Old Time Radio

Rumors, Excess, and the Unlikely Journey of John Barrymore’s Corpse

Hollywood sometimes seems to run on the motto that “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing”. A one-industry town built where fantasy and hard cash come together, it can be difficult to tell which stories are true and which are simply stories. Strangely, because Hollywood is a place where excess is a way of life, the more fantastic a story is, the easier it is to believe. The story that follows is so far out that it seems more likely to have happened than not. There are voices from the past which claim it is a hoax and others which claim it is true. Our opinion is that true or not, it is a very good story. 

John Barrymore became one of the greatest actors of his generation. Born into the Drew and Barrymore acting dynasties in 1882, Barrymore was expected to follow his father Maurice, older brother and sister Lionel and Ethel, and his maternal uncles John and Sidney Drew onto the stage. John became one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, was one of Hollywood’s first super-Stars during the silent era, and with his stage-trained voice flourished with the advent of talkies. This success came despite the fact that Barrymore struggled with the bottle from the time he was fourteen. While starring in the silent horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), he was working at the studio during the day while staying at a sanitarium to dry out (he also managed to get another man’s wife pregnant about the same time).

Hard-drinking director Raoul Walsh had been a friend of Barrymore’s since boyhood, and notorious tippler W.C. Fields was also a companion. Swashbuckling star Errol Flynn, who claimed to have patterned his own acting after the great Barrymore, joined what became known as the “Bundy Drive Gang”, a gin-soaked bunch who made Humphrey Bogart‘s and Frank Sinatra‘s Holmby Hills Rat Pack seem likes a gathering of choir boys.

By the mid-1930’s, Barrymore’s drinking had led to him nearly being blacklisted by the major studios. However, word got out that CBS was going to broadcast Columbia Presents Shakespeare as a summer replacement program in 1937. Not to be outdone by the upstart “Tiffany Network”, NBC began to plan Streamlined Shakespeare, but the show needed a “name” to carry it and the decision was that John Barrymore was the name.

Critics are divided on Barrymore’s performance on Streamlined Shakespeare, some praising him for bringing the Bard to life for the masses while others felt his work lampooned the greatness of the material. To Barrymore’s credit, he remained sober and reliable through the program’s run, leading the studios to give him another chance at film work. Although he was relegated to supporting roles, the infusion of cash was a great relief to his many creditors and film crews referred to him as “Mr. Barrymore” out of respect. NBC took another chance on him, giving him a part as Rudy Vallee‘s foil on The Sealtest Show. There was plenty of self-deprecating jokes about his relations with women and his drinking, but the show also gave him a chance to do some serious radio acting. While recording a segment from Romeo and Juliet on May 19, 1942, Barrymore collapsed in the studio. He was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital where he died of cirrhosis of the liver complicated by kidney failure. After sixty years, John Barrymore had finally drunk himself to death.

The surviving members of the Bundy Drive Gang did not take the death of their leader well and retired to L.A.’s Cock and Bull Bar. After a few hours of liquid mourning, excused himself, claiming that the grief had overwhelmed him. Errol Flynn expressed his grief by continuing his attempt to drink the establishment dry. What happened next is reported in Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959, Putman) which was released weeks after his own death (Flynn, too, drank himself to death, dropping dead in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 1959, where he had traveled to sell his yacht Zaca to satisfy creditors, at the time the schooner was rotting in a harbor in France, it has since been restored and is said to be haunted by Errol Flynn‘s ghost).

After leaving the bar, Walsh drove to the Pierce Bros mortuary where money was exchanged with a funeral director. Barrymore’s body was loaded into the director’s car, and Walsh then drove to Flynn’s mansion. He pounded on the door until he awoke Flynn’s butler who he directed to help him bring Mr. Barrymore into the house. “I think he is dead, sir,” said the butler, but Walsh pointed out that the butler had seen Barrymore in this condition before. Once the departed Barrymore was ensconced on Flynn’s sofa, Walsh sent the butler to get coffee “to help sober him up”.

About this time, Flynn wobbled home from the Cock and Bull. He collapsed into a favorite chair when the butler came into the room saying, “Here’s Mr. Barrymore’s coffee”. Flynn then spotted the corpse on his sofa and ran screaming from the room. From behind a bush, he yelled for Walsh to “Get him out of here! You are going to get us all of us put in San Quentin!” When Walsh returned to the funeral home, the funeral director asked where the film director had been. After laughingly describing their visit to Flynn’s mansion, the mortician said, “Why, if I’d have known you were going to take him up there, I would have put a better suit on him!”

This episode, as mentioned, was described in Flynn’s autobiography and confirmed by Raoul Walsh in a documentary in 1973. However, a close friend of the Barrymore family and fellow member of the Bundy Street Gang, Gene Fowler, states that he and his son stood vigil with Barrymore’s body in the funeral home and the shenanigans described above never occurred.

True or not, it is too good of a story not to share.