Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia

Ethel Barrymore

 "For an actress to be a success," said Ethel Barrymore (1878-1959), "she must have the face of a Venus, the brains of a Minerva, the grace of a Terpsichore [Greek muse of the dance], the memory of a Macaulay [19th-c. British historian and literary critic], the figure of a Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros."

Barrymore 1901

Above: Ethel Barrymore, 1901

Barrymore (1879-1959) had all these, as well as wit and charm. Born into the fourth generation of a theatrical family, she began acting at age 13, had her first big break five years later, and by the 1920s was so famous that the Shuberts built a theater named after her in order to entice her to act for them. (The Shubert organization still owns the Ethel Barrymore Theater, at 243 West 47th St.) After battles with the IRS and alcoholism in the 1930s, she salvaged her career in the 1940s with several acclaimed films. She died on June 18, 1959.

Katharine Hepburn on Ethel Barrymore

The best tribute I've seen to her comes from Katharine Hepburn, who often visited the bedridden Barrymore in the 1950s:

She was beautiful to look at ... Wonderful hair - strong hair, lots of it and well fixed. Exquisite skin. Not much make-up and eyes that, well, scared you to death sometimes, and at other times I'd look and think, 'Where have you been and what are the lives you have seen, and what really goes on in your mind' - because although she was a great actress and a great personality and had known everyone in the world, she had a very odd look about her. She was religious. She never talked too much about it, but I think she had great faith in - something .... I don't know what the dickens it was. A kind of faith in life, I think. She made you feel that there was something about the human race that was thrilling. ... I would go away and I'd always come back. And people would say to me, 'You're so nice to go and call on Ethel.' And I would think, 'How  lucky I am to be able to see Ethel!' ... I always had a feeling of elevation at having been with her. Every time I went I would look at her and think, 'I might never see you again.' And yet there she was, sitting up in bed and looking as though something wonderful was in her future. -- Katherine Hepburn (quoted in Peters, The House of Barrymore, p. 519)

The Miller Building

Miller Building

This sculpture is on the façade of the I. Miller Building, which bears the motto “The show folks shoe shop dedicated to beauty in footwear.” Israel Miller, a Polish immigrant who excelled at making shoes for theater people, ran a public contest to find America's best-loved actresses to decorate the building's facade. The winners were (left to right) Ethel Barrymore (drama), Marilyn Miller (musical comedy), Mary Pickford (movies), and Rosa Ponselle (opera).

Click here for a great series of before-and-after photos of the Miller Building, and here and here for more on the history of the building.

Cross References & Further Reading