John Barrymore's Ashes Lie In Scruffy Plot. The Plight Of Actor's Grave Site

Posted: March 06, 1997

John Barrymore raced recklessly through life, kicking off brilliant performances as an actor and miserable ones as a man.

Some might say he got what he deserves: a scruffy hilltop in North Philadelphia and few visitors.

But not everybody.

``I'm appalled,'' said David Wren of Center City, local theater buff, newspaper reporter-turned-paralegal and fledgling novelist.

``Being from Texas, I have to tell you, Lee Harvey Oswald's grave is in better shape,'' he said yesterday at the family plot in Mount Vernon Cemetery where Barrymore's ashes rest.

Wren, wrapped in a fine mist beneath a gray sky, gestured to a small, overturned headstone at one end of the small plot and to a taller, leaning one at the other.

``It's in such deplorable condition,'' he said. ``It's almost embarrassing.''

Word is that whoever's responsible for the plot - and who that is isn't clear - is not paying the bill for upkeep. Caretakers cut the grass out of respect, but that's it.

Wren, grasping for a solution, has a couple of ideas.

Some group could adopt the plot, like a Fairmount Park house might be taken on, in a shot at perpetual care.

Or, the whole mess could be moved.

Across the Schuylkill to West Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Bala Cynwyd. Once there, Wren said, Barrymore and family would be assured care as guests of Edwin Forrest.

Forrest, who died in 1872, was America's most popular actor and its best paid for half a century. His estate went to found the Edwin Forrest Home, a retirement spot for theater people in West Philadelphia. Residents were known as guests of the theater great.

And when they died, they had a place to go. The home, which closed in the '80s, owned a plot in West Laurel Hill.

Today, room remains in that neatly trimmed spot in the elegant graveyard where prominent Philadelphians rest. One large stone, listing 35 names, marks the players' graves. Above the names of the dead is the Shakespeare quote that begins ``All the world's a stage.''

The Actors' Fund of America, which took on the Forrest Home assets, administers the plot.

Wren said Actors' Fund people seem to like his idea, but that's about as far as he's gotten. Moving the graves would take unknown numbers of signatures and who knows how many dollars, although Wren sees room for donations of time and service.

``Like the grave-diggers' union,'' he said.

Barrymore's grandmother bought the plot in Mount Vernon in the 1840s, said Mark Appel of Center City, who said he'd been enamored of the grave site for ``five, six, seven, 10 years. I've got a good collection of Barrymore things.''

The grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, was a grand dame of local theater and a respectable woman, not an easy feat in a time when priests might refuse to bury an actor. She ran the Arch Street Theater and lived nearby, at 140 N. 12th St. in a house that was torn down to build the Convention Center.

Her husband was an Irish actor. Her son was a respected stage actor and her daughter, Georgie, also performed - and married Maurice Barrymore, an English actor whose real name was Herbert Blythe. (He took the Barrymore handle from a playbill.)

Appel said responsibility for the grave site doesn't lie with the Barrymores, whose most prominent member these days is Drew Barrymore, John's granddaughter. He traces ownership down from Louisa Drew's son to a man he said hasn't responded to pleas for attention.

Louisa Drew raised John Barrymore and his siblings, Ethel and Lionel, in the house on North 12th Street. So great were their theatrical accomplishments, they were considered the royal family of American theater.

John Barrymore, who took up acting only after he had been fired from his job as an illustrator for the New York Herald, was blessed with supreme talent - and a monstrous alcoholism that consumed him and stalked him onstage.

During the two years before his death in 1942, he was reduced to being a buffoon on Rudy Vallee's Variety radio program.

The drama didn't quit when he died.

His drinking buddies swiped the actor's corpse from the funeral home and propped it up in the home of another pal, Errol Flynn.

Nearly 40 years later, his only son, John Drew Barrymore, had the body removed from its mausoleum in Hollywood, cremated and reburied in the Mount Vernon plot, which holds the remains of at least seven family members. John Barrymore's wish had been to be buried near his grandmother and his father, Appel said.

``He walked in here with the urn,'' said William Jacovini of Pennsylvania Burial, in South Philadelphia, which handled the burial.

By that time, John Drew Barrymore, who had acted as a young man, was out of the public eye. ``He was kind of disheveled,'' Jacovini said.

John Barrymore's ashes were buried in Mount Vernon on Dec. 12, 1980, Jacovini said, two weeks after a lawyer had called from California to say that the son would be coming East with the ashes.

``He still owes $730,'' Jacovini said of the son, pulling the old bill from ``B for Barrymore.''

The statement also reads: `Cash advance to John Barrymore, $200.''

He didn't pay that back, either.

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