- INTERIOR DESIGN BY SAM LETULLE
- PHOTOGRAPHY BY EDWARD RAGER
- TEXT BY PETER CARLSEN
Architectural Digest Jan – Feb 1979
it is a cool and sparkling afternoon of a type that appears to be indigenous to Manhattan. The streets are crowded, the traffic booms and shop fronts jostle for attention. It is an intensely contemporary world. But enter the hushed lobby of a building unchanged since the 1920s, and the mood softens. A few moments later, in the apartment of Lillian Gish, it seems to be not merely a different age, but a different civilization. The room is light and quiet, the air scented. Suddenly, as if in a frame of movie film, there is a glimpse of an extraordinary ageless figure, wearing a soft white cap, from which long hair of an extremely fine shade of gold falls to her waist. For a moment, the decades peel away, and the exquisite child-woman of Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm moves into the room. It is not a celluloid apparition, but the real person. It is Lillian Gish. She still possesses the trusting gaze of a Victorian maiden, and she comports herself with the incomparable grace that was one of the hallmarks of her film career.
“I shall make tea,” says Lillian Gish. “I do hope you like it in the English fashion?” After she has duly poured the first cup—milk first, then the tea—she sits back, a beautifully composed figure, awaiting questions with an inquiring and benign look.
“I’ve always lived in New York,” she recalls. “Many many years ago D. W. Griffith said to my sister and me: ‘My dears, you must never stay out in California for more than six months at a time. It is good for the body, but not for the mind or soul.’ And this was before there even was a Hollywood, so you can’t blame the movies. I remember the first time I went to the West Coast, how lovely it was. We opened the windows of the train and smelled orange blossoms and roses. That has all changed. But New York never does: It is always noisy and dangerous and exciting.”
Miss Gish took her first New York house in the late twenties, when the first phase of her film career ended with the advent of talkies. “Mother and I lived on Fifty-first Street, right by the river, in the days before the highway, so there was no traffic. But in the thirties we decided we needed a quieter location. First a penthouse, and then this smaller apartment.” Initially the apartment was occupied only by Miss Gish’s mother, the actress preferring to live in one of the great Manhattan hotels of the time. “Well, I must have lived in all of them, eventually,” she recalls with a smile. “I was a nomad.” However, after the death of her mother, in 1948, Miss Gish settled permanently in the tranquil apartment with its pleasing air of suspended time.
Perhaps because she has led such a long full life, Lillian Gish seems to have moved beyond the need for possessions merely for the sake of ownership. There is nothing theatrical about her apartment. It is not crammed with memorabilia, nor filled with photographs of past triumphs. And every object that is to be seen has the air of clearly and logically fulfilling a function. Even the photographs trace, with the utmost economy and elegance, a rich life and a celebrated one. A small table contains portraits of her mother, herself and her sister, Dorothy, at all stages of their lives, while one living room wall is covered with photographs of other people who have been important to her.
But without a doubt, the possessions that mean the most to Miss Gish are her books. Their glowing ranks enrich the living room, and a random glance at any title page will often disclose the signature of the author. For this is another of the actress’s talents: the ability to make lifelong and devoted friends. It was one of these friends, Sam LeTulle known to Miss Gish since the early forties, when he would visit her mother at the famous Sunday teas— who helped the actress redesign the apartment for her own use. “I didn’t want a guest room, so he made one large bedroom and converted the second bathroom into storage space.”
Furniture, most of which the star has owned since the twenties, is disposed easily and comfortably about the rooms. The colors are pale, and make her a urprisingly vivid presence in her own home. “Of course, in a sense, this apartment is only a base. I travel all over the country, lecturing on films; I’m still a nomad at heart. And as for decor, I’ve always said that I’m much too busy myself to be surrounded by anything complicated or overdone. I don’t need pictures of myself either, because I have mirrors. What I do like is to entertain.” And again, her striking gaze becomes animated. “At my mother’s teas, we used to have everybody. Mary Pickford, Kit Cornell, people who knew that if they dropped by on Sunday, Mother would serve them tea and just sit and listen while the conversation went on all around her. And what wonderful conversation it was— people were witty and polished in those days. If you were to ask me what is most important in a home, I would say memories.
The people who have sat in your chair! So many over the years, and still I make new friends. Robert Altman sat there a while ago, and told me about A Wedding, and persuaded me to be in it.” It is this lively dialogue with the past and future that makes a visit with Lillian Gish both engrossing and moving. “We haven’t changed as much as we think we have, you know. I went to a college town in North Dakota recently, and they showed a print of Way Down East. Even in 1920 I had thought the story was a bit oldfashioned; but there the audience was, enthralled, enjoying the melodrama and the comedy.” What Lillian Gish omitted to say was that her young audience, watching that young girl of long ago transcend the limitations of an infant medium with luminous grace, was also responding to a quality the actress has possessed all her life—the ability to make of the most unlikely situation something truthful and real. The same can be said of the space she lives in. It is neither more nor less than the remarkable personality it contains.