An Intimate Story of The Gish (Movie Weekly 1922 – March 18)

“Movie Weekly” presents herewith an authentic story of the fascinatingly interesting lives of , the Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy. Theirs is a true romance of the stage, a tale of how two little children, who made their own way as child actresses, blossomed into talented motion picture stars. Of interviews with the Gishes there have been many. But of genuinely informative and, detailed stories of their careers there have been none, heretofore, Few novels have had a theme so powerful as this tale of real life, in which two frail girls ‘win honors and riches  for themselves, unaided...

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish.

To appreciate Lillian and Dorothy Gish, you have to meet them. And to appreciate their life stories you must hear it from their lips. Imagine then that you are sitting on a Iounge in a sunny apartment room, facing Park Avenue, in New York. At your right, perched on a little chair is Lillian, just as slender, as wistfully beautiful as in any of the pictures in which you have seen her play; Opposite you, seated-in a rocker, is Dorothy, vivacious, spirited Dorothy, who has made you laugh so many times with her quaint mannerisms. Lillian is poised, her voice’ clear, her speech even, balanced. Dorothy is too filled with exuberance, too nervously active, to be satisfied with saying one thing at a time. Words spurt from her, bump into one another.  She laughs infectiously. She likes to tell stories, and tells them. one after another. Lillian supplies the details. In the background stands Mrs. George Klatch, their lifelong friend. a widowed school teacher from Massillon, Ohio, their old home town.

Lillian Gish and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell)
Lillian Gish and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell)

In an adjoining room lies their beloved mother, seriously ill. A tea-wagon stands before too. Mrs. Klatch pours. Lillian sips. Dorothy brings in some ice cream which she purchased at the corner drug store. And they tell you their tale.

“We were born in Ohio, but I suppose you know  that,” Lillian begins. “I was born in Dayton .. -”

“And I was born in Springfield,” Dorothy chimes in.

“But we always consider Massillon our home town. Ohioans always stick together. They have a sort of state consciousness. You never meet anyone you know in New York. And I don’t know many people in Dayton. But when we walk down the street in Massillon, everyone speaks to us. That is why we always think of it as our home town.

Massillon

“Mamma was a widow at twenty-three. It’s pretty ‘hard to be left alone in the world, with two small, children, when you are only twenty-three, but that is the job that mamma had to undertake. So we were whisked off and out of Ohio and went on the stage, and that is all there is to it.”

Massillon6

And that, in a few words. is all there. was to it. But back of that brief statement lies the story. Lillian went to school for a while in Ohio, but when the possibilities of earning a livelihood by means of the stage had been explored, good fortune enabled the girls to make their start. That start is misty now with time, for they were very small children when they first appeared before the footlights.

“Let’s see . ” My first play was ‘In Convict’s Stripes.’ You know, that was the day of the good old melodrama, and every melodrama, no matter what it’s story was about, had to have a stage child in it. So, by visiting the agents’ offices often enough, we always had engagements.”

“Tell the story about the dummy, dear,” Dorothy suggested.

“Oh, yes, that’s a good one. You see, I had never been on the stage before and I guess that was responsible for what happened. According to the story. I was supposed to be taken by the villa’in into the bottom of a well, and a fierce struggle was to take place between the villain and the hero on the stage. In the middle of the struggle a charge of dynamite was to go off (supposedly of course), and a dummy was to have been cast up out of the well.

Lillian Gish as a wee bit of a tot Snapped in her Nursery at Massillon Ohio
Lillian Gish as a wee bit of a tot Snapped in her Nursery at Massillon Ohio

“The stage director didn’t want to frighten me, so in the rehearsals before the show opened, the dynamite was left out. But at the first performance the play went on, I was put in the well, the villain and the hero started to fight it out. And, then the dynamite went off. Up went the dummy, and out went the child, both at the same time. I was so frightened by the unexpected explosion that I forgot all ‘about cues, instructions and everything else. The audience had a hearty laugh, and the ‘scene was the hit of the show.”

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But all was not humor in those days. Weeks and weeks of, one-night stands made. life interesting but arduous for the children. They slept wherever sleep overtook them. Lillian related how she once tumbled off to dreamland on a telegraph counter. But always through all those years when they should have been playing, their mother watched over them.

“There never was such a mother before or since,” Lillian put in. “When she felI ill last year we just didn’t know what to do. She never quite realized that we had grown up. And it seems as though Mrs. Klatch was sent to us to take her place while she is ill.”

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Mother
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Mother

“Yes,” Dorothy added. “Mrs. Klatch needed us and we needed her. Her life was broken up. Her husband, who was a lawyer in Massillon, died, and she had no one in the world to look to except ourselves. Since we asked her to come to us, she has been with us everywhere, on our trips, at our home. We just couldn’t get along without her.” Dorothy pondered. “But we were always treated splendidly by the stage folks who knew us when we were children,” she continued. No matter how much they wanted to curse, they always kept profanity corked up when we were around. I remember one actor in whose company I played, who also acted as manager for the company. He had a furious temper and would often fly off into tantrums. I would hear him yelIing at someone in his dressing room. Then I would knock. He would shout: ‘Come in I’ and although he would be boiling over he wouldn’t say a word until I left. And as I walked away, I would hear him boiling over again. . .

Fiske O'Hara, The Irish Tenor
Fiske O’Hara, The Irish Tenor

“My particular sweetheart in those days was Fiske O’Hara, in whose company I played. He would ‘always take me out to dinner on my birth day, and he promised he would marry me when I grew up. And I believed him. Then one day I learned he had been married. Mamma said I should go up to him and congratulate him, and I did. But you can imagine me going up and saying:

“‘Mr. O’Hara, I-I wish you many happy returns of the day!’ with tears in my voice. I realty was all upset when he got married.”

“You’d better say how old you were, Dorothy,” LilIian suggested. .

“Well,” Dorothy confessed, “I was just seven years old then.”

Dorothy Gish early role on stage
Dorothy Gish early role on stage

The girls were bubbling now with reminiscences, of their days on the stage.

“I remember when mamma brought me a clipping in which they called me’ a clever little comedian,” she said. “I didn’t like that a bit; in fact, I cried about it.”

“The funny thing about Dorothy is that she never was a comedienne,” Lillian explained.

Dorothy Gish 1920 Carpenter Tringle P

“We used to call her ‘Grandmother Gish’ when she was a little tot, because she was so prim.” “Yes, folks think that I must be a funny person because I always play humorous roles,” Dorothy went on. “But I’m not a bit like that in real life.”

“Dorothy was always getting herself into predicaments because of her, seriousness,” Lillian added. “Tell about that fire scene in ‘East Lynne, Dorothy.”

‘”Oh, yes,” Dorothy laughed. “I was playing in ‘Dian O’Dare,’ and if you have seen’ it, you will remember there is a big love scene in which the hero pours out his love to the heroine. Well, in our production, the stage director, placed this scene in front of a fireplace. There were logs, realistic enough, to be sure, but beneath them burned some electric lamps instead of the flames which were supposed to lick them. From the audience, the log fire looked just as natural as it would at home, but from backstage you could see all the trappings. There was an opening above the logs, for the back of the fireplace with space in between. “The hero and the heroine began their scene, ‘and the’ leading man was carrying it on to its fiery conclusion when suddenly they became aware of snickers and guffaws from the audience. They peered out of the corners of their eyes, looked about to see what was amiss, but could find nothing. Some stagehands looked on from the wings, wondering, what the laughter, which was increasing in volume, was about. Finally, one stagehand spotted the cause of the trouble. I had seen the opening in the back of the fireplace, walked into it. not thinking that I could be seen from the audience, and sat down on the logs in the midst of the fire. The stagehand seized me by the waist, and the curtain fell. It was the best laugh ‘East Lynne’ ever got. I suppose I just dreamily walked through the fireplace, saw the audience, and decided to look them over.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

That’s the only reason I can find her sitting in the fire.” ‘As your acquaintance with the girls grows you notice the difference between them, Dorothy’s nervous energy, Lillian’s calmer nature. Dorothy went on to relate another story which bears upon her nervousness, something which has prevented her from playing upon the stage since the days when she grew from a child into a beautiful woman.

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“We always tried to keep the family together. Mamma always wanted to be with the both of us, but that wasn’t always possible, for although most of the old melodramas had one stage child. Few required two or more. So eventually we had to separate. I was confided to the care of a woman I knew as ‘Aunt Alice,’ and she took good care of me. ‘

Nell Dorr with Win, Barby and Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Nell Dorr Estate 1920
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Nell with two girls and Lillian and Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.1248

“But I had a bad habit, that of picking the threads out of the hems of my dresses. I would sit in, a corner, start fidgeting, begin picking threads out and finally the hem would slip out and the dress would be down to my ankles. Aunt Alice caught me a couple of times and scolded me, but it did no good. Finally, she told me that if I ever did it again she would take my clothes away from me. That stopped me for a while, but about three days later, I began to pick the threads out as usual. I was in the midst of my game, when in walked Aunt Alice.

” ‘I meant what I told you,’ she scplded. ‘Come here!’

“And ‘here’ I went. Off went my dress, she confiscated it, and gave me in its place, a boy’s suit, belonging to a boy member of the company.

“‘And now you’ll have to go back to the hotel just like that;’ she told me.

“Well, I don’t suppose it is such a terrible disgrace for a girl of eight to walk down the street in boy’s clothes, but it seemed so to me. I cried and cried. but she had no mercy. so to the hotel I walked, dressed as a boy. And I never plucked the threads from ‘my dresses again.”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

It was Lillian’s turn. “You know it sounds just too funny to tell the names of the plays in which we acted,” she laughed. “The first one was ‘In Convict’s Stripes.’ Then there was ‘East Lynne,’ ‘Her First False Step,’ ‘At Duty’s Call,’ ‘The Child Wife’ ‘Mr. Blarney From Ireland,’ ‘Dian O’Dare,’ ‘The Coward,’ ‘The Truthtellers,’ and Dorothy played down in Philadelphia in ‘Editha’s Burglar.’ “

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“That was a funny play,” Dorothy, suddenly remembered., “It was all about a man who left home one night and returned later as a burglar to steal from his own safe. I had the best role in that play, practically the lead. and I can hear myself piping out the funniest line I ever had. “¥ou see, I was supposed to be ‘awakened by the burglar and to come downstairs and catch him at his work. I stood on the stairs in my nightgown and said:

, ., ‘Leave us enough knives and forks for breakfast, daddy,’ in a shrill, piping voice. Well, the audience just roared at that line. It was a big hit.”

Reminiscence brought reminiscence, and Lillian recalled with quite apparent joy, how the Gishes and the Pickfords happened upon one another. This happy friendship; which began in childhood, has never ceased.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

“The last time Mary was in town, we rode down Fifth Avenue together in her Rolls-Royce,” she related. “And Mary couldn’t help, saying:

“‘Well, Lillian, who’d ever have thought in the old days, we’d be as successful as this!'”

“We were playing in Toronto one season and mamma was able to get an engagement in New York. We gave our notice to the management, and they made the rounds of the managers’ offices in Toronto’ looking for someone to take our places. I was there with Aunt Alice at that time, and when the’ offer was made to a certain Mrs. Smith, who had’ a daughter Gladys, Mrs. Smith said she could not take the engagement for her little girl without finding a place for her’ other two children, Lottie and Jack. The play was ‘The Little Red School House,’ and there was a schoolroom scene in it, in which a lot of children were used. As a rule we got extra children in the towns we played in’ for a dollar a performance, but the management needed little Gladys and decided to use Lottie and Jack in that scene as well.

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”’So the whole Smith family went to New York with us. Mrs. Smith wasn’t sure at first that we were the sort of stage children for her two girls and a boy to associate with, for stage children are not all particularly nice, but ,by the time we reached New York, she was convinced that we were all right. She had never been in New York before, and Gladys had only played in stock in Toronto, so we asked her to come to live with us.

“For two weeks we all lived together ‘in the same house on Thirty-Seventh Street. Then Mary Pickford went out with the company, and when she came back we all lived together again for a time. ‘

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

“When Mary was “here last, we planned to visit that house and have our picture taken, sitting on the ‘steps, as we us’ed to ‘sit. Those were the days when it was’ a joy to go down to the corner and buy an ice cream sandwich for two cents, when Mary, and Jack and Lottie used to play all sorts of games with us. We were a happy, big family, and had lots of fun together. But Mary wasn’t able to find time for the picture. So it hasn’t been taken yet, but it will be soon. We moved about New York quite a bit, but we lived longest on Thirty-seventh Street, and that is where our friendship really began.

Mildred Harris, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mary Gish (mother), and Dorothy Gish. Early 1920s

“Mary was always a most serious young lady, even then. To hear her talk to her mother you’d think that Mary was the mother, and Mrs. Pickford the child. ‘Now don’t forget your rubbers.’ she would say to Jack. ‘Mamma, have you got your muffled’ she would tell her mother, when she went out. She acted as a little mother for’ all of us.”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Intimate story of The Gishes - Movie Weekly 03.18.1922
Intimate story of The Gishes – Movie Weekly 03.18.1922
Intimate story of The Gishes 2 - Movie Weekly 03.18.1922
Intimate story of The Gishes 2 – Movie Weekly 03.18.1922

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

 

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