The Alcoholic Cult of Diana Barrymore (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

When columnist Hedda Hopper (1885-1966 pneumonia) visited the set, Diana made a powerful enemy as she reported that Diana “can’t behave like any other star out for a fling… she’s likeable but has plenty to learn and should stop playing around both on the set and private life, which leads to these rumours floating round.”

Powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper

Hopper added that at least Diana’s father treated the press as a friend and Diana “better change her tune and quickly”. Hopper reported that Diana chased then boyfriend Bramwell Fletcher around the set to hit him which interfered with production enough for Cummings to give her a spanking “which delighted everyone on the set”. Whether this is apocryphal is possible as during the movie Cummings spanks Diana’s 12-year-old character. There are so many conflicting facts reported in Diana’s life.

Diana and Bramwell marry with Michael Strange present

Finally dubbed Between Us Girls in the end, the film wasn’t a box office failure as it made its money back and a bit more but due to her behaviour at the studio, her career was more or less over as she was cast in the rather B-movie-ish Nightmare (1942) with the only other star of note being Brian Donlevy (1901-72 throat cancer). It was a sudden and mighty fall from the grandeur of Between Us Girls.

Diana’s behaviour on the set of Between Us Girls was reflected in Nightmare (1942)

To look at the faded and scratched prints of Between Us Girls and you can see why The Los Angeles Times called Diana “delightful”. She most certainly is and the movie isn’t a bad one, with plenty of corny 1940s humour. Hedda Hopper bitterly complained that Diana has “no grasp of real screen acting. Young, headstrong and inexperienced, she is starring in a picture in which she might better be playing a bit”. Talk about ruining a career with a few lines!

Diana does a good Queen Victoria in the underrated Between Us Girls

From the opening scene with Diana as an aged Queen Victoria, you can see she might have been a good character actress at a later date, morphing into her actress persona which is likeable and morphing again into a 12-year-old. Diana makes the most of the part but it was her personal behaviour on set which became her undoing. Sure, the film has its faults and scenes such as the roller-skating one is overlong… But it is when she is doing her Sadie Thompson impression that the film is at its most telling. Although it’s her weakest moment of acting in the film…

Defeated Diana as “Sadie Thompson”

When interviewed by Mike Wallace well over a decade later when she released her autobiography, she had actually become that world-weary Sadie Thompson as she portrays her in Between Us Girls. The flat tone of her voice is the same. It is sad to watch that interview as it is a woman who has come out of the other end of Hollywood, someone crushed with sagging cheeks and yet still defiant and hoping to resurrect her career. Lighting cigarette after cigarette during that interview, Diana was giving an impression that had started but which must have been within her when she made Between Us Girls at only 21 years of age. It is interesting that sometimes the title was Between Us Girls? during production. Obviously, Hopper saw that the question mark was dropped!

The credit sequence from Between Us Girls. Now in the public domain.

Diana and Donlevy spent plenty of time together in the dressing room during the production of Nightmare. The film is a good one, although faded prints remain. The plot is a clever war-time concoction set in England and it is Diana’s last substantial screen performance. She still had some self-respect and probably thought she was still going somewhere…

Diana was the bad girl in the ironically titled Fired Wife (1943)

I couldn’t find a copy of the cheap western Frontier Badman (1943) and it was a minor film anyway directed by B-movie specialist Ford Beebe (1888-1978). By the time she made her next film, Fired Wife (1943), she perhaps realised that despite a $2000 a week salary, she was on the skids. She was once using Marlene Dietrich’s (1901-92 kidney failure) dressing room bungalow and Mae West’s (1893-1980 after stroke) hairdressers… Not anymore.

Misbehaving again in Fired Wife (1943)

Though she gets top billing in Fired Wife, interestingly, in the film but not on the poster art, she plays a woman who gets in trouble with the columnists for going out with men with bad reputations. Art imitates life as the studio punishes her for marrying Fletcher during the making of Between Us Girls as well as screwing around and there is also a Hedda Hopper like type in the cast. It’s a poor movie.

Fired Wife finished, Diana was offered Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. Having possibly not noticed the cast and budget quality of Nightmare and her bad girl role in Fired Wife, or possibly just because she was rebelliously insane, Diana turned it down thinking it an embarrassment for a Barrymore to do such a B-movie. She also turned down the Abbott and Costello film In Society and when she stormed off was put under suspension.

Missing the lead in Ladies Courageous (1944)

After six months and left to mull over whether she would return to the stage, she was offered a lead role with Loretta Young (1913-2000 ovarian cancer) in the war film Ladies Courageous (1944). It may have been a bit of a boost, but producer Walter Wanger said he couldn’t gamble on Diana’s poor box office and so the part went to Geraldine Fitzgerald (1913-2005 Alzheimer’s disease). Diana got the promiscuous bad girl part just to add to the humiliation and it’s as inconsequential as her part in Fired Wife.

Diana performs Rebecca on stage in New York

Diana left Hollywood and went back to New York where she appeared in the play of Rebecca with her husband Bramwell. The marriage would soon be over. Meanwhile her gay stepbrother Robin died of a possible deliberate overdose of sleeping tablets and alcohol.

Back in Hollywood and her husband on the other coast, she dated a variety of leading men from Rory Calhoun (1922-99 emphysema) to Jimmy Stewart (1908-97 pulmonary embolism) who were both known to sleep around. She held parties at her home and fell in with a hard-drinking crowd. She had an easy radio job which gave her $1000 a week for less than five hours work. But she was unprofessional and wouldn’t put in more time and her part dwindled.

One of Diana’s charming beaus had a dark past

Socially, she went to a rough and boozy party where she slapped bloodied bad boy Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002 pneumonia), something which made headlines. When Bramwell finally came home she told him drunkenly: “I have been sleeping around. I have slept with…” and the names kept coming. Bramwell packed his suitcase and left.

“Bram was decent and I was a slut,” Diana told herself in her book and it was around this time that she decided to commit suicide with sleeping tablets. She survived.

It was then she got introduced to the first in a string of disastrous relationships and that was with tennis player John Howard. Her mother said to keep him for a lover but for heaven’s sake don’t marry him. But she did, and he introduced her to marijuana as she paid the bills and he slapped her face causing her lip to bleed. Over the years there would be many black eyes.

Diana out partying with the violent leech that was John Howard

Driving home and possibly drunk they were pulled over by the police and a fight ensued. As a result, they ended up in jail with further headlines for Diana. That marriage was over in six months and she was saved by an offer of summer stock in Massachusetts. It was there that she met the alcoholic actor Bob Wilcox (1910-1955 heart attack) and they lived openly together despite the fact Diana hadn’t had a divorce.

Diana marries the alcoholic actor Robert Wilcox

Diana thought she gave the stage performance of her life in Maxwell Anderson’s (1888-1959 stroke) Joan of Lorraine. Almost predicted by the end of Between Us Girls where Diana played Joan of Arc in the final scene, right down to the silly walk-on in that film by Cummings who could’ve been her final downfall just like Bob Wilcox coming into her life during this period. Her mother had wanted to play Joan and when she was at a performance where everyone in the wings was in tears for Diana, her mother rebuffed her and didn’t go back stage. It was a slap in the face and soon Wilcox had a bottle of whiskey in his dressing room which was forbidden.

Diana had already started to age

“One doesn’t do this in the theatre,” Diana wrote, a bit high and mightily, and perhaps with a small modicum of self-respect. But touring with the play from city to city became boring and there was nothing else to do but to drink and play poker. Diana would drop into Wilcox’s dressing room for a nip during performances. She went to get a drink dressed as Joan at the bar next door during a performance.

An image of days gone by. Before her teeth were capped.

“Boredom drove me to the bottle. Boredom and a wish not to think about tomorrow,” was Diana’s excuse and soon she was drinking at home in the morning with Wilcox. It was now an open secret that the two couldn’t get work and the money was running out.

She had a couple of drunken accidents around the house, one which caused a brain injury. She was offered something called The Diana Barrymore Show on radio but turned up drunk at the studio on opening night and it was cancelled before it went to air.

Diana’s mother and step-brother’s grave at Woodlawn Cemetery New York

Then Diana’s mother died after a bout of leukemia and she went on a drinking spree for a couple of weeks and came out of it with a case of the DTs. She just drank to forget how broke she was. Having earned $250,000 during her time in Hollywood, she was now pawning her jewellery. Wilcox was such a total bust as an actor that he was offered the job as an usher at the local tv station. Diana got offered vaudeville doing impressions and things were looking up when she was invited to tour Australia.

What was originally a three-week tour turned into six months of triumphs and fiascos. Starting off well, it was a “case of nerves” which had Diana drinking again before going on stage while husband Wilcox was down in the south of Australia. After Melbourne where weeks’ worth of bookings were squandered by another drunk performance, she went to Brisbane, which was little more than a large country town at that stage. She appeared there in a girlie show called The Nudie Cuties. It was the lowest Diana felt she had ever sunk… She got drunk and was sacked again and the pair returned to San Francisco with less than $200.

Another shot from Fired Wife with Walter Abel. It was becoming a habit.

It was then that she started to ask for money from old friends like Tyrone Power (1914-58 heart attack) as she waited for $8000 from her mother’s will. When it came, she spent that money in New York on high living at a fantastic rate.

There was another radio offer but she blew it with her first drunken line to her guest: “Now, tell me, Miss Paterno, just what makes you think you’re a singer?”

She was getting fatter and older and tried Alcoholics Anonymous but it didn’t take. When she had a fling with a criminal vagabond poet, Wilcox found out and said: “You’re a whore.”

The fling went on for weeks and Wilcox struck Diana who fell back and hit her head causing her to bleed badly. She threatened to kick him out… but they continued to drink, listen to records and watch tv and fight. When the poet and Wilcox ended up brawling it was the police and headlines again.

Father and daughter ended up much alike as seen here mugging for the camera

Diana wondered if she was two people – one a lady and the other a whore. The whore won out and Wilcox left, leaving the poet to beat her so senseless, she said she could feel her nose break as he punched her and then kicked her. She was naturally evicted but a check from her step-brother set her up again in an apartment. She stayed there with the blinds drawn and didn’t function til dusk. She just drank instead of eating and her weight dropped and she grew weak almost unable to rise from the bed.

She suffered neuritis and the beginnings of cirrhosis and Wilcox came back to nurse her to health. She pulled herself together long enough to do summer stock and the pair were then signed for six months for a bedroom farce. The notices were abysmal and one critic noted: “If Diana Barrymore could only look in the mirror and see her bloated face and figure.”

One of the gossip magazines that profited from Diana’s misfortune

In Detriot, Tallulah Bankhead took pity on her and had her round for dinner. It was there she showed how Diana could use make-up to her advantage. She had never been taught the basics as a stage actress! Like Tallulah, there was a childlike naivete.

“Diana, like me, you are your own worst enemy… you have a soul, you have a rare quality of spirit… but… you have spent so many years trying to destroy it,” said kindred Tallulah.

Back in Philly, home of the Barrymores, Diana appeared drunk on stage again and was threatened with expulsion from Equity.

“You’re nothing but a drunken bum,” said the producer to her and slammed the door behind him.

Diana looking defeated around the time of the success of her book

She tried suicide again but it was passed off in the newspapers as accidental. Everyone pretended it didn’t happen and she went on and played out the tour. Not long after that, Wilcox died in his sleep on a train back to his hometown of Rochester, New York.

It happened the night after Diana called the whole thing off due to falling in love with a leading man. It was now June 1955.

It was not long afterwards that she was taken to hospital to be treated for her barbiturate and alcohol addictions. She woke up strapped to a hospital bed. She stayed eight days and then went and ordered a double vodka. She then drank until her eyes were almost closed with oedema and her skin blotched, grey, blue and distorted.

It was her brother Leonard who booked her into Towns Hospital, the same place where her father was treated. She entered under her own name with nothing to hide.

“You were born without a sense of morals,” said her friend Ann Andrews. “You are your parents all over again. If only you’d inherited less of their weaknesses and more of their virtues.”

Flynn and Diana met during the film’s production and were maybe fond of one another

That is how Diana’s tell all book more or less ends. But there is an ending to the story which she wrote with Gerold Frank (1907-98), who helped ghost write Lillian Roth’s (1910-80 stroke) I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Diana earned approximately $200,000 from the book sales… The movie which has the book’s title Too Much, Too Soon was made in 1958 and doesn’t follow the events exactly in the book as Diana or Frank tells it. It’s just as ‘sordid’ as the book, well as much as a 1950s film can be, but it plays with time and events.

A taste of Too Much, Too Soon (1958)

It opens with Oscar winner Dorothy Malone (1924-2018) playing a poor teenage version of Diana and yet it reflects Diana’s role in Between Us Girls both in costume and attempts at playing a youngster. Diana was better.

Errol Flynn, the man who possibly broke Diana into the Hollywood scene, plays her father John Barrymore. Flynn was a crony of John whose reputation had suffered from excess alcohol and drug addiction through to accusations of statutory rape.

Errol complete with putty profile as John Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon

There are conflicting reports over whether Diana visited the set of Too Much, Too Soon. One said she did while another said she didn’t. Flynn obviously showed respect for the material, as he gives one of his best late career performances. Anyway, both he and Diana were sexually promiscuous…

Malone playing Diana sordidly in a strip club scene in Too Much, Too Soon

In the movie, when Diana’s mother dies, Malone as Diana wakes from a drunken stupor to answer the phone to hear the news. In her book, Diana learns halfway through a performance on stage that her mother has passed away. So, who knows what is the real truth to Diana Barrymore? I have tried to sift through and find the most realistic facts.

What is dropped from the film is her “heavy grass” smoking as Tennessee Williams (1911-83 choked on bottle cap) described it. Her first joint is mentioned but not her use of it after that, as is her first promiscuous sexual encounter but she cleans it up pretty well after that, starting with her encounter with Flynn. He was alive so could possibly sue or she may have respected him too much.

Poor Diana was possibly beaten to death according to Tennessee Williams

As for the end of Diana, she was found after a drunken Sunday night on Monday 25 January 1960 surrounded by family portraits and souvenirs by her maid. Face down and naked on her bed, there were empty liquor bottles and sleeping pills nearby. The doctor said heart attack while the autopsy was inconclusive and the police said there was no sign of foul play.

Tennessee Williams said she “had blood streaming out of her mouth and that there was a heavy marble ashtray shattered against the wall and other evidence of a struggle”. It’s a part of the real and unreal legend of Diana. Williams supplied a blanket of two thousand violets for her funeral.

“There was a certain curse of the Barrymore’s, I think,” said Williams.

Sadly, Diana’s profile wasn’t as iconic as her father John Barrymore

The lies and the truth in the Hollywood myth of Diana Barrymore are contained within her part lady and part slut persona as she described herself unabashedly. Between Us Girls is in the public domain, which goes to show how worthless producers thought of Diana’s work. To watch today, it is a touching relic of a charming and talented girl for which the whole world could have been her oyster…

Yes, Diana could have had a better career, if drinking and drugs as well as sexual addiction didn’t get in the way. In some ways her story is echoed by that of Barbara Payton who came later. But compared to her, Diana had class and a good upbringing. But it just goes to show that will not save you in the end.

4 Comments

  1. Lisa
    Permalink

    Hi, I never knew much about her and I really enjoyed your article. It seems another tragic Hollywood actor that could have been so much more. Was it the era, the upbringing or just always being compared. I thought she looked pretty and it sounded like she did have some talent.
    I am always impressed by your research.
    Thank you

    Reply
  2. Cameron Harvey
    Permalink

    I greatly enjoyed the article. It was well researched and written and gave me an insight into a life I had not previously not known much about. Well done!

    Reply

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