1849: Birth of Hollywood dynasty founder Maurice Barrymore
SEPTEMBER 21, 1849: BIRTH OF MAURICE BARRYMORE
Herbert Blythe was a disappointment to his father William. The elder Blythe was a surveyor for the British East India Company, based in the Punjab, who sent his son to England to get the best education in the hope he would become a barrister. But despite gaining admission to the bar, the law held no interest for young Herbert.
At Harrow and Oxford he had been captain of the football team. He also took up boxing, winning the middleweight boxing championship of England in 1872. It whet his appetite for applause. After falling in with a group of actors he decided there were less taxing ways of getting in front of an audience than being punched and announced to his parents his intention to become an actor.
His father was mortified, so to avoid embarrassing him by having the family name appear on a marquee, Herbert adopted the stage name Maurice Barrymore. He made his professional stage debut in London before moving to the US where he founded a dynasty of great actors, including his three children, Lionel, Ethel and John, and great-granddaughter Drew.
Maurice Barrymore was born Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe, 170 years ago today on September 21, 1849, at Fort Agra, India. The youngest of seven children, his mother died shortly after he was born. He was sent to England to be raised by an aunt and educated at English schools, as was fitting for a member of the British middle class.
As the youngest in the family Barrymore craved attention, testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. His sense of mischief remained with him for most of his life. At school he indulged in pastimes not normally suited to respectable middle-class boys, taking up boxing and mixing with thespians. Yet when he rebelled against his father by taking up acting, he still showed enough concern for his father’s opinion to change his name and spare the family any shame. He chose the surname Barrymore, after William Barrymore, an English actor whose name he had once seen on a poster. That Barrymore had made his debut in London in 1827 but later went to the US where he died in 1847.
To his friends Maurice Barrymore became known simply as “Barry”. He made his debut in London in 1874, but then followed his namesake and migrated to the US. He joined Augustin Daly’s theatre troupe and made his debut in Under The Gaslight in Boston. He went on to perform in everything from Shakespearean tragedies to light comedies.
The handsome Englishman was also a hit off stage in social circles, regaling them with witty repartee. On one famous occasion, after listening to actor and playwright Steele Mackaye give a recitation from a play Mackaye had just written and starred in, Barrymore yelled out “Bravo! A hundred times bravo! Mackaye, you ought to be an actor!”
Touring with famous Polish actor Helena Modjeska, she once berated him for being a bit lacking while playing opposite her. She told him: “It is ungrateful of you to be so regardless of my interests, when I have made a reputation for you here in America.” To which Barrymore replied: “My dear madam, I may have been indifferent in that scene, but I must beg the privilege of contradicting you when you say you made a reputation for me. I was a
well-known actor here when most people thought that Modjeska was a tooth wash or a headache cure.”
In 1876 Barrymore married Georgiana Drew, the daughter of John Drew, an Irish-born American actor and producer, and his wife the English-born Louisa Drew. But it was a rocky marriage and she threatened to divorce him over his many affairs including one with Modjeska, who was godmother to their daughter Ethel. They had a son Lionel in 1878,
followed by Ethel in 1879, and another son John in 1882.
While touring Texas in 1879 Barrymore and fellow actor were shot in the chest by a drunk gunfighter Jim Currie. Barrymore survived after being operated on, but his colleague died.
Barrymore and Georgiana finally divorced in 1893 and in 1894 Barrymore married Mamie Floyd, described in one newspaper as “an heiress but a member of the profession.” The marriage didn’t last and they were divorced by 1900. By then Barrymore was beginning to suffer the effects of syphilis. During a performance in 1901 he suddenly became unable to remember his lines and started to talk incoherently. He was committed to an asylum in Amityville in New York.
By the time he died on March 25, 1905, all three of his children were making a name for themselves as actors. Lionel had made his professional stage debut at 15 alongside his grandmother Louisa, but was reluctant to make a career of it. He later said he wanted to be an artist or a composer, but found it hard to resist the family tradition. After winning acclaim on stage, he signed with a film company in 1927 appearing in dozens of films, including playing Rasputin in Rasputin And The Empress (co-starring with sister Ethel and brother John) and in It’s A Wonderful Life. He died in 1954.
Ethel wanted to be a concert pianist but made her Broadway debut in 1895. She spent several years in London where, it was rumoured, Winston Churchill proposed to her. She later returned to the US, acting on stage, in film and on television, and dying in 1959.
The youngest, John, made his stage debut in 1903 and his film debut in 1913. His most acclaimed role as Hamlet, was in 1922, after which he was in demand for films. He died in 1942 after a life of alcoholism.
In 1932 John had a son, John Drew Barrymore, by his wife, actor Dolores Costello. He made his film debut at 17, under the name John Barrymore Jr, but he never reached the same heights as his forebears. He died in 2004.
Two of John Drew’s children went on to become actors. John Blythe Barrymore III, born in 1954, whose career also included mainly TV and B-grade films. His half-sister Drew Barrymore, born in 1975, came to fame in the film E.T. and survived a troubled childhood to have a successful film career including a string of popular rom-coms.
SEPTEMBER 21, 1949: PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA IS FOUNDED
There was a palpable sense of occasion as delegates gathered for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Peking, on September 21, 1949, 70 years ago tomorrow. With the eyes of the world upon them and after decades of internal conflict communist leader Mao Zedong talked about the victory of the Communist Party of China (CPC) forces over those of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek. He said they had unified the country and established an “entirely new foundation”.
“The Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up,” he said, ending the speech by saying: “Hail the victory of the People’s War of Liberation and the people’s revolution! Hail the founding of the People’s Republic of China! Hail the triumph of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference!”
Days later, on October 1, Mao would officially declare the founding of the republic of China. It was the culmination of decades of political struggle and the start of China’s communist era. Although called a republic, Mao and his party established their own virtual monarchy and although things have changed the party still maintains its authoritarian rule.
Just 50 years before the communists came to power, China was still overtly a monarchy under the Qing dynasty. In 1911 a revolution ousted the Qing and ushered in an era of political uncertainty. Military leader Yuan Shikai emerged as leader of a constitutional monarchy, ruling with the support of the KMT in parliament but after the abdication of the emperor, Yuan tried to make himself emperor. Yuan’s death in 1916 saw the nation divided into virtual fiefdoms under various military and political leaders.
In 1923 the KMT, with support from the Soviet Union, established an alternative government in Guangzhou under leader Sun Yat-sen. The KMT entered into an alliance with the CPC, founded in 1921, of which Mao was by then a member, although not yet leader. Sun’s death in 1925 resulted in Chiang becoming leader of the KMT. Chiang was no friend of the communists and started to purge his party of CPC members. Things became bloody in 1927 when Chiang reacted to attempts by the communists to spark a worker and peasant uprising, outlawing the party and slaughtering many communists. Mao and other communists retreated to the mountains and began to wage a guerrilla war on the KMT. The communists built up their forces and gained support from the peasants and workers as Chiang’s policies became more oppressive.
In 1931 he established the Chinese Soviet Republic in Jinagxi province. But in 1934 KMT forces almost annihilated the communists, forcing them to begin their “Long March” from Jiangxi to the northwest province of Shaanxi, fighting all the way. By the time they reached Jiangxi their force of 100,000 was reduced to 8000 by casualties, illness and desertions. They began a drive to recruit more members.
War with the Japanese in Manchuria (following their invasion in 1931) convinced the KMT and the Communists to join forces to defeat their common enemy and put the civil war on hold.
With the 1945 surrender of the Japanese, it looked as if the KMT and Communists might work together for a democratic China. But in 1946 fighting erupted again between nationalists and communists as both scrambled to take areas once controlled by the Japanese and occupied after the war by the Soviets. This time the KMT had the backing of the US who feared the spread of communism across Asia, but the communists gained the initiative in battle. They also gained more support from the Chinese people thanks to the corruption rife within the KMT, its authoritarianism and its dependence on the US, which made it deeply unpopular.
By December 1947 Mao was confident enough of victory to say “The main forces of the People’s Liberation Army have carried the fight into the Kuomintang area. … This is a turning point in history.” As the communist forces continued to grow and gain more territory, troops began to desert the KMT army. By late 1948 the communists controlled a third of China, including many strategically important cities and ports.
In January 1949 Tianjin fell to the communists and days later Chiang resigned as president of China. The Nationalists continued to try to negotiate with the communists as city after city fell to Mao’s armies. With the Nationalist forces all but defeated, Mao was finally able to claim victory in September 1949.
SEPTEMBER 19, 1919; CONSTRUCTION STARTS ON THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD
A century ago today a man sheltering in a dugout in Victoria pressed a button setting off a huge explosion. The war had been over for nearly a year and this was no random act by an anarchist, but a gesture by Victorian premier Harry Lawson to mark the “turning of the first sod” for the construction of the Great Ocean Road.
The explosion dislodged tonnes of rock from a hill near the pretty Victorian seaside town of Lorne, the first step in making the scenic, winding, coastal road, stretching more than 240km from Torquay in the east to Apollo Bay in the west. It would take a team of about 2400 returned servicemen and 600 civilians more than 13 years to build it, but few would argue that the time and money spent to create the road acknowledged as one of the world’s great scenic drives was not worth it.
In the 18th century the towns that grew up along that part of Victorian were isolated and accessible only by rugged, unfriendly, overland horse and cart trails or, as was mostly the case, by sea. But part of the shore along which the road would eventually be carved out was also known as the “Shipwreck Coast”.
Ships going to and from the towns had to negotiate often fierce seas and a rugged shore about which Matthew Flinders said he had never seen “a more fearful coastline”.
In the late 19th century people had suggested building a road to link the towns. In 1889 a newspaper report talked about the possibility a building a road to Apollo Bay, saying: “The making of the road to the Bay will cause a large increase in the traffic to that favourite resort, and as the country becomes opened up so will its beauties become known.”
But it was not until near the end of World War I that enough momentum gathered behind the many proposals to begin making it a reality. In 1918 engineer William Calder, chairman of the Country Roads Board (CRB), proposed funding be made available to employ returned servicemen on building what he called the South Coast Road, from Barwon Heads around Cape Otway then on to Warrnambool. The problem was since it was neither a main road nor a development road, it couldn’t be financed by the CRB.
More history from TROY LENNON
But his idea was enthusiastically taken up by Geelong’s Mayor Howard Hitchcock, who thought it would be a fitting memorial to the soldiers who fought in the Great War. He helped establish the Great Ocean Road trust in May 1918, securing £81,000 in private subscriptions for the construction, also contributing £3000 of his own money. The money spent on building the road would be recouped by charging drivers a toll. The CRB offered to supervise the work and make sure it was up to CRB standards.
Surveying work was done by a team under ex-serviceman Warrant Officer John Hassett, from August to September in 1919. Although some preliminary work had already been done, the official start of construction was on September 19, 1919, when premier Lawson pressed the button to detonate explosives removing the first rock from a cliff near Lorne.
But in January 1920 Hassett reported that the work wasn’t going well. It was decided instead to concentrate on a section from Lorne to Geelong.
Former servicemen, used to carving out trenches while dodging bullets, were only to happy to sign on for this digging work. They earnt 10 shillings and sixpence for an eight-hour day, doing most of the clearing work by hand with picks and shovels, aided by explosives. Workers slept in tents and under blankets both supplied by the government’s Repatriation Department. It was often dangerous work, at least two men were killed when a sand mine collapsed.
In March 1922 Lord Stradbroke, Governor of Victoria, officially opened the first stretch of the road from Eastern View to Lorne. The road later had to be closed for improvements and in 1923 work began on the next section, this time partly financed by a state government grant of £50,000 made available for building tourism roads.
In 1924 diggers working on the road went on a two-week bender when the ship Casino was forced to jettison some of its cargo of beer and spirits after getting into trouble along the coast. On November 25, 1932, the road was officially opened by Lieutenant Governor Sir William Irvine in a ceremony held near Lorne’s Grand Pacific Hotel.
For information on special centenary events see visitgreatoceanroad.org.au/iam100
SEPTEMBER 18, 1889: BIRTH OF WAR HERO LT GENERAL LESLIE MORSHEAD
It is one of our best known images from Gallipoli, a young officer standing in a trench at Lone Pine, gazing up at dead soldiers along the parapet, his face showing the pain and shock endured by all those who saw their comrades fall in the futile campaign.
The officer was Major Leslie Morshead, a former schoolteacher turned outstanding warrior who would go on to become one of Australia’s best generals, fighting on the Western Front after Gallipoli and becoming a general in World War II.
Born 130 years ago, on September 18, 1889, he fought in many battles involving the Australian Army in both wars, but had skills that translated to peacetime, running a shipping line, a bank and a department store.
He was born Leslie James Morshead in Ballarat, the sixth of seven children of William and Mary Morshead. When William died in 1895 Morshead’s mother Mary kept her children at school and Leslie shone as a student. He also showed leadership qualities as captain of the football and cricket teams at Mount Pleasant State School where he would have also received some military training in the school’s cadet corps. In 1906 he became a junior teacher there.
This set him on a career in education, going on to Melbourne Teachers’ Training College to earn his qualification to teach. He deferred a scholarship to start teaching in schools in country Victoria, later leaving the state system and moving to NSW to teach in Armidale. In 1914 he returned to Victoria to take up a position at the prestigious Melbourne’s Church of England Grammar School, where he also trained the school’s cadets, a role for which he was by then well qualified to undertake.
Morshead had developed an interest in the army and had joined the Australian Army Cadets when it was first formed in 1906, gaining his commission as a lieutenant in 1908 and being promoted to captain in 1913. When war broke out in August 1914 he was quick to join up, appointed a lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Posted to the 2nd Battalion, he had earnt a promotion to captain by the time he took part in the Gallipoli landing on April 25, 1915. He was a major by the time of the battle for Lone Pine in August but struck down by illness he was evacuated in September, first to Lemnos and then England. Promoted to Lt Colonel after his recovery he was sent home to Australia to raise his own 33rd Battalion, which he commanded with distinction on the Western Front. He was at the battles of Messines, Passchendaele, Villers-Bretonneux and Amiens, for which he was later awarded the French Legion of Honour. He was also awarded a DSO and was knighted a Companion of the order of St Michael and St George.
With the war over in 1920 his commission in the AIF was ended and he found he couldn’t apply for a position in the regular army because he lacked a qualification from Duntroon. He took up farming on a soldier-settlement scheme plot of land, but found he wasn’t well suited to it. He returned to teaching and in 1921 married Myrtle Woodside.
He then found work in shipping, moving up to become manager of the Orient Steam Navigation company in Australia, while still maintaining involvement in the Australian Militia.
When war came again in 1939 he again joined the AIF, as a colonel, but was soon promoted to brigadier. After spending several months in England, where he was awarded a CBE in 1941, he was sent to the Middle East. He helped organise the defence of Tobruk during the long siege of the town. Germany’s American-born British radio propagandist William “Lord Haw Haw” Joyce dubbed Morshead “Ali Baba and his 20,000 thieves”.
Evacuated from Tobruk in October 1941 in 1942 he was appointed KBE, promoted to Lt General and then returned to take over from Thomas Blamey in the Middle East, playing a part in the battle of El Alamein.
After playing their part in the defeat of the Axis armies in North Africa Morshead and his troops returned to Australia in 1943, later taking part in battles to drive the Japanese out of New Guinea and Borneo. In 1946 he returned to his job at Orient and later joined the boards of several companies, including David Jones. In 1954 after retiring from Orient he was elected president of the Bank of NSW.
When he died in September 1959 thousands lined the streets to pay tribute. At his funeral the Rev C.A. Osborne summed him up by saying: “He was a man who, above all, had courage, determination, thoroughness, vision, sympathy and a simple understanding of all his men.”
Originally published as Today in history: Rebel student founded Hollywood dynasty