leaving and begins to circle Elaine, accusing her of hiring a male hooker in disguise: “These bastards have a million disguises. Window cleaners, doormen, elevator boys, radio repairmen.” After several pages of ranting and circling, Barrymore drags his wife to the terrace: “My dear. You wanted me to give you all New York. There it is out there. You are going to get it all in one fell swoop!”
“Was this really the great John Barrymore threatening to kill me?” wonders Elaine, from twenty stories up.
Aaaaand … flashback, in the next chapter, to young Elaine’s girlhood worship of the Great Profile, how she kept a still of him as Svengali over her bed (how’s that for bizarre teenage sex objects?), and how she interviewed him for Hunter College’s paper when he was 52 years old and hospitalized for “severe flu." The phony flu was a flashing yellow light that ambitious 19-year-old Elaine drove straight through, on her way to becoming Barrymore's fourth and final wife.
The Siren bought this long-forgotten book off a sidewalk card table, took it home and gobbled every page like a plate of french fries. When she had the chance to buy Sanford Dody’s own autobiography, deliciously titled Giving Up the Ghost, she seized it, just to find out if he believed all the things he'd put in his own book. Dody's handiwork included Helen Hayes' On Reflection, First Person Plural with Dagmar Godowsky (that one's delightful), and The Lonely Life by Bette Davis (she rewrote the whole thing at the last moment, and Dody never forgave her).
And he didn't buy everything Elaine told him, no. Dody didn’t believe, for example, that Elaine fell instantly in love with the wreck that Barrymore had already become by 1934. He considered her starstruck and self-deluded about her motives for the marriage. But he didn't entirely see her as the gold-digger portrayed in the 1930s press and indeed by most John Barrymore fans to this day. He gave Elaine credit for striving to keep Barrymore sober and working, and for trying to look after his health.
Certainly she yearned to become an actress, and was eager for Barrymore to help her. In that regard, landing Barrymore was a Pyrrhic victory. She got plenty of space in the gossip columns, sure. But aside from a series of small parts in plays, a short called How to Undress for Your Husband (which somehow she doesn't mention in her book) and one small role in Midnight, Elaine's acting career never amounted to much. By the time Dody met her, Elaine was a businesswoman dividing her time between Haiti and Manhattan, producing woven-rattan baskets and placemats in the one place, to be sold at Bloomingdale’s in the other.
But one thing Sandford Dody did believe was that John Barrymore, right after coming out of an alcoholic coma, dragged his wife to their terrace, bent her over the railing and came close to pushing her over. Dody believed that, and quite a bit more. All My Sins Remembered is the memoir of an abusive marriage, published 14 years before Mommie Dearest.
All Hollywood autobiographies are exercises in unreliable narration. It isn’t so much that they deliberately lie (although some of them do that, too), it’s that they are in a business that is fundamentally about tale-spinning. Add the literary efforts of a ghostwriter, and boy do they spin. What makes this book such a temple-rubbing astonishment is that Elaine's spin isn’t vengeful, à la Christina Crawford. Her message isn't, “You should hate this great actor I married, because he was an insanely jealous and at times violent drunk.” No, these stories are meant to prove that this was a doomed, but genuine, romance. It was tempestuous. He called her Ariel, she called him Caliban, get it? “If only we had really been young together,” reads one of the picture captions, and another adds, “but it was too late for anything.”
Dody says that after many sessions of charming and/or wistful little anecdotes, Elaine let her guard down one day: “Up to now there had always been a tolerant smile about the drinking, a smugly raised eyebrow concerning the jealousy. But this session was different. With chilling eloquence, Elaine came through for me."
So this is the tale told by Elaine and Sandford:
Born Elaine Jacobs, soon after that hospital meet-up she'd changed her name to Barrie, "as close to Barrymore as I dared." She wanted out of her middle-class life on the Upper West Side, and she dreamed of becoming an actress. Barrymore, for his part, liked her bookishness, her youth and her looks, which were more Modigliani than Hollywood.
John and Elaine’s courtship was a staple of the gossip columns, especially one episode when John broke it off with Elaine and boarded a country-country train. She pursued, egged on by the newspapers that in turn pursued her, and when Ariel and Caliban caught up, they reconciled. It was to be the pattern of their time together, “tender reconciliations after spectacular quarrels,” as Barrie’s 2003 New York Times obituary put it.
According to Elaine, those “quarrels,” if you want to call them that, and the Siren doesn’t, were there almost from the beginning. Before their marriage John took Elaine to Havana on board his yacht, the Infanta, for a romantic getaway. She had already slept with him, but for appearances’ sake Elaine took along her mother, Edna. (Edna was quite a character, as omnipresent in her daughter’s life as Lela Rogers was in Ginger's. When Dody met them years later, Edna and Elaine were living together, still joined at the hip.)
Elaine arrived at the Cuban hacienda of John's brother-in-law Arturo “Mussie” de Barrio and was greeted by Mussie’s good-looking younger brother with “En esta su casa.” Whereupon John slapped Elaine’s face with a force that knocked her hat askew.
And everyone ignored it. Even Edna, who was standing right there. Elaine says her mother greeted the other guests, saying, “How do you do, señor?” then, under her breath, “Please don’t look at my daughter...Gracias, señor — don’t notice her...” Once they were alone, Edna tried to get her daughter to leave. Elaine said, “Oh, for God's sake, John’s sorry. He couldn’t help it, dear.” And later he apologized. Then John proposed, and Elaine accepted, although it took them a while to get hitched.
On the beach, John berated Elaine for wearing swimsuits that were too sexy. On board the boat returning from Havana, a man smiled at Elaine, and John tried to throw him overboard. John then chased Elaine into her stateroom, swung hard at her face and missed only because Edna’s fist had just connected with his jaw. ("He's lucky I didn't hit his nose," said Edna later. "That would have been the end of the Great Profile.")
Back in Hollywood, where Elaine and Edna had moved to be with him as he filmed Romeo and Juliet, John invited Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer to Elaine’s birthday dinner. A thrilled Elaine dressed up and worked like crazy to charm them. Midway through the dinner, John waited for a quiet moment and asked Shearer, “Tell me, Norma, I’m curious. I can’t stand whores — can you?” As Elaine, her mother and the Thalbergs tried to regain their composure, John filled his wineglass to the rim and, to make sure the point couldn’t possibly be missed, added, “The world has certainly changed. Tarts were never countenanced at a gentleman’s table, amongst such a lofty congregation, unless, of course, they were served as a sweet.”
The Thalbergs finished the meal and departed as fast as manners would permit. John drove the guests home and phoned Elaine later. His greeting was, “Hello — Elaine?...I am going to kill you.”
When they finally got married some months later, in Yuma, Ariz., on Nov. 9, 1936, the following night John accused Elaine of sleeping with the bellboy and threw a glassful of Dubonnet, as well as the decanter, at her head. He missed and ruined the satin drapes, not her face.
Towards the end of their marriage they toured in a play together, by all accounts a misbegotten thing, called My Dear Children, directed by Otto Preminger. Barrymore played an aging matinee idol, and Elaine played his daughter; she picked the property herself. At that point, people were attending a John Barrymore performance to see if he'd go up on his lines or possibly even pass out, but for a while attend it they did. Above is a photograph of the play’s purported comic highlight. John played drunk often, would execute the spanking with all his strength, and Elaine went onstage every night in fear. She said she decided to leave, and accosted John in his hotel room to give him the news (by this time their rooms were separate). He yelled, “You aren’t going anywhere, you bitch,” unzipped her dress so hard it tore, twisted her arm and struck her face. Elaine called for the nurse who was on Barrymore guard duty, but she'd already locked herself in the bathroom. Elaine ran down the corridor in little more than her underwear and yelled for help until actor Lloyd Gough, who was in the play’s cast, pulled her into his room.
The producer persuaded Elaine not to walk out. On the company’s arrival in St. Louis, Preminger in turn coaxed Elaine to attend a luncheon with 300 of the city’s social and political elite. As Elaine walked to her chair, John kicked her in the shin in full view of the assembly. “You could hear the collective gasp in Chicago,” she said, but once again, everything proceeded as though nothing had taken place. That is, until John, drunk to the point of semi-coherence, rose on his hind legs and gave a rambling speech that embarrassed everyone into silence.
Elaine left the show, more or less by mutual agreement, before it hit Broadway. They were soon divorced, but the terrace incident actually happened after that, when John had temporarily moved back in with Elaine. That in turn was after she had returned to My Dear Children, now on Broadway, and started padding her backside for the spanking scene. When John still managed to hurt her, she'd revenge herself by biting his hand. Again they separated, and this time Elaine didn't go back. "What was it that definitely decided me to leave?" she asks, rhetorically. "His last threat to kill me?" I don't know, Elaine, but I sure as hell hope so.
Elaine hadn’t remarried when the book was written, and never did. All My Sins Remembered ends abruptly with Barrymore’s death in 1942. Even given a short time frame to cover, Dody had a hard time putting this one together. He complained that Elaine spent most of her day on the phone to Bloomie's about her “goddamned mats” and never offered him so much as a bowl of mixed nuts, no matter how long he was at her apartment. He’d accepted the assignment because he saw it as a book that was really about John Barrymore, whom he worshipped — as an actor.
I pitied both Mr. and Mrs. John Barrymore. The great star whose glow had attracted Elaine and died light-years before she’d ever come on the scene. She and her mother were late arrivals at the tragedy but they still got into the act….
I knew Elaine much better and I now knew Barrymore too well. As keeper of the flame, Elaine played with fire and couldn’t complain about her burns. But as awed as I was by the enormous gifts of Barrymore, his descent into the bathetic and his wallowing self-indulgent disregard of others — especially his daughter, Diana, with whom I had once worked in Hollywood — were unattractive in the extreme.
...I pitied the great actor, but I found it difficult to adore him, and this was creating a problem since Elaine still did despite her stories.
The book sold poorly. "The public no longer cared about Ariel and Caliban and their dusty shenanigans,” says Dody. All My Sins Remembered is a hell of a read, but (or do I mean because?) the dialogue is like a crazed mating dance between Jerry Wald and Noel Coward. In his own memoir Dody cheerfully admits to having written lines for Barrymore that the man never said in his life. Admits, hell, Dody brags.
You can feel him straining to lighten the mood. Mother Edna is used extensively for comic relief, and many of her lines have a whiff of the Ghost. After she socks John in the jaw, Edna announces, “We are leaving the Good Ship Lollipop, my dear, and right now!” Even the worst marital episodes tend to end with either Elaine or John coming up with some witticism. When John throws a full decanter at her, Elaine looks at the ruined drapes and supposedly cracks, "Let all Hollywood use William Haines. For the the ultimate in interiors give me that unmistakable Barrymore touch." The scene on the terrace, however, ended with Elaine telling John go ahead, kill her. He burst into tears and let her go, and then she began to sob with him. That, Dody admits in his book, is the way Elaine said it usually ended.
Barrymore’s forlorn childhood is covered, sympathetically. On a personal level he never had a chance, not with his alcoholic and/or neglectful parents, and adults around whose idea of how to comfort the child Jack, when his mother failed to show for a dearly anticipated lunch, was to ply him with cake and gin. As for Ethel and Lionel, Elaine admired them as artists, especially Ethel. But they despised her, and she was not fond of them: “They were hypocrites, especially Lionel, who was guilty of excesses that revolted even John. They both drank more than he did though that may seem impossible.” (It does, actually, but who knows.)
Hollywood books are replete with the hell-raising adventures of John Barrymore and his mates, such as journalist Gene Fowler, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and poet/critic Sadakichi Hartmann. The Bundy Drive Boys, they called them, a proto-Rat Pack who drank, wenched, gambled, made for great copy and were probably fun, if you were one of them. Elaine wasn’t one of them. To her, they were an unrelenting pain in the neck, the men who would coax or push her husband off the wagon every time. They, in turn, took posterity's revenge. In Gene Fowler’s biography of Barrymore, says Elaine, “I emerged as a combination of Lilith and the inventor of diptheria.”
Some may have seen things a bit differently. From All My Sins Remembered, this is Elaine's account of Christmas 1935.
John took me up to Nyack to week-end with his old friend, Charles MacArthur and his wife, Helen Hayes. It was not only exciting for me but most pleasant. During the evening, while John and MacArthur were at their brandy and reading poetry aloud, I helped my hostess trim her Christmas trees.
He eyes glowed as she spoke of her adored husband. She then became silent as she studied me. It was obvious that she had something on her mind and didn’t know how to say it. She decided to take a stab at it. “Elaine, I’m always grateful when Charlie does his heavier drinking at ‘21.’ When he passes out, they put him in a little room upstairs they’ve told me about — I know he’s safe and I can stop torturing myself. It isn’t always that comforting. Sometimes I’m worried half to death!”
This rush of confidence astonished me, until I realized it was more a veteran’s subtle warning to a novice. How kind she was, and how unnecessary her concern.
“It’s going to be different with me, Miss Hayes. John has promised to stop that kind of drinking — and anyway I’m going to see to it that he does.”
She looked at me with that familiar and sad little smile.
“I’m serious, Miss Hayes. You’ll see. It’s all going to be different with us.”
I could almost hear her sigh as she busied herself with a frosted ornament.
(This post is a late-breaking contribution to Crystal Kalyana Pacey's The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, at her blog, In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Many great contributions can be found at the links page.)