She was a tragic figure in the long line of Drews and Barrymores who inhabited the worlds of theater and films from mid-19th century to the present day. And, although Universal Pictures declared her “1942’s most sensational screen personality,” the name Diana Barrymore is almost strictly a “who-dat?” today.
That’s because the train wreck of her private life so overwhelmed the sometimes quality work she delivered in such titles as 1942’s Eagle Squadron with Robert Stack and the same year’s noir outing, Nightmare, opposite Brian Donlevy. In fact, she appeared in less than a dozen titles in all, and her movie career was effectively over by the mid-Forties.
But she certainly was a pioneer of the celebrity culture that is so dominant in today’s Hollywood in which talent takes a far back seat to personal sensationalism. The Fifties scandal magazine, Confidential, had a field day charting Barrymore’s marital and financial vicissitudes until Diana fessed up in her autobiography, Too Much, Too Soon (which Warner Bros. converted into a sanitized biopic in 1958 costarring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn).
— Her father was John Barrymore. She was the niece of Ethel and Lionel, and the aunt of Drew.
— She rarely saw much of her father nor her mother (Blanche Oelrichs), and was packed off to a school in Paris at age 6, then boarding schools in the States.
–She was screen tested in 1938 for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, and made her Broadway debut at 19.
— She married three times, with union No. 2 (to a tennis player turned boozer) ending the same year it had begun. Her last husband, actor Robert Wilcox, was an alcoholic and physically abused her.
— She had her own problems with alcohol and barbiturate dependence, and had a planned tv series cancelled when she showed up drunk at the opening segment.
Director Raoul Walsh once wrote that in the winter of 1942, Jack Barrymore’s genius for self destruction had almost reached finality. Medical science would have been hard pressed to discover more than a few of his vital organs not in terminal condition.
His death, however, was no sudden thing. It waged a war of attrition. It kept coming to him and retreating in the face of his stubborn vitality…The old trooper fought hard and determinedly.
Barrymore’s daughter was not quite as determined — Diana died in 1960 at the age of 39; her death was declared a suicide.