Fame and Flowers
On this day, on May 29, 1942, the actor John Barrymore died.
(Barrymore's granddaughter is actress Drew Barrymore.)
When Barrymore was 35 years old and on the verge of stardom, he rented a quiet space in Greenwich Village from a wealthy widow named Juliette Nicholls.
His flat was on the top floor of a Greek revival townhouse.
When Nicholls left for a while to go to Europe, Barrymore wrote to her to ask if he could take some liberties with the roof.
In his letter he said,
“I’d like to build a little stairway to it and place a few plants there, with perhaps a small pavilion in which I could sit when the locust blossoms come to the courtyard ... It would be like living in Paris in the twelfth century.”
When he hired a contractor to do the work, Barrymore insisted that no measuring tools be used.
“I want everything crooked or off-center, like a Nuremberg poet’s home. Just guess your way along, old, man, as we all do about most things.”
He called the little shed with the porch, "New York's First Penthouse," and it still stands today.
He decided to add a full garden to the rooftop. He hauled up over 35 tons of long island topsoil In burlap bags no less. Then, he went to work, adding 8-foot Cedars, Cherry trees, and Wisteria's - not to mention the beehives. There was a flagstone path and hedges around the perimeter of the roof.
When Nicholls returned from her trip, you can imagine her surprise at finding John Barrymore lounging in his rooftop garden; sitting serenely by an Asian reflecting pool.... feeding the birds.