Born in India, bred in England and at 23, its middleweight boxing champion, Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Hunter Blyth was familiar to everyone of his 19th century from the Prince of Wales to The Black Prince, his nickname for the black farmer who kept his Staten Island menagerie. He was associated with Helena Modjeska, Lily Langtry, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Mrs. John Drew, Mrs. Fiske and Sarah Bernhardt, whom he sued, along with Victorien Sardou, for plagiarism of "Tosca." He would die in a Long Island asylum of syphilitic madness.
His perfect features and athletic figure made acting an easy profession to enter when, as a young man, he needed to earn a living. His respectable family's disgust at this choice caused him to seek a new name. He picked one because he liked its French sound and the second in mocking honor of an actor whose ineffectual fireworks display for "The Last Days of Pomepeii" had become a professional joke: Maurice Barrymore.
His children were Lionel, Ethel and John. When Winston Churchill proposed marriage to Ethel both referred, guardedly, to how both their fathers had died of the same venereal disease. "Just as Winston sought to expiated his father through his own brilliant career, so Ethel used the theater."
Maurice Barrymore, surely, is one of the most romantic, tragic figures in Americana. In his fascinating, tirelessly researched biography, "Great Times, Good Times" (Doubledy, $12.50), James Kotsilibas-Davis revivifies Barrymore in such detail that a slice of 19th-century America sparks to life, the reader partisan participant. Barrymoore's tragedy was his looks and charm. To his exasperation, none took his serious self seriously.
Contemporaties agreed: "Everyone loves Barry." Women adored his beauty, men his quick-witted manliness. Texas bully, Bigh Jim Currie, who had killed a fellow actor for no reason at all, a legal case Barrymore would lose, just as he would lose his plagiarism suit against Bernhardt and Sardou who had taken a play he'd written, "Nadjezda," and twisted it into "LaTosca." He couldn't believe that death had stolen his young wife, Georgie Drew, and when 13-year-old Ethel, all along in Santa Barbara, took charge of returning her mother's body to Philadelphia, Barrymore could only meet child and coffin in Chicago and weep.
Loved for her spirited acting, shortlived Georgie Drew was daughter and mother of two long-lived stage idols.
Louisa Lane, her mother, had come to America with her widowed entertainer-mother in 1827, a child actress whom Andrew Jackson would entertain at the White House. "Need I say," she remarked over 60 years later, "that I was Jackson Democrat from that hour and have remained one up to date." Louisa was under 5 feet and had been twice married and divorced when, at 30, she stole her younger sister's 22-year-old beau, John Drew. Louisa made "Mrs. Drew" the theatrical equivalent of Mrs. Astor, ran Philadelphia's Arch Street Theater over 30 years and toured into her 77th year with Joseph Jefferson and "all star" casts that packed houses on staggering scores of one-night stands. Drews all married into the profession and her daughter, Georginan, married a cast colleague, Maurice.
Their daughter, Ethel, made her stage bow at 15 with Mrs. Drew's company in " The Rivals." Ethel "mumbled something about hoping that she could get through with it. 'Get through with it!' echoed Mrs. Drew, 'Get through with it!' Of course you'll get through with it. Have you forgotten what blood flows in your veins!'"
What this panorama of Barrymore's life does above all is link the rising tieds of 19th-century America. Kotsilibas-Davis weaves the strands without seeming to. It was a time of flexing and stretching for the country and of incessant travel for actors. Drews and relations were all over the land, Mrs. Drew holding to her acting and managing in Arch Street with Lionel, Ethel and John under her care and reigious supervision. An Episcopalian, she was hocked when Barrmore's leading lady, Modjeska, converted Georgie to Catholicism. Lionel remained in his grandmother's sect, Ethel went to convent school and John finally was expelled from Georgetown Prep.
It was an unreal but very actual family life, scattered but close. At one time Barrymore had four separate New York hideaways but far preferred was the ramshackled farm he'd bought as a home for his animals.
Not until he and Georgie set up their own home in New York away from Mrs. Drew's strictures against pets did he start on obsession. A pampered Clydesdale terrier, "Belle of Clyde," his constant companion, was enough affront to hotel people but when he added Japanese spaniels, tampered-with skunks, 35 "strawberry birds," a pair of Alaskan huskies (which soon became 35), mice, cats and an acre of dogs, their own farm seemed the only answer. "A cowardly conspiracy," he said, "to measure men of the theater by the standards of dealers in dry goods."
Paternal relationship were more restrained than those with animals. Seeing her mother in her, Barrymore was in awe of Ethel, hid himself the night "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines" made her a star. At separate times he enjoyed brief camaraderie with Lionel, then John. In the asylum Barrymore ended a visit by telling Lionel, about to start a western tour "Everyone knows that San Francisco has been destroyed by earthquake and fire." He said it in 1905. The next year, when quake and fire did hit San Francisco, Lionel wasn't ther but John was.
Barrymore battled the theatrical thrusts at great loss to himself and was the first star to go into vaudeville, with all, bernhardt included, following. Disgusted that his looks drew the crowds, he sought greater dignity in writing.
His evidently admired "Nadjezda" was introduced by Modjeska in hopes he finally could bed her, but it brought hime only broken promises in America, England and France. Shaw gave him verbal permission to turn his novel, "Cashel Byron's Profession," into a play, but by the time Barrymore got round to it 15 years later, another writer had the legal contract. He wrote "Roaring Dick & Co." for himself, and President and Mrs. Cleveland were in its first-night audience at Washington's National Theater.
Incidents, conversations, minute detail ring with authenticity and the biographer's 10 pages of bibliography and acknowledgements reveal creack reportage Randolp Churchill confided to him the Winston-Ethel cover sation, to which she never referred.
The sweep of colors from George III's England to Victoria's India, newspaper files in scores of cities reflect a rewarding biographer. A professional journalist who surely devoted more than the admitted seven years of writing to his subject, Kotsilibas-Davis has achieved the most evocative book on American theater since heaven knows when: romantic, funny, heart-breaking and wholly credible.