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John Barrymore

Good Night Sweet Prince

When the stage shows and films had dried up, John’s friends had managed to find him some work in radio. It was while preparing to record for Rudy Vallee’s radio show on May 19, 1942 that he collapsed after rendering a few lines from Romeo and Juliet. John had been suffering from kidney failure and it caused edema throughout his body and pressure on his heart. He had collapsed several times before while rehearsing his part, but this time was unable to get back up. He was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital where the primary diagnosis was bronchial pneumonia, congestion of the lungs and cirrhosis of the liver. His brother Lionel, Gene Fowler and John Decker kept vigil by the bedside when it became clear that the situation was a death watch. Michael Strange sent a telegram wishing him to get well soon and Elaine Barrie sent flowers, telephoned and attempted to visit him. Her presence at the deathbed was denied by Lionel so as not to upset John. During his moments of consciousness, he retained his sense of humor in regard to his condition. He was known to have uttered shortly before his collapse “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.” (Parish, p. 48) His humor was the last asset he retained at this time and carried him through his moments of lucidity. His sister Ethel, who was touring in the play The Corn is Green at the time, had informed Lionel that she would come immediately to be there, but John instructed Lionel that it was not necessary. Dolores wanted to bring their two children, Dede and John Jr., to see their father for the last time, but Lionel told her that he wanted the children to remember their father as he had been before. Diana Barrymore was instructed to come immediately to see her father, but she had a prior engagement and arrived shortly after he died. Death came to John Barrymore on May 29, 1942 after falling into a coma.

The funeral for John was performed on June 2, 1942 by Father John O’Donnell, a friend of the Barrymore family. A requiem mass was conducted at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles where the pallbearers included W.C. Fields, David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer. Elaine Barrie was his only former wife to attend the service and Diana Barrymore the only child to be there. John was interred in the mausoleum there, next to Lionel’s second wife, Irene Fenwick, who had died in 1936. The marker on his crypt displayed the words from Hamlet: Good Night Sweet Prince. The New York Herald Tribune published this following eulogy to John Barrymore:

“It has been the inevitable and melancholy custom, for a good many years past, for the moralists to wag their dull heads and cluck their pious tongues at mention of John Barrymore, the rogue and the wastrel. An easy pastime, this. And the moralists, as always, had the weight of logic on their side. They could prove that he never achieved more than one-tenth of the fine things of which he was capable. He dissipated his talents, which were of a rare order. He was (to use the abominable word so beloved of whited sepulchers) “undignified.” They said it was “sad” that in his latter years he had become a “caricature” of a once magnificent figure. But none of this was news to Barrymore, nor did he allow it to disturb him unduly. To the end he faced the world with a charming impudence—saucy, cocky, Rabelaisian and, in his fashion, as gallant a gentleman as ever trod the boards. (p. 365)


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