The Girl on the Cover – Photoplay December 1921
A close-up of that illusive young star, Lillian Gish
By Delight Evans
LILLIAN GISH has won contemporary immortality as the heroine of David Wark Griffith’s best pictures. She is one of the symbols of the screen. Mary Pickford is eternal youth. Chaplin, comedy incarnate and incomparable. Fairbanks, athletic America. Hart, the West. And Lillian Gish—the Madonna of the Shadows.
She is the fair, frail, persecuted child. The lovely, languorous lily. She is frail and sweetly sad and imposed upon. She has a moonlight beauty; a soft and serious calm. She is the virgin queen of the screen. Most of you believe that Lillian—like most lovely illusory things—just grew. That she has always drifted through things with the superb ease that she displays in her film close-ups. In fact, it may be that many of you decline to give her screen credit for her own fame, her unique and enviable position in the silver sheet firmament. It’s Griffith’s direction. Or it’s a natural placidity easily photographed. Or it’s a fragile prettiness.
It’s anything but Lillian Gish. She is never seen in a bathing-suit or a riding habit; so that the conclusion is that she never swims and never rides. She is only seen sitting serenely among flowers: a cool, collected little blossom herself. Ethereal, aloof, and very beautiful—but hardly human.
You are entirely wrong. She swims and rides more accurately and joyously than many advertised athletes. But .Mr. Griffith, like the late Charles Frohman, and the present David Belasco, does not believe in much publicity for his players. They must speak, or, in the case of Miss Gish of Griffith’s, act for themselves.
So that, if you don’t read what I am going to say, you will go right on believing Lillian Gish to be a very fair and beautiful Topsy. Topsy, you remember, (or do you?), was the dark diminutive principal in a certain American play, who just grew. Lillian is fair; and her beauty is spiritually satisfying and artistically amazing, but she is hardly a Topsy. People watch Lillian in her exquisite costume as Henriette in “The Two Orphans,” performing, in her consummately quiet way, for an insert; and later they say to her: “Oh, Miss Gish—what fun you must have! Don’t you just love your work?”
Lillian will smile her inscrutable little smile. “Yes—I love it.”
And she does. But once she said to me: “How wonderful it would be to forget your work for a little while. Forget it—and follow spring around the world. “Acting is the most exacting work in the world. It takes all one’s energy, absorbs ambition, and is intolerant of age. Lotta, the famous actress, now a little old lady, looked me up in Boston while I was ‘personally appearing’ for ‘Way Down East.’ She said: ‘My child, work hard now—and save your money. Then, when your public forgets you—in those long lean years when you are no longer young—you will have something to show for your work.”
She is one of the few celebrities who began when the movies did, who has very little today to show for her work. She has never, to use the patois, “cashed in” on her fame. As you and I rate good fortune, she is rich. But compared with the princely incomes of other screen stars, she is merely prosperous! She hasn’t a mansion in Manhattan and another in Beverly Hills. She lives, very quietly, with her mother and her sister and her sister’s husband in a house in New Rochelle, near New York. It isn’t a palace; it’s just a comfortable home. She has only one motor. Her own company, much to the surprise and sorrow of all the friends of the star, failed before it finished one picture. And yet—she has a dignity, a celebrity very much like Maude Adams, that cannot be expressed in money.
She says herself, in her quaint, old-fashioned way, “Perhaps it is all for the best. Too much money does queer things to people. You can never tell what it is going to do to you.” She is the best friend of Mary Pickford. Joseph Hergesheimer and Lillian Russell are two celebrities who, I strongly suspect, count her their favorite screen star. A European ambassador says she is the most interesting personage he has ever met, not excepting royalty and statesmen and singers. She is, more than any other actress, the favorite honor guest of women’s clubs and colleges. She says she never knows what to say; but she has spoken to a roomful of alumnae of an eastern college for an hour—and left them wildly enthusiastic. And yet she wishes she had had a college education! She has been on the stage ever since she was six. And she has worked ever since, with vacations of never more than one month and seldom that. Her life has always been and always will be just one poem, one symphony work.
First, work in the small companies which made only the one-night stands. In such plays as “At Duty’s Call,” “The Coward,” “The Child Wife,” “The Truth Tellers,” she toured the country, playing babies and little girls and little boys. In some of these she played with her sister Dorothy, then exactly four. They “made” the tiniest towns. Mrs. Gish travelled with Dorothy when all three could not get an engagement in the same company. This charming gentlewoman, a widow with these two little girls, turned to the stage from Massillon, Ohio, because people told her that pretty little Dorothy and lovely Lillian would be successful, as most stage children were — and are still—blondes. When the mother could be with only one of her girls, it was Lillian, the older by two years, who would travel alone. She would always have an older woman in the same company—the soubrette, the feminine heavy—to look after her. “Sometimes,” says Lillian, fifteen years later, “sometimes I got ten dollars a week.
I would share a room with one of the other actresses for fifty cents a day, or sometimes even a dollar. In the evenings, about ten o’clock, three or four of the other girls in the company would come ostensibly to call on us. They would remain to share our room. In that way it cost each of us very little; so that I could always put away a little of my salary.
“I have never really had to endure hardships. But it was hard for a girl of six to travel without her mother. I was often very lonely. The worst part of my early days on the stage was the fact that it was considered, then, a terrible thing to be an actress. When Dorothy and I would return to Massillon between engagements, we would never tell anyone we had been on the stage. In a small town it was then considered almost a disgrace.
“I used to do stunts in the old thrillers. Once I completely upset a scene. As the little darling of the piece, I was to swing from a rope out of the scene. That is, my dummy was. I was to run from the stage. I forget the occasion for the swinging; but it must have been a fight of some sort, for a revolver shot was to be my cue to skip. The shot was never fired during rehearsals. So when I heard it that first night, I was so excited I forgot to leave the stage. My dummy swung off and I remained in full view of the audience. I remember the leading man brought me out for the curtain call on his shoulder.
“In another old play, I was to enter a cage with two lions. I was not particularly frightened, and went through with it many times. The lions, Jenny and Maude, were old and tame. I played with them a whole season. Just after the last performance, Jenny took a large bite out of her trainer’s arm. The next season, Dorothy was with me in the same show. I had advanced to another role, and she had to go into the lion’s den. I knew the trick; I knew that she had only to be with the animals a second, before she ran out, and I had never been a bit scared. But with Dorothy doing it, I used to be petrified with fear at every performance. The minute Dorothy went on for that scene, I ran up to our dressing room and buried my head in the trunk until it was safely over.”
The Gishes and the Pickfords became friends in those days. The three little Pickfords: Mary, Lottie and Jack—and the two little Gishes often travelled with the same company. Mrs. Pickford sometimes took care of Lillian. Later, the older Gish— when she was eight—was with Sarah Bernhardt’s repertoire company. One night Lillian was standing in the wings when the Divine Sarah came up. She put her hand caressingly on Lillian’s golden curls, murmuring a word of admiration.
“Bernhardt’s company was the best one I was ever with,” she says. “We were mostly with the melodramas. We were only once with a good company. And then we never got our salaries; so we decided it was better to play in low-brow plays and live.”
Later, she was in “Dion O’Dare,” “Mr. Blarney from Ireland,” “Her First False Step,” “The Volunteer Organist” and with Fiske O’Hara for three seasons. “Then I was getting about twenty-five dollars a week. I was in New York, playing in David Belasco’s ‘The Good Little Devil,’ with Mary Pickford. I lived in a hotel on Eighth Street. You probably know it—the favorite home of many very old, very respectable people. I didn’t know many people in New York, and I was lonely. I had a little stove. I used to cook my meals on it. I didn’t want to go out for meals because I hated to walk into a restaurant alone before so many strangers. Besides, I didn’t have enough money—I sent some home every week. So I lived, for some time, on beans and tea that I cooked on my little stove. And not much else.
“Naturally, I began to get thin and wan. I was not very strong anyway, and it wasn’t long before I looked really ill. David Belasco noticed it. He knew me only as an actress in his company; my part was not very large. But he sent a doctor to see me and ordered that I be taken care of. I never knew until long after who had been so good to me. Mr. Belasco is the kindest and most considerate of men and managers. I did not see him for years—all the time I was in pictures in California—until, once when Mary was in New York, we met him at the theater—his own theater. He said he couldn’t believe I was the same girl who had apparently been trying to starve herself to death so long ago!”
It was not really very long. The Gishes made their screen debut when they were so young they had to make up to look older! Today, Lillian Gish is generally recognized as the greatest emotional actress in the films. Dorothy has a popularity second to no film comedienne. Lillian has worked hard—but then so have many other screen stars. But she has kept her perspective. She is not an actress before she is a woman, a student, a thinker. On her reading table, in her dressing room at the Griffith studio in Mamaroneck, I saw these books: “The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci;” Romain Rolland’s ” Jean-Christophe;” Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah;” “Zuleika Dobson,” by Max Beerbohm; and Anatole France’s “Revolt of the Angels.” The pages of ail these books are cut. She has never been “educated”—thank heaven! “
I spent exactly eight months in a convent at St. Louis, Mo. It was the happiest time of my life. At first I missed the excitement of theatrical life; but after a month I would have been glad to stay there all my life. I am not a Catholic—but I love the nuns. They are the most wonderful women in the world. “We had amateur theatricals dramatics, we called them, I had never told them, of course, I had been on the stage. I was entirely at home in our plays, and I played Bianca in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ After our performance, Sister— — came to me and said, ‘My dear child, I should never say this to you. But I feel it is my duty to. You should go on the stage. You are a born actress.” There are so many things one can tell about Lillian Gish—charming things. One of the nicest things I know is the story of the manicurist. She did Lillian’s nails for a long time, and one day shyly confessed her movie aspirations. Not long after, Lillian brought her to the Griffith studio in her own car, saw that she had screen tests made, and is doing everything she can to help her. It is now up to the pretty little manicurist. If she becomes established, she will have to thank Lillian Gish.
A Great writer once said about her, “She is subtle without knowing it.”
A great actor said, “When she acts she doesn’t know what she does. Her art is intuitive and unconscious; all great art is.’,
One of her best friends says, ‘ ‘Her greatest charm is her simplicity.”
I am sure she is great. Not because celebrities have said so. Not because of her marvellous work in “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and “The Two Orphans.” Not because she does better work in each new picture. Not because several managers have begged her to go on the stage again. But because she has a very rare and fine spiritual quality about her—as Mary Pickford has—a childlike simplicity. And more because—like the Mona Lisa of Leonardo: that sweet and good and virtuous woman—she has all the pain, the wisdom, and the subtlety of the ages in her matchless smile.