John Barrymore (February 15, 1882 - May 29, 1942) photographed by Adolph de Meyer for Vanity Fair, c. 1920
I post John Barrymore a lot, too, so I thought on the anniversary of his death I’d post bits of a passage from the biography Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore that I often think of when I think of John.
"In October of 1917 Barrymore found a sanctuary on the attic floor of a century-old house off Washington Square. He began at once to transform it into a studio which he called ‘the Alchemist’s Corner’"…"When Barrymore asked [his landlady Mrs. Nicholls’] permission to fix up the place, at his expense, she agreed, little knowing the extremes to which he was planning to go. The walls of the bedroom were covered with pink-striped paper; baseboard and moldings were painted black. Square glass mirrors, framed in black, formed the doors. The window drapes were pale mauve taffeta edged with white bead fringe. A French fireplace of white marble faced the foot of a bed which Barrymore specified should be narrow and hard. ‘A bed that implies celibacy for a change,’ he said.
He fashioned a bay window on the north side of the studio, stretched saffron chiffon over the wide skylight, from which hung an elaborate lantern. A cover of embroidered gold brocade was flung over a baby grand piano. A tall candlestand, an old Venetian mirror, a large antique globe, and a Lombardian chair completed this music corner. After he had surfaced the walls with Chinese gold , he spent hours smoke-smudging them…”
He then writes to his landlady:
"You have been so lenient in permitting me to exercise my fancy on the studio. Would you mind very much if I did a few ornamental things to the roof, at my own expense, of course? I’d like to build a little stairway to it, and place a few plants there, with perhaps a small pavillion in which I could sit when the locust blossoms come to the courtyards of Greenwich Village. It would be like living in Paris in the twelfth century."
Mrs. Nicholls gives her consent and:
"Barrymore hired a carpenter to build a crooked, steep staircase to the roof, and a small structure near the skylight, which he said was the first penthouse in New York. He put ships’ models in the little house, a Franklin stove, and outside it the wheel from a wrecked schooner and a ship’s bell.
Now, with customary disregard for consequences to the old beams, or a thought for proper drainage, he had thirty-five tons of topsoil hoisted onto the roof and planted cedars eight feet tall, as a hedge on the street side of the roof. He also installed wisterias, arborvitae, cherry trees, and grapevines, and a fountain, the overflow of which eventually seeped into the bedroom and streaked the Chinese gold walls of the studio.
Mrs. Nicholls returned from a trip to Europe to find a horticultural frenzy atop her house. She was somewhat amazed, but did not complain. She could not, she said, for there was a startling yet weird beauty to Barrymore’s creation, and the man himself seemed so childishly content as he fed birds on his ‘estate’.”