Lillian Gish: A Night to Recall The Glory Years – By JUDY KLEMESRUD (The New York Times – 1980)

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish london 1980

Lillian Gish: A Night to Recall The Glory Years


The New York Times – September 20, 1980

Members of the “Old Hollywood,” who reigned on the screen during the film industry’s glamour and glory years, turned out in force Thursday night to honor Lillian Gish at a party celebrating a retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modem Art. “This must be heaven,” the 84-year–0ld Miss Gish told the star-studded audience after a program that included tributes from some of her friends and excerpts from five of her films, beginning with “Broken Blossoms” (1919) and ending with “The Night of the Hunter” (1955). Miss Gish looked as glamorous as she ever has in any film role. She was wearing a long black floral-printed gown covered by a layer of black chiffon. Her blond hair was swept up and caught in the back by a single white carnation. Several people who greeted her in the receiving line could be heard whispering about “Lillian’s beautiful blue eyes” and her “fabulous white skin.” Helen Hayes, one of Miss Gish’s closest friends, began her tribute in the museum’s auditorium by saying: “What do you say about the godmother of your son, the godmother of your grandson? And she’s a good godmother, too. She does her job.” Sir john Gielgud, whom Miss Gish has often described as her favorite leading man, recalled the time in the 1930’s when he was asked to play Hamlet in New York, with Miss Gish as Ophelia.

Lillian Gish and Sir John Gielgud in "Hamlet"
Lillian Gish and Sir John Gielgud in “Hamlet”

“My response was, ‘Is she still young enough?'” Sir John told the black-tie audience of 350.

Not long after that, he recalled, he was getting ready to go on stage one night when he saw “a tiny little head” peak around his dressing room door, saying, “Am I still young enough to play Ophelia?” She certainly was, he noted. Sir John then peered out into the audience in Miss Gish’s direction and said: “At a time when there are not so many great actresses as there were when I was young, we just cherish those we have left;”

Blanchette Rockefeller, president of the museum, who stood next to Miss Gish in the receiving line, read tributes to the actress from Francois Truffaut, Princess Grace of Monaco, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Eva Marie Saint.

At the party afterward in the museum’s penthouse, many of the guests paid their respects to Miss Gish by stopping by her table to hug and kiss her.

Lillian Gish - John Gielgud
Lillian Gish – John Gielgud

Hugging and Kissing

Ruth Ford, noting what was happening, commented to her escort: “It’s hard to embrace her with a drink in my hand.” So she handed her drink to him and then strolled over to Miss Gish and hugged and kissed her. And of course, since it was September and the first party of the season for many of the guests, and theater people being theater people, there was much hugging and kissing among them, too.

“Mo!” exclaimed Irene Worth, when she ran into Maureen Stapleton at the cheese board. “Irene!” Miss Stapleton exclaimed back. Both actresses emitted slight screams, and then embraced each other. Anita Loos, another good friend of Miss Gish, arrived too late for the tribute In the auditorium but was in time to indulge In the pastries and cheeses at the party. She said she had been at an auction at the Waldorf-Astoria where Charles Hamilton auctioned off her original manuscript for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” as well as a letter to Miss Loos from William Faulkner. The manuscript drew $3,200, the letter $1,900. Among the other partygoers were Morton Gottlieb, the Broadway producer, who arrived, as usual, on his bicycle; Joan Fontaine: Joan Benett; Adolph Green; Betty Comden; Arlene Dahl; Ruth Gordon and her husband, Garson Kanin; Hermione Gingold; Celeste Holm and her husband, Wesley Addy; Nedda Logan; Fritz Weaver; Patrice Munsel; Jack Gilford; Ruth Warrick and Vera Maxwell.

Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked witch in “The Wizard of Oz” and who now plays Cora in coffee commercials, sat at a table with Joan Bennett, drinking something that smelled a lot like Scotch and water.

“Oh, it’s Maxwell House coffee – of a kind,” Miss Hamilton said with a laugh. Toward the end of the party, Darrell Ruhl, an actor who made a documentary film about Johnny Appleseed with Mis5 Gish this year, walked up to the actress and said: “If you get a good agent, you might make it.”


Miss Gish laughed.

“I always say that to her,” Mr. Ruhl explained, “and she usually tells me, ‘You’ve got to eat more.'”

The Lillian Gish film retrospective opened yesterday and will run until Oct. 7 at the Museum of Modem Art. It includes 19 of the 100 films the actress made and spans her entire career, from her first film, “An Unseen Enemy” (1912) through her latest film, “A Wedding” (1978).

Lillian Gish - A Night to Recall The Glory Years NYTimes Sep 20 1980
Lillian Gish – A Night to Recall The Glory Years NYTimes Sep 20 1980

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Lillian Gish, left an estate worth $10 million, to endow an annual award in the performing arts. – By Nadine Brozan (The New York Times – March 6, 1993)

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4


Lillian Gish, left an estate worth $10 million, with most of it to endow an annual award in the performing arts.

By Nadine Brozan

The New York Times – March 6, 1993

Lillian Gish, who died last Saturday, left an estate worth $10 million, with most of it to endow an annual award in the performing arts, Reuters reported yesterday. Miss Gish was 99, and her career spanned virtually the entire history of movies, starting with silent films.

Her 19-page will, filed in Surrogates Court in Manhattan and dated Feb. 21, 1986, distributes about $1 million to 20 people, including relatives and friends, in bequests ranging from $5,000 to $250,000.

Helen Hayes was given opal jewelry, while Miss Gish left artworks by Grandma Moses to Miss Hayes’s sons, James and Charles MacArthur.

Miss Gish directed that the remaining funds be used to establish a prize named for herself and her sister Dorothy, the actress, who died in 1968. She specified that the prize go to an individual who makes “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life” through the performing arts.

Only the best : a celebration of gift giving in America - Lillian Gish and a gift painting from Grandma Moses
Only the best : a celebration of gift giving in America – Lillian Gish and a gift painting from Grandma Moses

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And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?”

“Nothing, Aunt Alice, just looking.”

(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X

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Lillian Gish Looks Back on a Century – By John J. O’Connor (The New York Times – 1988)

The New York Times – 1988

Review/Television; Lillian Gish Looks Back on a Century

By John J. O’Connor

July 11, 1988

You can’t get off to a better start than Lillian Gish, now in her 90’s and still managing to hit just the right balance between fragility and feistiness. Beginning its second season on public television, tonight at 9 on Channel 13, ”American Masters” is presenting ”Lillian Gish: The Actor’s Life for Me.” Produced and directed by Terry Sanders, the hour-long film offers a profile of Miss Gish as ”told in her own memories, thoughts and words.” The narrator is Eva Marie Saint. The opening moments are worrying as we watch Miss Gish board a jetliner and settle in for what looks suspiciously like a journey into tired devices. But it seems that the point of this elaborate setup is merely to illustrate the length of Miss Gish’s ”journey across the 20th century.”

Actor Life For Me 2

Miss Saint notes that when 5-year-old Lillian made her stage debut in 1902, ”it was the year before Kitty Hawk, when another debut would take place – Orville and Wilbur Wright flying for the first time with an engine into the trackless skies.” That bit of contrivance out of the way, Miss Gish takes over, sitting for a straightforward interview that is illustrated generously with film clips from her life and career.

Very much the accomplished woman, Miss Gish is capable of being proper, sentimental and tough as nails, often all at the same time. Her early years as a child actor actress would seem to be strained, if not harrowing, yet she insists that she grew up in a ”beautiful, kind, unselfish world,” a world in which her mother was ”the most perfect human being” she would ever know.

And then there is D. W. Griffith, the legendary director she would meet in 1913. Miss Gish would become his perfect heroine, starring in ”The Birth of a Nation” (1915), ”Intolerance” (1916), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919), ”Way Down East” (1920), and ”Orphans of the Storm” (1922).

Her devotion to Griffith remains undiminished. She recalls how the director had ”given films their form and grammar.” He worked with no scripts in the early days. Everything was in his head, Miss Gish says, and ”it was up to you to find the character.” She has no patience with Method actors who insist on the necessity of first-hand experiences. ”If you haven’t the imagination to be that character,” declares Miss Gish, ”go into some other business.”

The woman who triumphed so frequently as a sweet and innocent heroine insists that playing a vamp would have been far easier. ”Those little virgins,” she says, ”after five minutes you got so sick of them – to make them interesting was hard work.” Her career would go on to encompass a broad range of projects, from playing a ”lewd” Ophelia opposite Sir John Gielgud’s Hamlet on the stage in 1937 to last year’s acclaimed performance opposite Bette Davis in the film ”The Whales of August.” Her story is enormously absorbing and she tells it with irresistible vigor.

At 11 this evening, Channel 13 begins an eight-week series of programming from Britain’s Channel 4, the service ordered by an Act of Parliament to, in effect, offer something different and more experimental than what could be found on the BBC or commercial channels.

Over the past few years, Channel 4 has become a beacon internationally for the best in independent and provocative programming. ”Four on Thirteen” begins tonight with ”Born in the R.S.A.,” an adaptation of the South African play that subsequently had considerable success at the Edinburgh International Festival and in London.

‘Born in the R.S.A.,” with its ironic echoes of Bruce Springsteen’s ”Born in the U.S.A.,” comes out of Barney Simon’s extraordinary Market Theater of Johannesburg. The multi-racial South African cast initially spent a month in the streets, homes and institutions of Johannesburg, compiling details for the characters to be portrayed.

The finished play has the impact of a powerful documentary. The camera wanders from person to person, each telling their part of the story to an unseen interviewer. They tell us who they are and where they came from. Mia Steinman, white, is a lawyer, the child of liberal Afrikaners. Zacharia Melani, black, is a saxophone player, up from Cape Town and suddenly finding himself enmeshed in political activism. Glen Donohue, white, is the attractive leading-man type who professes to being only ”simply curious about blacks.”

Off to an awkward start, burdened with the mechanics of exposition, ”Born in the R.S.A.” gradually burrows its ways into the horrors of an apartheid, terrorist society. The lover becomes a Judas. The state is an instrument of oppression even beyond the imagining of George Orwell. Children are arrested as criminals, forced to lie under oath. Inhumanity evolves into a way of life.

”Born in the R.S.A.” has little new to offer in its depiction of life in South Africa but its function is crucial as still another nail is put in the coffin of an intolerable system. The first-rate cast includes Timmy Kwebulana, Neil McCarthy, Gcina Mhlope, Vanessa Cooke, Terry Norton and Thoko Ntshinga. Mary McMurray directed this Tricycle Television Production for Channel 4.

Lillian Gish - NYTimes July 11, 1988
Lillian Gish – NYTimes July 11, 1988

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Lillian Gish Plans Double Exposure (The New York Times – 1969)

The New York Times – 1969

Lillian Gish Plans Double Exposure

April 10, 1969

BIRTH OF A BENEFIT: Lillian Gish, flanked by Bennet Kqrn and Joan Fontaine, sponsors of a benefit performance of “Lillian Gish and the Movies.” Program of rare film clips narrated by Miss Gish will have its New York premiere next Thursday at Columbia’s McMillin Theater to benefit the university’s D. W. Griffith Scholarship Fund. Tickets at $5 will include a champagne reception.

Lilllian Gish - Double Exposure - NYTimes April 10 1969 photo
Lilllian Gish – Double Exposure – NYTimes April 10 1969 illustration

The New York premiere of a film program, “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” on Thursday will benefit Columbia University’s new D. W. Griffith Scholarship Fund, named for the director who gave Miss Gish her movie start in 1912 and who made her a star with his 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation. Among lhe 23 silent clips narrated by Miss Gish during the 90-minute program at Columbia’s McMillin Theater will be a rare shot of Griffithbehind the cameras and scenes from several of his movies. Other segments will show early efforts by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and experimental films made before movies became commercial.

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

The scholarship fund is being established to help promising student directors in the film division of Columbia’s School of the Arts. A champagne reception honoring Miss Gish, whose autobiography “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” will be published by Prentice-Hall on April 21, will follow the 8:30 P.M. program. Tickets at $5, may be ordered from Dr. Arthur S. Barron, chairman of the film division.

Lillian Gish and The Movies 2

Lilllian Gish - Double Exposure - NYTimes April 10 1969
Lilllian Gish – Double Exposure – NYTimes April 10 1969

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‘My Dream Has Come to Life’ – By Harold C. Schonberg (The New York Times – March 30, 1978)

‘My Dream Has Come to Life’

By Harold C. Schonberg

The New York Times – March 30, 1978

LILLIAN GISH was on stage again. The First Lady of the Cinema held court in Town Hall on Tuesday night. Seated across from Francis Robinson of the Metropolitan Opera. she had a brief informal discussion with him about her silent film version of “La Boheme.” Then the large audience settled back to watch Miss Gish, John Gilbert and some other luminaries in the 1926 film, which was directed by King Vidor.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish - study for La Boheme (Ruth Harriet Louise)

By the time Mimi’s death scene was halfway through, women all over the house were sobbing and strong men whimpering. “La Boheme ” was never like this in the opera house.

In her folksy reminiscences before the showing, Miss Gish marveled that the film had been made at all. In those days, she said, producers had “a prejudice” about films with unhappy endings. Such films were considered box-office death, and also death on careers.

(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish retrouvaille, caleche, diligence, cocher, chevaux d'apres le roman de Henri Murger detail

Miss Gish, beautiful as ever in looks and bearing, had ‘a special interest in this particular showing. When first presented, the film had original. background music by David Mendoza and others. That was because the publishing firm of Ricordi held the copyright to Puccini’s music and would not release it. But last Tuesday night M-G-M’s “La Boheme” for the very first time had Puccini’s music, which is now in the public domain, and also excerpts from Leoncavallo’s “La Boheme,” an opera . that Puccini’s infinitely more successful version wiped from the boards.

Richard Woitach, one of the conductors at the Metropolitan Opera, prepared the music, and also played it, silent‐film manner, the piano—all hour-and74-half of it. With one eye on the screen and the other on his manuscript; Mr. Woitach nobly swept through the music, making most silent film, pianists sound like the amateurs they are.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert

Puccini’s opera uses four scenes from Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme.” But there is more to Murger’s novel than that, and the film picks up other elements, also adding a few things dreamed up by the 1926 scriptwriters.

It comes off surprisingly well–King Vidor was, after all, one of the finest directors the screen has known. It also presents the difference between a wonderful period actor and a great artist. John Gilbert, improbably handsome, makes no secret about his emotions, and gives a new meaning to bulging eyeballs. But Miss Gish, With that aura of femininity, that lightness which allows her to walk ,,without apparently touching the ground,” that incredible beauty—Miss Gish was able to rise far above period and give us a touching portrait of the little French, seamstress.

The  death scene is a tearjerker, of course. But Miss Gish had a big advantage over the famous sopranos of the century who have sung Mimi. She was young enough to look and live the part. Her acting, part instinct, part thorough professionalism, with a few adorable tricks of expression and gesture, makes poor, operatic sopranos, no matter how gifted vocally, look thick. Miss Gish was-is-a great artist.

La Boheme full cast and crew
La Boheme full cast and crew

Film buffs went wild during the presentation. In addition to Miss Gish and Mr. Gilbert, there were Renee Adoree’s Musette; Roy D’Arcy (who, could give even John Gilbert eyeball lessons), Edward Everett Horton (yes, he was young once, too) and that fine comic, George Hassell. The audience, incidentally, came largely from the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which sponsored the event, and M-G-M’s “La Boheme” has never played to a more knowledgeable group.

After it was over, Miss Gish greeted admirers backstage. She locked radiant.

“My dream has come to life.” she said, and everybody applauded.

“Where was the film made?” somebody asked her. Some of the footage looked as though it had been filmed in Paris.

“In California, dear,” Miss Gish answered. “All of it in Hollywood.”

“Where were the costumes ‘made?” a lady wanted to know.

“Well,” said Miss Gish, “I made mine.”

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)6

Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in “La Boheme,” 1926 Women were sobbing, strong men whimpering

`John Gilbert—improbably handsome‐makes no secret about his emotions’

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U.S. Stamp Will Honor Film Genius – By A. H. Weiler (The New York Times – 1975)

U.S. Stamp Will Honor Film Genius

By A. H. Weiler

The New York Times – Jan. 23, 1975

Lillian Gish, who was featured in many D. W. Griffith films, yesterday unveiled an enlarged reproduction of a commemorative stamp honoring the director in a brief ceremony that drew a number of film figures to the Museum of Modern Art.

The 10‐cent stamp showing the craggy ‐ faced director, who died in 1948 at the age of 73, and a hand‐cranked camera used in filming his silent movies, will be available to the public later this year.

United States 1975 stamp printed in USA – D.W. Griffith

Trim and attractive in a salmon‐colored suede coat and matching hat, Miss Gish, a stir of the 1915 classic “The Birth of a Nation,” said “I’m grateful to the people, who, for years, have enjoyed the art of the film, and to our Government for making it possible to honor the man who made it all possible, the father of the movies.”

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish - Griffith Stamp ceremony
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish – Griffith Stamp ceremony

After the unveiling, Miss Gish explained that she had been “working on this for some five years while I was lecturing around the country. I always asked audiences if they appreciated Mr. Griffith’s contributions to the movies and also asked them to write to Washington about it. Well, thousands did and, finally, with help of Mary Margaret Jameson, an adviser to the Postal Service, it happened. I couldn’t be happier.”

1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos - Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos – Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Another of those at the ceremony was Anita Loos, who as a teen‐ager suggested the story for the 1912 Griffith film “The New ‘York Hat” featuring an equally young Mary Pickford. “I really have nothing but love and adoration for him,” she said. “He started all of us.”

Blanche Sweet, who predated Miss Loos in the Griffith company that worked at the Biograph Studio on East 14th Street, noted that she was “12 years old in 1909 when he made ‘A Corner in Wheat’ and,” she said, laughing, “nobody noticed me. But Mr. Griffith did. He was wonderful then and continued to be just great for all of us.”

Harold J. Nigro, who represented the Postal Service, said that the Griffith stamp was one of three in an “American Arts set” to be issued this year. The others will honor Benjamin West, the painter of the Revolutionary period, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, the black poet.

D.W. Griffith Honored By Issue of 10c Stamp

The New York Times – May 29, 1975

LOS ANGELES, May 28—The United States Postal Service yesterday dedicated the commemorative 10‐cent D. W. Griffith stamp in memory of the Hollywood film maker who was born 100 years ago. The ceremonies were held at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, in keeping with a Postal Service tradition of holding such events at the subject’s birthplace or a locale he made famous.

Lillian Gish - Herald-Examiner Collection 75 stamp ceremony
Lillian Gish – Herald-Examiner Collection 75 stamp ceremony

Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston were among those on hand to honor the creator of “Birth of a Nation,” who died in relative obscurity in 1948. Also present was Lillian Gish, a Griffith star who had strongly lobbied for the stamp. A Postal Service spokesman said that during the next two years about 140 million Griffith stamps would he issued.

Griffith Stamp USO

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Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood (Jack Foley’s Movie Digest – 1925)

Movie Digest – 1925

Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood

Jack Foley

CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.

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

Hollywood Studio Magazine (November 1966)

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Hollywood Honors Miss Gish – By Aljean Harmetz (The New York Times – 1984)


By Aljean Harmetz

The New York Times – Thursday March 1, 1984

Sitting in a hotel room six floors above the ballroom where she is to be given the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tonight, Lillian Gish wears pearls and red lipstick. Her long forehead slopes down to amazingly bushy eyebrows, two thick crayon strokes in an unlined face.

The 90-year-old actress has started this day, as she does every day, with an hour of exercise, including sit-ups, although her collapsible slant board has been left behind in her New York apartment. Since 1940, she has fought gravity by lying upside down on the slant board each morning at 7 o’clock.

”Time is your friend; you get wiser,” she says. ”But gravity is your enemy. It sucks you into your grave. Everything important in your body is from here to here.” She puts one hand at her throat and another on the top of her head. ”Eyes, hearing, thought, smell, taste. If the heart were important, it wouldn’t be behind those two little ribs.”


Time has vainly tried to reduce Lillian Gish to mythology – the gilded icon of all that was lovely before movies had a voice: How, for her role in D. W. Griffth’s ”Way Down East” in 1920, she lay for hours on the ice of Long Island Sound with her hair and hand trailing in freezing water. How she denied herself anything to drink for three days before playing her death scene from consumption in King Vidor’s ”Boh eme” in 1926. How she stood under the African sun – 130 degrees and not even a tree for refuge – from dawn until dusk in 1967 for ”The Comedians,” and then, suitably dressed for elegant dining, spent the evening discussing African politics and the religious aspects of Graham Greene’s novels. How her Victorian sense of duty made her choose to nurse her sick mother rather than take the role that Tennessee Williams had written for her, Blanche DuBois, in the play that was to become ”A Streetcar Named Desire.”


Outliving One’s Enemies

If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground.

One can put Lillian Gish’s career into perspective by observing that if she had stopped working a half-century ago, when she was 40 years old, her contributions to the American cinema would still be astonishing. The man she always called ”Mr. Griffith” used her as his paintbrush when he created the American cinema in films such as ”Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Broken Blossoms” and ”Orphans of the Storm.” She was the perfect Victorian heroine – fragile, virginal and poignant, alabaster pale with ash-blond hair cascading down her back.

Although the pale blond hair has faded to gray, it still cascades below her waist. ”I’ve never been to a hairdresser,” she says. ”I’ve never had my hair cut, nor have I ever plucked an eyebrow. I don’t wear glasses and I have all my own teeth.”

Her mind skips up and down the decades, stopping to pick up a fragment of memory here, a sprig of her askew Victorian childhood there.

In 1899, when boardinghouses really had signs refusing dogs and actors, her embarrassed aunt warned the 5-year-old actress not to talk about her profession. ”If people knew we were in the theater, their children wouldn’t be allowed to play with us,” Miss Gish recalls. Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, were expected to have good manners plus the discipline to go on stage night after night. And ”even when there was not enough money for food, mother embroidered lace on our panties.”

Around 1914, their mother dragged Lillian and Dorothy to see land on the western outskirts of Los Angeles that could be purchased for $300 down. Miss Gish laughs. ”It had been raining. We said, ‘Mother, we worked so hard for our money. Do you want us to spend it on all this mud?’ So we didn’t buy the Sunset Strip.”

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr - Photo - Globe
AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

Her words return to her beloved silent film. ”There was never such a thing as silent film. There was always music, even if the music was only a tinny, tiny piano. Silent film was the greatest invention of the last 100 years. When films learned to talk, we lost 95 percent of our audience, because only 5 percent of the world speaks English. The Roxy Theater in New York held 6,424 people and it was crowded from 10 in the morning until 2 the next morning. Now, my little meat market on 59th Street has been turned into a theater that holds 200 people. It hurts my pride to go into those tiny theaters.”

Lillian Gish is the 12th recipient of the institute’s award, given annually to someone ”whose work has stood the test of time.” She follows John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra and John Huston. Tonight’s dinner will be filmed for television.

Miss Gish has acted in 50 plays and more than 100 movies, most of them one- and two-reelers at a time when David Wark Griffith was, in her words, ”giving film its form and grammar.” She made 11 movies in 1912, 20 movies in 1913. But she also made films when the silent era was at its peak, including ”The Wind” for the director Victor Seastrom in 1928.

Kevin Brownlow, the silent-film historian, has pointed out that while stage performances can safely be called great because they survive only in memory, film performances can be subjected to scrutiny. More than 50 years later, her performance as a spunky, resolute Virginia-bred girl in ”The Wind,” who is driven to madness by the raw, incessant Texas winds, still seems extraordinary in the delicacy of its nuances and in something that can best be described as strength shining through frailness.

In real life, her strength is legendary. ”I couldn’t ever be ill,” she says, as though good health were merely a matter of will. In all her years in the theater, she missed only one performance – when she stayed with her sister in the hospital because their mother could not be there.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Miss Gish describes many of the characters she played – including her Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway – as ”ga-ga babies, innocent little virgins who were nice to look at for five minutes but how did you make them interesting for an hour?” She succeeded by giving most of them a spiritual strength that burned through the sentimental silliness of the plots in which they were embedded. The same radiant strength was there, in a more distilled form, in her roles as protector of two children in ”The Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and as a dying matriarch in ”A Wedding” in 1978.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (candid) Lillian Gish on set

Her newest movie, ”Hambone and Hillie,” will be released in the spring. She plays Hillie; Hambone is a mongrel dog. Brooks Atkinson wrote that, as a performer, she had no vanity. ”How can you have vanity if you look at yourself on the screen?” she asks.

But her lack of vanity stops at the stage door. ”In life, vanity is a virtue,” she says. ”How can you let yourself weigh 300 pounds? The human body is a wonderful thing and it’s the only house you get to live in.”

She reads Jung and William Blake and the morning papers. ”There’s never been a more exciting century,” she says. She is writing one book on religion – ”As I get older, I believe in what I can’t see and understand” – and another, for children, that recreates the Christmases of her childhood: ”How good and kind people in my world were to children who had good manners.”

Looking back at a life dedicated to work, she has no regrets. ”I loved dear men,” she says, ”beautiful men who offered me their names. But I’m so glad I didn’t ruin any of their lives by marrying them.”

Lillian Gish m2 - Nell Dorr 1930
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish with beads in hair and seated view 2]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3505

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