Wild Thing: Drew Barrymore

She has done her living with a capital "L": alcoholism, drug addiction, attempted suicide, marriage, divorce, stardom, career extinction, and finally stardom again

June 15, 1995
Drew Barrymore  on the cover of Rolling Stone
Drew Barrymore on the cover of Rolling Stone
Photography by Mark Seliger

Drew Barrymore is knockin back a beer. Not a near beer, mind you, but a good old-fashioned Pilsener. Hops and barley. The kind of libation that would impair her ability to operate heavy machinery if, for some odd reason, there happened to be any heavy machinery in sight.

It is a celebratory beverage, and Barrymore is in the mood for a little revelry. For one thing, she is flush with the afterglow of having flashed David Letterman.

Two nights ago, while demonstrating a striptease-style bump and grind on his desk, Barrymore lifted her T-shirt to present Dave with compelling evidence that she is not a little girl anymore. This afternoon, as she's walked the streets of New York, lascivious men of all ages have raised their thumbs in appreciation.

Couple that with the fact that today is her 10-month anniversary with her boyfriend, Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, and this would already be a banner day. But that's just the beginning. The true reason to rejoice is that Drew Barrymore has been liberated. Today, after almost 11 months of legal wrangling, she is officially divorced from Jeremy Thomas, 32, the Welsh-born bar owner who shared with her six weeks of holy matrimony. Barrymore is giddy. At one point she begins a sentence with the words "My ex-husband...." She stops. "Excuse me," she says. "The devil...." And then she promptly giggles. Not the worldly, knowing laugh she sometimes expels to let you know she's been around the block a few thousand times but the girlish, almost child – like chortle she uses when trying to elicit a response from your inner baby sitter. It is a hollow sound of adolescent embarrassment – perhaps to let you know she's done something naughty – but you both know she has never actually been an adolescent.

Barrymore raises her bottle, takes a slug and pauses for a moment as if to ponder whether anything has been left out. Being off the wagon, stripping, dating, divorce. Nope. If that doesn't cover people's most pressing questions for the time being, nothing will.

She takes another swig.

"I just want to be free," Barrymore says. "That's the whole point I've been trying to make since I was a child, and I'm still making it."

True enough. At the age of 20, Drew Barrymore has lived her share of lives. These are not Shirley MacLaine-style lives, spread out over centuries and existing in the deep recesses of her own mind but rather the kinds of existences shared by aging country stars who sing about boozing, sparring and small-town jails with the accuracy of seasoned newspaper reporters. Drew Barrymore has done her living with a capital L. Maybe even all caps. Check the life ledger: child abuse, a year in an institution to rehab from alcoholism and drug addiction at the age of 13, attempted suicide, legal emancipation from her parents at 15, marriage, divorce, stardom, career extinction and, finally, stardom again.

Barrymore is less an actress than an icon, a living embodiment of tragedy and survival. At one point it seemed like campy fun for the world to laugh at her. When that clamor began to subside, she found these same forces beginning to laugh with her. Today, after the success of Boys on the Side, a just-released romantic turn with Chris O'Donnell in Mad Love and a role in the upcoming Batman Forever, it is Barrymore who laughs loudest of all. The only adjective that adequately captures the Drew Barrymore oeuvre is Melrosian. But this we will attempt to reveal episodically.

Barrymore rests her drink on a table, hurls a dart toward the board and performs a three-second victory shimmy. At the moment she is her child self, dancing gleefully on the playground and hoping for approval. Within two minutes, however, she will speak about a morning meeting with a powerful producer like a jaded actress in the old Hollywood sense. Then, just as abruptly, the little girl will return.

"I'm an adult, and I'm a child," Barrymore says when the fluctuation becomes unnerving. "They go in and out. I get to be a kid now because I wasn't a kid when I was supposed to be one. But in some ways, I'm an old woman – lived it, seen it, done it, been there, have the T-shirt."

See if you can spot the telling symbolism in this picture.

It is midafternoon, and Barrymore is seated in the back booth of a dark bar in New York's East Village. In her left hand is a Budweiser. In her right is a grape-flavored Mickey Mouse lollipop. The topic of conversation is her mother. As is often the case, Barrymore's eyes are welling with tears.

"She just dedicated a book to me," Barymore says. "My mom wrote a Joy of Sex type book for the '90s. Very appropriate." She forces out a laugh and rolls the lollipop in her mouth. "Neither of us is ready to talk to the other one, but for her to dedicate that to me is her way of telling me that she loves me."

Mother and daughter have not spoken in almost four years. The silence, however, is no longer as eerily quiet. Two months ago, on Barrymore's 20th birthday, Jaid Barrymore wrote her daughter a letter, and they have been corresponding by mail ever since.

Barrymore's emotions are mixed. On the one hand, this is a woman who instilled in her a piercing cynicism before Drew had reached preschool. "My mom always told me that I have to be totally accepting that the person I'm with is going to leave because we're all born alone on this earth, and we'll all die alone," says Barrymore. "Both my parents grooved on love, but both of them were not capable of having a relationship with another person. Not a lover, not a friend, not even their own family. It really fucked up my ideas of what love was supposed to be."

On the other hand, Jaid was fiercely protective. When Drew was 6, a playground bully smashed her face first into the pavement, cutting a swath across her chin that required 15 stitches. The next day, when Mother and mummy-wrapped daughter walked into the school, the 6-year-old bully glared at them and laughed.

"I had asked her not to do anything because she's so fucking volatile that she'll do anything," says Barrymore. "But when he laughed, my mother grabbed him by the collar and said, 'If you ever fuck with my child again, I'll cut your fucking dick off.' " Barrymore roars with laughter. "Mom," she says to the thin air, "thank you for that."

Clearly, Barrymore believes some common ground must exist. Although she asked that her mom not be interviewed for this article, she predicts that sometime soon, she and her mother will be speaking again. Barrymore's father is a different story altogether. Although Barrymore doesn't know his precise location (she believes he might be down South), she does know this much: Her father has not owned a pair of shoes in 40 years, does not believe in material possessions and lives the life of a vagabond – often muttering Scripture to unsuspecting passers-by.

It wasn't always so. Born into one of Hollywood's most illustrious and entrenched acting dynasties, John Barrymore Jr. achieved modest success in the movies before drugs and alcohol proved to be his undoing. All that, unfortunately, was before his daughter knew him. Her first memory of her father was when she was 3. He threw her into a wall.

"My father was a junkie and an alcoholic for 30 years," says Barrymore. "Nice combo, huh? So that breeds shitty behavior. It was hard for me to deal with [while] growing up. It was chaotic and violent and scary. When I was 7, I finally said, 'Look, Dad, see ya.' I wrote all over his cigarettes – 'Fuck you, you're an asshole' – and I handed him the cigarettes and said, 'Smoke this, you motherfucker.' I threw a chair at him and told him to never touch me again. I didn't speak to him again until I was 14."

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