THE MAN WHO BROUGHT ROYALTY TO AMERICA

All peoples yearn for royalty
Creating it where they find none
Tired of English monarchy
We tried General Washington
But like bees buzzing in a hive
Who have no queen for whom to sting
We searched out one to contrive
To restore the order of things.

His story starts in India
Under shadows of Taj Mahal
There he was born at Fort Agra
His birth for mother was fatal
And so his father cast him out
From his already-hardened heart
She had been his only soft spot
From whom his son had made him part.

Herbert Blyth, an Englishman
Whose father revenued empire
He grew into the black sheep son
Of adventure he never tired
Far too wild to please his papa
Who invented consternation
He found comfort in the fauna
His dog Raj his best companion.

When sent to Oxford for schooling
The great Classics he did study
But most lessons involved wooing
Not as the wooer but woee
Even then he was a treasure
For the opposite sex to see
He denied them not their pleasure
As he charted their mystery.

Instead of the civil service
For which father arranged entrée
Time behind the desk he would miss
To go down to the wharves and play
At amateur pugilism
Knocking all challengers out cold
As stinging with witticism
His repartee became quite bold.

At Blue Anchor in Shoreditch late
Jabbing faces and punching hide
Making all comers rue their fate
A dandified Irishman spied
Championship material
Doffing his silk top hat and cane
This hot upstart imperial
Would eat an uppercut of pain.

For this was the Ned Donnelly
Royal Professor Self-Defense
Boxing master to hoi polloi
Who of the kid quickly dispensed
Spying greatness in his future
Just six weeks of intense training
Made the Gentleman Amateur
English Middle Weight Champion.

In attendance at his crowning
A theatrical producer
Casting for provincial touring
Spied pending stardom in Herbert
Giving him a second reason
For his given name to alter
Boxing and acting were treason
To his imperial father.

And sure enough, the patriarch
At the grave of Herbert’s great aunt:
"You should not have come" his brows arched
"We welcome not such miscreants
Give up this foolishness at once
Or threaten our fine lineage
Better a hard-laboring dunce
Than be an actor on the stage!"

Appropriating Barrymore
From a stage story he enjoyed
So the audiences would roar
Frenchified Maurice he employed
Thus disowned by his family
He abandoned his law career
And set sail for the Colonies
Where a dynasty he would rear.

Across the sea in Rebel Land
Where the Liberty Bell lay cracked
Arch Street Theatre at her command
Thrilling Yankee houses jam-packed
The New World's Queen Victoria
English-born Louisa Lane Drew
Darling of Philadelphia
Never heard a "hiss" or a "boo!"

Her husband John Drew, the founder
Of the playhouse she directed
Was less an Irish bounder
Than comedian perfected
Thus matched with his talented wife
Whose forebears played with Shakespeare
They brought to the theatrical life
An acting duo without peer.

Son John, "First Gentleman Actor"
Held close by High Society
Every Yankee player before
Had been barred from the property
Their princess daughter Georgiana
Comic beyond all reckoning
Could become the new Regina
If she could but find her a king.

New York 1875
Could not know what it was in for
This high-societal beehive
Yearning to give strangers what-for
Was to suffer a tidal wave
With this so-dapper Englishman
Inspiring journalistic raves
Shining kudos blotting out the sun.

"Spectacular looks, wit so keen!"
They enthused at Vanity Fair
"Completest courage ever seen
Young women do nothing but stare
At this fair Prince of the Purple
They all flock to the Rialto
To watch him pass by in a whirl!"
Piquing an impresario

Augustin Daly, strutting by
Catching his own awkward glances
Knew at an instant he would try
Giving this fair prince stage chances
And this, his unknowing subjects
Is where he met his destiny
She made him a lifelong project
And they brought to us royalty.

The king and queen began their reign
With little of fanfare at first
Commoners manners they did feign
Royal plumage later to burst
They’d rule the stage as from a throne
Matchless were their battles of wit
Regally they’d pose their person
Their kids’d be a dynastic hit.

No one warned the king off Texas
Not that he’d’ve listened had they so
He set out to tame this nexus
Between the wild and do-si-do
At the train depot in Marshall
He challenged a drunken bully
To unarmed fistfight most formal
But double-dealt Big Jim Currie.

To protect a lady’s honor
The king stuck up his royal dukes
As a page in theater lore
Was written by this Texas kook
He fired once, then twice his pistol
At the shocked and unarmed Maurice
When to mercy a friend appealed
He shot and killed him like a beast.

Convalescing, barely alive
All around felt sure he would die
Save Georgie, who in time arrived
Wifely love and warmth to apply
Saved by her from a cowboy death
A playwriting career he launched
With each bullet-punctured last breath
Hot blood the dramatic words staunched.

America’s leading actor
To the top quickly he had zoomed
Wanted most to be a writer
Though his pursuit of it proved doomed
A Russian play called "hope" held none
As would a string of star-crossed shows
Out of several, only one
Survives today, though no one knows.

That tragically-writ Nadjezda
Of pot-boiling Slavic intrigue
Once given to a French diva
Would prove most worthy of her league
Sarah Bernhardt, the star of France
Passed copy to her quill Sardou
Who about copyright laws danced
Paying Barrymore not a sou.

The French writer penned La Tosca
From the Englishman’s masterwork
Giving France’s beloved Sarah
A master role that would much irk
Kingly offspring each time they heard
Puccini’s opera on high
Knowing well wherefrom came each word
Credit and royalties denied.

Friends with all the day’s great boxers
Impressing his sons with prowess
He floored a great champion in spar
The boys bragged on papa no rest
Dressed eccentrically for his day
What was at hand went on his frame
Skinner wrote "Bedouin of Broadway"
"Apollo in slop suit!" he claimed.

His dogs and skunks and cockatiels
An extra railroad car did fill
Only the seediest hotels
Would house him and his animals
Much saddened when a drunken bear
Ruined his flea bag out-of-town room
He fell to the pit of despair
When fire slew his amateur zoo.

Adoring Lambs would shout when’ere
House of Barrymore sire entered
A man’s man he was hailed there
Even by those his wit skewered
Laughing most at their own expense
His good-hearted keen satire won
The felled knew well the recompense
Their reigning king must have his fun.

None could top his exceeding wit
Save his long-suffering Georgie
While she was home doing her bit
He spent Friday’s pile by Sunday
Arriving home at churchtime hour
His face at sight of his wife fell
"Where are you off to, my flower?"
"To church, and you can go to Hell!"

Mother to his three fine children
Much loved by all who knew her
The country’s top comedienne
Had reason to doubt his ardor
But when consumption took her home
He muttered her name tragically
Her love for him had been a poem
Ever more she was "my Georgie".

Much of his stage success came late
Right at the mid-century mark
A swashbuckler he did create
Setting standards for younger sparks
Our first real matinee idol
When America’s leading man
He would cross over to Vaudeville
The first big star to cheer such fans.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword!"
Detractors might well proclaim
A love life defining torrid
Invites the chance of hateful shame
The ravages of syphilis
Destroyed far more than his fine mind
History’s pages could now miss
One lost to a fate so unkind.

While he relived his stage glories
On his makeshift doll-size playhouse
Crones would mutter "Poor Barry"
King no more of his royal house
At times his wit he’d remember
Suggesting this a baseless fright
Predicting a West Coast temblor
Hinted supernatural might.

His dynasty long would be seen
Regally commanding the stage
Hailed first as princess then as queen
Daughter Ethel was all the rage
Some said Lionel was the best
Judge his "It’s a Wonderful Life"
Young John royally passed the test
Good Night, Sweet Prince retells his strife.

The fairest princess of them all
Has proved great granddaughter Drew Blythe
Her names set her to heed the call
Future-shocking family might
Against that old family curse
She would bravely even the score
Making fine movies in a burst
Revealing a true Barrymore.

We’ve had other dynasties since
Most notably the Kennedys
Kings and queens not in government
Norma Jean and Elvis Presley
But first to occupy the throne
After we showed King George the door
A man who came from the same zone
His Highness, Maurice Barrymore!

© 2000 by Michael J. Farrand


With gratitudes to James Kotsilibas-Davis for writing the greatest actor biography of all time, Great Times, Good Times: The Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore (Doubleday, 1977).

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