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John Barrymore

Wife #2: Michael Strange

The second Mrs. Barrymore was born Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs (October 1, 1890 – November 5, 1950) in Newport, Rhode Island to wealthy parents. In an ironic twist of fate, the doctor who attended to her birth was also the attending doctor to John Barrymore’s first wife, Katherine. Blanche Oelrichs used the pen name “Michael Strange” when she wrote her poems and was known by either name. Michael was an interesting combination of feminist and romantic, a woman who strongly believed in individualism and independence for women and had a soft spot for romanticism in one’s life. When she met John Barrymore, she was a married woman who became infatuated with the debonair actor. She had married her husband Leonard Moorhead Thomas on January 26, 1910 and they had two sons: Leonard Jr. (1911-?) and Robin May Thomas (1915-1944). Her husband was a senior diplomat, quite a few years older than herself, and his many trips to Europe on business caused her little concern. His absences gave her time to pursue her writing endeavors of poetry and plays, and space to be flirtatious with both men and women. Her husband was in Europe working on the war effort when she met John. As she described her first impression of John in her autobiography Who Tells Me True: “Here he was, bowing and smiling , looking very slim and nervously poetic, with grayish-green hazel eyes, of immense fascination, because they seemed to mirror back oneself in flattering, mischievous terms. He looked elfin and forsaken—an intriguing combination—but very highly strung too. His walk, slanted, oblique, seemed to say that his clothes irked his skin.” (p. 56) Michael could not get him out her mind and when her husband returned, it was obvious that their marriage was over.

Leonard Thomas granted Michael her divorce and on August 15, 1920 she was married to John at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. The Barrymores acquired a palatial home in White Plains in Westchester County where they enjoyed some solitude amidst John’s acting and their traveling. Michael wrote a play for John titled Clair de Lune and John enlisted the help of his sister Ethel in order to get an audience for it, even though Ethel was not fond of Michael. The play was not a success but Michael, in 1921, gave John his first child, Diana Blanche Blyth Barrymore (March 3, 1921 – January 25, 1960). John was happy about the newest member of the Barrymore family, but was intimidated by the presence of his daughter. He had difficulty relating to the child, refusing to even pick her up, afraid he would hurt her. His brother Lionel would come to the house and play with the child, realizing the need for the child to have this interaction. A month after her birth John legally signed documents giving permanent guardianship to his wife of Diana. Even at this stage in his life he felt that fatherhood was not a skill that would come easily to him and that the care of Diana would be better suited to the abilities of Michael.

John’s marriage to Michael was one of many separations and living apart from one another. John was busy with his acting career and Michael would spend much of her time in Paris, France where she would continue her writings. Eventually she settled in New York City to pursue an acting career, much like John’s first wife, Katherine, had done, but with little success. The marriage began to fall apart and the couple was divorced in May of 1925. She published a book of her poems, titled Selected Poems, by Michael Strange, in 1928 and in 1929 she married a prominent New York lawyer named Harrison Tweed. John and Michael kept up a friendly relationship after their divorce and John admired Harrison Tweed to a great extent. In 1940 Michael would publish her autobiography Who Tells Me True, and in 1942 she would divorce Tweed after having begun an affair with author Margaret Wise Brown, who was known for her children’s book Goodnight Moon, which would last until Michael’s death in 1950. Her son Robin, from her first marriage, would die in 1944 from the effects of drinking and drugs. Michael herself would die in 1950 at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Boston from leukemia. She was reported to have said shortly before her death, “John Barrymore was the one great love of my life.” (Kobler, p. 373) Michael Strange was buried in the Oelrichs family plot, along with her son Robin, in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, New York. Her daughter Diana would also be buried there after her death in 1960.

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