Ethel Barrymore was born on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia. Ethel was the second child of Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew, both of whom were well-known actors. Ethel’s brothers were John and Lionel Barrymore, who were also actors; the “Barrymore” actor line went back several generations and continues to this day. Actress Drew Barrymore, for one example, is the grand-niece of Ethel Barrymore.
Barrymore, like the other members of her family, was brought up with an ingrained love of theater and performing arts. But it was not until her mother’s death in 1893 that Ethel began to work in the theater; her mother had been suffering from tuberculosis and died while on vacation in Southern California. After her mother’s death, Ethel–as well as her brother, Lionel–began to take acting jobs to help support their family. In 1895, she appeared on Broadway in a play called The Imprudent Young Couple; the play starred the famous Maude Adams as well as her uncle, John Drew Jr. The next year, she had another supporting role on Broadway, this time in ‘Rosemary.’
A year later, Barrymore traveled to London to play a role in William Gilette’s ‘Secret Service.’ She was meant to come back to the United States following the plays’ run, but she was offered a touring role in London by Henry Irving, which she took.
Following the London theater season, Barrymore came back to America, where she remained for several years. In 1901, she landed the part that would make her internationally famous: she was cast as Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. The touring performance of this play was a massive critical and financial success, and afterward Barrymore was very much in demand at famous theater companies. Her other theater roles during this time included productions of Romeo and Juliet as well as a Doll’s House.
In 1914, Barrymore was cast in her first film, a silent picture called The Nightingale. Barrymore appeared in 15 silent films from 1914 and 1919, although only one full film (The Call of Her People) and one single reel (The Awakening of Helena Richie) remain extant today.
Barrymore’s film career continued with the advent of ‘talking’ pictures. In 1932, she was cast as the Czarina Alexandra in ‘Rasputin and the Empress.’ This film, which is now considered lost, is the only film in which she appeared with her two siblings John and Lionel. In 1944, she won an Academy Award for her role in None But the Lonely Heart. Her other film roles in the 1940s include The Spiral Staircase, the Paradine Case, and the Portrait of Jennie; as well as Pinky, which earned her an nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Barrymore’s personal life was often talked about in public papers. In 1909, she married Russel Griswold Colt; the couple had three children, but divorced in 1923 after several years of rocky marital problems.
Barrymore died in 1959 of complications related to cardiovascular disease.