Updated: Feb 17
Rogues Gallery Uncovered
SAN FRANCISCO 1906
John Barrymore is pissed and doesn’t want to go to Australia. He’s part of a touring company, taking Broadway hit “The Dictator” around America. They have just finished a run in San Francisco and are waiting for a ship a take them across the Pacific.
Barrymore - who will one day be considered the finest actor of his generation - is 24 years old and plays the part of a drunken telegraph operator, its supreme type casting. He has been a confirmed alcoholic from the age of 15 and often has to leave the stage to throw up. Sickeningly talented and obscenely handsome he is already known as “The Great Profile” and has a legion of female admirers.
Rumour has it that he is currently “entertaining” the fiancé of one of his friends in his room at the St Francis Hotel. Tonight however he is alone.
Resplendent in full evening dress he has enjoyed watching Caruso sing Carmen at the Grand Opera House on Mission Street and rather than return to his hotel has gone to a supper party where, true to form, he has become heroically drunk. Staying at a friend’s house, it’s four in the morning and he’s just about to get into bed when the room begins to move.
Instinctively he lunges for the toilet but when pictures start falling from the walls and chunks of plaster tumble from the ceiling he realises for once it’s not the booze. Such is the force of the earthquake that strikes San Francisco; whole streets undulate like waves in a choppy sea. Barrymore nearly falls into the bath. Once the initial shock has passed, he recovers his composure, gets himself dressed and heads downstairs.
His friend, who had drunkenly slept through the entire earthquake, is inconsolable to discover his precious collection of Ming Dynasty vases are now all broken shards. Barrymore fancies another drink.
He makes his way back to the St Francis hotel through devastated streets full of people trying to rescue their possessions and each other from the rubble. Pausing to ask an attractive lady in her nightclothes whether or not she is cold, he pops into the Bohemian Club for a “Livener”
Suitably refreshed, he continues on his journey through the disaster area, glass of brandy in hand. Arriving at the hotel, he makes straight for the crowded bar. Suitably refreshed, he explores the streets once more until nightfall, still in full evening dress.
He spots Caruso weeping dramatically and declaring San Francisco “An ell of a place” he also helps someone bury a trunk of valuables then promptly forgets where. Back at the hotel he asks the desk clerk for his room key and enquires as to the possibility of another shock rocking the city.
The clerk has just assured him that there is “absolutely no chance of that” when another shock rocks the city. Embarrassed, the clerk dives out of a window, Barrymore, unperturbed takes his key, goes to his room and gets into bed. He awakes to the smell of burning. Fires have broken out all over the city and wisely he decides not to remain in their path. Legging it from the flames, Barrymore realises that if he disappears for a while, he will miss his boat and not have to go to Australia after all.
He spends the next six days drinking constantly at a friend’s house outside the city.
When his marathon bender comes to an end and still in full evening dress (although now somewhat soiled) he borrows a bicycle, rides into town and makes his grand reappearance.
Approaching a reporter, he offers to write the story of his experiences. The reporter is overjoyed, buys him a tumbler of brandy and leaves him to it. The story Barrymore writes is total fiction in which he claims to have witnessed all manner of horrors and to have even helped the army dig out trapped civilians with a shovel.
Jugged to the eyeballs and looking like an exhumed tramp, Barrymore fails to see the funny side when told his boat to Australia had been delayed and he is just in time to catch it.
His misgivings about the Australian jaunt are not misplaced; he is arrested half way through the tour for “laughing in the streets after 9 pm”