By: Pam Munter
As soon as she entered any room, Ethel Barrymore left little doubt she was royalty, or at least, its show business equivalent. That square jaw, the penetrating eyes, the erect carriage majestically leading the way. When she spoke, her sculpted, cultivated alto announced this was someone who would not tolerate any trifling.
“Come on, old girl.” She looked at the wrinkled face in the mirror. “Don’t let those morons get to you.”
Today was her big scene with Frank Sinatra in what might be her final public appearance. She decided playing a lovable matriarch would be an excellent and memorable way to end it. She had rehearsed for several days with Lettie, her aide, just to be sure she would be letter-perfect, as usual.
She couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t famous. Given the rich Barrymore and Drew family legacies—generations of professional actors—she never had a choice. Fortunately, she loved the work, soaked up the adulation, treasured the elite society in which she fit so seamlessly.
Image was everything. It would be decades before she would admit, and only to close friends, she and the austere Winston Churchill had been an item; in fact, he had proposed to her and more than once. Each time, she denied him, afraid it would hamper her pursuit of her real passion, the theater. When she saw his wedding photo on the society page, she found herself both amused and flattered that the new bride bore a striking resemblance to herself.
Ethel never thought she got the credit she deserved, often burdened as she was by comparisons with her two siblings, each with their own degree of lesser fame. Jack was flamboyant and perhaps the most talented of the three but he dissolved his gifts in alcohol and died at 60. She seldom discussed Jack with interviewers, but when his alcoholism came up, she would claim him to be a victim of family genetics. She missed him every day. Lionel, in distant third place in the Barrymore family competition, signed with MGM, playing secondary character roles. Since childhood, the boys tacitly accepted Ethel to be the rock, someone they could count on when times were tough. She was the one with common sense, the problem-solver, the family benefactor.
Ethel was a star, even in those first backyard performances in Philadelphia. When she decided they should do “Camille,” she practiced coughing until her parents thought she was actually ill. Her brothers always played supporting roles to her lead. She would admit, if asked, that she liked her men weak and her women interesting.
She wore her storied reputation like a suit of armor, almost daring anyone to penetrate the thick metallic coating. If someone was presumptuous enough to approach, she had only to flash those laser eyes and blow them away with a cryptic verbal body slam. Even at a young age, critics commented on the strength and fullness of her voice. It served her well all those years, where she predictably dominated every performance.
But now, she was playing the acerbic but serene Aunt Jessie, in support to two bigger stars. She was fond of Jessie, perhaps because it was an idealized version of herself. The script had her say, “I’m the you can’t-hide-a-thing-from-me kind of aunt.” No-nonsense, noble but humble, witty without being cruel. It’s almost as if the part had been written for her by kindly public relations people.
Though the interview requests had ebbed, there were still some who remembered her from her dazzling stage performances. Critics from another generation had called her the “Washington Monument of the Theater,” the “Grand Dame,” and other fawning approbations. In recent years as good parts eluded her, she had deigned to act in the flickers, which paid far better than the stage. Motion pictures were considered an art form by many, but Ethel thought it an ephemeral amusement at best—the cotton candy of gourmet foods. People came and went so quickly, their reputation created by a studio flack, not by virtue of any talent. And so, with great reluctance, she had signed the contract to play Aunt Jessie in the Warner Bros. musical, “Young at Heart.” It was 1954 and she would soon be 75 years old. She was struggling.
At her peak, she could read a script once and have it down but those days were long gone. She and Lettie worked for hours until Ethel could respond as Aunt Jessie, picking up each cue as written. Her dressing room on the Warners lot was capacious by Broadway standards, but she knew her co-stars had nicer ones. Both Frank Sinatra and Doris Day were at the top of the popularity charts in music and in movies. Merely their names in the credits would guarantee box office success. Billed as a supporting player, Ethel feigned indifference to what she considered a professional snub.
“You know, Miss Barrymore,” Lettie had reassured her, “neither of them has your talent or experience. Or, your, what do you call it, charisma.”
She fidgeted with the script sitting on her dressing room table, while Lettie went to the set to find out how soon Ethel would be needed. Everyone knew Sinatra tolerated only one take before walking off the set. so filming her few scenes with him should be accomplished quickly. The assistant director stood in for Frank during the tedious rehearsals.
As a rule, Ethel liked other performers and was seldom jealous, confident in her own unique talents. The one thing she would not tolerate was unprofessionalism. She respected her craft too much to endure pretenders. That’s how she thought of Frankie, whom she called “the boy crooner,” an egotist who thought he was above working on a scene with his fellow actors. No one worked as hard as she had, and as she still did, for that matter. During their business lunch, her agent had said that Sinatra had even demanded the ending of the film be changed so his character wouldn’t die. Sinatra reminded her of some of the presumptuous stage actors she had to work with in New York. They all thought they were gods, too.
There was a soft knock on the door.
“Miss Barrymore. You’re wanted on the set, if you’re ready.”
She liked the AD. He was deferential and polite, knew his place.
Lettie came in after him.
“Miss Barrymore, are you ready? If not, I can get them to postpone. Mr. Sinatra is waiting.”
“Oh, he is, is he?” She took one last look in the mirror, smoothed her housedress and allowed Lettie to touch up her hair a bit. “All right. We mustn’t keep Mr. Sinatra waiting, must we?”
Ethel was more than a little embarrassed that she had to use a wheelchair to get around. It was painfully reminiscent of Lionel’s pathetic last years as he was losing his faculties. Still, it made it easier for her to husband her strength, and to navigate the set during the scene. No one in the movie audience would ever know how fragile she was these days.
The set was bustling with activity, everyone in simultaneous motion. This would be the first part of the scene where Aunt Jessie enters the family’s living room to find Sinatra, a stranger to the family, sitting at the piano. She had tried it several ways at home. Should she be surprised? Frightened? Nonchalant? Challenging? There were so many options and the director, Gordon Douglas, had left her on her own. After all, who could instruct her in the art of playing a scene?
Lettie helped her to her feet.
“I’ve got you, Miss Barrymore. Don’t you worry.”
“I’m OK. Lettie. Please let go. Just let me go. I’m fine.”
Sinatra smiled and nodded at her from the piano bench as she stood on her marks across the set. She looked back at him with her practiced grandeur and steely brown eyes, just the slightest upturn at one corner of her mouth. The lights came on, triggering the familiar adrenalin rise. There was something about the lights, the signal that people wanted her, worshipped her. The surge was followed by a preternatural calmness. She was in her element. It was all so easy, if only she could walk without a limp and remember her lines.
Under her breath, she muttered, “Let’s get on with it. Movies. Not like the theater.”
She continued to stand while the costume, makeup and hair people fussed over her. She could feel her knees quivering and knew her standing position would only be possible for a few more minutes, at best. To distract herself, she mentally returned to the old Booth Theater, during the early part of the century when there were still foot-candles burning downstage. So comforting to bring back the acrid aroma of the gas and the familiar dense smell of greasepaint. The odors of a Hollywood soundstage were different, more difficult to label, not nearly as charming or emotionally evocative. There was so much noise and confusion. One had to focus, push away everything else. In those seconds, she had to become Aunt Jessie, the no-nonsense but warm helpmate.
In real life, the “warm” part was sometimes lost within her professional demeanor. A star had to remain a bit aloof, detached from those around her, to preserve the sense of awe she so easily evoked in others. Chit-chatting with others was draining, especially when preparing to go on. These people were definitely not dinner-guest material. She needed to concentrate, silently go over her lines. She tried to conjure up a light moment from her past to get into the scene.
“Ready, Mr. Sinatra? Miss Barrymore?”
Straighten up, she told herself. Speak from the diaphragm. Make those eyes twinkle.
“Come on, Ethel. Let’s do this.” She didn’t need Sinatra’s flippant encouragement. Nor did she appreciate his familiarity.
She watched Sinatra lean over the piano, heard the playback music begin and waited for her cue. Deep breath. She took a hesitant step in and started to say her first line.
“Cut! Miss Barrymore. We need you to take a few more steps toward Frank before you begin your line. Again, please.”
She felt her face flush and hoped no one had noticed. “All right. Yes. Of course.” She thought she saw a look of impatience cross Sinatra’s face.
She propelled herself into the living room adjacent to the piano and spoke her line.
“For all I know, you could be a burglar, planning to make off with the piano. I don’t know who you are but I’m Jessie. Aunt Jessie, just to be perfectly clear.”
“Ah, of course. The name fits the room. Chintz curtains, doilies on the table.”
“The name came first, chintz afterwards.”
“Cut!” Miss Barrymore, the line is, ‘The name came first, doilies after.’ Let’s go again.”
Damn. She spoke the line to herself. “The name came first, doilies after.” OK. Got it. Because it was the master shot, though, the entire scene had to go again from the top. She was embarrassed, unfamiliar with professional frailty. With considerable effort, she willed her body back to the starting point. She glared at Sinatra and went into the scene again, this time perfectly.
“Cut! Great job, everybody. That’s a print. Take an hour while we set up the next shot. Miss Barrymore, we’ll give you plenty of notice.”
“Thank you, Gordon.”
“Nice goin,’ Ethel.”
Why did Frankie have to comment on everything? It’s sad that he feels compelled to seize the focus. She forced out a faint smile.
Lettie quickly stepped in to help Ethel back to the wheelchair.
“You were wonderful, Miss Barrymore.”
“Yes, Lettie. Thank you.”
She knew she’d be tired and was relieved that the takes and the scenes were short. Did they know of her limitations? The stamina wasn’t there anymore, unpredictable and elusive. Last week, however, she was able to talk on the phone for over an hour with Tallulah Bankhead and felt energized afterwards. Now she had to get back to her dressing room to have a cup of tea and maybe take a nap.
She was still catching her breath when Lettie poured the hot English blend into the antique cup that went everywhere with them. She knew she could count on the demure, overweight woman, whom she had hired years ago in New York.
“Lettie, would you find me a tea cake or two? I think I’m hypoglycemic. Even a little candy would be fine. And before I forget, would you please call Mrs. Roosevelt and postpone our dinner until tomorrow? I’m going to be unavailable tonight. I’m afraid.”
“Of course, Miss Barrymore. Miss Hepburn asked if you might be available for a dinner party with Mr. Cukor on Saturday.”
“I hope you’re speaking of Kate, not that unfortunate urchin, Audrey. I like Kate so much. Smart, funny, a very clever woman. If my schedule is clear, tell her yes. Her parties are inevitably stimulating, with cultured people at the table.”
“I’ll take care of it, Miss Barrymore.”
Social relationships had become necessary if she wanted good company. She dearly loved people who amused and stimulated her, especially those who weren’t after something. Family relationships hadn’t worked out so well but she maintained a strong core of friendships, many of them for decades. All of them were famous.
She had adored her younger brother Jack, in spite of his lack of discipline and the relentless chaos in his life, but had unfinished business with older brother Lionel, especially when the topic of politics arose. When he announced his support for Thomas Dewey over FDR, she glibly described Dewey as “the bridegroom on a wedding cake,” words gleefully picked up by the media. It became so contentious between them that she stopped invited him to dinner. Poor Lionel. Never a good student. She had cried briefly when Jack died but doubted she’d feel much when Lionel finally went.
This whole movie stop-and-go business was irritating and exhausting. She never did understand how Lionel stood it all those years. MGM was little more than a factory. All the studios were. No wonder Jack drank himself to death. “The Great Profile,” as he was called, could no longer recite Shakespeare, so the movies with its short scenes was all he could manage. She was aware and only a little saddened that his could be her swan song, that the mighty engine was running out of steam. She didn’t belong in this business anymore. Sitting at the dressing table, she slumped in her wheelchair. She was so bone-tired that she regretted agreeing to play this part, even though it showed off the very best of her complicated personality.
The perfect setting for her cello-infused voice was the radio, long gone. TV production was even more tedious than the movies. She looked up with longing at the sepia Shubert playbills taped to her mirror. Ethel wasn’t one to keep scrapbooks or souvenirs of her many triumphs and forgot why she held on to these. Perhaps it was Lettie’s doing. However, Jack’s picture had to be on her dressing room mirror; she had not left that to chance, reminding Lettie whenever they moved to a new theater.
“He was so very handsome, wasn’t he, Miss Barrymore?”
“Yes, he certainly was. Gentle, kind. If a bit bohemian.”
“I wish I had seen him onstage.”
“When he was sober, he was the best there was. But…”
Her voice trailed off, leaving Lettie in silence.
She had retired before, back in 1936, announcing to the press that she would devote the rest of her life to being a mother to her three children. A year later, she was back on Broadway in another smash. Oh yes, the children. Of course, they weren’t anymore. They were grown and gone, except dear Sammy who took care of things at home. She seldom thought about the marriage to Russell and when she did, she couldn’t remember why she did it. It was expected, certainly, and helped stave off the stage-door Johnnies. And any whispered gossip involving her female friends. Old maids were unseemly. But Russell turned out to be a bounder and when he got some young trollop pregnant, Ethel divorced him. The public hadn’t known it but she had filed for divorce several times before that but was dissuaded by the ironclad prohibitions of her Catholic faith—and perhaps her own guilt about being pregnant before the wedding. But the little bastard kid was too much. In retrospect, marriage and motherhood were very much like stage credits, giving her persona greater resonance.
She sat, drinking her tea, gazing into the mirror. Lettie broke the silence.
“Here are some cookies. They’re shortbread, your favorite. Can I bring you anything else?”
“No. That’ll do. Thank you.”
Lettie had learned the skill of entering and leaving without raising any dust. When she wasn’t performing her duties, she was nearly invisible.
More often these days, her thoughts roamed backwards, to the days when she was the toast of Broadway, the life of any party, the object of male and female attention. Now, she hoped to make it through this film without further problems. Really, though, what she most anticipated was dinner with Eleanor tomorrow night. They would talk politics and reminisce.
Lettie tapped lightly on the door, thinking her boss was likely napping. She found her gazing into the mirror.
“Miss Barrymore, Mr. Douglas said you won’t be needed anymore today and that he looks forward to seeing you again tomorrow. He hopes to wrap your scenes then, too.”
“Oh, good. I’m tired. There’s nothing like one’s own bed, is there?”
“Let me help you to the car.”
“Thank you, dear. You’re a jewel. I want to go home.”
It was almost over.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 120 publications She is the nonfiction book reviewer for Fourth and Sycamore. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be was published in 2018 by Adelaide Books. Her work can be found at http://www.pammunter.com.