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Cloth-of-velvet life of the marvelous ""royal family"" of American acting, by a biographer of Charlotte Bronte, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Bernard Shaw. When the mercurial, eccentric stage-charmer Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Blyth in England) married Georgie Drew of a leading American acting family the triumphant pair produced Lionel, Ethel, and Jack Barrymore, with Jack siring Diana and John, Jr., and John, Jr. siring today's tabloid darling, Drew Barrymore. Grumpy, shy, warlike Lionel, the eldest child, hated playing romantic leads, strove to be a character actor, hid behind makeup, costumes, and accents. Ethel hit stardom first, sweeping the English and American stages with her beauty, dresses, and throaty, low, commanding voice. Jack, a worldly rogue and alcoholic by 14 seduced by his stepmother at 15, delayed his career in favor of drink, women, and scamping about. Peters captures the starburst of their triumphant talents in turn-of-the-century vehicles, their international celebrity, America's adoration of their Drew lineage, the sheer charm of their first-nights on the leading stages of Broadway, and their agony when committing Maurice as incurably insane with brain syphillis. Ethel loved Jack especially, but from youth onward, Peters says, the siblings were not emotionally close, and kept to their own characteristics: perfectionist Lionel, old before his time: Ethel, motherly, responsible, middle-aged; Jack, irrepressibly capricious. Lionel longed to paint and write music; androgynous Jack, the beautiful romantic hero, thought acting ""sissing it""; and all three were slow to achieve recognition in classic roles. Highly paid film work deflected them. Then Jack got sober for two years, was a smash critical and popular success; Ethel flopped as Camille: Lionel soared in The Copperhead The reader also flops and soars with the Barrymores, as Jack's great wit degenerates, wheelchair-bound Lionel becomes a morphine addict; and aging Ethel cops an Oscar for None But the Lonely Heart. Fabulous--even the footnotes clang with debate and puncture myth.

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 1990
Publisher: Knopf