31 January 2023

Dear Mr. Mayer

Lionel Barrymore had a good relationship with his boss Louis B. Mayer, having first worked for Mayer at Metro Pictures and then at MGM from 1926 onwards. In his 1951 memoir We Barrymores Barrymore claimed that, in spite of what people generally believed, Mayer was nót "a cold and shrewd executive who dangles careers on strings, plays with actors like puppets, and discards them when they begin to unravel around the edges". In his book the actor also said that Mayer often got him out of financial trouble. Barrymore owed a sizable amount to the IRS in income taxes and spent years paying off his debt. Whenever he asked Mayer for financial aid, his boss was there for him: "And so, when it often happened that I had exhausted the patience of the paymasters, I would hurry up to Mr. Mayer's office. "Lionel's on his way," they would telephone upstairs. "Tell the boss to get ready." He was always ready. He counseled me without scolding, got me out of this predicament and that, succored me from the Federal dicks when my income taxes threatened to mount to jailworthy heights, and reached for a checkbook and salvation when necessary. "

Mayer also helped Barrymore with a different problem. After a broken hip injury in 1936 combined with his arthritis, Barrymore was always in pain and by 1938 he was confined to a wheelchair. In order to cope with the pain Mayer provided Barrymore with cocaine ("L.B. gets me $400 worth of cocaine a day to ease my pain. I don’t know where he gets it. And I don't care. But I bless him every time it puts me to sleep.").

Barrymore remained a MGM contract player during his entire film career and was only occasionally loaned out to other studios.

1939 - Lionel Barrymore celebrates his 61st birthday at MGM in the company of his boss Louis B. Mayer (with glasses) and fellow actors (l-r) Mickey Rooney, Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, William Powell, Rosalind Russell and Robert Taylor.

Strapped for cash, Lionel Barrymore wrote the following letter to Louis B. Mayer around 1935, asking his boss to give him his full salary that month. MGM normally deducted a large portion from Barrymore's paycheck to pay his bills and debts.

Source: Buddenbrooks


Dear Mr. Mayer

I don't want to take up your time seeing you with so many others waiting. 

Also it's difficult if not impossible for me to get the time off the set - so I write to save time.

It would be of immeasurable help to me if the company would forgo my payments for a month, so I could get my full salary for a month - as my payment of five hundred to the pauper status and odd bits to government etc. leaves me very little to maneuver with- but in a month several items would have been paid.

Will you please leave word with Miss Koverman [Mayer's personal secretary] and I will stop in after we finish tonight - with many thanks

Lionel Barrymore


  1. So many interesting nuggets to digest here! I had no idea about much that's here -- Barrymore's financial problems, the reason that he was confined to a wheelchair, that he had such a favorable impression of Mayer (that's a first for me!), and that he used cocaine provided by Mayer! Wow. Thanks for this!