Diana Barrymore: Too Much, Too Soon — Too Bad

This past Saturday (March 3rd) was the birth date, in 1921, of actress Diana Barrymore, daughter of the legendary rascal and alcoholic matinee idol John Barrymore.  No matter which way you look at Diana’s short and tumultuous existence, it was both nature and nurture which conspired to lead this talented young woman into a life destined to end badly. 

Diana, born to John Barrymore and his novelist second wife, was soon caught up in a lavish and privileged lifestyle which unfortunately didn’t guarantee stability; her parents divorced while she was still a child.  She was brought up in Europe while her mother embarked on a new marriage, and of course her dashing and gifted father John was in Hollywood, slowly ruining his good looks and good reputation with liquor.  As she grew into a beautiful young woman, Diana’s career path seemed preordained, and so she took dramatic classes and made a splash as only a Barrymore could, living large and using her family name and talent to open doors in Hollywood and on Broadway.

Diana also had a penchant for choosing the wrong men, including her first husband Bramwell Fletcher who was nearly twenty years her senior (she was 21 when they wed).  Her second, John R. Howard, was a strapping tennis pro two years her junior, and only too happy to live off her money (he even tried to wangle a cash settlement to agree to a divorce from her), and her third, actor Robert Wilcox (eleven years older than Diana), a newly-recovered alcoholic with a so-so career.  John Barrymore had died in 1942, and her mother in 1950, but despite considerable inheritances from both estates, Diana’s lavish lifestyle, avaricious and downright abusive spouses and her own Diana Barrymore and husband-to-be Robert Wilcoxtroubles with liquor left her close to destitute. 

The photo here shows Miss Barrymore with her then-husband-to-be Wilcox; not sure who the grim-looking older men are, but this picture sure looks like trouble in-the-making, especially when you know how it turned out.  Wilcox and Barrymore, who wed in October of 1950, had a very public and very turbulent relationship, studded with bad press reports of drunken brawls, wife-beating, sordid burlesque bookings, infidelities, near-starvation living conditions, aborted attempts at sobriety, suicide attempts and finally Wilcox’s lonely heart attack death on a train after Diana had asked him for a divorce. 

Diana did sort of have the last word, at least, co-writing a best-selling autobiography Too Much, Too Soon in 1957, detailing her eccentric and self-destructive family life.  The success of the book, and the subsequent movie made of it in 1958 (though Hollywood-ized), brought Diana some solace, but clearly not enough.  Her death in 1960 at the age of thirty-eight was ruled a suicide by way of alcohol and barbiturates (there also seem to have been some horrible burns sustained in a kitchen fire involved in the death, which makes it more even more awful). 

Another depressing Hollywood story, isn’t it?  Indeed, Diana’s unique combination of promise and despair was the inspiration for Lana Turner’s character in The Bad and the Beautiful.  Diana Barrymore may not have become immortalized for anything she did on the stage or screen, but clearly we remember her for who she was, at least, and what she went through.

8 Responses Diana Barrymore: Too Much, Too Soon — Too Bad
Posted By nate g f : March 6, 2007 8:48 pm

this blog just totally reminded me, i found a diana barrymore postcard in our attic that belonged to a previous resident, who while in the military, had sent to her for an autographed picture. The postcard wasn't really from her personally, I don't believe: it was her picture with a her signature but on the reverse it had a message saying that do to high demand he would have to send payment to get a real photo. Anyways, I've always held onto it, maybe it will be worth something some day; if anything, it's just neat to have.

Posted By nate g f : March 6, 2007 8:48 pm

this blog just totally reminded me, i found a diana barrymore postcard in our attic that belonged to a previous resident, who while in the military, had sent to her for an autographed picture. The postcard wasn't really from her personally, I don't believe: it was her picture with a her signature but on the reverse it had a message saying that do to high demand he would have to send payment to get a real photo. Anyways, I've always held onto it, maybe it will be worth something some day; if anything, it's just neat to have.

Posted By Pax Romano : March 6, 2007 9:27 pm

I must have been 12 or 13 years old, when I saw the film, "Too Much, Too Soon".  My parents were out at a neighbors house for a party and being the oldest, I got to stay up and watch TV until they came home. I had no idea who Diana Barrymore was, but by film's end, i was full of questions and pestered my dad (who was, and still is, a big movie fan) when he got home, and the next morning (a Saturday) he took me down to the library and we got several book on John and Ethel  Barrymore as well as a copy of Diana's book. A quick side note: years later, Glam Punk band, The New York Dolls put out an album titled "Too Much, Too Soon" and dedicated it to Diana!

Posted By Pax Romano : March 6, 2007 9:27 pm

I must have been 12 or 13 years old, when I saw the film, "Too Much, Too Soon".  My parents were out at a neighbors house for a party and being the oldest, I got to stay up and watch TV until they came home. I had no idea who Diana Barrymore was, but by film's end, i was full of questions and pestered my dad (who was, and still is, a big movie fan) when he got home, and the next morning (a Saturday) he took me down to the library and we got several book on John and Ethel  Barrymore as well as a copy of Diana's book. A quick side note: years later, Glam Punk band, The New York Dolls put out an album titled "Too Much, Too Soon" and dedicated it to Diana!

Posted By Medusa : March 7, 2007 9:35 am

Hi Nate and Pax!Thanks for the comments!Interesting about that postcard — all I can imagine is that she was so hard up she wanted to charge for a photo.  I know that's done these days all the time, but I would imagine was rare for when she was still around.  Also a sad commentary!  What a great attic find, for sure!I first saw the movie Too Much, Too Soon on a late show also, back in the day, and I think Errol Flynn did a wonderful job as John B.  They had been real-life friends and drinking buddies, and there's that famous story about Flynn's pals stealing Barrymore's body from the funeral home and setting it up in Errol's house.  The incident is depicted in the TV movie My Wicked, Wicked Ways (based on Flynn's memoirs), with Flynn played by Duncan Regehr and Barrymore by Jack Cassidy, from 1985.  Worth catching!  Also sad that Flynn was more or less following John Barrymore's path, drinking his talent away, though his later performances always have a rueful and likable quality that shows he never lost the Flynn charm, just as Barrymore kept his, despite everything.Nice that Diana is remembered; she certainly lived enough pain to deserve it.

Posted By Medusa : March 7, 2007 9:35 am

Hi Nate and Pax!Thanks for the comments!Interesting about that postcard — all I can imagine is that she was so hard up she wanted to charge for a photo.  I know that's done these days all the time, but I would imagine was rare for when she was still around.  Also a sad commentary!  What a great attic find, for sure!I first saw the movie Too Much, Too Soon on a late show also, back in the day, and I think Errol Flynn did a wonderful job as John B.  They had been real-life friends and drinking buddies, and there's that famous story about Flynn's pals stealing Barrymore's body from the funeral home and setting it up in Errol's house.  The incident is depicted in the TV movie My Wicked, Wicked Ways (based on Flynn's memoirs), with Flynn played by Duncan Regehr and Barrymore by Jack Cassidy, from 1985.  Worth catching!  Also sad that Flynn was more or less following John Barrymore's path, drinking his talent away, though his later performances always have a rueful and likable quality that shows he never lost the Flynn charm, just as Barrymore kept his, despite everything.Nice that Diana is remembered; she certainly lived enough pain to deserve it.

Posted By Darrell : February 25, 2009 2:07 am

Iam fascinated by Diana Barrymore, I hope that TCM one day shows one of her films so we can see her and her talent.I was pleased that she wrote her story and that a film was made and some money came to her as a result of it. It is sad but it seems that Diana was trying to change her life and she wound -up meeting a tragic end a few years later.

Posted By Darrell : February 25, 2009 2:07 am

Iam fascinated by Diana Barrymore, I hope that TCM one day shows one of her films so we can see her and her talent.I was pleased that she wrote her story and that a film was made and some money came to her as a result of it. It is sad but it seems that Diana was trying to change her life and she wound -up meeting a tragic end a few years later.

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