My Sister and I – By Lillian Gish (November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”)

My Sister and I

Celebrity of the Screen Pays a Remarkable and Touching Tribute to Her Chum Relative – Dorothy

By Lillian Gish

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”

*** This story was included in Miss Gish’s autobiography ”The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me” with the mention ”During this period, Dorothy and I wrote character sketches of each other for Stage magazine. I wrote of her:”

She is a criticism of all the things I am not. When I look at her, I always miss in myself the qualities that I was born without and that, I daresay, I should have been much happier with. She is laughter, even on the cloudy days of life; nothing bothers her or saddens her or concerns her lastingly.

Trouble gives only an evanescent shadow to her eyes and is banished with a shrug of a shoulder. Work to her, however, is play. Had she been born a boy, she would, I feel certain, have smeared her face with brown butternut oil and gone ’round the world with a hurdy-gurdy, waking up sleepy old people behind closed windows. She takes nothing seriously but her mother, her meals and her dog.

I envy this dear darling Dorothy with all my heart, for she is the side of me that God left out. Her funny stories, her delight in sitting on men’s hats, her ability to interest herself in a hundred and one people in whom she has not the slightest interest, her talent for quick and warm friendships, her philosophy of silver linings—why was I denied these?

I surely take no pleasure in being the rather melancholy person I am. I, too, would like to believe in all the lovely rainbows in which Dorothy believes. I, too, would surely be happy to find some day that hard work was not hard work at all but just a charming pastime. Unfortunately for me, however, a Klieg light is just a Klieg light and not the English moon.

All my life I have wanted to play happily as she does, only to find myself bad at playing. As a little girl, I wasn’t much good at playing and I find that, try as I will, I don’t play very convincingly today.

When Dorothy goes in swimming, she splashes the ocean into a beautifully gala muss; I just go in swimming. When she dances, there is no tomorrow ; when I dance the trombone always stubbornly reminds me of a director in a bad mood. When she goes to a party, the party becomes a party; when I go to one, I’m afraid it very often stops being a party. And I don’t like it. I want to be like she is.

I am not unhappy. I simply am not gay. It must have rained on the evening I was born, and it seems arbitrarily to have kept on raining in my heart ever since. She, as I once heard a girl described in a play, is like “a bright flag flying in the breeze.”

The world to her is a big picnic with a great merry-goround and lots of popcorn and wonderful balloons. All music, even the worst, seems so beautiful to her. All people amuse her. She even has fun getting her feet wet. I have fun too, but it is only the joy I get out of apparently never-ending work—and what kind of fun, I’d like to ask, is that?

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine” Lillian Gish in ”The Wind”

And Dorothy wrote equally frankly of me:

The tradition which has grown up around Lillian seems to be that she is a shy helpless bit of fragility, drifting around in a sweet gentle daze. If she’s really like that, “maybe I’m wrong” as the Two Blackbirds are fond of saying.

It’s perfectly possible that I am wrong. I have a growing suspicion that two people can live for years in close proximity and never understand each other. I must confess that Lillian’s idea of me, revealed every now and then, certainly differs startlingly from my own idea of myself. Perhaps we’re both wrong—and right. As in the Pirandello play, “Right you are

—if you think you are.”

At any rate, the popular conception of Lillian as soft and dreamy makes me think a little of the “gag” used too often in the comic strips. A hat lies upon the sidewalk; some person kicks it enthusiastically and finds to his astonishment and pain that there is hidden inside it a brick or a flatiron.

Anyone who has tried kicking Lillian has discovered the solidity of that resistance. Life has stubbed its toe, often and often, trying to disorganize her stability. She remains steadfast, unshaken, imperturbable. How I envy her the singleness of purpose, the indefatigability,

the unabating seriousness which have taken her straight to the heights she has reached and will carry her on and on! Nothing really matters to her except her work and her career. She has little time or patience for anything or anybody unrelated to her work. Her eyes are fixed on her goal; her ears are attuned only to the voice of her duty. If she misses some of the beautiful shyer souls that require a patient search, of which the reward is only a flash, perhaps, of beauty—why, that is the sacrifice she must make and she makes it willingly, almost scornfully. That is why she is where she is today.

She is blessed with a constitution that can respond to any demand. Long after I am ready to be hauled off on a shutter, she, apparently so frail, can go on tirelessly, unruffled, cool and calm. That exquisite complexion of hers, that lovely lineless face—these she owes to her serenity, her unfailing poise. What a priceless combination for an artist! Unswerving ambition, deep seriousness of purpose, and not a nerve in her body!

I wish with all my heart that I could see my life so clearly, so wholly, so free from confusion and march with such firm vigor toward achievement. Mother and I tease her at times about her remorseless activity. One of our pet names for her is The Iron Horse. A favorite family joke of ours is to theeffect that “we hope neither of us dies while Lillian is doing a picture.” We laugh—but we admire.

Don’t think she has no lighter moments. There are a number of persons whose minds or personalities she respects, and she finds great happiness in their company. In literature and the theater, she demands the best, and gets it. She will not spare a moment for a book or a play until she has made sure it is worthy, and thus she eliminates all waste motion. She is to me a never-ending source of astonishment and admiration. And I never cease to wonder at my luck in having for my sister the woman who, more than any other woman in America, possesses all the qualities of true greatness.

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”

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Stars of the Twenties – Observed by James Abbe (Introduction by Lillian Gish) 1975

  • Stars of the Twenties – Observed by James Abbe
  • Introduction by Lillian Gish
  • Thames and Hudson – London 1975

In the early 1920s James Abbe had a highly successful studio in Tin Pan Alley, where his personal photographs of prominent people brought him a large clientele. Tin Pan Alley referred to the New York City block on 47th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues occupied by musicians, music publishers, instrument dealers, and others in the music profession. We met for the first time when he asked me to come to his studio to pose for him after the opening of ‘Broken Blossoms’ at the George M. Cohan Theatre. D.W. Griffith had moved his company East after buying the old Flagler estate on Orienta Point, a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound at Mamaroneck, New York.

When I went to see Mr. Abbe, I found him to be a charming Southern gentleman who shared my interest in photography. Abbe also believed that photographers, instead of using oils or watercolors to paint faces, could get the same effects by painting the face with lights. The hard work of manipulating and focusing his lighting equipment gave his photographs beauty and life. He was such a little man – he couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds – and he looked so undernourished that one’s first instinct was to take him out and buy him a substantial dinner. Instead, I almost drowned him.

After the completion  of the new studio, Mr. Griffith’s first picture there was ‘Way Down East.’ Abbe came out to shoot some of the still photographs. One day, during lunch hour, I was teaching myself how to swim. When I swallowed salt water I was inclined to panic, so I put a clothespin on my nose to make me breathe through my mouth. When Abbe swam around the far side of the pier and discovered this odd sight, he burst into sudden laughter, swallowed lots of salt water, and almost drowned.

My beloved sister Dorothy and I both posed for him at his New York studio while we were making what was to be our last picture for Mr. Griffith, ‘Orphans of the Storm.’ Dorothy then went to Cuba to film ‘The Bright Shawl’ with Richard Barthelmess and I, along with Henry King and twenty-two others, sailed for Europe to make the first American film in Italy, ‘The White Sister.’ To our great surprise Abbe accepted our offer at probably one-tenth of what he was earning to go with us. An addition to our company was Polly Shorrock, on an assignment from the Ladies’ Home Journal to write an article on the filming of this first modern religious story.

The fully equipped studio we were promised in Rome turned out to be an empty building unused since World War I, containing two little klieg lights, the only two in whole Italy. We put our electrician on the next night train to Berlin to get equipment. Abbe was amused by the fact that he was cast to play the small part of Lieutenant Rossini, but this did not keep him and his camera from taking full advantage of the overwhelming beauty of our new surroundings. We also shared the excitement of discovering with our cameraman, Roy Overbaugh, that the actinic rays of the sun in Italy were different from any that we had worked in, which led to new, subtle and amazing differences in our treatment of film. This began our experiments with panchromatic stock. Abbe built his darkroom in the corner of the studio, and out of it poured hundreds of arresting photographs that helped ‘The White Sister’ make millions of dollars around the world.

During this period, a romance blossomed between Abbe and Polly Shorrock. Instead of returning when he finished, she mailed her article back to New York and remained in Europe. After their marriage they joined Dorothy in England, where she was making films for Herbert Wilcox. Abbe’s pictures of her in Tip Toes with Will Rogers and Nelson Keys and of her in London are among the loveliest.

In the 1930s both Dorothy and I returned to the theater, while Abbe remained abroad. Our paths were not to cross until 1972, when a friend of mine who works for American Heritage sent me a copy of their magazine with an article on Abbe. One photograph labeled “Dorothy Gish” happened to be of me. When I pointed this out, shortly thereafter came an endearing letter from Abbe: “As I loved the Gishes equally, I could never tell them apart.”

In the fall of 1973 I was in San Francisco on a tour to help sell our book, Dorothy and Lillian Gish. I called Abbe, hoping we could lunch together, only to hear his voice, full of energy, complaining that he was confined to his bed, of which he did not approve. He promised that nothing would stand in his way for our meeting the next time I came West. He left us a few days later. We are grateful that the world seems a little better for his having lived in it, and now we have this book – his legacy of character and beauty.

Lillian Gish, New York City, 1974

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The Gallant Gish Girls (Life Magazine 1951) By Richard L. Williams (PDF)

The Gallant Gish Girls

ON TV, STAGE AND SCREEN THEY ARE ADDING LUSTER TO THEIR CAREERS

By RICHARD L. WILLIAMS

WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.

Actress, Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, sitting with two dogs in an apartment in New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

TODAY THEY ARE STILL LOVELY AND HARD AT WORK

 Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.

Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Ladyfingers for lunch

SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.

Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)

The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health.  “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know  anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”

An actress Lillian Gish sitting next to her sister, Dorothy Gish at an apartment in New York City, New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

They beg to differ

BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.

“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’

Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;

“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.

Dorothy Gish in Lillian’s apartment NY 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Screen test with sound effects

In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman – Birth of A Nation

Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – Way Down East

It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.

One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.

The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.

Lillian Gish and her Mother (Duell Trial)

“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.

Dorothy Gish, James Rennie and Lillian Gish

Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.

For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.

Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.

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

There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.

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CINEMA – by Kenneth W. Leish – 1974 (PDF)

  • CINEMA
  • by Kenneth W. Leish
  • Newsweek Books, New York

The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”

While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.’” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.

Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”

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New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide – Richard Alleman (2005)

  • New York : the movie lover’s guide : the ultimate insider tour of movie New York
  • New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide
  • Richard Alleman (2005)
  • Broadway Books New York

An original trade paperback edition of this book was published in 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. It is here reprinted by arrangement with Richard Alleman.

MoMA Museum of Modern Art

THE ULTIMATE INSIDER TOUR OF MOVIE NEW YORK

Believing that film was “the only great art peculiar to the twentieth century,” former MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. established the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, and immediately sent curator Iris Barry on a special mission to Hollywood to drum up support for his innovative undertaking. There, at a party given by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair, their lavish Beverly Hills estate, Miss Barry met industry heavyweights like Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Harry Warner, Harry Cohn, Ernst Lubitsch, Mervyn LeRoy, Walt Disney, Jesse Lasky, and Mack Sennett. Returning to New York with what the Los Angeles Times reported to be “more than a million feet” of film, Miss Barry had the beginnings of MoMA’s collection. But one old-timer who was not as forthcoming as many of his Hollywood colleagues was D. W. Griffith, who refused to donate his own films to the museum, reportedly saying that nothing could convince him that films had anything to do with art. Ultimately MoMA enlisted the aid of Griffith’s friend and former star actress, Lillian Gish, who eventually persuaded him to hand over to history his collection of films, music, still photographs, and papers. It seems, however, that it was the lure of the tax write-off that was really responsible for Griffith’s change of heart.

Sir John Gielgud with (left to right) Irene Worth, Mrs. (Blanchette) Rockefeller III, and Lillian Gish at Lillian Gish birthday party and celebration for Anita Loos at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)

For the movie lover, the best thing about MoMA’s film collection is that it is constantly on view. The museum has two theaters—one with 460 seats, the other with 217—which together are used to present some two dozen screenings a week. The Department of Film and Media-MoMA also cosponsors, with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New Directors/New Films festival, which is held every year in March/April. In addition to showing films, the Department of Film and Media-MoMA maintains a library of film books, screenplays, reviews, publicity material, and four million stills that is an important research center for students, authors, and historians.

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH – New York – 109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH

109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

This exotic neo-Byzantine Episcopal house of worship—with a columned Romanesque entrance salvaged from the church’s former 24th Street location—strikes a handsome pose on Park Avenue. Indeed, even though it’s used only as background, it’s still easy to spot in such recent films as Maid in Manhattan (2003), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Serendipity (2001). It plays much meatier roles in two earlier films, however. Ironically, each involves a wedding that doesn’t come off. In Arthur (1981), Dudley Moore jilts Jill Eikenberry at the St. Bart’s altar, whereas fifteen years later Steve Guttenberg does the same thing to bride- from-hell Jane Sibbett (featured on Friends as Ross’s ex-wife) in favor of Kirstie Alley in It Takes Two (1995).

Former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary.

Movie lovers may wish to make a special visit to pay their respects to silent-screen star and former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary. Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, also had an impressive stage and post-silent-film career, making her final screen appearance at the age of ninety-one (or ninety-four, if we are to believe the dates—1893-1993—incised on her crypt), opposite Bette Davis and Ann Sothern, in The Whales of August (1987). Today, an anonymous admirer sends flowers to the Gish crypt every year on her birthday, October 14.

Lillian Gish NY Apart Architectural Digest

LILLIAN GISH APARTMENT 430 East 57th Street

For over half a century, this basic-brick Sutton Place apartment building was Lillian Gish’s Manhattan home. An extraordinary woman whose film career began in 1912 with D. W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, Lillian Gish appeared in such landmark silent pictures as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1922), and The Scarlet Letter (1925). When her film career slowed down in the 1930s, it was not, as it was for many of her contemporaries, on account of the talkies, but rather because Hollywood’s taste in heroines had changed, and virtuous virgins like Miss Gish were no longer in fashion. The actress dealt with this turn of events by concentrating on the Broadway stage, where she had a string of successes in classical roles.

Her film career was far from over, however, for she went on to triumph as a character actress in a number of films in the late 1940s and 1950s, from David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) to United Artists’ Night of the Hunter (1955). And La Gish went on and on. Witness her roles in A Wedding (1978), Sweet Liberty (1986), and The Whales of August (1987). The actress, who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-nine—although she only admitted to ninety-six—once said she liked living in the Sutton Place area because “it is like a village where everyone knows you.”

BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway

BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway

The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was the rather exotic name of one of the first motion-picture companies to mount a serious challenge to Thomas Edison’s monopolistic hold on the early film industry. Biograph produced initially a better-quality image (by using larger-sized film) and enjoyed the participation of W. K. L. Dickson, a former—and the most influential—player on the team that developed motion pictures at Edison. Biograph’s first studio was on the roof of the Hackett Carhart Building, a great Victorian fortress with ornate columns, pediments, and turrets that still stands on the northwest corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. Similar to the Black Maria studio that Dickson had built for Edison in West Orange, Biograph’s rooftop facility was mounted on tracks and revolved with the sun. The foundations of this primitive studio are still in place atop the restored Hackett Carhart Building.

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

Unfortunately, the site of some of Biograph’s greatest cinematic triumphs—a brownstone studio at 11 East 14th Street to which it moved in 1906—was razed in the 1960s to make way for a big boring brick apartment building. It was at the Union Square studio that D. W. Griffith directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. Griffith went on to become the studio’s top director and brought such talents as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, and Mack Sennett into the Biograph fold. When Griffith left the studio in 1913 for the Mutual Film Corporation, Biograph’s status fell quickly, and in 1915 the company was dissolved. Many of its films survive, however, thanks both to Griffith, who saved copies of all his productions, and to the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired Griffith’s collection in the mid-1950s for its then new film department.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

In 1975, a plaque was dedicated by former Biograph beauties Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet at the site of the historic town- house studio at 11 East 14th Street. The day after the ceremony, however, the plaque mysteriously disappeared, and there have been no further efforts to put up a new one. There should be. And while we’re talking about plaques, there also ought to be one at Biograph’s original studio site at 841 Broadway.

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

In 1919, D. W. Griffith was at the height of his wealth, his fame, his power—and his hubris. It was the year that Griffith had joined with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks to form the revolutionary United Artists Corporation, which gave its star founders control over both the production and distribution of their films. It was also the year that Griffith decided to leave Hollywood and set up his own studio back east. The place Griffith chose for his operation was the former estate of Standard Oil/Florida real-estate millionaire Henry Flagler, which occupied a secluded spit of land jutting out into the Long Island Sound near Mamaroneck. Besides making films here, Griffith planned to live on the estate, too—a situation which many felt fulfilled the Southern-born director’s fantasies of being master of the plantation. Others who knew Griffith well also pointed out that the seclusion of Orienta Point would enable him to carry on his various romantic liaisons with young actresses far away from the prying New York press.

Griffith’s first major film at his grand Mamaroneck estate- studio was Way Down East (1920), which was a big hit. Other ventures, such as Dream Street (1921), in which Griffith pioneered synchronized sound some six years before Warners released its first Vitaphone picture, were less successful. As for Dream Street’s sound system, Griffith became its biggest critic and discontinued its use immediately after the picture opened. In fact, Griffith eventually became one of the industry’s most vocal anti-talkie spokesmen: “It puts us back to Babel,” he once told Lillian Gish. “Do you realize how few people in the world speak English? If we make pictures that talk, we can’t send them around the world. That’s suicide.”

Way Down East – Mamaroneck filming sets

Next to Way Down East, Griffith’s most important film from his Mamaroneck period was Orphans of the Storm. (1921). For this epic story of the French Revolution, enormous sets depicting eighteenth-century Paris were constructed at Mamaroneck—and Griffith deliberately scheduled the filming of major crowd scenes for weekends in order to use as many of the locals as extras as possible.

Orphans of the Storm – Mamaroneck filming sets

After Orphans of the Storm, however, it was all downhill for the great director, and by 1924 he was forced to abandon independent producing, signing on with Paramount to do pictures at Astoria. That same year, Griffith put his Mamaroneck estate up for sale, and in early 1925 a developer bought most of the property for the purpose of subdividing it.

Today all of the Griffith and Flagler buildings on Orienta Point are gone, and the property—once the site of the French Revolution—is now part of an exclusive, gated community.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios – Orienta Point 1921

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The Wind and Young Love – Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine (1928)

  • Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20
  • Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine Volume XII No. 20 November 12, 1928

TIME CINEMA

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The Wind

-blows without stopping all year long across the bleak pocket of the prairie to which Lillian Gish comes in her first picture in a year and a half. Her cousin’s wife, a prairie woman whose hands are almost always bloody from cutting up steers, is jealous of the influence of the visiting Gish girl over her home, her husband, her tough, irritable children. When the girl is forced to marry a cattle-rustler to get away from her cousin’s house, a drama, familiar in its conflicts but brooding, powerful, works up in the clapboard house battered by sand and by the wind which, according to Indian legend, is a ghost horse gone crazy in the sky.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Not a work of genius but far better than the average movie story, this picture gives Miss Gish the best and in fact the only opportunity she has had since Way Down East for exercising the talent which has made her famous. Lillian Gish and David Wark Griffith met in Mary Pickford’s dressing-room in the old Biograph studio. Lillian Gish had left Massillon, Ohio, to go on the stage with her sister Dorothy. As a fairy in The Good Little Devil she was lifted across the stage by a wire which broke one night and dropped her on the floor. She burst into tears, later rewarded with a salary which gave each trembling drop the literal value of a pearl. Griffith made her an old woman—the pinchfaced mother in Judith of Bethulia, Intolerance; he made her an outcast girl in Way Down East, Colonel Cameron’s sweetheart in Birth of Nation. She went with him from Biograph to Reliance, Majestic, Fine Arts, Artcraft, First National, United Artists. Somehow, no matter how bad the scenario was, her intelligence brought to certain moments and situations that reality which is the definition of great acting and which Miss Gish’s famous frailty, her dimples, her soft, elliptical face, and her pale hair down to her waist could not keep people from recognizing. Now under contract to Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, she is directed by Victor Seastrom.

Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release

Dorothy Gish, the third name inscribed with that of Lillian, of Griffith, in the heart of the U. S. public was not the little girl who jumped over a cliff in Birth of a Nation. Many cinema fans, their memories bemused by thousands of flickering faces, have lost dollar bets on that fact. The girl who jumped over the cliff was Mae Marsh. Other bets have concerned the sisters’ ages. Lillian is 32. Dorothy is 30. Just as pretty as Lillian (5 ft. 4 in. tall, red-blonde hair), cleverer perhaps, certainly shrewder, Dorothy wanted romance to be concrete, loved while Lillian acted, married (James Rennie, dark-haired “legit” actor) while Lillian stayed single. In the many pictures in which the sisters have appeared together, Dorothy’s acting, always accurate, lacked the indefinable distinction of Lillian’s. Since leaving pictures in 1922 she has wanted to return to a medium where she could have the advantage of voice. Last week (see below) she appeared in Manhattan in “legit” drama.

Dorothy Gish – Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20

THEATRE

New Plays in Manhattan

Young Love.

She was the little girl | who got wet in Orphans of the Storm and wore an arresting white dress in Nell Gwyn. That has nothing to do with a play called Young Love which opened in Manhattan last week, except that Dorothy Gish, 30, is back on the stage playing opposite her husband, James Rennie, and Lillian Gish is still in the movies and still unmarried (see p. 44). Dorothy Gish is cast in Young Love as a tempestuous and idealistic latter-day maiden striving to assure marital congeniality by pre-nuptial experiment. In the first few lines, she and her fiancé ex-press satisfaction with last night’s trial. To make it doubly sure, they exchange partners with their unconsulted host and hostess. Miss Gish completes an affair with host, but fiancé quails before hostess. Then follow two acts of confessions, recriminations, door-slammings, to end with four-way felicity the way it should be (according to the movies). Despite such items as “I love him!” “Then that’s a very good reason not to marry him,” despite Miss Gish’s grotesque make-up and quaintly haphazard clothes, Young Love is adequate entertainment.

Dorothy Gish

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Roots of the Rich and Famous – by Robert R. Davenport (1998)

  • Roots of the Rich and Famous
  • Copyright © 1998 by Robert R. Davenport
  • TAYLOR PUBLISHING COMPANY
  • Dallas, Texas

Lillian Gish

Film pioneer and Oscar-winning actress Lillian Gish proudly hung a painting of her cousin President Zachary Taylor in her living room to commemorate her relationship to the hero of the Mexican War, without whom the United States wouldn’t have California or Hollywood.

Zachary Taylor almost didn’t accept the nomination to be president while he was fighting in Mexico, because the letter sent to notify him arrived postage due, and he refused to accept it!

Incumbent President James Polk, alarmed that he would lose the election to Taylor (who was winning battle after battle in Mexico), used dirty tricks that would make Nixon look like a choirboy. He reduced the size of Taylor’s army, hoping he would be defeated in battle. However, Taylor still managed, although greatly outnumbered, to soundly defeat the Mexican general Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista, and that victory swept him into the White House. As a point of interest, a street in Los Angeles named after that battle later became the home of Walt Disney Studios, and today various subdivisions of the company bear the name Buena Vista.

Noteworthy: Lillian Gish’s ancestor, the Reverend Benjamin Gish, went west with the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, the grandfather of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and settled in Abilene, Texas.

President Zachary Taylor

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Admin notes:

“Sometimes Mother took us to the national cemeteries, and we looked for the names of our ancestors on tombstones. Among Mother’s ancestors were English who came to America in 1632; the head of the family, Francis Barnard, decided to settle in Hadley, Massachusetts. His descendants intermarried with Scots, Frenchmen, and Irishmen. By the time Mother was born, the McConnells had migrated to Ohio. Mother’s maternal grandfather was Samuel Robinson, a state senator and influential Ohio politician.

Our father was James Leigh Gish. When we were older, we learned that Professor J. I. Hamaker, who taught biology at Randolph-Macon College and whose mother was a Gish, was writing a book, Mathjas Gish of White Oaks. The Professor traced the family back to 1733, when Mathias first settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When I asked him once if we had lowered the family standards by becoming actresses, he replied: “Oh, that’s all right.

I’m only bringing it up to the time of your grandmother, Diana Waltz Gish.”

There were so many family names to remember: McConnell, Ward, Robinson, Taylor, Nims, Barnard, Waltz. Our Great-Aunt Carrie Robinson was always interested in the past, and she told us about our ancestor Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States. All those names were sometimes confusing.

Mother, for instance, was originally Mary Robinson McConnell, later Mrs. James Leigh Gish. When she first went on the stage, she did not want to disgrace her family by using their real names, so she took the name of Mae Barnard. Dorothy and I were usually billed as “Baby” Something or even as “Herself,” much as a dog or cat would be identified on the program.

But the little girl whose face looked back at me from the train window knew who she was.

She was Lillian Diana Gish.

Mother and her sister, our Aunt Emily, were left motherless quite young. Their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Homer took Emily, and Mother remained with Grandfather McConnell. She was feminine and pretty, with a high, rounded forehead and delicate features. She was sensitive and took after her grandmother Emily Ward, the poet. Our father, James Leigh Gish, clerked for a wholesale grocery firm in Springfield, Ohio. On a business trip to Urbana, he met Mother. He was handsome, his features regular, his eyes blue, his skin and hair even fairer than Mother’s were. They were immediately attracted to each other and were married soon after. He was only twenty, and she was eighteen.

Father left his job and with his savings bought a small confectionery business in Springfield. The young couple was living with Grandmother Gish at the time of my birth, a little more than a year later. I was born with a caul, which Grandmother Gish said would bring me luck. My life did not begin with much promise, however; at three weeks I had an attack of membrane croup. When I was about a year old, Father decided that he would do better in the candy business in Dayton, and it was there that Dorothy was born. If Mother was anxious about my health, she must have been considerably cheered by her second born, who was, in the words of her adoring family, “a dimpled darling.” Relatives who remembered us as babies have told me that I had ash blond hair, very pale skin, and a fragile body.

Dorothy’s curls were reddish blonde, and, although her skin was pale, she did not freckle as I did. Memories of Mother and Father together are few. I do remember waking up one night to see them standing over my bed. They were evidently going to a party. Mother was in red satin with a long train. Father in a dark suit. They looked so beautiful that the image has not entirely faded from my memory even now. Father was gay and lively; he loved people and gatherings. Mother, with her taste and beauty, charmed everyone who met her. I believe they were happy then. While we were still living with Grandmother Gish, I developed a habit that annoyed my father. Whenever a grownup left his chair. Father could never stay in one place for very long. Whether this restlessness was caused by a gypsy temperament or by a fear of being unable to fulfill his responsibilities was not clear to Mother. We moved from Dayton to Baltimore, where he went into partnership with a Mr. Edward Meixner, again in the candy business. But after two years of Baltimore Father again yearned for fresh horizons. Selling his share of the business to his partner, he set out to find the better life in New York City. Mother remained behind, working for Mr. Meixner. She had a flair for packaging, but unfortunately profits were not enough to support two families. Father sent her money but not enough. She decided to go to New York.

In New York Mother rented a flat on West Thirty-Ninth Street near Pennsylvania Station. She found a job as a demonstrator in a Brooklyn department store, bought furniture “on time,” and rented a room to two young actresses. I cannot recall Father being with us immediately, but he was there for a time. I still remember his fair hair and golden beard. He had evidently lost his job, yet Mother managed. I marvel now at her strength. She was not twenty-five, yet she worked to support us, laundered and mended our clothes, and sewed until late in the night—all the while creating an atmosphere of serenity and love. She made all the clothes we wore. Dorothy and I played on the streets, sometimes joining other children, other times watching the organ grinder and his fascinating monkey. Mother had bought some rather shoddy maple bedroom furniture, obligating herself to pay the furniture company $3 a week. A darkbrowed individual known to us as “the Collector” appeared each week to pick up the money, which Mother left with Father. One day, when Dorothy and I were cutting out paper dolls in the dining room, a couple of men arrived and repossessed the bedroom pieces. Father had evidently taken the money and put it to other uses. He disappeared from our lives shortly afterward, although for the next few years he did appear at various times and places when we were on the road. Once, I remember, he was wearing a Van Dyke beard, a cape, and a flowing tie. Perhaps he thought that this theatrical attire would appeal to Mother. He would talk about coming back so that we could be a complete family again, but she would reply that she had tried it too many times to be fooled again. Sometimes he would threaten to take one or both of us with him. Our greatest fear was of being taken away from Mother. She gave us security, Father insecurity. As I grow older, I wonder 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. Somehow, through exposure to insecurity, you learn to do for yourself and not to count on the other fellow to do it for you. Wherever Mother was there was love, peace, and sympathy, yet without insecurity the blessings Mother offered might have left our characters weak and helpless.

One evening during one of those periods when Father was not with us, Dolores Lome, a young actress, comforted Mother: “Mary, you work for so little money. With your looks, you should be on the stage. I bet Proctor’s could use you. With luck, you could do well—and educate your children properly.” That was how Mother became an actress. She found work as the ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company in New York for $15 a week. Evenings she tucked us into bed before going off to the theater. I can still vaguely see a small room with a table, chairs, and a mattress placed on the floor to protect us from bumps in case we fell out of bed. On matinee days she took us to her dressing room, where we played quietly while she was on stage.

Then one day an actress friend of hers, Alice Niles, came backstage and told Mother that she had been offered a good part in a touring company.

“The only hitch,” she said, “is that I must find a little girl to play with me. What about Lillian? She’s just the right age.” I was five years old at the time. Mother was reluctant at first, but Alice persisted. She pointed out that my salary would be $10 a week and that I could live on  3. The savings would certainly be enough to tide us over the summer when Proctor’s did not operate. Besides, she promised, she would personally look after me; I would be safe with “Aunt” Alice. Her arguments finally prevailed.

It was, oddly enough, a great period for children in the theater. In most melodramas the heroine had a child or two or perhaps a little sister. Not much was demanded of the children; few of the roles were speaking parts of any consequence. Not long after I went on the road with my first play, Dorothy found her first acting job. Mother wrote me that Dolores Lome had taken Dorothy to play Little Willie in East Lynne. The Gish sisters were on the road.

(Excerpts from “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” by Lillian Gish)

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The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL – 1974 (Life with Lillian)

  • The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL
  • Past deities of stage and screen, their roles, their magic, and their worshippers
  • EDITED By Anthony Curtis
  • Illustration consultants: Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson
  • St. Martin’s Press New York 1974
  • Copyright © 1974 by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd.

After the First World War a new generation of idols emerged in the theatre. In this period Sandy Wilson traces the trajectory of that idol of the first magnitude, Ivor Novello, who is also, nostalgically remembered by Micheal MacLiammoir. Noel Coward’s career is discussed by Sheridan Morley, while Vivian Ellis reminds us of the importance of great impresarios such as C. B. Cochran and a host of idols from the world of musical comedy. The spotlight then turns, to Broadway where George Oppenheimer reveals the strength of the great dynasties of idols, such as the Barrymores and the Lunts, and O. Z. Whitehead recalls nostalgically life with Lillian Gish. Paris had its own way with idols and Roland Gant wanders along the boulevards in search of the cabotins, from Guitry to Arletty. Back in the West End of London, Philip Hope-Wallace looks back over a lifetime spent in the stalls and remembers many unforgettable peaks in performance.

Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish in ‘Camille’ [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.2

Life with Lillian

O. Z. Whitehead

During the fall of 1930 my first term at Harvard University, my cousin, George Greene, a senior student, came to see me at my rooms one night and said, ‘I have two tickets in the first row of the balcony to see Uncle Vanya’ Fortunately, I was free to go with him. I had never seen or read a play by Anton Chekhov before.

This remarkable production by Jed Harris of Uncle Vanya had been a great success in New York the season before. His direction and everyone in the cast had received enormous praise. I can see Lillian Gish now as Helena, Serebryakov’s young wife, looking radiantly beautiful, in her first entrance, as she walked silently with much grace from the garden into the house. I can remember, too, the appealing manner in which, at the end of the second act, she said to her husband’s daughter, ‘Sonya, I have a longing for music; I should like to play something,’ and then, with much disappointment, learns from Sonya that her father would object. Lillian played Helena with fine feeling and wonderful charm. I wondered why she was no longer in films.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

In the fall of 1937, three years after I had gone on the stage myself, I went to see John Gielgud in Hamlet at the Empire Theater. Lillian was playing Ophelia. After having seen her in three silent films and in one play I did not expect to see the kind of performance that she gave in this part. In her scenes before her madness she was quiet and modest, but after that she lost all reticence. She even went so far as to roll on the ground. Lillian made the madness of Ophelia certainly disturbing. She gave a most striking performance.

After the play was over I went backstage to see John Cromwell, a friend of mine since the time when we went to the Buckley School in New York. He was playing Rosencrantz and under-studying John Gielgud. As I was on my way downstairs I saw Lillian standing outside her dressing-room. Wearing an attractive dressing-gown she was saying goodbye to an old lady who had been visiting her. She spoke to this lady in a kind, gentle tone, ‘Be careful, honey, about going downstairs.’ I looked at Lillian carefully; I could see that she noticed this. I did not expect to meet her again.

In fact I met Lillian for the first time at a small lunch party that Mrs Charles Lindley, a friend of my family’s, gave at the Colony Club during the spring of 1939. At this first meeting she struck me as having unusual quiet charm. Becomingly dressed in pastel colours, she looked younger and even more attractive than she had when I had first seen her two years and a half before in the doorway of her dressing-room. I said to her, ‘You know an old friend of mine, John Cromwell.’ ‘Oh! yes,’ she said. ‘He is a very sensitive actor. We were in Hamlet together. I would like to have seen his Marchbanks in Candida with Cornelia Otis Skinner.’ I said to her ‘I thought that he was very good.’

Although extremely intelligent and not lacking in artistic perception Mrs Lindley did not understand how actors approached their work or what they went through in between jobs. She described a little how Michael Chekhov taught acting at a school in Connecticut that her friend, Beatrice Straight, was financing. What Mrs Lindley said about his method was very strange and complicated. I do not think that anyone has ever taught like that. Holding her fingers together as if in an attitude of prayer Lillian listened calmly. At the end of Mrs Lindley’s description Lillian smiled with amusement and said nothing. Mrs Lindley became more personal and asked her, ‘Are you working now?’ Lillian answered her with subtle humour. ‘Oh! yes, I’m working very hard, I’m moving.’

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936

Eventually, I became an actor myself. Early in January of 1940 about six weeks after I had finished playing a part in John Ford’s now classic film The Grapes of Wrath from the book of the same name by John Steinbeck, Oscar Serlin, the producer, asked me to play Clarence Day Junior in a company of Life with Father that, after a week in Baltimore starting on 12 February, was to open in Chicago at the Blackstone Theatre for an unlimited engagement. The original company with Howard Lindsay as father and Dorothy Stickney as mother had already opened with enormous success almost three months before at the Empire Theater in New York. This play was adapted by Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse from two books of sketches, God and My Father and Life With Father, written by Clarence Day about his childhood. Before making up two books all of the sketches had appeared in The New Yorker. Although I had never read any of the sketches I had certainly heard a great deal about them.

Four days before the first rehearsal Oscar Serlin gave me a script. I had been taking lessons from a great teacher, Boris Marshalov, for more than two years and a half. I began to work with him on my part without delay. Our first rehearsal took place on the stage of the Empire Theater on the set that the company in New York was using.

Lillian arrived at rehearsal just a little while after I did. She wore a becoming hat and an attractive sweatered dress. As always extremely beautiful, she still looked a little pale. Although I naturally felt nervous at the prospect of a first rehearsal, I could not believe that an actress of her vast experience felt the same way. She shook hands with me in such a manner as to make me think that she was glad that I was in the cast. Oscar Serlin asked Bretaigne Windhurst, the director, and the cast composed of sixteen, to sit around the diningroom table used in the play. Oscar had with him a copy of the current issue of Life magazine. He said to us ‘This issue contains an article about The Birth of a Nation.’ Lillian said with enthusiasm, ‘Oh! yes, there’s a story about it and many photographs.’ Oscar said agreeably, ‘That is very nice.’

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father -- 1940
Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father — 1940

On this first morning of rehearsal we read through the play. Our director did not believe in giving his cast much time for lunch. I think that Lillian’s consisted of a chocolate ice cream soda. The first days of rehearsal went smoothly. Percy Waram, who had obviously done a great deal of work on his part beforehand, already seemed to be just right as my father, Clarence Day Senior. The rest of us were gradually trying to understand our parts and at the same time to learn our lines and positions.

One night after rehearsal as I was crossing Sixth Avenue on the way to Fifth I met Lillian walking up Sixth Avenue with Malcolm, her West Highland white terrier.

‘Hello, John,’ she said in a rather tired, absent-minded tone.

‘You are thinking of my friend, John Cromwell,’ I said.

‘How is he?’ she asked.

‘He was very successful last year,’ I said. ‘Now he is looking for a part again. My name is Zebby,’ I added.

‘Oh! yes, dear,’ she said.

When I came close to Lillian I could see large circles under her eyes. We walked cross town together and stopped every once in a while because of Malcolm.

‘Were you out late last night?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, I went out dancing, but don’t tell on me.’

As we continued walking down the street she became a little more lively.

‘Are you looking forward to going to Chicago?’ I asked her.

‘In this play, yes.’

‘When did you decide to do it? I asked her.

‘Oh, I went to see this play during the first week that it opened and I thought that it was the darlingest play that I had ever seen. I said to myself I could be in this play, and then I went to see it again to make sure that I was right. My second visit confirmed me in my opinion. I made an appointment to see Oscar Serlin and asked him to let me tour in this play. I met Mrs Clarence Day, Howard Lindsey, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst. The next day Oscar Serlin telephoned me and offered me the part in the company going to Chicago, but I wasn’t really sure that I was going to be in it until I went into rehearsal on Monday.’ ‘When I get home,’ she added, ‘I’ll have to get hold of my sister and have her come over to mother’s apartment and cue me.’

I left Lillian at the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street. She walked by herself to the apartment at 430 East 52nd Street that she and her sister, Dorothy, provided for her mother and where for the time being Lillian was also living.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm

On the afternoon of the third Monday after the company had started to rehearse, Bretaigne Windhurst said rather casually, ‘I want you to run through the whole play today without stopping. Whatever goes wrong – just go ahead with it as if nothing was the matter.’

I do not think that much character, humour or real vitality emerged from this rough rehearsal. No one seemed certain of what they were doing. At the end, after a chilling silence, a man stood up in the back of the balcony. He walked forward to the front row and looked down at us. I heard someone say, ‘It’s Howard Lindsey.’ Bretaigne Windhurst, seated in the front row of the orchestra, made no comment. The rest of us, with much concern, waited for Howard Lindsey to come up on the stage and say what he thought of us.

He criticized each member of the cast with dry humour and great severity. I feel sure that we all deserved his disapproval. After he had at last finished Lillian asked him gently, referring to his wife, Dorothy Stickney, ‘Where is Dorothy? I want her to help me on make-up.’ He replied, ‘She is resting quietly at home in preparation for the evening’s performance.’

During the last week of rehearsals in New York we gave a performance on two successive afternoons before invited audiences at the Empire Theater. Howard Lindsey, attending both of them, showed sincere satisfaction at our general improvement. Lillian said, ‘I will have to get one day in which to do business before we leave for Baltimore.’ I do not think that she managed to get more than half a day.

On Saturday morning, 10 February, two days before the opening in Baltimore, the company took the train for there. Dorothy Gish came along too. This was the first time that I had met her. She looked very tired as if she had been up late on the night before. Her bright, blonde hair made her face look like a masque. Lillian looked young and fresh beside her. Dorothy offered everyone chocolates out of a big, fine box. On Sunday night after the dress rehearsal I walked part of the way back to the hotel with Lillian and her dog. With no lack of confidence, but a little tensely, she said, ‘Now that we’ve finished rehearsing we should be ready to play it.’

The audience as well as Oscar Serlin, Mrs Clarence Day, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst, seemed pleased with the opening night’s performance. Ruth Gordon, a great friend of Lillian’s came down from New York to see it. This enormously gifted actress, talented writer and extraordinary woman, said to Oscar Serlin, ‘Thank you, it was a great treat.’ With much enthusiasm she walked on to the stage and carefully examined the set with its interesting old Victorian furniture.

During the week in Baltimore the Gish sisters spent some time with their old friend, the distinguished journalist, H. L. Mencken, whose home was in that city.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish – 1943

The sisters and I were staying in the same hotel. After the Wednesday matinee Lillian knocked on my door and asked me to join them for dinner. Still suffering from a cold that I had caught on the day after Howard Lindsey had come unexpectedly to the unfortunate rehearsal I have already referred to, I was looking forward to taking a rest and having dinner alone in my room. Despite this I could not refrain from accepting her invitation. I had so far only talked to Lillian a little and to Dorothy not at all. What were they going to be like? I tried to forget my still tired feeling and stuffed up nose in happy anticipation of finding out.

Their suite consisted of a sitting-room and two bedrooms. Lillian had not taken off her make-up. Rested by now, Dorothy looked very bright and attractive. After they had made sure that I was comfortable the sisters sat down opposite me, Lillian on a small sofa, and Dorothy on an easy chair.

What struck me most strongly at this my first meeting with them both, apart from their rare charm and feminine appeal, was their admiration and love for each other. There seemed to be no real conflict between them. Lillian obviously found whatever Dorothy said amusing and seemed content just to listen to her. Dorothy had come to Baltimore to help Lillian over what is always a trying period for an actor or actress, the opening week of a play. Enormously pleased with her sister’s performance as Vinnie Day, Dorothy certainly showed no envy that she was not playing her, only happiness at what she now felt was going to be a great success for her sister in Chicago.

After Lillian had ordered dinner for us, Dorothy said to her, ‘I wonder how mother is?’ Lillian said, ‘We can telephone to New York now and see.’ While the operator was getting her number, Lillian explained to me, ‘Mother came to the trenches in France during the First World War, while Dorothy and I were making propaganda films for the English War Department, to encourage the war effort of this country. She has been an invalid ever since.’ Dorothy added, ‘She has done so much for us that we can never do enough for her.’ Their mother could only speak a few words, and never over the telephone.

Lillian, Dorothy and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell) – 1930’s

Miss Fairborn who had been taking care of Mrs Gish for many years, assured the sisters that their mother was fine.

Much to my concern we started back to the theatre a little late. As we were getting out of the taxi at the stage door a middle aged woman came up to us and said to the sisters, ‘You are Lillian and Dorothy Gish, aren’t you?’ They quickly admitted, ‘We are.’ She said with much enthusiasm, ‘I have admired you both all my life.’ The sisters acknowledged her remark politely.

On Saturday evening after the performance the cast and everyone connected with the production took the train to Chicago and arrived there late on Sunday afternoon. The Blackstone Hotel was situated at the comer of the impressive Michigan Avenue that faced the lake. Lillian had engaged a suite and Percy Waram a room at this hotel for as long as the play should run. Dorothy decided to live there for the two weeks that she planned to stay in Chicago. Because this hotel was very expensive I only took a room there temporarily. The Blackstone Theater where the play was going to open on the following evening was situated down a side street only a few doors from this hotel.

I did not see either of the sisters on Sunday evening. I think that they were resting like myself. A short rehearsal was called on Monday afternoon to which all the company came. Bretaigne Windhurst gave the cast a few notes.

Most actors are naturally nervous on opening nights. On this one Lillian appeared very calm. When I came downstairs ready to go on, she said brightly, ‘How do you feel, dear?’ I said, ‘All right.’ She then made some small sugges¬ tion to improve my make-up. I had plenty of time to fix it.

About five minutes before the rise of the curtain Lillian, most becomingly as Vinnie Day, a lady of New York in the 1880s, stood off stage on the landing waiting to go downstairs into the main room of the house belonging to her husband Clarence and herself. I, as their eldest son, meant to be seventeen years old, waited directly behind her and the three boys playing my younger brothers waited behind me.

As soon as the curtain had gone up on an empty stage, in a very dignified manner well suited to the character that she was playing, Lillian walked downstairs. The audience applauded her entrance with considerable enthusiasm. I could hear her first remarks in the play to Annie, the maid. Clear and distinct, her voice showed no signs of nervousness. When I followed her on the stage to greet my mother before breakfast I could quickly feel her complete assurance.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish and Percy Waram
Life With Father – Lillian Gish and Percy Waram

Perhaps because the distinguished actor, Percy Waram, who played Father spoke rather too loudly, which threw his performance somewhat off balance in relation to Lillian’s and the rest of the company’s, I do not think that the play went as well as it had in Baltimore. For this reason and because I was not satisfied with myself I did not feel happy after the play was over.

On my return to the hotel I saw Lillian standing in the lobby. She looked rather tired, and very serious.

‘Hello, Zebby,’ she said from a little distance. ‘I am going to a party.

Glad to be under no obligation for the evening I went by myself downstairs into the grill room and ordered scrambled eggs, toast and milk. Dorothy Gish was seated at a table nearby with a distinguished-looking gentleman with grey hair whom I did not know. Deeply engrossed in her conversation, Dorothy at first did not seem to notice me. After a while, however, when she saw that I was alone, she called my name and said, ‘Come over here and sit with us.’ After I had reached her table she said ‘This is Mr H. L. Mencken. He half stood up and said warmly as if he meant it, ‘I saw your play again tonight. I thought that you were all very good. He then spoke with much enthusiasm about Lillian’s performance. ‘I think that it will be a great success here, he said. ‘That will be a relief to me,’ I said. ‘I have acted in several failures. I mentioned one that I had been in during the winter of nineteen thirty seven Oh Evening Star by Zoe Atkins, which lasted five performances at the Empire Theater.

He explained to Dorothy and me: ‘Zoe Atkins was at one time a serious writer. She even wrote beautiful verse. She was very poor. The opening of her play Declassee, starring Ethel Barrymore, was an obvious success. The evening afterwards when I was sitting in The Algonquin, Zoe walked in wearing a plumed hat and an expensive fur coat. I said to her “Zoe you look so different.” She said, “Can’t one dress up when one is opulent?” ’ Mr Mencken did not want us to leave him until he had finished all that he had to tell us. I could have listened to him indefinitely.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy and Lillian Gish standing at railing view 3]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3518

The next morning I hastened to buy all the newspapers as they came out. Each critic, Robert Poliak, Lloyd Lewis, Claudia Cassidy, Ashton Stevens and Cecil Smith, gave the play most excellent notices and the performances too, with one reservation about Lillian’s and two about Percy Waram’s. Although happy and relieved to read the notices and pleased too at what the critics had said about me, I still felt that all of us could have been much better.

In the afternoon I met Dorothy walking with Malcolm on Michigan Avenue. ‘How is Lillian today?’ I said. ‘Ah! fine. You should both be happy about the notices/ ‘Do you want to go into Woods and have ice-cream?’ I asked her. ‘Certainly,’ she said.

With no apparent sadness in her tone, Dorothy spoke about how little she had been working lately. Although people had offered her many plays she had felt compelled to turn them down either because she did not like the plays or because she did not think that the parts were right for her. During over six years and a half since my first appearance on the stage I had spent a great deal of time either in looking for parts or in waiting for one. Because of this I could well understand how Dorothy must be feeling.

Before the second night’s performance Oscar Berlin, his face temporarily twisted from nervous tension, came backstage. Waving his hands in the air, he said to the cast, ‘We’re in all right. We’re in.’

Shortly before it was time for the curtain to go up I walked out on the stage to join Lillian. Looking very relaxed and rested, she came up to me and said lightly, ‘Where did you and Dorothy go?’ She added, ‘I had to do my mail all alone.’

Although Lillian would have liked her to stay longer, Dorothy returned to New York on the second Saturday after we had opened.

I often called for Lillian at her suite on Sundays. The first time that we went out together she was dressed most becomingly in a blue sweatered suit, hat and veil, both of the same colour, the last just slightly over her forehead. She looked very fresh and young, hardly old enough to be playing Vinnie Day, supposedly the mother of four children, the oldest being seventeen. As we walked down Michigan Avenue towards The Auditorium to attend a concert, she said, ‘I want to see all of the United States in this play. Maybe we will run here for three months and then start to tour in June. Wouldn’t you like that?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t want to stay in this play for too long. I want to act in films.’

‘Ah!’, she said, ‘but one’s work in a film is quickly over. A play like this is very hard to find. Films are not so hard to come by.’

‘I should think that if one toured in a play for too long one would be almost forgotten.’

‘To work in a successful play like this is a career in itself, dear. I’ve waited a long time to find it.’

She looked up at me for a moment. ‘When we started to rehearse your colour was very bad, almost green,’ she said. ‘You’re looking much better now since you have been working.’

‘I have never been very strong,’ I said.

‘You must take care of yourself, dear, and become stronger,’ she said warmly. ‘Regular work will be good for you.’

One Sunday evening a few weeks after we had been in Chicago I took Lillian to see John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath in which, as I mentioned before I played. Lillian liked this film. She said, ‘Mr Ford directed films in the silent days. He learned how to tell a story with plenty of movement and without the constant use of dialogue. Most of the directors nowadays make the actors talk all the time.’

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (left), 1942

After the film during dinner I asked her, ‘Lillian, why don’t you consider seriously going back into films?’ A fiery expression came into her eyes. She said, ‘I was the little pet out there once. Everyone did as I said. I did fine pictures that I liked and they always made money. I never did a story just because I thought that it would make money. The people out there now wouldn’t understand that kind of thinking. I would have to do just what they said and I wouldn’t want to do pictures that way.’ I asked her, ‘Couldn’t you produce with your friend, Mary Pickford?’

‘Oh! no, dear, Mary and I have very different ideas about doing films. She always did stories that she thought people would go to see, not necessarily what she liked. I am more selfish than that. Mary and I could never do pictures together. To try might end a life-long friendship.’ I understood what Lillian meant. ‘Couldn’t you produce them alone?’ I asked. ‘Not any more. No one would listen to me. Everything that you do has to get past the exhibitors and their taste is not mine.’ Despite my enthusiasm I could think of no further questions to ask on this subject.

During the first few weeks of the run in Chicago many people said that they thought our company was better than the one in New York. Although I am not sure how many members of our company agreed with this opinion still none of us failed to appreciate the compliments that most people gave us. Some said to Lillian, ‘We like your Vinnie Day even better than Dorothy Stickney’s.’ Lillian said graciously, ‘I should be better. I have been on the stage much longer than she has, thirty-five years since childhood.’

Because of quick changes that she often had to make during the play, Lillian used an improvised dressing-room hidden from the audience at the top of the set’s staircase. During moments of waiting which she experienced once in a while, she often wrote letters. Sometimes she would just lie down, with her feet high up on a chair.

The anniversary performance of our show celebrating a year’s run which took place on the evening of February 1941, was a great success. Many people who had seen the play before came again. Lillian seemed happy about it, like the rest of us.

One day, soon afterwards, I read in the newspaper that the Museum of Art was going to have a special showing of Broken Blossoms on the following afternoon. That evening at the theatre I suggested to Lillian that we go to see it. ‘Well, I might,’ she said, ‘if it’s the first time for you.’

D. W. Griffith had directed this remarkable film in 1918. I had seen it about three years later when I was around ten. Some of the scenes had stuck vividly in my memory. The next afternoon at four o’clock, Lillian and I arrived at the small auditorium of the Museum, mostly filled with women.

Lillian’s performance as the twelve-year-old girl living in London’s Chinatown with her brutal father was deeply moving. Richard Barthelmass played beautifully the pure-hearted Chinaman who tried to rescue her. Donald Crisp acted the father with much effectiveness. Lillian’s death scene with Richard Barthelmass was unforgettable.

Simple, unpretentious, in no way sordid, without a trace of vulgarity, and obviously directed by a master, the film had a fine sense of tragedy. I thought that it was a masterpiece. At the end of the showing, after a moment’s silence, the audience broke into applause. Someone asked Lillian to say a few words. She stood in front of the audience and said modestly,

‘I hope that it moved you. It did me a little.’

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

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