… At 90, still making movies – F. M. Winship, 1986

Lillian Gish at 90, still making movies

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP, UPI Senior Editor

DEC. 14, 1986

NEW YORK — Lillian Gish has just made her 105th motion picture and she is looking forward to her 106th.

‘I’ve been working for 84 years. I don’t intend to stop now,’ says Gish, ethereal and almost prim in a pearl-buttoned rose Ultrasuede dress as she serves tea in the Manhattan apartment where she has lived alone for decades. She admits to 90 years, although two early theater reference books give her birthdate as 1893.

Lillian Gish in her 80's

She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.

‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence.

She still exudes a sweet femininity. She wears Mary Jane strapped shoes. Her hair, ash blond turned mostly white, is pulled into a loose crown, a style seen in photographs of her in the ’20s.

‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’

She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis.

Gish’s new picture, due for release late next year, is a wry comedy with the working title ‘The Whales of August.’ It was filmed this fall on a small island in Casco Bay, Maine. Gish and Davis co-star as widowed sisters who have lived together for 30 years and are facing an emotional crisis.

Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)
Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)

‘We had only met briefly in the past and we had never worked together,’ said Gish. ‘In spite of this, I think we got along very nicely.’ Gish, of course, is very much Davis’s senior in the film world and can afford to be generous. —

Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford.

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Griffith, head of Biograph Films, paid her $50 a week and became the lodestar of her actress life.

There is a lingering legend that the relationship with Griffith, who died in obscurity in 1948, was far more than that of master filmmaker to star. Gish steadfastly maintains it did not go beyond close friend and mentor, and she has spent the decades since his death in a successful effort to restore his reputation as ‘Father of Film.’

She even titled her 1969 autobiography ‘The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.’

Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack

From a book-laden coffee table, she produces a copy of the autobiography translated into Burmese, one of the dozen languages in which it was published. There is also a watercolor sketch sent by a fan that incorporates the U.S. postage stamp portraying Griffith. The stamp represents five years of campaigning by Gish.

‘Griffith was a man of warmth and good spirits,’ she said. ‘But there was an air about him that forebade intimacy. In all the years I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith, and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish, until about 1939 when we went on a first-name basis.’

Lillian Gish in the 80's

Miss Lillian’s eyes are still large in a small, plump, pensive face that could express supplication in a way that became a trademark. Griffith recorded his impression of Gish on their first meeting as that of ‘exquisite, ethereal beauty.’

Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen.

Her 104th film was ‘Sweet Liberty,’ an Alan Alda comedy about the making of a movie that takes liberties with the American Revolution. It was less than a box-office smash.

sweet liberty, from left writer-director-actor alan alda, lillian gish, on set, 1986 universal detail

Gish played Alda’s cantankerous but lovably dotty old mother.

‘I thought they had mistaken me for my sister, Dorothy, who could be a very funny, whereas they always said I was about as funny as a baby’s open grave,’ she says, pouring tea into pink-and-white English china.

‘So I said ‘no’ four or five times, and then they sent Alan Alda to see me. Well, that did it.’ she says, lifting both hands in enthusiasm. The legendary, sweet Gish smile lights a face that is still girlish and without wrinkles.

She is delighted to have added Alda to her list of leading men — a list that started with Walter Huston, father of John and grandfather of Anjelica.

Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress.

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Then came Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, Roland Young, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Fred MacMurray, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert Preston and George C. Scott.

Proximity to such male glamor was not lost on her.

She says brightly, ‘Did you know that it was because of me that they changed the laws of New York so that a woman cannot be sued for breach of promise?’

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

Charges were brought against her by onetime manager and financial adviser Charles Duell, who wanted to marry her when she left Griffith in 1923 to star in ‘The White Sister’ for Inspiration-Metro Pictures.

Griffith could no longer afford the $1,000 a week that Gish could command, and Inspiration could. It was the first time she had ever earned a lot of money making films.

‘When Duell found out how much money I could make, he decided to marry me,’ she said, her voice echoing old indignation. ‘He wanted my share of the profits from ‘The White Sister.’ I had to get legal help, and he tried to ruin me in the press.

‘I was smuggled on board a train going to California to avoid papers he tried to serve on me. It was terrible, out of an old melodrama.’

She still likes to recall that she received a ‘most discreet proposal of marriage’ from John Gilbert, Hollywood’s ‘Great Lover,’ when he played Roldolphe to her Mimi in the silent version of ‘La Boheme.’

‘I fell in love for the first time at 9,’ she says ‘I was always in and out of love. More men wanted to marry me. But marriage is a 24 hour-a-day job and I have always been much too busy to be a good wife. My films are my children.’

She was also reluctant to part with her sister Dorothy and their mother. Theater critic George Jean Nathan, a longtime escort, proposed to her numerous times in the 1920s before marrying another actress, Julie Haydon. Gish still believes Nathan resented her family closeness.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

‘I never met anyone I liked better than mother or sister,’ she said. ‘I was really never happy away from them. I certainly wasn’t going to marry anyone who would take me away from my mother if I could help it.’ —

Mother, born Mary Robinson McConnell, was estranged from Gish’s father, James Leigh Gish, when Lillian and Dorothy were small. He was an Ohio confectioner, ever on the move to find ‘fresher horizons,’ as Gish puts it. Finally, Mary Gish moved herself and her children to New York where she found work as an ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company for $15 a week.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

‘I grew up with love, not money,’ said Gish. ‘Mother gave us security. Father insecurity. As I grew older, I wondered which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God.

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Gish became an actress when a friend of her mother’s got a job in a touring company that needed a little girl. Her salary was $10 a week. Not long after, Dorothy, two years younger, was taken on the road by another friend to play Little Willie in ‘East Lynne.’

‘Life on the road was incredibly hard for a child,’ Gish recalls. ‘There were oatmeal meals, hard benches and floors to sleep on, uncomfortable trains, and being stranded far from New York and friends. It was difficult to maintain friends. I never learned how to play with other children.

‘I never had an acting lesson. I was simply told, ‘Go out there and speak loud and clear or we’ll get another little girl.’ It was also drilled into us that when an audience pays to see a performance, it is entitled to the best performance you can give. Nothing in your personal life must interfere, neither fatigue, illness, nor anxiety.

‘There were no labor laws then to protect children in the theater from long hours and bad conditions and lack of schooling, and we were always on the run from the Gerry Society that did seek to protect children. I once outwitted a judge at 10 years old by wearing high heels, a long dress and hair done in a knot so I would appear the legal age of 16.’ —

It is the films made with Griffith that gave Gish lasting fame, recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Special Oscar Award in 1971, and by the American Film Institute with a Life Achievement Award in 1984.

Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner w
Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner

Griffith had made 400 short films before Gish and Dorothy went to work for him, but it was his first full-length film, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ that won him and Lillian Gish national attention. In his greatest achievement, ‘Intolerance,’ she played a mother rocking a cradle that linked the four disparate sections of the film into historical perspective.

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

She is best remembered in such unblushing Griffith melodramas as ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm,’ all achieved, she claims, ‘without ever seeing a script because Griffith only had an outline and it was up to you to find the character in repeated rehearsals.’

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The famous ice floe scene from The Way Down East — with Lillian Gish.

‘Look at my right hand,’ she said, raising it to show several misshapen fingers. ‘Those fingers are crooked because I froze my hand while being photographed on an ice floe on a river in Vermont about 20 times a day for three weeks in ‘Way Down East.’ We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as a result of exposure.’

Later, she said, Hollywood gave up rehearsing scenes and expected actors who may not have met until that morning to be playing together with passion in the afternoon.

‘It’s a wonder films are as good as they are today using that technique. I always tried to find what the character is like and be that character, so rehearsals helped. When you get into a character, you do things you’d never do on your own.’

Gish may be best known to the present generation for TV appearances that began in 1949, in the Philco Playhouse production of ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and continued through ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ a PBS miniseries aired in February and March of this year in which she played Mrs. Loftus.

EM SAint The trip to bountiful

Her most famous TV role was that of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ an original television drama produced by the Philco Playhouse in 1953. This is the same role that won Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in March. Gish also played the role on Broadway when ‘Bountiful’ was transformed into a stage play.

‘It was the first television drama the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives,’ she said. ‘Of course, Horton Foote deserves a lot of credit, and Geraldine gave it to him, but I want to put a word in for Fred Coe, the Philco Playhouse producer, who was really ‘The Father of Television,’ just as Griffith was ‘The Father of Film.”

trip to bountiful

Gish says she almost never goes to see films today, but does watch some television, especially the news.

‘Movies hurt my pride,’ she says. ‘They used to have love, sentiment, and tenderness, but in today’s lovemaking, they just swallow each other’s tonsils. Television had good drama in the early days. But now everything is too busy, too nervous, too unsure of itself.’

Gish prefers reading, especially history, literature, drama, art and religion (she is a devout Episcopalian).

‘Lillian would be equally at home with the Beatles and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ commented Peter Glenville, who directed her in ‘The Comedians,’ a 1967 film about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. ‘And they would equally appreciate her.’

Because she was on the road for most of her childhood, she did not attend regular schools, except for a term spent at an Ursuline academy in Missouri while her actress mother made a brief try at running a candy store in East St. Louis.

streets-of-st-louis-missouri-1900s

‘I used to feel inferior around my cousins, most of whom had gone to college, and I thought they knew a great deal more than I did,’ she says. ‘Now I realize that although I never went to school or received a diploma, I have kept right on learning. I never wanted to own anything but books and I have always been curious and had the energy to pursue my interests.’

She never really had a home either, spending most of her adult life in hotels until she and her mother took apartments in 1929 just off Sutton Place on New York’s smart East Side, a neighborhood in which she still lives.

Lillian Gish in the 80's 5

Sitting on a graceful French canape couch and pointing to the feminine Louis XV-style chairs and tables and the Venetian mirrors in her green-and-gold drawing room, she said, ‘These are all mother’s things. You see, I never really wanted a home.’ —

Gish stands 5-feet-6, erect, and is so healthy she has never had a regular doctor and hasn’t had a headache in 50 years. In fact, she is wary of doctors, observing that ‘My mother’s operation was a great success and she was dead two weeks later. I think if I ever had to go to the hospital, I’d die in the ambulance.’

Gish maintains her girlhood weight of 112 pounds and gives credit for her trimness to her ‘upside down board,’ a contraption given to her by a older male admirer years ago.

‘Older men have always helped me,’ she said. ‘They have given me valuable advice on my health. I find the human race is so dear that when you give them pleasure they want to help you.’

Gish keeps her tilt board by the fireplace just under two Grandma Moses paintings, one given her by Grandma herself when Gish portrayed her on television and the other a gift of Helen Hayes, Gish’s best friend. Gish is godmother to Hayes’ actor son, James MacArthur.

‘I use the board for 30 minutes every morning,’ she said. ‘It puts your feet above your head. Very good for the whole system. Some years ago I took it down the street to Hammacher Schlemmer’s store, which carries all sorts of health machines and they copied it and still stock it.

‘The human body is a miracle. I wish we taught children growing up how to treat it as one. The body is the only house you get to live in and you have to take care of it. —

Lillian Gish NY apartment

‘I have never had a special diet, having always eaten what I want to eat. Anyway, it would have made it difficult for other people if I had been on a diet. I love oysters and fish. I don’t eat beef anymore, however. It makes me think of how cows are slaughtered.’

Gish makes her own breakfast and skips lunch. Her friend-secretary-factotum of 18 years, Jim Frasher, a gifted cook, makes her dinner before he leaves for the day. Frasher, a former stage manager, helps her with correspondence, which averages 40 letters a day.

Her unoccupied maid’s room has been turned into a little gallery of mementoes, ranging from caricatures of Gish by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to a Blackglama ad showing Gish, ‘a legend,’ swathed in mink.

Blackgama-Lilian-Gish

Oil portraits, some quite large, are scattered throughout the apartment. There is one of Gish’s mother in the entrance hall and one of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States and a cousin of her mother’s, in the dining room. A costume portrait of Dorothy, who died in 1968, dominates the living room.

In her book, Gish said Dorothy, whose nickname was ‘Baby,’ never really grew up, had difficulty making decisions, was untidy and disorganized. Gish, a neat, organized person, could not bear to share an apartment with her. Dorothy married James Rennie, one of her leading men in films. They were divorced and Dorothy never remarried.

The precocious moppets of melodrama had parallel careers, starting together with Griffith on location in the Delaware Water Gap, then moving to California in 1913 because he preferred its warm climate and the longer hours of sunlight for shooting.

By 1914 Lillian was pronounced ‘The Most Popular Actress Before the American Public,’ a pinnacle Dorothy would never achieve, although she was a big star in her own right and had a creditable stage career in the 1930s and 1940s. But as drama critic Brooks Atkinson was to point out, they were always ‘the Gish sisters’ in the public mind, ‘as much of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S Truman.’

The Gishes made the transition from silent to talking pictures without difficulty, probably due to their stage experience when they were young. Lillian’s voice is still strong and vibrant.

‘It helped to have been in the theater, and I also had lessons with Victor Maurel, the great French opera singer who lived in Hollywood. He taught me to speak from the diaphram to the mouth without using the throat. Very useful if you have a cold!’

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

Lillian and Dorothy last appeared together in a summer theater tour of Enid Bagnold’s play, ‘The Chalk Garden,’ in 1956.

‘We were much closer than most sisters,’ said Gish. ‘We were always concerned with each other’s welfare. Even when our work separated us, there was a kind of extra-sensory perception that bound us together. I like to think of the first words Hal Holbrook uttered in ‘I Never Sang for My Father,’ the Broadway play I was in just before Dorothy died – ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” —

Gish has never had time to be lonely.

She has been in demand as an actress and an adornment for grand occasions marking anniversaries in the film and theater and honoring other stars. One of the most thrilling was the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial gala in 1983 when she appeared as the dreaming girl in ‘The Specter of the Rose’ with Paris Opera Ballet star Patrick Dupond.

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet - Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

‘The following year, they did a ballet in Paris based on my career and Dorothy’s,’ Gish said. ‘Can you imagine?’

‘Right now I’m waiting for the ‘Lillian Gish’ rose to have its first flowering, so they can officially call it that,’ she said. ‘It’s a hybrid, developed in the Midwest, and I’m very excited about it.’

This year she was guest of honor at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled ‘Hollywood: Legend and Reality,’ in Washington, D.C.

Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s
Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s

Last summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection conferred its annual Star Award on Gish, and she went to Vancouver, Canada, for a screening at Expo ’86 of a documentary that French film star Jeanne Moreau made of her life. Moreau filmed Gish at home, on the streets of New York and at the upstate horse farm of restaurateur Jerry Brody, nuzzling the racehorse named for her.

”Lillian Gish’ has won two races at Aqueduct,’ Gish said proudly.

If Gish had her life to live over, she would like to have done more Shakespeare — certainly Juliet, which eluded her when she was young – because she has ‘always been a snob about my playwrights.

‘I played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, a most remarkable experience. He didn’t play Hamlet. He WAS Hamlet. It was the only play I was ever in when stage hands stood in the wings to watch.’

When she did appear in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production in Stratford, Conn., she played Juliet’s elderly nurse.

Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet - 1965
Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet – 1965

‘Most people do not connect me with Tennessee Williams, but he actually wrote the prototype of the Blanche DuBois role for me in a one-acter called ‘Portrait of a Madonna,’ which evolved in 1947 into the full-length ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,” Gish said.

Another aspect of Gish’s career that is rarely remembered is the major role she took in various aspects of Griffith’s productions, including film editing.

‘He seemed to have faith in my judgment,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the darkroom to pick up the rushes, then I’d fight to have more of me cut out of the film. I always thought an audience should be left wanting more, rather than being surfeited with my image.

‘In those days we worked closely with one another. Now the men who work on developing film are far away from the studios. Everything is different. What was once warm and personal is now mechanical. Film acting became largely a matter of doing what you are told and collecting your salary.

‘When I worked for Griffith, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week because we liked it. There was no place as interesting as the studio.’

If Gish could wish for anything in the world and have it come true, what would it be?

Without hesitation she responds: ‘To follow spring around the world.’

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Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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When Lillian Gish first met Mary Pickford …

Like the Smiths, Lillian Gish, her sister Dorothy and their mother Mary, eked out a living touring with stage companies in the early 1900s. Sometimes together, often separately, they traveled the northeast. Lillian’s father had left the family for greener pastures when the children were still very young. While running a candy store by day, Mary Gish discovered the theater paid more and soon her daughters were cast as well. Let Lillian take the story from here:

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“We made friends during those long tours on the road….Among our most durable and rewarding associations were those with a widow and her three children, who, like us, were child actors.

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While we were in New York, Mother had met Mrs. Charlotte Smith and her three children, and sometime later our two families found that they could cut expenses by sharing a flat. Besides Mrs. Smith, there was Gladys, the older girl; Lottie, the middle one; and a dark, sturdy boy, Jack. We loved the Smiths, especially Gladys, who was like a mother to us.

s-l16mary mcconell robinson 00

There was never any question when she told us to do something. We did it. She would take us to the theater, where each of us would present his card, which bore the name of his most recent play, and say to the man at the box office: ‘Do you recognize professionals? We hear you have a very fine play with good actors. Perhaps we could learn from them.’

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

The Man would look at Gladys. ‘Yes, how many seats do you want?’

When Gladys said, ‘five, please,’ he would have to lean forward and look down, as some of the heads did not come as high as the box office window. After climbing up to the gallery for our seats, Gladys would say, “now you children listen carefully to the way they speak, and watch everything they do, as maybe we will play on Broadway.’

Lottie, Jack, Dorothy and I listened, not knowing that soon Gladys would be doing just that.”

Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish

The serendipitous way Lillian met Mary is made all the more special by knowing they stayed friends for life. And the story of Mary being the unquestioned authority of the group is all the more amusing when we realize that Mary was only a year and a few months older than Lillian.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Source: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me by Lillian Gish with Anne Pinchot, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1969

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

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Lillian Gish, My Religion, Helen Keller, and Jim Patterson – 1974

Lillian in the recording booth reading Helen Keller’s “My Religion” to vinyl recording for distribution to libraries for the blind. (Photo – Talking Books Studios and Swedenborg Foundation.)

Lillian in the recording booth reading Helen Keller's My Religion 1974
Photo Caption: Lillian Gish, silent screen star of the 1920’s, recently recorded My Religion, a personal account of Helen Keller’s faith, for talking books. Miss Gish did the recording at the request of the Swedenborg Foundation, Inc. and because of her personal friendship with Miss Keller. The book was Miss Keller’s tribute to Emmanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish scientist and theologian. (American Federation of the Blind Newsletter, vol 9, No 3, October 1974.)

Lillian in the recording booth reading Helen Keller's My Religion 1974 b

In a typed note by Marguerite L. Levine dated July 9, 1974,

Miss Lillian Gish at AFB Talking Book Studios July 9 1974

Subject: Meeting with Miss Lillian Gish at AFB Talking Book Studios.

Miss Gish came today to the talking Book studios escorted by Mr. Darrell Ruhl, Editor of the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Foundation, in order to record “My Religion,” one of Miss Keller’s works.

Miss Gish met Helen Keller first in Hollywood in 1918 when Miss Keller was making the film “Deliverance.” The Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy, were invited to join Helen Keller and her party on a horseback riding excursion. Dorothy refused as she expected it to be a dreadful experience, but Lillian went along and remembers it as one of the gayest times she ever had. Helen was obviously having great fun and shared her pleasure with her companions.

Another memorable occasion for Miss Gish was the premiere of “Helen Keller in Her Story” at which she sat next to Poly Thomson who interpreted for Miss Keller who seemd to follow the film with the greatest interest and ease.

Miss Lillian Gish at AFB Talking Book Studios July 9 1974 e

There was never any correspondence between Miss Keller and Miss Gish but they met frequently through their respective lives.

Miss Gish will return July 11 to continue her reading of “My Religion,” At that time we will visit the Helen Keller Room together and take pictures for the AFB Newsletter and the Swedenborg Newsletter.

From Box 35 of Lillian’s Papers:

Box 35

Letter from Darrell Ruhl, Swedenborg Foundation, March 5, 1974,

Lillian in the recording booth reading Helen Keller's My Religion 1974 c

Background: “Helen Keller her wonderful life of service which inspired countless numbers of people the world over. Helen Keller was a reader of Swedenborg In 1927 Helen Keller wrote a tribute to Swedenborg an eloquent little book entitled “My Religion” in which she credited the Swedish author with her spiritual development. The book has inspired thousands over the years and has been reprinted 13 times. It was made into a “talking book” for the disabled many years ago but Swedenborg lost the recording.

Miss Lillian Gish at AFB Talking Book Studios July 9 1974 c

“We want to re-record it and make it available free of charge to libraries for the blind and offer it at cost to anyone else. The last time this book was recorded it was read by a man, but this time we feel it should be read with the feeling that Miss Keller herself were talking. It would have so much more impact than an impersonal voice.”

Miss Lillian Gish at AFB Talking Book Studios July 9 1974 d

“We feel you would be an ideal actress for this project and would be most interested to learn your feelings regarding the undertaking of recording this book. We are aware that your time is valuable and your stature is such that your professional services might well be prohibitive, but unless we approach you, we’ll never know.

“If you can find the time to read “My Religion,” I think you will find it as poetic and inspiring as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale did as you will note in his introduction to the book. “

Darrell Ruhl, Assistant to the Manager, March 5, 1974.”

March 12, 1974 letter from Darrell Ruhl to Miss Gish:

“Thank you for telephoning yesterday.  I was most pleasantly surprised and certainly pleased to hear from you.

Miss Lillian Gish at AFB Talking Book Studios July 9 1974 b

“We are thrilled that your reaction to Helen Keller’s book was so favorable. It has long been a goal of mine to have this book recorded again and preferably by an actress who could make the book live. You have the necessary qualities. As a matter of fact, I wrote to you first thinking I would start at the top and go from there.

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Interviewing Miss Gish …

  • Where are you from? What’s your family like?
    I’m originally from Springfield, Ohio. I moved around a lot (Oderman 5). When I was five, just around the time my younger sister was born, my family moved to Dayton. Later we moved to Baltimore so my father could pursue business as a candy store owner. He wasn’t very happy there. He moved to New York, leaving my mother, sister, and I to fend for ourselves in Baltimore (Affron 20).
    My mother and I were very close. Whenever I was with her I felt safe and secure. This was not how I felt about my father. He was an alcoholic. He was in and out of the house from the time I was very six (Affron 21). My sister Dorothy, affectionately know as Doatsie, was my best friend. We loved to play together. (Gish/Lanes 2)

What events in your early life made you interested in the arts?
My family and I moved to New York in 1901 and my mother became an actress. My sister and I would stay in Mother’s dressing room on matinee days. She didn’t act because she loved the art, but for the purpose of supporting our little family because my father was not around. Because this was my mothers main source of income, my sister and I spent a lot of time in the theater. Her show ran three times daily at the Proctor Theater (Oderman 11).
Mother was approached by an actress named Dolores Lorne about Doatsie playing a role in the production East Lynne. Dolores boarded with my family. She got my mother into the acting business. I was surrounded by theater! At first my mother did not want Doatsie to be in the show because Mother’s extended family viewed acting as a bad way to make a living. “Respectable” people thought actors were scum, and believed acting was for the poor and unsophisticated. Mother eventually gave in because we needed the extra money. Soon after I was asked to perform too, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity (Oderman 12)

  • What role did mentors play in helping you develop the interests and talents you have as an artist?
    I always say my first and last acting lesson was while I was in the play Convict Stripes. I was very young at the time. However, I did have the wonderful mentoring of D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a well-respected very smart director at Biograph Studios. He taught me that going out and observing life was the best acting lesson. He was most definitely right (Affron 27)
    I became an observer. Griffith told me to view life in all situations (Oderman 26). I would watch the behavior of people at weddings, funerals, or the arrival of a baby. I went to hospitals, insane asylums, death prisons, and the houses of prisoners. I caught humanity off guard. Watching life taught me everything I know about acting (Oderman 27)

What was the world of acting like when you entered the art field?
I was born into the acting world on the stage. A few years after I made my debut, films became all the rage. At first no self-respecting actress or actor would be in a movie, but soon the steady income won us over. My family friend, Gladdis, made us aware of all the perks. She had a studio apartment, a chauffeur, and was getting payed 175 dollars a week! Though, in todays times, this is not much money but in the early 1900s this was an enormous amount.(Oderman 23)
After traveling around the country for several years for stage acting, I came back to New York. I heard from Gladdis about the Biograph, a filming company. Mother wanted us to try out the film life. We had hopes of meeting Mr. Griffith at the company, and we did. He told us that our prepared monologues did not matter, after all it was a silent film audition! He liked how Doatsie and I acted and decided to take a chance on us.

  • How did the major cultural, economic, and political situations of the time impact your work?
    My family was pressed for money. Father had left us and we were running out of options. My mother moved us to New York and decided to become an actress. Acting was considered a bit vulgar at the time, but we had no other choices. Doatsie and I started acting soon afterward (Wismer, Massilon History)
    Politically drama was affected immensely. I was in Birth of a Nation, which is an extremely political and controversial movie about the Civil War. Dramatic entertainment was often an escape from the world problems and issues. But in some cases audiences were thrust into reality with no choice otherwise. I, as an actress, had to study politics in the 1800s for my role (PBS, Lillian Gish).


What were your major accomplishments in acting? What methods did you use while performing?
I believe just being able to make a living in the movie business was an accomplishment. I directed and acted my heart out. I was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. I received and honorary Academy Award. I was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. These were all very honorable things to be awarded for, but I believe my whole life was an achievement because I lived it to the fullest ( The Official Website of Lillian Gish).
Acting is life. Do you use a method for life or living? I sure don’t. Acting should seem and become reality. Never get caught acting (BGSU, Gish Sisters)

  • What were the key opportunities you had that led you to turning point in your life and acting?
    Quite honestly, a really great opportunity arose from my father leaving. My mother, sister, and I had to become independent. We all became so through acting. If my family had not made it in the acting world my mother would have had to become a maid or a nanny for a rich family who wouldn’t pay her even close to enough to support our family. At first acting was just a money source, but it became so much more. It became the love of my life (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).
    I also received many opportunities from D.W. Griffith. He was my discoverer. Mr. Griffith put me in my first movie. I owe so much to him. Although I did eventually have to leave his production company, I still hold him dear in my heart. MGM brought me many new opportunities too. I was in my first talking movie there (Beaver, Lillian Gish).
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

What roadblocks or hardships did you have to overcome to be an artist?
My mother struggled to support us and often had to leave Doatsie and I with her actress friends. I learned a lot from them but I always missed my mother. At a young age I had to grow up very fast and get a job. I would often travel in a show without a guardian. I put away childish things to help support my family and to find out that I truly loved acting (Gish Film/Theater Collection).
Later in my life, after I’d had success in silent films, I went back to the theater. Talkies had become popular with everyone except me. I believed it would be the end of elegance in the movie world. Many believed I wouldn’t be a good theater actress. They admired my work in silent films but doubted that my on stage talent was quite as good. Boy, did I prove them wrong! (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).

  • Who are the people you admire in the arts and beyond? Why do they inspire you?
    I admire my mother more than she ever knew. She is a strong, independent woman who never gave up. She taught me that I didn’t need a man, or anybody for that matter, to succeed. She raised Doatsie and me, and I’m forever grateful. She also brought me into the acting business. I wouldn’t have such a successful career without her. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)
    My dear sister, Doatsie, has always inspired me. She is strong, funny, and never took no for an answer. I love her dearly. D.W. Griffith inspires me, too. He is an amazing director. He put Doatsie and me in our first movie. He is a good teacher, mentor, and friend. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)

What anecdotes best illustrate how you became successful in the arts?
The stage manager in my first show once told me “Speak loud and clear, or they’ll get another little girl.” I did just that, and look how far I’ve come! I am grateful to that stage manager, because he may have helped me jump-start my career. You should always listen to the comments and critiques of stage managers, they really know what they are talking about. (Affron, 27)
My first audition for a film was with D.W. Griffith. My sister and I had prepared monologues, but he told us to forget about them. He told us to sit and talk to each other. He then proceeded to pull out a gun. He chased us around the audition room, and the whole time Doatsie and I were screaming. After a while he put the gun away looking satisfied, and told us we got the parts! (Oderman, 26)

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Sources:

Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. New York: Scribner, 2001. Print.
“Gish Film Theater Collection.” BGSU, 2003. Web. 26 February, 2012.
Gish, Lillian. Lanes, Selma. An Actors Life for Me. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1987. Print.
“Gish Sisters.” BGSU. 2003. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: About Lillian Gish.” PBS Online, 2001. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: Actress.” Extravagant Crowd, 2007. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish (1893-1993).” Golden Silents, 2010. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“News.” The Official Website of Lillian Gish, 2006 Web. 28 February, 2012.
Oderman, Stuart. Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000. Print.
“Talking About Movies: Lillian Gish.” University of Michigan, 2011. Web. 28 February, 2012.
Wismer, Amanda. “Lillian Gish” Massillon Museum of Art. 2006.Web. 29 February, 2012.

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Interviewing-Lillian-Gish
Interviewing-Lillian-Gish

The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – 1969

The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me

By Lillian Gish & Ann Pinchot (Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall, 1969)

Book Hard Cover Sleeve

D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) was a popular and innovative Hollywood film director who made silent films in the early 20th century. His most famous film was Birth of a Nation, which appeared in 1915 and drew criticism from many African Americans for its depiction of blacks and its advocacy of white supremacy.
The NAACP organized protests and boycotts of the film nationwide. In this selection from her autobiography, the actress Lillian Gish describes Griffith’s conception of the film.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.

One afternoon during the spring of 1914, while we were still working in California, Mr. Griffith took me aside on the set and said in an undertone, “After the others leave tonight, would you please stay.”
Later, as some of the company drifted out, I realized that a similar message had been given to a few others. This procedure was typical of Mr. Griffith when he was planning a new film. He observed us with a smile, amused perhaps by our curiosity over the mystery that he had created.
I suspected what the meeting was about. A few days before, we had been having lunch at The White Kitchen, and I had noticed that his pockets were crammed with papers and pamphlets. My curiosity was aroused, but it would have been presumptuous of me to ask about them. With Mr. Griffith one did not ask; one only answered. Besides, I had learned that if I waited long enough he would tell me.
“I’ve bought a book by Thomas Dixon, called The Clansman. I’m going to use it to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.” He paused, watching the cluster of actors: Henry Walthall, Spottiswoode Aiken, Bobby Harron, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, George Siegmann, Walter Long, and me.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - One of Lillian's favorite pictures of D.W. Griffith — with D. W. Griffith.

“The story concerns two families—the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South.” He added significantly, “I know I can trust you.”
He swore us to secrecy, and to us his caution was understandable. Should his competitors learn of his new project, they would have films on the same subject completed before his work was released. He discussed his story plots freely only over lunch or dinner, often testing them out on me because I was close-mouthed and never repeated what anyone told me.…

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.
Mr. Griffith didn’t need the Dixon book. His intention was to tell his version of the War between the States. But he evidently lacked the confidence to start production on a twelve-reel film without an established book as a basis for his story. After the film was completed and he had shown it to the so-called author, Dixon said: “This isn’t my book at all.” But Mr. Griffith was glad to use Dixon’s name on the film as author, for, as he told me, “The public hates you if it thinks you wrote, directed, and produced the entire film yourself. It’s the quickest way to make enemies.”
After the first rehearsal, the pace increased. Mr. Griffith worked, as usual, without a script. But this time his pockets bulged with books, maps, and pamphlets, which he read during meals and the rare breaks in his hectic schedule.…
At first I didn’t pay much attention to Mr. Griffith’s concept of the film. His claim that history books falsified actual happenings struck me as most peculiar.
At that time I was too naïve to think that history books would attempt to falsify
anything. I’ve lived long enough now to know that the whole truth is never told in history texts. Only the people who lived through an era, who are the real participants in the drama as it occurs, know the truth. The people of each generation, it seems to me, are the most accurate historians of their time.
Soon sets were going up; costumes arrived; and mysterious crates, evidently filled with military equipment, were delivered.…

When the final casting was announced, we learned that Ralph Lewis was to play
the Honorable Austin Stoneman, the “uncrowned king of Capitol Hill.” The character of Stoneman, a fiery political fanatic from the North, was patterned after the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, one of the legislators whose harsh policy toward the South wrecked President Lincoln’s postwar plans.
Bobby Harron and Elmer Clifton were to play Stoneman’s sons, and I was given the role of his daughter Elsie. Mary Alden was to be Stoneman’s mulatto mistress Lydia Brown, whom Dixon described as “a woman of extraordinary animal beauty and the fiery temper of a leopardess.”
George Siegmann was awarded the part of Silas Lynch, who, according to Dixon, was “a Negro of perhaps forty years, a man of charming features.…”
Walter Long was to be the renegade Negro Gus, and Elmo Lincoln, a magnificent strong man who would later swing through the trees as Tarzan, played the Negro who attacks Wallace Reid, the stalwart blacksmith.
There were practically no Negro actors in California then and, as far as we knew, only a few in the East. Even in minstrel shows, the parts were usually played by whites in blackface. The only scene in which actual Negroes appear in The Birth is the one in which the Stoneman boys, visiting the southern Camerons, are taken out to the plantation to see Negroes working in the cotton fields.

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When this scene was filmed in Death Valley, where the Negroes worked, they danced andplayed their banjos for the visiting actors.
But one young Negro woman did play in the film—Madame Sul-Te-Wan. (We never did discover the origin of her name.) She was first employed to help us keep our dressing rooms clean at the studio. She was devoted to Mr. Griffith, and he in turn loved her. Later, when Madame was having financial difficulties, he sent her money to help herself and her small sons. She was one of the few friends near him when he died years later in Hollywood.…
For President Lincoln, Mr. Griffith chose Joseph Henabery, a tall, thin man who could be made up to resemble Lincoln. The search for an appropriate Mary Todd Lincoln ended when he found a woman with an uncanny similarity to the First Lady working in wardrobe. Raoul Walsh was picked for the role of John Wilkes Booth. Members of Mr. Lincoln’s Cabinet were chosen on the basis of facial resemblance to the historical characters. The other historical characters were recreated by Donald Crisp as General Grant, Howard Gaye as General Lee, and Sam de Grasse as Senator Sumner.…

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Although fact and legend were familiar to him, he did meticulous research for The Birth. The first half of The Birth, about the war itself, reflects his own point of view. I know that he also relied greatly on Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Matthew Brady’s Civil War Photographs: Confederate and Union Veterans— Eyewitnesses on Location; the Nicolay and Hay Abraham Lincoln: A History; and The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict 1861–1865. For the second half, about Reconstruction, he consulted Thomas Dixon, and A History of the American People by Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson had taught history before going into politics, and Mr. Griffith had great respect for his erudition. For Klan material, he drew on a book called Ku Klux Klan—Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment by John C. Lester and D.L. Wilson. But he did not use the uniform that is worn by Klan members today. Instead he used the costumes that, according to Thomas Dixon, were worn by the earlier Klans—white and scarlet flowing
robes with hood and mask to hide the features of rider and horse.
Brady’s photographs were constantly consulted, and Mr. Griffith restaged many moments of history with complete fidelity to them. The photographs were used as guides for such scenes as Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Sherman’s march to the sea. He telegraphed a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, for photographs of the interior of the state capital, which held a majority of Negro representatives after the war, and constructed the legislative chamber according to the photographs.

The largest interior was Ford’s Theater, the setting of the assassination scene, which was done in one day on the lot. So great was Mr. Griffith’s obsession with authenticity that he unearthed a copy of Our American Cousin, which had been performed at Ford’s Theater on the night of the assassination, and restaged parts of it. In the actual filming, as Raoul Walsh, gun ready, steals into the Presidential box, the lines being spoken on the replica of the stage are precisely those spoken at the fateful moment on the night of April 14, 1865. This fidelity to facts was an innovation in films.
Mr. Griffith knew the terrain of the battle fields, and he hired several Civil War veterans to scout locations similar to the original ones. After exploring the southern California country, they chose what later became the Universal lot for the countryside around Petersburg, Virginia, site of the last prolonged siege and final battle of the war.
He had studied maps of the major battles of the Civil War and, with the help of the veterans, laid out the battle fields. Trenches, breastworks, roads, brooks, and buildings were constructed to duplicate those of the actual battle fields. Troop movements were planned with the advice of the veterans and two men from West Point Military Academy. Civil War artillery was obtained from West Point and the Smithsonian Institution, for use when the camera was close.
Mr. Griffith also sent to the Smithsonian for historical records and then went over the documents with his advisers. But in the end he came to his own conclusions about historical facts. He would never take the opinion of only one man as final.

Source: From The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me by Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Copyright © 1969 by Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot. Copyright renewed © 1997 by James Frasher and Ann Pinchot. Reprinted by arrangement with James Frasher, Susan Pinchot, and the Barbara Hogenson Agency.

“Of whatever excesses or outrages the blacks may be guilty, these they commit as blind and misguided, if violent, pawns of their satanic new white masters from the North ” (DW Griffith)

 

Two years after the uproar over “The Birth”, when he agreed, at the behest of British and French officials, to make propaganda films, Griffith was obliged to portray all Germans as loathsome. This troubled him, for he never believed that there were marked differences among people. Regardless of background, he felt, they were all children of God.

In the midst of these battles, Mr.Griffith began work on an answer to his critics in the medium he had created. “The world is too full of ‘Think as I think or be damned.’”

“What the censors are doing has been done time and time again in the history of mankind.”

(The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me)

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Colorful, lively, and moving memoir of a giant of the early screen, actress Lillian Gish. Her story is inseparable with the history of the movies, from the early days, when the pioneers of the industry worked long hours through hardship and cold, public criticism through the horrors of war, and the proverty of the Depression. She knew them all: Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Rudolh Valentino, Noel Coward, Erich Von Stroheim, and many more. She talks about the director of many of her films, D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith), whose consuming passion creating new ways to tell stories on celluloid. A long-time member of his company, she separates the man from the legend. She exposes the very personal, human side of this early Hollywood legend, warts and all.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith directing Lillian in Way Down East — with D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.

True to her own philosophy, Lillian Gish in this book tells the story of her own era and of the personalities who built the movie industry to its present greatness. With candour and wisdom, humour and pathos, Miss Gish relates her own experiences and fascinating memories of the growth and development of motion pictures. This is the story of a great industry, from birth to maturity. It is also the story of the people who struggled, dreamed, and strove unceasingly to make the film industry the giant that it is today.

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The subtlety and passionate conviction of her work with Griffith revolutionized the art of screen acting. In 1920, she became one of the first women to direct a feature film, REMODELING HER HUSBAND. Soon after that, she assumed artistic control of the films in which she appeared; her contract with MGM in the late silent era gave her a power few other women have achieved in Hollywood. With such productions as LA BOHÈME, THE SCARLET LETTER and THE WIND, she brought the silent film to the summit of its art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

United Artists Corporation Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, David Wark Griffith
United Artists Corporation – Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, David Wark Griffith

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Peter Warrack: Lillian Gish signing her book, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me

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The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – Photo Gallery

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Book Hard Cover Sleeve

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Live on Stage LILLIAN GISH AND THE MOVIES Rare Early Films 1969 Event Program

LILLIAN GISH AND THE MOVIES 1971 – Event Program

Lillian Gish and The Movies - 1971

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A selection made from few of Miss Lillian Gish’s silent films

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