Desert Sun, Number 141, 16 January 1984
At 88, ‘Iron Butterfly’ spirit indomitable
By Bob THOMAS
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) – With her delicate features and porcelain skin, she seems like a fragile doll. But at 88, Lillian Gish retains the same indominable spirit that has sustained her acting career for an astounding 83 years. She remains as firm of voice and opinion as when she was a silent star at MGM, where she was dubbed the Iron Butterfly. The memories of those years, and especially her beginnings as D.W. Griffith’s favorite heroine, remain evergreen. Yet she doesn’t live in the past. Miss Gish was in California to star in her 102nd movie, “Hambone and Hillie,” a Sandy Howard Production with O.J. Simpson, Timothy Bottoms, Jack Carter and Candy Clark.
After completing her work, she submitted to a series of interviews in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Interviewers were cautioned to restrict their time to 45 minutes so Miss Gish could rest 15 minutes between sessions. It hardly seemed necessary. She talked almost non-stop, ranging from memories of 80 years ago to observations of today’s show business. “Hambone and Hillie” is a dog story, and that brought to mind the many dogs Miss Gish and her late sister, Dorothy, owned over the years.
The first was a gift when they were 7 and 8 and appearing in melodramas in Boston that cost 10-30 cents admission. “We rode the train from Boston to New York, and it was the first Pullman we had ever taken,” Miss Gish related. “Always before we had slept in chair cars as we travelled from town to town. That night Dorothy and I climbed into the upper bed with the puppy, and we took turns staying awake to make sure it wouldn’t fallout.’’ Lillian and Dorothy Gish were born a year apart in Springfield, Ohio. After their father drifted away, Mrs. Gish moved the girls to New York, took acting jobs in the theater out of desperation, and the daughters followed. “Of course, Mother disgraced the family by going into acting,” Miss Gish said. ‘lt simply would not have been proper back in Ohio. She used another name, and Dorothy and I never used our own names when we were small. We were always listed as ‘Baby Dorothy’ or Baby Lillian.’ Even when we went to work for Mr. Griffith, our names weren’t used. He didn’t believe in billing the actors.” D.W. Griffith recurs in Miss Gish’s conversation, always as “Mr. Griffith.” Their careers were intertwined, and when she wrote her 1969 autobiography, it was titled “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.”
Mary Pickford, who had known the Gish girls on the stage, persuaded Griffith to cast them in his one-reelers. Miss Gish’s virginal innocence made her the perfect Griffith heroine, and she later starred in his classics, “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.” She went on to MGM, then returned to the stage after the advent of sound. Her scorn for “talkies” remains intense. “The movies lost 95 percent of their audience when they started to use words instead of music,” she said. “Even the nickelodeons in the earliest years had a piano to accompany silent films, and music is an international language. Our films were understood in every country of the world.” Miss Gish has divided her career among the theater (“Life With Father,” “The Chalk Garden”), films (“Duel in the Sun,” “Night of the Hunter,” “A Wedding”) and television (“Ladies in Retirement,” “Arsenic and Old Lace”). “I’m also working on two books and lecturing,” she said. “I’ve been around the world three times twice on the QE2 lecturing and showing Mr. Griffith’s films.
I also meet the press in every port.” The only time she remembers not working was when she had typhoid fever as a child in St. Louis. Dorothy Gish, who died in 1968 after a successful career of her own, was married briefly to actor James Rennie. Lillian Gish never married. She was once sued for breach of promise by a disappointed suitor, and she remarked proudly: “I helped change the New York law. I won the suit, and the judge ruled it was not legal for men to sue for breach of promise.” Does she have any regrets about not marrying? “No,” she replied firmly. “I loved a lot of dear men, but luckily I never ruined their lives by marrying them. What kind of a marriage would it have been to a wife who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week?” (Bob Thomas – 1984)