Oscar Winner Ethel Barrymore’s Birthday Greeting from a former President

Ethel Barrymore
Ethel Barrymore

By Thomas F. Schwartz

In nineteenth-century America, the ruling family of the stage was the Booth family.  John Wilkes Booth forever ruined the family reputation by assassinating President Abraham Lincoln.  In the twentieth-century, the Barrymore family were the stars of stage and screen.  Beginning with Maurice Barrymore and his three children, John, Lionel, and Ethel, the tradition continues today most notably with their grand-niece, Drew Barrymore.  John Barrymore distinguished himself as a handsome leading man of silent film who made the transition to talking movies.  Lionel is best remembered as the cold-hearted banker, Mr. Potter, in the holiday film classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  Ethel remains the most obscure of the Barrymore clan.  More partial to the New York stage than Hollywood screen, Ethel excelled in character roles winning an Academy Award in 1944 as Best Supporting Actress in the film None But the Lonely Heart.  Five years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences inquired of former President Herbert Hoover if he would participate in a radio tribute to Ethel Barrymore on her seventieth birthday, August 15, 1949.  Hoover replied, “I regret that I have known Miss Barrymore largely seeing her on the stage but my admiration is unbounded. I will be en route to New York arriving 15th when in the morning I would be glad to do my part.”

Scheduling proved to be an obstacle.  Hoover received the first telegram as he was ready to leave his home in Palo Alto, California for his residence at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.  Arrangements were finally made en route on the Southern Pacific train.  It was agreed that Hoover would have his birthday message recorded in his apartment given the tight time production schedule.  On Monday, August 15 at 10:30 am, a radio crew arrived at Suite 31-A Waldorf Astoria, an inside joke since Hoover was the 31st President.  Hoover gave the following remarks:

“Miss Barrymore needs no introductions nor is she in need of expressions of appreciation.  But her millions of friends will join in this occasion to express gratitude and admiration.  America has been greatly blessed by her superlative artistry.  We are proud that she is an American.  We are proud not only of a great artist but a great woman whose whole life is an expression of the very best in womanhood.”

Other dignitaries who offered remarks included President Harry S. Truman and British statesman Sir Winston Churchill.  Charles Brackett, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, sent Hoover a brief letter of thanks following the radio broadcast.  Brackett concluded his letter noting: “As a Republican, may I add a personal note that it was good to have the greatest of Republicans as our guest.”

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