Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959)

Ethel Barrymore
Ethel Barrymore

Ethel Barrymore was a screen, stage, and television actress and, along with her two equally famous brothers, Lionel and John, was descended from two of the theatre's great families--the Barrymores and the Drews. She had a long acting career spanning six decades, her aristocratic poise and distinguished performances earning her the sobriquet, "The First Lady of the American Theatre".

The Barrymore Dynasty

She was the middle child of stage actor Maurice Blythe who had become famous under the stage name of Maurice Barrymore and his wife Georgina Drew, who was the daughter of celebrated stage actor John Drew.

Ethel was one of a trio of famous siblings, all of whom became brilliant stage and movie actors. Her elder brother, Lionel appeared in such movies as 'Grand Hotel' and 'Key Largo' and achieved lasting fame (or notoriety) in 1946 as the evil Mr Potter, in 'It's a Wonderful Life' with James Stewart. Ethel's younger brother, John, was the most famous of the three siblings. His good looks and remarkable talent made him one of the first great stars of silent movies as well as having an exceptionally successful stage career.

Ethel's maternal grandmother was actress and theater-manager, Louisa Lane Drew (Mrs. John Drew). She was the niece of Broadway matinée idol John Drew Jr and early Vitagraph Studios stage and screen star Sidney Drew. She was also the aunt of actor John Drew Barrymore, and the grand-aunt of actress Drew Barrymore.

All three siblings sought careers away from the stage, but all were persuaded into the family vocation, ultimately becoming actors. All were brilliant.


She was born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15, 1879, in Philadelphia, named after her father's favorite character in Thackeray’s 1854 novel, "The Newcomes".

After a stay in London with her family, from 1884 to 1886, she returned to America and resumed a traditional girl's schooling in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Philadelphia. Initially she planned on becoming a concert pianist but she could not resist the pull of the traditional family vocation.

Early Stage Career

After the untimely death of her mother in 1893, Ethel made her acting debut in 1894, aged 15, and the following year she appeared on Broadway for the first time opposite her uncle, John Drew, Jr., with a small role in 'The Imprudent Young Couple' . She appeared with Drew again in 1896 in 'Rosemary'.

She gained invaluable acting experience on a second visit to England where she appeared with the great English actor, Henry Irving in 'The Bells' in 1897 and in 'Peter the Great' the following year.

When she returned to America with her acting reputation considerably enhanced, she starred, in 1901, in 'Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines' which firmly established her reputation as a top actress.

Ethel's popularity increased and she began to play demanding lead roles as in Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' and 'Alice By the Fire', both in 1905, 'Mid-Channel' in 1910 and 'Trelawney of the Wells' in 1911.

In 1909 she married stockbroker Russell Griswold Colt and gave birth to three children while continuing her acting career.

Theatrical Star

Ethel starred, in all, in over thirty Broadway plays, excelling in many different genres, particularly classic revivals and sophisticated comedy. Her outstanding characterizations include 'Declassee' in 1919, 'Romeo and Juliet ' in 1922, 'The School for Scandal' in 1923, 'The Second Mrs. Tanqueray' the following year and 'The Constant Wife' in 1926.

In 1928, she inaugurated the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. The first play staged at the theatre was ‘The Kingdom of God’ but she seldom performed there subsequently. The theatre still exists, operating under the same name.

She continued to act on the stage even after starting her successful movie career. In 1934 she starred in New York in the play 'Laura Garnett'. In 1937, although announcing her retirement from the stage in order to become a full time mother, she returned to Broadway in the Theatre Guild's 'The Ghost of Yankee Doodle.' In 1938 she played a 101-year-old matriarch in 'Whiteoaks'. Her stage career continued until 1940 with the hit 'The Corn is Green' which ran for more than a year.

Movie Career

Ethel's film career began before Hollywood's domination of American and world movie making. Beginning with ' The Nightingale' in 1914 she made fifteen silent films mainly for the Metro Pictures studio, made on the East coast, between 1914 and 1919, but she did not let movies overtake the stage until opportunities for the right stage roles began to decline in the 1930s. Her first talking film was 'Rasputin and the Empress' in 1932 in which both her brothers also starred'. It is the only film that stars all three siblings.

She moved to Hollywood in 1940 and her movie career proper began with 'None But the Lonely Heart' in 1944. She was a fast learner and she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this, her first Hollywood film, playing the mother of Cary Grant.

Her new movie career continued successfully with three more Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for for 'The Spiral Staircase' in 1946, 'The Paradine Case' the following year and for 'Pinky' in 1949. Her skill stood out even in supporting roles, such as, the politically wise mother of Joseph Cotten in 'The Farmer's Daughter' in 1947 and, again with Cotton, in the haunting 'Portrait of Jennie' in 1948. Her last film as an actor was ‘Johnny Trouble’, released in 1957.

During the early 1950s Ethel also entered the new medium of television, appearing on such drama series as 'Family Theater', 'Omnibus', and 'General Electric Theater'. She also did radio work in 'The Ethel Barrymore Theater.'


Ethel was a beautiful young woman and much sought after. She turned down a marriage proposal from Winston Churchill as she did not want to be the wife of a politician, and rumours abounded, at various times, that she was to be married to numerous admirers including Gerald du Maurier, Capt. Harry Graham of the Scots Guards, and the famous cricketer, Prince Ranjitsinihi.

She was actually married once, in 1909 to stockbroker, Russell G. Colt, son of Col. Samuel Pomeroy Colt, then board chairman of the United States Rubber Company. The couple had three children, and after numerous separations finally divorced in 1923. Ethel was a strict Catholic and never remarried.

Ethel, in her free time, indulged in her two passions, baseball and rare book collecting. Her own book, "Memories, An Autobiography" was published in 1955

"She was a supporter of the Actors' Equity union from its inception and played a notable role in the 1919 Equity strike that virtually closed Broadway for a month.

Ethel Barrymore died on June 18, 1959, after suffering from heart problems for several years. She was interred at Calvary Cemetery.

Ethel Barrymore Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Supporting Actress ... None But the Lonely Heart (1944)
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Best Supporting Actress ... The Paradine Case (1947)
Best Supporting Actress ... Pinky (1949)

Ethel Barrymore Filmography

The Nightingale
The Final Judgment
The Kiss of Hate
The Awakening of Helena Ritchie
The White Raven
The Call of Her People
The Greatest Power
The Lifted Veil
Life's Whirlpool
The Eternal Mother
An American Widow
National Red Cross Pageant
Our Mrs. McChesney
The Divorcee
Camille (Short)
Rasputin the Mad Monk