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Richard Barthelmess (1895 - 1963)

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

For 25 years, as a matinee idol of the silent screen, and later in the “Talkies,” Richard Barthelmess “brought great sighs from women in movie houses throughout the country.” That, according to his New York Times obituary, which goes on to observe that, at his peak, he received some 6,000 fan letters a month. As one of Hollywood’s highest paid performers in the early days of the industry, he was also welcomed into smart society in his native New York City and as a member of Southampton’s summer colony. There, for several decades, he and his wife Jessica appeared regularly in the social columns of The Southampton Press.

Richard Barthelmess

By his own admission, his sizable fortune was not just a happy byproduct of his acting career. Growing up, he had done theater work as a “walk-on” and had performed in amateur stage productions at Trinity College when he was a student there, but his decision to focus seriously on performing had more to do with money than with a passion for acting.

“When I saw my friends were earning just seven or eight dollars a week in banks,” he once told an interviewer, “I thought I’d better try acting.” (His first acting contract brought him a whopping $50 a week.)

It helped that his mother, Caroline Barthelmess, was a stage actress who encouraged him. It was she who raised him, his father having died when Richard was an infant. His movie career took off in 1916 when he played opposite his mother’s friend Alla Nazimova, who was making her film debut in “War Brides.” Other roles followed but the one that established him as a star in 1919 was his portrayal--of all things--of a Chinese man in love with a Caucasian woman in “Broken Blossoms.” It was directed by the legendary D.W. Grffiths and his co-star was Lillian Gish.

In 1920 Barthelmess was again paired with Lillian Gish and directed by D.W. Griffith in “Way Down East,” which includes a thrilling scene that has gone down in cinema history. In it, Barthelmess’s character rescues Lillian Gish from certain death on an ice floe as it is about to plummet over a waterfall. The heroic Barthelmess reportedly risked his life in the stunt.

One of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, he was nominated for Best Actor in the very first Academy Awards for his 1927 role in “The Patent Leather Kid,” and his 1928 role in “The Noose.” In 1929 Barthelmess appeared in his first Talkie, and though he made the transition, it was generally thought that his acting techniques were not suited for sound films and his career took a downward turn. In 1942 he retired as an actor because, he said, “the fun had gone out of picture making.” During World War II he served in the Navy Reserve as a lieutenant commander.

Crowd at the first Academy Awards 1929
The Patent Leather Kid 1927
The Noose 1928

Married twice, Barthelmess was divorced in 1927 from his first wife, Mary Hay, a Ziegfeld girl with whom he had a daughter. In 1928 he married Jessica Sargent who remained his wife until his death. After the war, he and Jessica retired to Long Island where they became prominent members of Southampton society. Jessica, very active in community affairs, served in 1952 as co-chair of the Fiesta, which was for several decades in the mid-20th century among the most highly anticipated summer events in the village. The Fiesta brought all segments of the community together in competitions and displays that were often as silly as judging the best pair of legs in the gathering, but took in some serious money for good causes. Richard, always athletic, swam, rode horseback and was an enthusiastic tennis player. He also added to his considerable fortune with his successful real estate investments. In 1955, he sold the 50-acre beachfront estate, The Dunes, to Henry Ford II.

In 1963, at the age of 68, Richard Barthelmess died of throat cancer. From 1916, when he began his career until his retirement, he had made 76 movies and acquired numerous honors, along with his sizable fortune.

The Patent Leather Kid staring Richard Barthelmess


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