Richard Barthelmess

Richard Barthelmess

Publicity photo of Barthelmess for A Modern Hero (1934)
Born (1895-05-09)May 9, 1895
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died August 17, 1963(1963-08-17) (aged 68)
Southampton, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1916–1942
Spouse(s) Mary Hay (1920–1927) 1 daughter
Jessica Stewart Sargent (1928–1963)

Richard Semler "Dick" Barthelmess (May 9, 1895 – August 17, 1963) was an American film actor. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928.

Early life

Barthelmess was born in NYC in 1895 as the son of Caroline W. Harris (November 1, 1866 Brooklyn - April 23, 1937 Manhattan), a stage actress,[1] and Alfred W. Barthelmess (July 20, 1861 - May 5, 1896 Manhattan).[2] His father died when the boy was a year old.[3] Through his mother, he grew up in the theatre, doing "walk-ons" from an early age. In contrast to that, he was educated at Hudson River Military Academy at Nyack and Trinity College at Hartford, Connecticut. He did some acting in college and other amateur productions. By 1919 he had five years in stock company experience.[4]


Russian actress Alla Nazimova, a friend of the family, was taught English by Caroline Barthelmess.[5] Nazimova convinced Richard Barthelmess to try acting professionally, and he made his debut screen appearance in 1916 in the serial Gloria's Romance as an uncredited extra. He also appeared as a supporting player in several films starring Marguerite Clark.

His next role, in War Brides opposite Nazimova, attracted the attention of director D.W. Griffith, who offered him several important roles, finally casting him opposite Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). He founded his own production company, Inspiration Film Company, together with Charles Duell and Henry King. One of their films, Tol'able David (1921), in which Barthelmess starred as a teenage mailman who finds courage, was a major success. In 1922, Photoplay described him the "idol of every girl in America."[6]

Barthelmess in Silverscreen magazine, 1922.

Barthelmess had a large female following during the 1920s. An admirer wrote to the editor of Picture-Play Magazine in 1921:

Different fans have different opinions, and although Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan, and Niles Welch are mighty fine chaps, I think that Richard Barthelmess beats them all. Dick is getting more and more popular every day, and why? Because his wonderful black hair and soulful eyes are enough to make any young girl adore him. The first play I saw Dick in was BootsDorothy Gish playing the lead. This play impressed me so that I went to see every play in which he appeared—Three Men and a Girl, Scarlet Days, The Love Flower, and Broken Blossoms, in which I decided that Dick was my favorite. I am looking forward to Way Down East as being a great success, because I know Dick will play a good part.[7]

Barthelmess soon became one of Hollywood's highest paid performers, starring in such classics as The Patent Leather Kid in 1927 and The Noose in 1928; he was nominated for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards for his performance in both films. In addition, he won a special citation for producing The Patent Leather Kid.

With the advent of the sound era, Barthelmess' fortunes changed. He made several talkie films, most notably Son of the Gods (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Last Flight (1931), and The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), Central Airport (1933), and a supporting role as a disgraced pilot and Rita Hayworth's character's husband in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

Post-acting career

Barthelmess failed to maintain the stardom of his silent film days and gradually left entertainment. He enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve during World War II, and served as a lieutenant commander. He never returned to film, preferring instead to live off his investments.


Barthelmess died of cancer in 1963, aged 68, and was interred at the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum in Hartsdale, New York.

Marriage and family

He married Mary Hay, a stage and screen star. They had one daughter, Mary Barthelmess, before divorcing.[8]

In 1927, Barthelmess became engaged to Katherine Young Wilson, a Broadway actress.[9][10] However, the engagement was called off, possibly due to his affair about this time with the journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns.[11]

In 1928 Barthelmess married Jessica Stewart Sargent (1900-1965). He would later adopt her son Stewart from a previous marriage.



Collage made in 1930 featuring stills from various films
Collage made in 1920
Short subjects


  1. IBDb profile of Caroline Harris; Deaths Last Night, Ironwood Daily Globe (Ironwood, Michigan) April 24, 1937, p. 11, c. 2.
  2. Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; Roll: 1103; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 0470; FHL microfilm: 1241103
  3. "Tea With Mrs. Barthelmess – An Intimate Chat With the Mother of Dick", The Home Movie Journal, June 1926
  4. The Motion Picture Studio Directory, 1919; Page: 48. The 1900 US Census reported his mother ran a boardinghouse as housekeeper with a maid and butler. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 583830 / MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll #: 1009.
  5. A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen by Daniel Blum, ca. 1953, p. 111.
  6. "The Shadow Stage". Photoplay. New York: Photoplay Publishing Company. February 1922. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  7. G. C. (1921). "What the Fans Think" Picture-Play Magazine
  8. Profile at IBDb
  9. Katherine Wilson's profile at IBDb
  10. Barthelmess and Wilson's wedding announcement in The Reading Eagle, August 24, 1927 (accessed 5 December 2011)
  11. Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound,1999, p. 305.
  12. "History of the Academy: Original 36 founders of the Academy Actors". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website. 2008. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  13. Published sheet music on-line at Maine Music Box.
  14. (1922) The Music Trades, 64 (21 October), 40.
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