Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan (Charles Affron)

  • Movie Digest – 1925
    Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood
  • Jack Foley

CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground. THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.


For the first ten years of her career, Lillian Gish had been nearly impermeable to the most common sort of movie-star publicity—speculation about her love affairs. Only the rare mention of a possible relationship between D. W. Griffith and his leading lady challenged the notion that the object of Lillian’s affection, after her mother and sister, was the movies. The entanglement with Charles Duell had, of course, altered that perception.

And, at the same time, she was linked with another man, a writer and intellectual, the most influential drama critic of the period. There is no doubt that George Jean Nathan, champion of modernist, “serious” theatre, who flaunted a snobbish disdain for the movies and all other manifestations of popular culture, fell in love with Lillian Gish. Nor is there any question that for ten years, George was the most important man in Lillian’s life, perhaps the great love of her life. He also exerted a formative influence on her taste and her professional activities. Struck by her beauty and style, Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell had included versions of Lillian Gish in their novels. But it was as George Jean Nathan’s female companion that Lillian secured her place among the elite of America’s arts and letters during the 1920s and 1930s.

They were from adjoining states, Ohio and Indiana, born eleven years apart, Nathan on February 14, 1882. In terms of affluence, religion, and schooling, their backgrounds and upbringings were dissimilar. George’s father, Charles Naret-Nathan, a Jew from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, was well educated, wealthy, and cosmopolitan. His mother, Ella Nordlinger, was a native of Fort Wayne, George’s birthplace. Part Jewish, she attended a convent school and converted to Catholicism. As we know, Lillian attended school sporadically. While little Lillian was touring in melodramas, George was studying in Italy, France, and Germany, before his graduation from Cornell in 1904. Through the good offices of his uncle Charles Nordlinger, drama critic for the New York Herald, George found a job on the paper and was soon writing theatre reviews for Harper’s Weekly. Nathan’s name would often be associated with that of the Baltimore journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken. Six years after Nathan met Mencken in 1908 in the office of The Smart Set, the two men became this magazine’s coeditors and turned its pages into a forum for the cause of modern literature.

Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan — Chateau Du Plessis France

Nathan stewarded the first American publications of James Joyce, two stories from Dubliners; the young Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were given boosts by inclusion in The Smart Set where works by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Theodore Dreiser appeared as well. The Mencken-Nathan circle included Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather, all of whom contributed to The Smart Set. In partnership with publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Nathan and Mencken founded a more prestigious journal in 1924, The American Mercury. Its stated goal was “to offer a comprehensive picture, critically presented, of the entire American scene,” including the arts, politics, industrial and social relations, and science, all from the perspective of “the civilized minority.”

Nathan’s concerns were not so catholic, however. “What interests me in life is the surface of life: life’s music and color, its charm and ease, its humor and its loveliness. The great problems of the world—social, political, economic, and theological do not concern me in the slightest. I care not who writes the laws of the country so long as I may listen to its songs. I can live every bit as happily under a king, or even a Kaiser, as under a president.” With political views “slightly to the right of Marie Antoinette’s,” Nathan was a dandy who suffered from an excess of “noblesse oblige.” He was also a condescending racist who, without a trace of irony, urged his readers to save their tears for the African-American. According to this opinion-maker, the black man should be “happier by far than he ever was, which is more than his average white brother-democrat can say for himself.” After all, in recent years, Nathan proudly asserted, more whites had been lynched than blacks. And black men could even marry white women! Although Mencken was situated on the same side of the political spectrum as Nathan, the two men clashed over the focus of The American Mercury. Nathan almost immediately resigned his coeditorship but continued to contribute pieces on theatre for five more years.


Nathan and Mencken belonged to the same ” civilized minority” that treated the movies and their stars with unmasked contempt. The coterie made an exception of Lillian Gish. In fact, the fourth issue of The American Mercury featured an article by Joseph Hergesheimer entitled ” Lillian Gish.” Full of the usual condescension to the movie business, it recounted Hergesheimer’s meetings with Lillian to discuss his portrait of her in Cytherea and movie projects he wished her to consider. First, at her refusal of a drink and a cigarette, Hergesheimer was seduced by her public image and delighted in her prudishness: “It made flawless her quaint rigidity of bearing, her withdrawn grace.” From the little she said, he was struck by the passionate way she referred to her work: “It was her religion, since it had accomplished for her the offices of a religion—it had raised her from the earth to the sky.” Then came Hergesheimer’s attacks against petit bourgeois attachments to mother, patriotism, and home, along with his hope that Lillian’s mind might be “liberated from the tyranny of mob sentimentality.” Poor Lillian, of course, “was wholly superior,” but she “hadn’t associated with the people and ideas that would have given a clear and aesthetic form to her thoughts. She hadn’t the relative calm, the superiority, of an intelligent background.” Hergesheimer’s critique of the bourgeoisie was the party line of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. For his part, Nathan clearly took pleasure in heaping scorn upon the cinema, an enterprise emblematic of all that was wrong with the tasteless, materialistic society that produced and worshiped it. “Controlled in the overwhelming main by the most ignorant social outcasts … by hereditary toothpick suckers, soup coloraturos and six-day sockwearers, controlled in the mass by men of a complete anaesthesia to everything fine and everything earnest and everything dollarless, the moving pictures—the physic of the proletariat—have revealed themselves the most effective carriers of idiocy that the civilized world has known.” There is some irony in that the policy makers of these magazines, Mencken and Nathan, were particularly close to Lillian Gish, an actress who, in her Griffith films, incarnated some of the very notions that the intellectuals deplored. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the middle-class homilies Lillian enunciated in her letters to Nell through the early 1920s, but her long sojourns in Italy and her troubled relationship to Charles Duell had certainly changed her. At this point, Lillian seemed ready to continue the worldly education that would liberate her from the confines of home and hearth, and perhaps even from Griffith’s essentially prewar worldview. Although they denigrated the movies and, to some degree, patronized the poorly educated actress, Lillian Gish became the muse of some of the smartest men in America, attracting them with her charm, beauty, intelligence, and most flattering of all, her receptivity to their genius. Of all the Griffith actresses, Lillian had been the director’s most diligent student. She now turned her concentration to a richer curriculum. The genius central to Lillian’s life was George Jean Nathan. Although there is some dispute over when their initial encounter took place, it was probably with Mencken, in 1924, soon after her return from Italy following the completion of Romola and hard upon the end of her “unofficial” engagement to Duell. “The first time I met him was at lunch. I sat between them [Nathan and Mencken] after thanking them for printing Joseph Hergesheimer’s piece on me in their April issue of their new magazine, The American Mercury. They both started to talk at once, the subject poetry. Neither listened to the other, just a rapid fire of talk and jokes as was their custom.” Lillian, who knew Nathan by reputation, had expected an older man, “sixty, at least, white-haired, and probably paunchy,” but found him to be “dark and vigorous,” with a particularly attractive speaking voice. (Director Harold Clurman described him as “Latin-looking, very handsome.”)

Nathan and his friends represented a new world, a new way of thinking for Lillian. “I sat in the group of gay, facile conversationalists and found myself unversed but appreciative. With no hope of being one of them, I searched for anecdotes that might possibly be dropped in quietly and entertain them for a time. And George, all subtle attention, leaning toward me with ‘and what happened next?’ in his eyes. Things of that kind. If you looked for one special quality in George, you’d find that swift, definite courtesy. A good basis for friendship. He was the first man to show me that a smart hat was more becoming to me than a halo of blonde hair in soft-focus camera effect.” The opposition of the smart hat to the halo of blond hair must have been George’s way of extracting Lillian from her pervasive mind-set of moviemaking. He helped her see herself as part of a larger, more varied world than she had ever known.

Lillian’s predecessor in Nathan’s life was Fred Astaire’s sister and showbusiness partner, Adele. Nathan had dedicated The House ofSatan to Adele, who hoped to marry him. After offering various excuses for broken appointments, “he told her that the French ambassador, Paul Claudel, a famous poetdramatist, was in town and that he must confer with him. He found out that the French ambassador was Lillian Gish.’ ” Nathan was smitten with Lillian, and, it appears, she with him. Just two days prior to the New York premiere of Romola, Nathan sent a telegram to Lillian that testifies to their mutual affection:


In his adulatory article on her acting in the November 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, George all but declared his love for Lillian. Betraying his Germanophilia, George entitled the piece “Die Kino-Konigin: a Critical Appreciation of the First Lady of the Cinema.” Leave it to George to write a panegyric to the Queen of Cinema while decrying the movies as unworthy of her talents. But since he allows that “some of the most beautiful performances of Duse and Bernhardt were wrought out of dramatic rubbish, the beautiful performances of Lillian Gish have been wrought from rubbish, no less.” Along with the lyric flights of his pen, he offers some insight into the quality of her art. “Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion, . . . behind a veil of silver chiffon.” Nathan is particularly struck by the sense that she combines directness and simplicity with elusiveness. “She is always present, she always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight around the corner.” His deep feelings for her emerge in comparisons no less sincere for their lack of originality. “The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl . . . are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes.”

Just a few months following the appearance of this article, and directly after Lillian’s exoneration in the Duell trial, word spread of her engagement and impending marriage to Nathan. “America’s most celebrated womanhater and a devastating critic of movies” was a dandy who, at first nights, reserved the adjoining seat “for his hat, stick and opera coat.” Lillian Gish was the new occupant of the seat. “It is reported that he will now write scenarios for his fiancee.” Speculation about engagement and marriage would continue for years, always to be denied by the couple. But a couple they were, and very much in the news. Long the chaste goddess with an edifying book in her hand, Lillian now attracted the measure of racy publicity that befit a star of the first magnitude.

George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

Even before Lillian was freed from Duell’s injunction, other companies began to bid for her. Harry Carr telegraphed from London: “joe schenck [United Artists] WISHES TO know if you will do nothing definite with any other organisation until he returns to new york.” Mary Pickford, one of the partners in United Artists, urged her old friend to sign with the company. “I am sure Mr. Schenck could arrange for the financing of your pictures and releasing through our company, that is if you cared to be with our United Artists. I shall be very happy to suggest this to him when the time comes.” Once the trial reached its successful outcome for Lillian, Mary could afford to be insistent: “there is no question that this is where you should be.” Pickford lauded Joe Schenck, “the most progressive and capable manager in the business,” for his integrity. (Schenck must have been remarkably fair-minded, secure in his marriage, and thoroughly convinced of Lillian’s box-office appeal. His wife, the extremely popular, talented, and highly paid Norma Talmadge, had moved her production unit to United Artists. Talmadge and Gish, likely to be considered for the same kinds of roles, were the current front-runners in the ” great dramatic actress” sweepstakes.) According to Mary, United Artists would protect Lillian by not demanding “more pictures than are artistically possible to produce.” However, it was not Joe Schenck, chairman of the board at United Artists, who succeeded in putting Lillian under contract, but his brother, Nicholas, vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Schenck brothers already had an indirect connection to the Gish sisters and their mother. Before entering the movie business, they had owned amusement parks, among them Fort George in Upper Manhattan, where Mary Gish had run a candy stand and her little girls had learned to ride horses.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

When Lillian Gish joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the major forces in the movie industry were Paramount Pictures, in business since 1914, and First National, founded in 1917. Warner Bros., Fox, and Universal were other strong studios. United Artists, established in 1919, merged the huge boxoffice appeal of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W Griffith, and produced excellent movies, though not very many of them. At the time of its formation in 1924, M-G-M was obviously the newest studio on the block, but it was far from the weakest. Loew’s, Inc., Metro Pictures Incorporated, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (without its founder, Samuel Goldwyn), and Louis B. Mayer pooled their energies and resources to create a studio that immediately joined the first rank. In its initial year of business, M-G-M realized a profit of more than $4.7 million, trailing Paramount alone in this regard. The former Goldwyn lot in Culver City was equipped to produce a steady stream of movies designed to satisfy the extensive Loew’s theatre chain. Among the studio’s proven stars were Lon Chaney, Alice Terry, Buster Keaton, Mae Murray, Blanche Sweet, John Gilbert, and Marion Davies. Its roster of directors included Fred Niblo, Rex Ingram, King Vidor, and Erich von Stroheim. The dynamic chief, Louis B. Mayer, and his head of production, the young and creative Irving Thalberg, supervised the vast operation that was M-G-M, a studio destined to become, under their leadership, the most potent and prosperous in the history of the movies. Mayer undoubtedly believed that the Gish name would sell movie tickets. But he also had a fond memory of how much The Birth ofa Nation had meant to his initial success in the movie business. He had made a fortune on his down payment of $20,000 for the New England rights to exhibit Griffith’s landmark film. Mayer, Thalberg, and Nicholas Schenck were so eager to bring Lillian to M-G-M that she was able negotiate an enviable contract, signed on May 12, 1925. Although lacking her much-desired provision for a percentage of the profits, in every other way it showed how highly the studio valued Lillian’s services, which became theirs exclusively for two years. Her salary of $800,000 was posited on making six pictures, with the possibility of a seventh. Several clauses in the contract indicate the degree of respect Lillian commanded. She was not required to make personal appearances or do any promotional work. (This clause came in handy when she was able to refuse the studio’s request to put her name on candy boxes.) Even more surprising, she was guaranteed consultation on the selection of her stories, directors, and cast. Although the studio reserved for itself the final decision, this degree of star power and input was unusual. And despite Lillian’s recent notoriety, there was no morals clause in the contract.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Lillian was apprehensive about the burden the contract placed on her. With the memory of Romola’s excessive production cost fresh in her mind, she feared that her high salary would inflate the budgets of her M-G-M movies, thereby inhibiting their profitability. And despite the claims of star status Lillian’s attorney made in the Duell trial, this practical, clear-eyed woman must have known that she was far less popular than Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford. Others certainly knew it: “Miss Gish holds a peculiar position. She has never been a great box office star but she has gained tremendously in the last two years. Her claim for popularity rests entirely upon her ability as an actress. The public is slow to appreciate great art. She must have been heartened when the writer went on to predict “a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.” Neither he nor Lillian could have dreamed how prescient he in fact was.

Excerpt from “Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life” by Charles Affron

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Great names and how they are made – By THODA COCROFT (1941)

  • Great Names
  • Copyright 1941
  • The United States, Canada and Great Britain by Thoda Cocroft
  • Printed in the United States of America

The writing of Lillian Gish shows a mental type with delicate sensibilities, whimsical humor, modest tastes, temperate habits, thought for others, surprising firmness. Power of concentration, above the average.


Blondes Are Volcanoes, Huh?

The third blonde was Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

Shortly after “Topspeed” opened in New York, Richard Maney resigned from the Warner Brothers publicity staff and returned to Jed Harris’ office where he had formerly been associated. I left when he did. Later I went out in advance of Jed Harris’ production of “Uncle Vanya,” in which Lillian Gish played the leading role.

The company was rehearsing at the theatre when Maney took me there to meet her. Unlike most first impressions which shift and rebuild themselves, exhibiting irritating angles under the changing focus of close acquaintance, my first mental picture of Lillian has remained unchanged.

She instantly reminded me of a particular rose in my mother’s California garden called “cloth of gold,” with dull yellow outer petals of the same pale shade as her long hair. She was reminiscent of the rose, too, in her grace and slenderness. So fragant was her personality that talking to her was very much like standing against a sunny wall and sniffing the sweetness of that especial yellow flower. I had expected her to be more guarded, less cordial. And it was remarkable to find that the impact of her cinema fame, the push and strain of the hundreds of letters which she still received from picture fans, had not injured her charm nor imposed that expression of suspicion common to many of the widely publicized people of the screen.

Yet in the same capacity of press agent, when I noted wariness in Katharine Hepburn’s eyes and distrust in her face, I had wondered what she was afraid of. A friend of Hepburn’s had explained it in the Broadway idiom: “Aw, she thinks ya wanta put the bee on her.”

1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena

Apparently Lillian Gish had abundant resources to meet any such impertinences and did not have to erect ugly screens of misgiving. To be sure, certain protections from the public were necessary and one of the things she asked me in that early conversation was that I make her reservations in Boston and other cities under a different name than that of Lillian Gish.

I eyed her inquisitively that day, searching for the blonde tattoos of superheat but could discover none of them. She seemed to be functioning on a mental rather than an emotional plane. We talked about Chekov and “Uncle Vanya,” of how the atmospheric accompaniment of his plays exceeded the plot action in importance, and of how this mood had been created by the rubbing of one character against another. Lillian was thoughtful in her analysis. It was clear she had studied the Russian dramatist and had read a great deal more than I had on the subject. I had not seen her performance then, although I had read a sheaf of enthusiastic New York reviews of it.

Jed Harris was in New Haven when I left New York for Boston for the try-out performance of Liam O’Flaherty’s “Mr. Gilhooley,” in which Helen Hayes and Arthur Sinclair were playing the leading roles. I stopped off there for a couple of hours to see him.

Several years previous to this, when I had lived in Greenwich Village, I had known Jed Harris. He was a theatrical press agent in those days himself, at least whenever he could get an advance agent’s job. Occasionally he came to my apartment and talked of the plays he planned some day to produce. We called him “the infant Belasco” and Jed accepted the title seriously, although he sometimes protested the limitation of a mere Belasco contribution to the theatre.

“I will be the most cultured producer in America,” he declared earnestly. “Belasco,” he shrugged, “is out of date. I will be better than he is, better than the Theatre Guild.”

I laughed at this heresy and at his egotism.

Theater Producer Jed Harris

That day in New Haven I found Jed at the Shubert Theatre watching the “Mr. Gilhooley” rehearsal. It was at this theatre that he had first ushered as a boy. His father had emigrated from Russia and, after a struggle, had established a tailor shop in the Connecticut town. During his early years Jed had known what it was to be penniless and to go hungry. The protective layers of self-esteem he had built up against the hurt and misery of those early days had left him arrogant, cocksure, utterly and entirely ruthless. In appearance he was tall, bony, the black-faced Semitic type. Even when he was freshly shaven the blue-black line of stubble showed through on the skin of his cheeks. He had bold, black, penetrating eyes, a long, prominent nose, and a shrewd mouth.

That day he had not shaved, an omission which became an affectation of his once he achieved the success category on Broadway. His shoulders stooped characteristically, as he paced around the theatre during the rehearsal waits.

He saw me and sat down to talk for a few minutes. Then the rehearsal started again and he changed his seat. Every three to five minutes after that he continued to change his seat, getting up frequently to walk back and ask me what I thought of the play before I had seen enough of the rehearsal to form any sort of judgment.

It was apparent that he was crazy with nervousness as well as distrustful of the play but could not put his finger on the sour spots. At that time his success with “The Front Page,” “Broadway,” “The Royal Family,” and “Coquette” was more like a fairy tale than any reality in the theatre. Crowning these big money-makers, his artistic triumph with “Uncle Vanya” indicated that, after all, the early prediction he had made for himself was no heresy. After “Uncle Vanya,” however, Broadway waited anxiously for the next astonishing chapter in the Jed Harris legend, while wiseacres in show business began to declare that this Arabian Nights episode was finished. His production “Our Town” nevertheless has indicated that another spectacular eruption of the Harris genius is not at all unlikely.

To reach Boston that evening I had to leave directly after the first act. I had an uneasy feeling, even with the little I had seen of the play, that “Mr. Gilhooley” was not in the lucky “hit” class. As it turned out later, the play was a failure.

, Lillian wrote and wired me friendly messages. Her letters were delightful, written in a fragile backhand that seemed exactly to typify her. And always she I thanked me for any routine service included in the course of my duties, as if I were doing her the greatest of favors. Later, at holiday time, her Christmas card written in her own delicate script said simply: “I think of you at Christmas time.”

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Lillian Gish standing and brushing her hair]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3506

In Chicago, Lillian rented an apartment at the Lake Shore Drive Hotel. I visited her there several times. One morning I arrived before she was dressed and found her in negligee, combing her long, pale hair. It was so long it put me in mind of the princess in the fairy story who let her golden tresses down over the castle wall for her knight to use as a ladder. Falling far below her waist, it was like a heavy shawl in its weight and thickness. In color, it was a natural rose-petal ash blonde. Was she the smouldering type?

But Lillian, at heart, nursed no white-hot fires. Or so I wrote the young director, thinking to put his ‘‘hot- mama’’ theories entirely to rout. In reply he called me “insensitive, unobservant, myopic. . . She’s in love with George Jean Nathan and madly jealous of him—as only a true blonde can be.”

George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

With zipped-up interest I returned to my researches in blonde emotions. The George Jean Nathan rumor had been current for several years. Lillian had even admitted that a ring she wore had Nathan’s picture in it. “Friendship,” she had explained. Was it possible a volcano was erupting under my nose and that I was not even aware of it?

While I surreptitiously watched for symptoms the publicity wheels must keep moving. At the Chicago Art Institute I knew there was a portrait of Lillian Gish in the permanent collection, representing her in her motion picture role of Romola and painted by Nicholai Fechin. Purchased for the Institute by the Friends of Modern Art, it has been hung appropriately by the door of the studio theatre. Although it is not an unusual thing for an actress to have her portrait painted, no other portraits of stage people are in the Institute; Lillian Gish is the only living actress whose portrait has such unique distinction.

Passing through Chicago on former trips, Lillian had attempted to see her picture after it had been hung there. But she had not been able to find it on any of these trips and was far too shy to ask for it. I suggested that she make a pilgrimage there and allow newspaper photographers to take her picture viewing this painting of herself. She agreed, with the reservation that in case the photographs were poor they would not be used.

On the day of this scheduled picture she wore a smart black frock with a crisp white collar, white piping at her wrists, and a small black hat contrasting effectively with her blonde hair. The camera men had assembled when she arrived; then, immediately, the students ; poured out of the studio theatre to watch her. To hold back these nosey youngsters it was necessary to call for help from their instructors.

Lillian stood on a high bench to reach the portrait of herself and the camera men made their pictures of her standing there, in profile, viewing it. That night, in | her dressing room, I showed her the results and she was pleased. The next day they were used in Chicago papers and later in syndicates around the country.

Still there came the old chestnut of a question: “Is she engaged or really married to George Jean Nathan?”

When a newspaper woman columnist insisted they were married, I said there was no evidence except the “friendship” ring. Lillian, I explained, had worn the ring for a long time. The newspaper woman immediately played up the ring as a brand new bit of news and a few days later the old stories that “she was secretly | wed to the hard-boiled critic” were dusted off and printed in all the papers.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

I was once more ahead of the play, in another city, I when the story broke and so positive was the assertion of marriage that I did not realize the columnist alone was responsible but thought that Lillian herself had made a public statement. I wired back and asked her. She wrote in reply: “You may be sure I shall tell you if that ring should ever have a greater significance than it has at present. You may be sure if it ever does, it will be a long, long time.”

In the event the ring had the significance the press stories attributed to it, this was a very neat answer. But it was scarcely the retort of a woman keyed to emotional heats. Such a blonde, according to the young director, would have colored her reply with some inescapable shade of possessiveness, had jealousy smouldered in her heart.

“Your blonde theory is the bunk,” I wrote the director, although I was still in the dark about Lillian’s love affairs. To all outward appearances her life was happily organized around her work. And yet there continued to lurk the reminder that still waters flow emotionally deep, and that perhaps, after all, her long training as an actress masked unplumbed intensities of feeling.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

Not until “Uncle Vanya” reached the Harris Theatre in Chicago did I see the play itself. Besides Lillian’s Helena this production was the closest to perfection in its casting that I have ever seen approximated in the theatre. There were Walter Connolly, who had played in Margaret Anglin’s “Woman of Bronze”; Eugene Powers of the same cast; able Osgood Perkins and Kate Mayhew, the remarkable character woman; talented Zita Johann, and Eduardo Ciannelli, who distinguished himself in the screen version of “Winterset.” Such a combination was a tour de force that only the peculiar genius of Jed Harris could possibly assemble.

I felt then that the review of the New York World had not overstated the case when it said: “ ‘Uncle Vanya’ is the finest of Chekov’s plays. Chekov’s plays are the finest plays of the century. The Jed Harris production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ is the best Chekov that America has seen.”

I was enraptured with Lillian’s performance as she floated through the play, like a symbol of fugitive romance, escaping the clutching hands of idealizing men.

“If you know an art theatre when you see one, here it is,” wrote Charles Collins in the Chicago Tribune, proclaiming it better Chekov than what the Moscow Art Theatre had given us.

Seldom does an art theatre make an overwhelming demand at the box office, but considering the pall of the depression that was slowly squashing the theatre in its clammy hands, the receipts of that tour were remarkably good. Theatre managers and theatre public still optimistically believed that happy days were “just around the corner.” And not until three years later did they fully realize that the legitimate theatre’s road territory had been completely washed away and that a fourteen-thousand-dollar gross per week, such as “Uncle Vanya” had drawn at the Harris Theatre, was a figure gone with the chickens that in boom times filled every pot and with the two cars that basked in every garage.

Uncle Vanya

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Prof Dr. Ana Aslan – ROMANIA – And Lillian Gish

DR. ANA ASLAN  – A name, an original treatment with worldwide recognized results in the prophylaxis of aging processes.

General director of the National Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Bucharest, institute named after her, Prof. Dr. Ana Aslan was a top researcher in the field of cytology. She dedicated her whole life to studying and to investigating the causes of the cellular disintegration, resulting in the aging processes. After extended investigations,Prof. Dr. Ana Aslan, and the team of researchers she led, have obtained encouraging results in slowering this processes. An original therapy of regeneration and stimulation of the vital functions of the human organism was set up, worldwide well known under the name of Therapy Ana Aslan. Prof. Aslan’s idea about the ageless youth and beauty, as well as her results became very popular and appreciated all over the world.

A great number of people came to Bucharest, to Prof. Dr. Aslan for treatment, hoping to regain their vitality and good health. Among them were famous personalities such as: French President Charles De Gaulle, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong, Vietnamese Chairman Ho Chi Minh, actresses Marlene Dietrich, Lillian Gish, the Gabor sisters, Charlie Chaplin Kirk Douglas, artist Salvador Dalí ,Sophia Loren,Greta Garbo,Omar Sharif.

Almost all the prestigious universities in the word invited Prof. Dr. Ana Aslan, granting her scientific honorary titles and conferring her government medals. She was a member of The Science Academy of New York, of the World Union of Prophylactic and Hygiene Medicine, honorary member of European Center for Medical Research, president of International Association of Gerontology, president of Romanian Society of Gerontology, etc.

Ana Aslan was, until at an advances age, a very admired, attractive woman, with a fascinating brightness. She never accepted aging in a passive way, because she knew how important a healthy skin and young appearance for a good disposition is. She than dedicated all her creative energy to geriatrics and the ways to preserve physical condition through cosmetical and medical treatment.

Lillian Gish – 1960s


  • Glenn Fowler, New York Times News Service – CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Dr. Ana Aslan, a controversial gerontologist whose clinic in Romania attracted thousands of people from around the world in search of renewed youth, has died in Bucharest, according to reports from that city and Paris. She was in her early 90s.

Agence France-Presse reported that her death on May 20 went unnoticed in Romania for nearly a week until Thursday, when a Bucharest newspaper published a small item about her in the obituary column. She was buried last Sunday in a civil ceremony, although she had wanted a religious ceremony, the French press agency said.

Dr. Aslan developed a drug named Gerovital H3 that she and a loyal group of followers promoted as an elixir of youth. Detractors asserted that it was simply a solution of procaine, which under the brand name Novocain is widely used by dentists to block pain and is administered to older people as an antidepressant.

Shortly after World War II, Dr. Aslan, who specialized in treating arthritis, began working with a noted Romanian hormone specialist, Constantin Parhon. In 1954, the government-sponsored Parhon Institute of Geriatrics was established in Bucharest, and Dr. Aslan soon became its dominant figure.

The institute developed into a magnet for wealthy and prominent people from Europe and other continents, all searching for a way to stave off the ravages of age. Dr. Aslan traveled abroad to lecture and to promote Gerovital and Aslavital, another youth treatment she developed.

Among the famous people who took her treatments-or were widely reported to have done so-were Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khrushchev, Indira Gandhi, Marshal Tito and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, as well as the actresses Lillian Gish and Marlene Dietrich.

Most scientists outside Romania dismissed Gerovital as another false fountain of youth. The medical establishment in Great Britain and the United States found it had no merit, and the Food and Drug Administration refused to sanction it. Nevertheless, a few scientists hailed Gerovital as a wonder drug. Dr. Aslan herself refused to claim credit for rejuvenating specific celebrities, but neither did she deny extravagant claims by her supporters. A woman who in her 60s and 70s appeared 30 years younger, Dr. Aslan was variously reported as having been born between 1896 and 1898.


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My Life in Three Acts – Helen Hayes (1991)

  • My Life in Three Acts
  • Helen Hayes
  • Published by Simon & Schuster
  • First Touchstone Edition 1991

When Lillian Gish is visiting, she always comes to breakfast in a peignoir. She makes a very pretty picture with her hair flowing down her back. But deshabille doesn’t suit me; I can’t function that way. I have to be fully clothed, because once the day begins, it gets beyond me, out of control.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish attend at preview in New York Thursday of an exhibit entitled Anita Loos and Friends

Not long ago, my friend Lillian Gish and I discussed this problem. At the time we were both watching a TV miniseries about Peter the Great. We were excited, at first, because so many actors we knew and admired were in the cast. After the third installment I asked Lillian what she thought. “I’ve stopped watching,” she replied. “It was just a lot of actors dressed up for a costume party.” Exactly what I thought. Here were actors who had made Shakespeare’s words ring like golden bells mumbling their way through what was essentially no more than a series of tableaux vivants. It is hard to know where to place the blame: on actors who don’t consider their dialogue worth delivering well, or on writers who don’t bother writing literate dialogue when so few actors make an effort to speak well.

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman – Anastasia

I had turned down the role of the Russian dowager empress in the film version of Anastasia. I didn’t think the part of a domineering Romanov suited me. But, then, I can’t remember ever playing a role that didn’t seem, at first, more suited to someone else. Even in the case of Victoria, despite my enthusiasm I thought an English actress would have been more appropriate. On stage the dowager empress had been played magnificently by Eugenie Leontovich and by my close friend Cathleen Nesbitt, and I didn’t think I’d be nearly as good as either of them. But friends kept urging me to get back to work. They all believed the wounded soldier had to return to action, never mind the bandages or the morphine. And the attitude in the theatre world has always been: “The show must go on,” whatever the personal cost to the actors. Josh Logan implored me to take the Anastasia role, saying it was my duty to use the talent God had given me. Anita Loos and Lillian Gish also encouraged me, Anita going so far as to say she would accompany me to London, where the film was to be shot. Eventually I gave in.

Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes – Anastasia

Lillian Gish is another old friend who has spent several Christmases with me in Cuernavaca. We first met in New York back in the early 1930s, after Lillian left Hollywood because she didn’t like the changes sound brought to moviemaking. She felt that the crude vocal reproduction of the early talkies distorted her voice, so she decided to give up filmmaking and return to the theatre, where she had worked before becoming D. W. Griffith’s leading lady in silent films. Around the time that Lillian came back to New York, Jed Harris was preparing a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and he chose Lillian for one of the two female leads. Jed was romantically involved with Ruth Gordon at the time, and Ruth met Lillian through him. I got to know Lillian through Ruth. This was somewhat ironic, as Ruth and Jed and I later became estranged, but Lillian and I are still close friends after fifty years.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

We had only one bad patch. It happened a few years ago, when we were rehearsing for a TV production o{ Arsenic and Old Lace. We broke for lunch one afternoon well after 2 p.m., and Lillian and I headed for Longchamps, one of a chain of restaurants that offered good food and soft, flattering lighting. The latter, needless to say, was very popular with ladies of a certain vintage. As we waited for lunch, Lillian started talking about her latest obsession: rejuvenating treatments offered by a Rumanian doctor she knew. His elixir of youth was administered in injections of certain animal substances—lamb embryos, or something like that. This Dr. Feelyoung’s cure-all had been rejected by the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration on the grounds that it was pure quackery. Ignoring that verdict, Lillian had gone to Rumania every year for the doctor’s injections. Like too many stage and film people, she had fallen into a desperate struggle to retain her youth, and she believed the treatments worked. Why was the American medical establishment against the good doctor? It was just jealousy, she thought.

Lillian Gish and Anne Tennehill 1973 at Helen Hayes

I listened quietly for a while, but finally I got fed up. There was a lot wrong with our system of medicine, I said as calmly as possible, and I was well aware of its shortcomings. But at least we were way ahead of other countries in protecting the naïve against the flummery of mountebanks. So far our voices had been modulated to match the soft lighting around us. But now Lillian became shrill. “Let me tell you what I think of American medicine,” she burst out. “My banker, who is in charge of all my affairs, has a letter stating that if I get too sick to make my wishes known, I am to be taken to Europe immediately.”

“To what country?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” said Lillian. “Anywhere except America!”

That really irritated me. “Lillian,” I exclaimed, “you’re a bubblehead!” Suddenly we were shouting, two gray-haired ladies yelling at each other while a group of waiters stood around nervously, probably fearful that we would soon start slinging china. What a tidbit that would make for the gossip columnists—Longchamps Brawl: Hayes vs. Gish.

But it wasn’t only Lillian’s strange fixation and the harm it might do her that bothered me. Her attitude toward American medicine offended me for a personal reason: I was deeply involved in working on behalf of a Nyack hospital that had been named for me. This may sound self-serving, but the truth is that I was gratified that the use of my name could help win support for a hospital that provided good care and sponsored important research. I suppose Lillian’s condemnation of all U.S. medicine struck me as an affront to my hospital and its dedicated staff, though of course she hadn’t meant it that way. We soon came to our senses. That was the only argument Lillian and I have ever had, and since then we have tacitly understood that medicine is a subject we have to avoid.

lillian-gish-james-macarthur-new-york-usa-19 jun 1960 detail

Lillian is full of surprises. Once, when she was visiting in Nyack, we took a long walk along an Indian trail on the cliffs above the Hudson. My three dogs were scampering beside us. We came to a point where the trail unexpectedly narrowed, and the dogs suddenly cowered at my feet. There was a washout a few steps ahead. I stood there frightened, the dogs practically clinging to me, as Lillian grabbed a tree limb and swung across the washout to safe ground on the other side.

“What are you doing, Lillian?” I gasped. “You’ll kill yourself!”

“Nonsense!” she said airily. “In the old days we used to do things like this in the movies. There weren’t any stunt people then.” She swung back and forth like Tarzan.

In Way Down East, a D. W. Griffith masterpiece made in 1920, Lillian had had to float down a river on an ice floe. The scene was shot in Mamaroneck, New York, in the dead of winter, and Lillian spent so many hours filming the sequence—in which she is rescued by Richard Barthelmess, playing the hero—that she came down with a serious case of chilblains.

Way Down East was a great success, and Griffith wanted to give Lillian a special present out of gratitude for her unstinting loyalty and courage. Her birthstone is the opal, and in Australia Griffith found a gem known as “the Great Opal,” which he purchased and had mounted in a cross designed by Tiffany.

Maybe he would have scouted for another great opal if he could have seen her performing the same kind of feat more than fifty years later.

james macarthur, lillian gish, joyce bulifant, charlie macarthur, helen hayes

The heroines Lillian played for Griffith were invariably spiritual and slightly otherworldly, and there are times when Lillian herself seems a trifle vague, so closely in tune with her own drummer that she misses the beat of what is going on around her. This trait can be startling, as it was at one event we both attended a few years ago. I asked Lillian to join me at the cardinal’s annual Christmas party in New York, a tradition initiated by Terrence Cardinal Cook and carried on by John Cardinal O’Connor. I’d been invited for more than twenty years, and I’d taken Lillian along once before. This time I was asked to bring her again—Cardinal O’Connor was a great fan of hers.

Lillian arrived all dolled up. All her clothes date from forty years back, but the dresses are still elegant, and she’s proud that they still fit. The luncheon was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and she sat beside His Eminence, who looked magnificent in his scarlet cape, biretta, sash, and gold cross. He was very courtly as they chatted, obviously so pleased to be next to Lillian that you could almost hear him saying to himself, “Imagine, here I am sitting beside Lillian Gish!”

Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)

If this were a scene in a movie, it would be called “The Cardinal and the Star.” As the cardinal made a fuss over her, the star, too, was very animated. Then all at once she stared straight ahead, apparently puzzled. “Helen,” she asked me in a loud stage whisper, “what church is he from?”

As I grow older, I get forgetful too, but I haven’t reached that point yet. And neither had Lillian when it came to work. She’s sharp as a tack then, as I discovered when we appeared on TV together in Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a challenging production, shot live on a multilevel set that would have tested Edmund Hillary’s climbing ability.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic was one of several television and movie projects I took on in the mid-1970s. My role as Mrs. Quonsett in Airport launched a second career for me that got under way with three films for the Disney studios.

My life in three acts – Helen Hayes 1991

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The Project Gutenberg “WAY DOWN EAST”

  • The Project Gutenberg EBook of ‘Life and Lillian Gish’, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Griffith now began work on his greatest melodrama. “Way Down East” had been successful as a book and a play, and was precisely the sort of thing he could do best. From William A. Brady, for a large sum, he secured the picture rights, and plunged into production. There were to be two great outdoor scenes: a blizzard, in which the heroine, who has been inveigled into a mock marriage—and is, therefore, under the New England code, fallen and outcast—is lost; and the frozen river, which, blinded and desperate, she reaches, to be carried to the falls on a cake of ice. There was very little that was artificial about such scenes, in that day: the blizzard had to be a real one, the ice, real ice—most of it, at any rate. Griffith began rehearsing some scenes at Claridge’s Hotel, in New York, continuing steadily for eight weeks; but all the time there was an order that in case of a blizzard, night or day, all hands were to report at the Mamaroneck studio. Lillian had taken Stanford White’s house on Orienta Point. Reading the play, she knew it was going to be an endurance test, and went into training for it. Cold baths, walks in the cold against the wind, exercises … she had faith in her body being equal to any emergency, if prepared for it. In a magazine article, a few years later, she wrote:

The memorable day of March 6th arrived, and with it a snow-storm and a ninety-mile-an-hour gale. As I was living at Mamaroneck, near the studio, I quickly reported, and was made up as Anna Moore, ready but not eager for the work to be done. The scene to be taken was the one just after the irate Squire Bartlett turns Anna out of the house into the storm. Dazed and all but frozen, she wanders about through the snow, and finally to the river. The Griffith studio was on a point or arm well out in Long Island Sound. The wind swept this narrow strip with great fury. The cameras had their backs to the gale. She had to face it.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

She had been out only a short time when her face became caked with snow. Around her eyes this would melt—her lashes became small icicles. Griffith wanted this, and brought the cameras up close. Her lids were so heavy she could scarcely keep them open. No need of spectacular “falls.” The difficulty was to keep her feet. She was beaten back, flung about like a toy. Her face became drawn and twisted, almost out of human semblance. When she could stand no more, and was half-unconscious, they would pull her back to the studio on a little sled and give her hot tea. A brief rest and back to the gale. Griffith had invested a large sum in the picture, and she must make good. One could not count on another blizzard that season. Harry Carr writes:

That blizzard scene in “Way Down East” was real. It was taken in the most God-awful blizzard I ever saw. Three men lay flat to hold the legs of each camera. I went out four times, in order to be a hero, but sneaked back suffocated and half dead. Lillian stuck out there in front of the cameras. D. W. would ask her if she could stand it, and she would nod. The icicles hung from her lashes, and her face was blue. When the last shot was made, they had to  carry  her to the studio.  A week or two later, they were at White River Junction. Vermont, for the ice scenes. Griffith took a good many of his company, and they put up at an old-fashioned hotel, a place of hospitality and good food. White River Junction is at the confluence of the White and the Connecticut rivers. There is no fall there, but the current moves at the rate of six miles an hour, and the water is deep. The ice was from twelve to sixteen inches thick, and a good-sized piece of it made a fairly safe craft, but it was wet and slippery, and  very cold. It was frozen solid when they arrived; had to be sawed and dynamited, to get pieces for the floating scene. Lillian conceived the idea of letting her hand and hair drag in the water. It was effective, but her hand became frosted; the chances of pneumonia increased. To the writer, recently, Richard Barthelmess, who had the star part opposite Lillian, said:

“Not once, but twenty times a day, for two weeks, Lillian floated down on a cake of ice, and I made my way to her, stepping from one cake to another, to rescue her. I had on a heavy fur coat, and if I had slipped, or if one of the cakes had cracked and let me through, my chances would not have been good. As for Lillian, why she did not get pneumonia, I still can’t understand. She has a wonderful constitution. Before we started, Griffith had us insured against accident, and sickness.

Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

Lillian, frail as she looked, was the only one of the company who passed one hundred percent perfect—condition and health.

“No accidents happened: The story that I missed a signal and did not reach Lillian in time, and that she came near going over the falls, would indicate that she made the float on the ice-cake but once. As I say, she made it numberless times, and there were no falls. Lillian was never nervous, and never afraid. I don’t think either of us thought of anything serious happening, though when I was carrying her, stepping from one ice-cake to another, we might easily have slipped in. I would not make that picture again for any money that a producer would be willing to pay for it.”

[Illustration: “ANNA MOORE”]

Lillian Gish – Ice Floe Scene – Way Down East

At the end of the ice scene, there is an instant when the cake, at the brink of a fall, seems to start over, just as Barthelmess, carrying Lillian, steps from it to another, and another, half slipping in before he reaches the bank.

The critical moment at the brink of the fall was made in summer-time, at Winchell Smith’s farm, near Farmington, Connecticut. The ice-cakes herewere painted blocks of wood, or boxes, and were attached to piano wire. There was a real fall of fifteen feet at this place, and once, a carpenter went over and was considerably damaged. In the picture, as shown, Niagara was blended into this fall, with startling effect. Barthelmess remembers that Lillian kept mostly to herself. She took her work very seriously—too much so, in the opinion of her associates. But once there was a barn-dance at the hotel, in which she joined; and once she and Barthelmess drove over to Dartmouth College, not far distant, with Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Clifton, to a dinner given them by Barthelmess’s fraternity. After dinner, they heard a great tramp, tramp, and someone said to Lillian: “It’s the college boys, coming to kidnap you.” They sometimes did such things, for a lark. But they only wanted to pay their respects. They gathered outside the window, which Mr. Clifton opened, and both Lillian and Barthelmess spoke to them through it.

Scene from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.

The summer scenes of “Way Down East” were made at Farmington and at the Mamaroneck studio. Griffith had selected a fine cast, among them Lowell Sherman, the villain; Burr McIntosh, as Squire Bartlett; Kate Bruce, his wife; Mary Hay, their niece; and Vivia Ogden, the village gossip. The scene where Squire Bartlett drives Anna Moore from his home, was realistic in its harshness, and poor Burr McIntosh, a sweet soul who long before had played Taffy in “Trilby,” and who loved Lillian dearly, could never get over having been obliged to turn her out into the storm.

Often, in after years, he begged her to forgive him.

Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

A few minor incidents, connected with the making of “Way Down East,” may be recalled: Griffith had spent a great sum of money for the rights—$275,000, it is said—and was spending a great many more thousands producing it. He was naturally on a good deal of a tension. All were working to the limit of their strength, but they could not hold the pitch indefinitely. When Barthelmess, who is short, had to stand on a two-inch piece of board, to cope on terms of equality with Lowell Sherman, Sherman, who was a trained actor of the stage, could, and did, make invisible side remarks which made Barthelmess laugh. Whereupon, Griffith raged at the waste of time and film, and everybody was sorry, the villain penitent. “Stop that laughing! Turn around and face the camera,” were sharp admonitions perpetuated by a right-about-face in the picture to this day.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

It was harsh in form, rather than by intention. They did not resent these scoldings. They believed in Griffith, knew something of his problems, wanted him to make good. There was one scene during which Griffith had no word to offer—the scene in which Anna Moore (Lillian) baptizes her dying child. Harry Carr writes:

The only time I ever saw a stage-hand cry was in the baptism scene in “Way Down East.” It was made in a boxed-off corner, with only D. W., Lillian, the camera-man, a stage-hand and myself there.

Everybody cried. It never made the same impression on the screen, because it was necessary to interrupt the action with the sub-titles. You saw her dripping the water on the baby’s head; then a sub-title flashed on, saying: “In the Name of the Father, etc.,” and the spell was broken.

Carr, Lillian and Griffith would sit far into the night, watching rushes from the scenes made the day before. It was a drowsy occupation—so many of the same thing—and after a day in the open, it was not surprising that Carr should nod. Across a misty plain of sleep, Griffith’s voice would come to him: “Which shot do you like best, Carr?”

It is noticeable in the baptism scene, that Lillian sits relaxed, her knees apart; that when she leaves the house, she walks with a dragging step, as one who had recently experienced the struggle and agonies of child-birth. It has been suggested that she had visited a maternity hospital for these details. When asked, she said:

“No, I did not do that. There was an old woman connected with the studio, who had borne a number of children. She told me all that I needed to know. I learned something, too, from pictures of the Madonna, by old masters. I noticed in all of them that the Madonna sat with her knees apart. I felt that there must be a good reason for painting her in that way.”

She had studied out every detail of the scenes she was to play. Many actors, even among the best, work by another method. They absorb the feeling of the plot, fling themselves into a scene, depending upon an angel to kindle the divine fire. This method never was Lillian’s. To her, the bush never of itself became a burning bush. She lit the fire and tended it. She knew the effect she wanted to produce, and found no research too tedious, no rehearsal too long—no effort too great, to achieve her end.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

“Way Down East” was shown in October. Griffith, with Lillian and Barthelmess, were present in person, in the larger cities. It was like a triumphal tour. To present the “world’s darling” in scenes of actual danger, on the screen, and then have her appear in person, was to invite something in the nature of a riot. Reporters indulged in the most extravagant language. And there was a freshet of poetry, and of letters—love-letters, many of them, but letters, also, from persons distinctly worthwhile. David Belasco, whose “most beautiful blonde” verdict had long since gone into the discard, démodé, wrote:

_Dear Lillian Gish_,

It was a revelation to see the little girl who was with me only a few years ago, moving through the pictured version of “Way Down East” with such perfect acting. In this play, you reach the very highest point in action, charm and delightful expression. It made me happy, too, to see how you and your name appeal to the public. Congratulations on a splendid piece of work, and good wishes for your continued success.



Way Down East – Anna Moore Detail

John Barrymore went even further, when he wrote:

_My dear Mr. Griffith_:

I have for the second time seen your picture of “Way Down East.” Any personal praise of yourself or your genius regarding the picture I would naturally consider redundant and a little like carrying coals to Newcastle….

I have not the honor of knowing Miss Gish personally and I am afraid that any expression of feeling addressed to her she might consider impertinent. I merely wish to tell you that her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchaining thing that I have ever seen in my life. I remember seeing Duse in this country many years ago, when I imagine she must have been at the height of her powers—also Madame Bernhardt—and for sheer technical brilliancy and great emotional projection, done with an almost uncanny simplicity and sincerity of method, it is great fun and a great stimulant to see an American artist equal, if not surpass, the finest traditions of the theatre.

I wonder if you would be good enough to thank Miss Gish from all of us who are trying to do the best we know how in the theatre.

Believe me,

Yours very sincerely,


“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

Mrs. Gish, who was not a motion-picture enthusiast, made a single comment:

“Well, young lady,” she said, “you’ve set quite a high mark for yourself. How are you going to live up to it?”


Way Down East – Vermont

“Way Down East” was one of the most popular and profitable pictures ever made. Net returns from it ran into the millions. It has had several revivals, and at the present writing (Winter, 1931), is being shown at the Cameo Theatre, New York, “with sound.” Its day, however, is over. Taste has changed—has become what an older generation might regard as unduly sophisticated, depraved. This, with mechanical advancement—the talking feature, for instance—tells the story. A picture of even ten years ago—five years ago—is without a public.

“Way Down East” is a melodrama, but one that at moments rises to considerable heights. Putting aside the spectacular features of the picture—the blizzard and the ice-drift, where melodrama is raised to tenth degree—the scene where the villain reveals to his victim that their marriage was a mockery, the scene where Anna Moore, about to be turned out into the storm, denounces her betrayer, and the baptismal scene, already mentioned, are drama, and, as Lillian Gish gave them, worthy. And, after all, what is, and is not, melodrama—and cheap. Cheap—because it is human. That is why we have invented for ourselves a hereafter—a place away from it all—of rest by green fields and running brooks. Very well, let us agree that the play was cheap, especially the comedy, which was low comedy and about the record in that direction. But if Lillian’s acting was cheap, and poor, then there is very little to be said for any acting, which, God knows, may be true enough, after all!

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

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ART DECO FASHION – by Suzanne Lussier (2003)

  • Suzanne Lussier
  • AOL Time Warner Book Group
  • Copyright © 2003 by The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The term Art Deco was employed for the first time in 1968 by the author Bevis Hillier. It identifies an aesthetic in vogue between 1909 and 1939 which was adopted in architecture, the decorative arts, textiles and fashion; it also influenced the fine arts, film and photography. Art Deco displayed stylized motifs and shapes borrowed from national traditions, folk art and ancient cultures, and was strongly influenced by the art of the avant-garde.

Art deco fashion_Tamara de Lempicka 1929

Art Deco emerged from a unique artistic conjunction. From 1905, avant-garde movements sprung up one after another throughout Europe: the Fauves and Cubists in Paris, the Futurists in Italy, the Constructivists in Russia. Meanwhile the Ballets Russes were founded in Russia by Sergei Diaghilev who, wanting to rejuvenate ballet by introducing exotic themes, sets and costumes, employed artists and musicians from the international avant-garde. Too unconventional for the conservative Russian public, the Ballets Russes moved to an ecstatic reception in Paris in 1909, a moment which historians mark as the catalyst of the Art Deco period. Pivotal in the development of Art Deco, the Ballets Russes imbued fashion with its colourful and voluptuous aesthetic through the genius of fashion designer Paul Poiret; its influence in fashion would be felt well into the 1920s. Diaghilev s dance company would trigger a long-lasting vogue for exoticism in dress and the use of luxurious materials, a vogue strengthened by the arrival in Paris of Russian emigres like Natalia Goncharova, and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.


Freedom was the motif in the emancipated climate of the post-war years. A huge increase in sport and leisure activities, new dances like the Charleston, greater opportunities to travel all ushered in designs adapted to greater flexibility of movement. Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet were quick to embrace these trends and create innovative new lines for the modern, liberated woman.

Madeleine Vionnet – carnival dress

Black-and-white films demanded sharpness in costume and coiffure, and this would establish new references in haute couture and mainstream fashion. American movie stars had a huge influence on fashion, and they helped to promote haute-couture designs. Most of the time, however, producers could only afford one or two hautecouture dresses, so some actresses bought their gowns directly from the designers and paid for them with their own money. Mary Pickford known to go to Paris regularly, and there buy 50 haute-couture designs which she would wear indiscriminately in movies and in real life. American actresses were the first to create a style of their own: Lillian Gish with her pastel muslin dresses, Mary Pickford in ‘little girl’ dresses and Joan Crawford in garments by American fashion designers. Greta Garbo, with her cape and deep cloche, became the epitome of the late 1 920s fashion in American cinema. Period movies and movies set in faraway locations played a major part in promoting exotic outfits.

Renee Adoree and John Gilbert – La Boheme – Musette and Rodophe

*** For her part as Musette in “La Boheme, ” Erte designed a gorgeous frock of huge puffed sleeves, voluminous skirts ami wasp-like bodice. (Incidentally, you fashion devotees, Erte is an arch enemy of that confining mode. It destroys the grace of line, he says, and will never be reinstated in the style world.) ” The first day she looked exquisite—like a doll. But on the second day she insisted that she could not wear corsets and eat —and eat she must, so off came her corsets. She looked like a balloon!” Two sensitive hands made an airy outline of her appearance. But to say a lady looks like a balloon! It simply isn’t done in Hollywood, you know. Not even at ‘”cat parties.”

Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in La Boheme (Musette and Mimi)

*** And then there was Lillian Gish.

“I designed a pretty costume for her as Mimi in ‘La Boheme.’ Mimi is a poor girl whose poverty is shown in her clothes. Of inexpensive materials I fashioned the dress—of wools and cottons.

” ‘ But no!’ says Miss Gish, ‘I do not wear harsh fabrics next to my skin. They must be of sheerest silk.’

“Silks! Can you imagine silks for a girl who lives simply and whose marriage dowry is a mere tritle!

“So I told Miss Gish she may have the designs—is very welcome to them—but she is never to enter my studio door again. Let her make the costumes herself!”

The French illustrators Paul Iribe and Erte were amongst the first costume designers to work in Hollywood, but their sketches, magnificent on paper, did not translate well to the human body. In 1930, Chanel was offered one million dollars to dress Gloria Swanson, for her role in Tonight or Never, and off-screen as well. Her designs were judged ‘not glamorous enough’ for Hollywood, however, and seemed dated by the time the movie came out.

Art deco fashion – Cover

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Quotes on Lillian Gish – by William M. Drew

  • From the interview with Eleanor Boardman in “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1989 (page 48):

 I was friendly with Lillian Gish, too, when she was a big star at MGM. I remember when [King] Vidor was making “La Boheme” with Lillian and Jack Gilbert, she came up to Vidor’s house one Sunday morning. She wanted to play a scene a certain way and Vidor wanted her to play it another way. She wanted it her way so she came up to the house by herself and offered Vidor a great big beautiful red polished apple as a peace offering.

  • From the interview with Leatrice Joy in “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1989 (page 63):

(Leatrice Joy recalled a scene in one of the World War I films Lillian Gish made for D. W. Griffith in 1918 and how it influenced her years later in the 1920s.) Lillian was saying farewell to her sweetheart, who was Bobby Harron . . . She was in such pain saying farewell to this fellow she loved so dearly that her expression was almost heavenly. . . .she wobbled her lip a little bit. I’d never seen any expression like that. It was so–oh, it was so heartbreaking. I put it in my little memory and I said, “Someday, I’ll use that.”

  It must have been at least ten years later that I was in a similar scene saying farewell to my soldier sweetheart. When I got to the heartbreaking part, I wobbled my lip and Mr. DeMille yelled, “Cut! Lights! Cameras!” He walked over to me and said, “Miss Joy, will you please stop trying to be Lillian Gish?” I was so embarrassed I almost died. From then on, I thought the best thing I could do was to create my own technique.

  • From the interview with Blanche Sweet in “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1989 (Page 225):

   When I left Griffith, I began making films for Lasky. I went back to pay a visit to Lillian and Dorothy Gish. I didn’t tell everybody that I was coming, maybe I told Lillian and Dorothy, or maybe I didn’t. Anyway, Griffith eventually arrived in their dressing room where I was, and he said to me, “Would you like to see what we’re doing for ‘Intolerance?'” Well, of course, the world could see what they were doing for “Intolerance” because there was about a ten-foot fence around the place. These buildings reared up in the background and anybody could see them. So he showed me the set of “Intolerance,” hoping that I was going to say, “Oh, I wish I was back here.” I knew what was going on by that time. “Intolerance” turned out to be a masterpiece. I think it’s Griffith’s greatest film.

   D. W. used his own money for “The Birth” and “Intolerance” and the Aitkens helped him to finance his pictures. But they cost more than expected, and Griffith had to ask his actors and crew to take a cut in their salaries, and he would make it up to them after the films were completed. More than that, Mrs. Gish, Lillian, and Dorothy offered their money to help out, but D. W. thanked them and said no. That was a nice gesture from all concerned.

  • From the interview with Billie Dove in “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1999 (Pages 20-1):

  After I left the “Follies,” I almost got a job in a picture in New York that was to star Lillian Gish. I was so thrilled because she was a wonderful lady and everybody thought I had it. There were so many girls trying to get into pictures–poor girls with brown hair and the same amount with blonde. Two girls would be chosen to play sisters in the picture and for some reason or other, they had to be opposites. One had to be a short blonde and the other had to be tall and dark-haired. So they placed them all up and down the line and they kept getting back to me. Finally, they had nobody but me so I played the taller, dark haired girl with every single one of the blonde girls. Then we went to dinner and one girl said, “Well, this is ridiculous. Why should we go to dinner when you know you have the part?” Well, I knew it, too–you couldn’t help but know it. 

  We came back–and I didn’t have the part. They couldn’t find a blonde girl to do the other part. I swear that was their reason. So somebody else got the job and I just went home and cried myself to sleep. I thought, “Oh, that was my chance, my one chance in this world to work with Lillian Gish and I just didn’t make it.” But that taught me a lesson. The Gish picture never finished. They ran out of money and nobody got paid. And that gave me the biggest philosophy I’ve had in my life–never depend on anything unless you’re actually doing it. Otherwise, you’re letting yourself in for a disappointment.

  • From the interview with Fay Wray in “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1999 (Page 73):

  (Fay Wray recalled the following during the course of her making “The Wedding March” for Erich von Stroheim in 1926-7.) The only man on the film that I spent time with and talked to was Harry Carr who co-authored the script with von Stroheim. I didn’t even talk a lot with von Stroheim but I did have some nice discussions with Harry Carr. He was the top film critic with “The Los Angeles Times.” He stood in back of the camera and the first solo scene that I did without von Stroheim he was watching. He had a way of wiggling his nose–it was like a nervous tick. But it was increased nervousness–it ticked very hard as though he were pleased with me, you know. We got to be friends. I went to his house and visited with him and his wife. He took me subsequently to meet Lillian Gish where she lived down at the beach. I was happy to meet her because I had admired her so much in films like D. W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm.” I remember she was brushing her long blonde hair as we talked. Harry Carr was crazy about her and he was crazy about Ramon Novarro, too. He wrote a beautiful piece about me for one of the movie magazines and I just was charmed by it. So he was a nice man.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
  • The article by Harry Carr on Fay Wray, “She’s Beautiful and Sweet,” was published in the February 1927 issue of “Motion Picture Magazine” and is quoted in the introduction to the interview with the actress on page 60 of “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties:”

  This new von Stroheim discovery proves . . . to have brains–a lot. She is, in fact, one of the most remarkable personalities I have ever known in the movies. Miss Wray makes me think a lot of Lillian Gish. She has the same patient tolerance–the same understanding heart–the same level, fearless intelligence; and a gentle distinction and dignity. By the time von Stroheim finishes her training, little Miss Wray will probably be a great actress; in any case she is sure to be a fine woman.

  • From the interview with Annabella in “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1999 (Page 108):

  As a child, I was fascinated by the movies. Maybe I was ten years old when I saw Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” and I thought she was wonderful. Coming back home from the movie, I remember getting up on a chair looking at myself in the mirror above the fireplace trying with my fingers to make my mouth smile as she did when she was very sad. So moving the faith I had, I thought I would like to do the same thing and be an actress like she was. I didn’t go a lot to movies since we were living in the country. . . .But the one who had made the big impression on me was Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms.” Some years ago, I saw her when she made a grand appearance in North Hampton, New Hampshire where my daughter has a house. She was very pleasant, very intelligent and I think she was a wonderful person.

  • From the interview with Anita Page in “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1999 (Page 152):

  I wanted to be an actress from the time I was born, I guess, and I loved the movies. I remember getting into hysterics watching Lillian Gish running around looking for her lover all over France in “La Boheme.” I wasn’t crying. I was having hysterics. When it was all over and I went to get up, my foot had fallen asleep and I almost fell on my face. I thought, “Oh, I hope people don’t think I’ve been drinking or something.” I was only fifteen, you know. I couldn’t get my leg working but I finally got up. That’s the way she affected me. Oh, she was marvelous in this thing.

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

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HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY – INTERVIEWS (1992) – by Gregory Speck

  • Hollywood royalty : Hepburn, Davis, Stewart, and friends at the dinner party of the century
  • BY Gregory Speck

“I hope the food is half as delicious as the conversation in HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY, Bon appetit!”—Lillian Gish

So, this columnist was on the phone asking me about Bette, and I said, “Well, maybe they pushed her too hard. Maybe she came back too soon, I don’t know.” Do you know that that woman put it into her column that Helen Hayes said that Bette Davis came back too soon? Well, Bette called me in Mexico and said, “You have been very unkind to me. You have said unkind things about me.” I responded by asking her what I had said, since I had not seen the column or even heard about it. Well, I couldn’t stand there and tell her the circumstances, that I had been misquoted, that it was out of context, that the columnist had seen the film and said that Bette looked dreadful, for that would have heaped insult on top of injury. So, I just let it go, and there went that friendship.

Bette Davis – The Whales of August

Bette thought that I had done her in—but then, she thought that everyone had done her in. She thought that everyone was out to do her in. She was in the same state of mind with Lillian Gish too, when they made The Whales of August. She was horribly insulting to Lillian, who is as sweet a lady as I have ever met, and unable to defend herself verbally. Bette was just frightful to Lillian in the making of that picture. She really is something. Being a major movie star is a tough life, and she more than any other actress has just let the drive and ambition dominate her. She is not alone in this character trait, but she is probably the most remarkable example of it. The life and job are hard, and eventually they no longer have any outside life beyond the movies.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August, 1987

Lillian Gish

“We got along all right on that one, I’d say. I did everything I could do to please her, of course. I don’t recall ever having had an actor or an actress with whom I couldn’t get along. I’ve never thought about my being first or second in the billing, and I never brought up the fact that my name should be used, above or below the title. If it wasn’t used it was better for me, I thought, because of my family. I just never had any big head about “me,” and I always felt that I was so lucky. Everyone was so good to me throughout my career, and I can say in all honesty that I don’t recall having had a quarrel with anyone ever.”

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish

The most incredible thing about Griffith was that he never had a script, in all the time that I was with him. I made a lot of pictures with him, and three of the biggest were Judith of Bethulia, The Birth of a Nation, and Intolerance, ail done between 1914 and 1916.

He would rehearse all of the actors in the different parts, depending upon who was available on a given day of shooting, and he had me try the leading role in The Birth of a Nation, Then he told me that he was going to film the scene. Well, I had thought that Blanche Sweet was going to play that part. The first time I had any idea that he wanted me for it, was when he told me to go and get measured for the costumes. All I could think of was “Why me? Blanche won’t like this!”

She had just played the leading role in Judith of Bethulia, which was about the ancient Israelites at war with the Assyrians, and I was very surprised to learn that I was to have the big role in Birth, which was about the forming of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. But I had a face that could be photographed at any angle. Griffith used to say, “You can photograph her upside down, because it’s all even.” That’s really why I got the parts I did. For instance, Mary Pickford had a side of her face that was like a child’s, and the other side was that of a businesswoman’s. So she always had a certain angle from which she demanded to be photographed. I always looked the same, and that is the real reason that I got so many of the roles I did.

Lillian Gish in Judith of Bethulia

I think that Mr. Griffith was in love with my mother, too. He was her age, and once when he went away he asked Mother if she had a safe-deposit box. She said that she didn’t, so he told her to get one, to charge it to him, and to keep a big package wrapped up in newspapers for him. He was heading for Europe, and told her not to look at what he was entrusting her with.

So, that’s what she did, and when he returned she gave the package back to him, and he said to her, since he could see that she hadn’t opened it, “This is all the money I have in the world.” She knew then how much he trusted her, even though he had a family of his own elsewhere. His own brother was working with him in the film business, but he trusted Mother more than any of them, and I think it was because he loved her.

He wasn’t a businessman at all. He was a poet at heart. If he sold a poem he had written for ten dollars it made him happier than any big picture he ever directed. He had no sense at all for money. He was destroyed by the film business, even though he gave the motion picture medium its form and its grammar.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

He went into the film business in 1908. It was about five years later when we met him, and about five years after that when Dorothy discovered Rudolph Valentino. She had been out one evening dancing, and there was this man out on the floor, dancing with the ladies. One member of Dorothy’s party knew him and brought him over to the table, where she asked him if he would be interested in getting into the movies. He immediately said that he would be very interested, so the next day she told Mr. Griffith about Valentino. She said that she had found a man whom all the women would like, photogenic and romantic looking. But when Valentino came in Mr. Griffith told him that he thought he wasn’t quite right. “I don’t think the girls will like him, because he’s too foreign looking,” Griffith told me. So, Mr. Griffith didn’t hire him, but Valentino went on to become one of the biggest stars of all time, and the women went crazy for him. Dorothy was right, for she had a better eye for actors than Griffith did.

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino was a very shy man, but he would come to our house and cook dinner for us, usually spaghetti. The idea of being in the movies scared him, but Mother took an interest in him and tried to help him. He was a terribly nice man, but he died early, and that was from embarrassment. He just couldn’t take it all, with the constant attention and exposure and invasion of privacy. It killed him.

Lillian Gish, First Lady of the American Screen, holds court as she conducts the conversational flow from Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith to Rudolph Valentino, with all of whom she worked closely. Thus, it is only fitting that the actress who started out as a silent star and then lasted for forty years in the age of sound, Joan Crawford, should be the final subject of scrutiny by Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis, and their friends in this evening odyssey through Hollywood Royalty.

Old Friends – Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore and Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes

“My very dear friend Lillian Gish, godmother of my son as well as of my first grandson, had played The White Sister in the silent film version. It was the most moving and impressive picture when she made it, I have to say.”

Hollywood royalty : Hepburn, Davis, Stewart, and friends

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