Lillian Gish became a boarder in the Ursuline Academy at Saint Louis [in 1909-1910]. Here she found herself in surroundings altogether novel. At first she was unwilling to have either nuns or fellow boarders know that she had been on the stage. In fact, she was under the impression that the sisters would consider an actress, even a fifteen year old one, a very undesirable boarder and she had had all of the labels removed from her trunks before coming to the convent.
Lillian was not long in coming to love the convent and all it stood for. She reveled in the solitude, the shut-in-ness of the place. She became utterly devoted to the nuns, and was heard to say more than once that they were the most truly refined women she had ever met. Naturally spiritual, she was attracted by the convent routine, and more than once was heard to say that she would like to be a nun. Her teachers say she was always gracious and pleasant to her companions, but her natural reserve kept her from being ‘a good mixer.’ She once asked her favorite sister to point out any faults she might be guilty of, saying: ‘I want to eradicate any fault in me that might be an annoyance to others.’ The sister declares that, after watching Lillian carefully for weeks, she was unable to find any fault in her. She was a perfect boarder. Years later, when Lillian Gish played in ‘The White Sister,’ it was remarked by the critics that she must at some time have been intimately connected with nuns to be able to depict a religious so perfectly. She was very desirous of dedicating this play to her old teachers, but the management objected.
“Lillian Gish is a very famous star, and as such she is naturally of great interest to us. In addition, she has an appealing personality that exerts its charm even over the radio, and her beauty is apparent even in newspaper pictures. But she has a stronger appeal than all this to us Ursuline girls, because she was at one time an Ursuline pupil, having been at school about a year with our sisters when the academy was on Twelfth and Russell Boulevard in Saint Louis.
Miss Gish Recalls –
St. Louis and Sodas at the Busy Bee
“My sister Dorothy and I loved to play in St. Louis because of the ice cream sodas. We hit St. Louis many times where we were children touring in Belasco’s productions. There was a place near the theater – I can’t remember the name of the play much less the theater – were we got the best ice cream sodas in the world. Chocolate. Not the sweet chocolate. Bitter chocolate. It was called the Busy Bee Ice Cream Parlor. Mary Pickford toured with us in a few shows (she was known as Gladys Smith then) and the three of us came to know St. Louis for its ice cream.”
But there were less happy days in the city. “Things got rough and my father left us. We had an aunt in St. Louis and my mother, my sister and I moved in with her. We opened a confectionery in the city and Dorothy and I went to school and worked in the store. (The Misses Gish attended Ur- suline Academy for a year. [1909-1910]) Somehow though we got back on our feet and back on the stage.”
Excerpts from Albert Bigelow Paine’s “Life and Lillian Gish” 1932
“Lillian does not remember where she first met “Nell” Nellie Becker, a sweet-faced, happy-hearted girl, somewhat older than herself. Lillian was tall for her years, and serious-minded—the difference did not count. What did count was their instant attraction to each other. Beginning in what school- girls know as a “crush,” it presently ripened into something less fleeting, something that was to stand the wear of years. Each was the other’s ideal — the companion of which she had dreamed. They shared their hearts’ secrets, read books together.
A fine young fellow, named Tom, was going to marry Nell one of these days; a boy called “Alb,” for short—a very proper boy, particular about his umbrella and overshoes—appears to have been wishfully interested in Lillian, who, being of a sober turn and not yet thirteen, was not too violently disturbed by his attentions. Whatever romantic love she had, she gave to Nell. When, at the end of the summer, she joined her mother in East St. Louis, she wrote frequent letters, though letter-writ- ing was always her bane.” (Albert B. Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)
First Letter written to Nell Dorr: “Not many girls of her age would have set out on a long railroad trip, with changes, but rail travel had few terrors for the child actress, who for six or seven years had known little else. She stopped over in Dayton, to see her Grandfather, and her first letter, with its very plain, school-girl writing, some uncertainty as to spelling, and a large indifference to punc- tuation, is dated from there: September 12, 1909: “Well dear I am away from Massillon once again, but feel as if I had left something behind this time that I never left before. I arrived here at 4:05 yesterday afternoon and have been on one continual trot ever since then, and I leave here tonight at 11:25, and when I wake up I’ll be in St. Louis, as this is an awfully fast train. . . .” (Albert B. Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)
… “ [An all-night ride in a day coach, but what was that to her?]
Poor Dorothy what did she do when I left? I could hardly keep the tears back, and I couldn’t say a word for the lump in my throat. … I do hope she won’t be homesick. You know that feeling . . .
“You know that feeling“—who knew it better than herself? The letter ends, “Your loving make-be- lieve sister.”
It bears her East St. Louis address: 246 Collinsville Ave.
A week later she wrote, “How is my little fat sister? Does she seem to be satisfied? Bless her old fat heart, she is bad but I love her.” She tells of a day’s trip to a small town in Illinois, and how, when she got back to the store, they were “awfully rushed, so of course I had to help.” In another letter, we hear of a girl named Mertice, who is going to give a party for her, “at a big Hall.”
They have ordered an automobile, seven passenger—45 horsepower, but it won’t be here untill March. Oh, I wish you would hear her talk about all the trips we are going to take. She knows all about you, Nell. She couldn’t help but know if she is around me very long.” (Life and Lillian Gish – 1932)
Miss Gish made her stage debut in a melodrama called ”In Convict’s Stripes” in Rising Sun, Ohio. ”I was 5,” Lillian Gish said, ”and the only acting lesson I ever had was, ‘Speak loud and clear or else they’ll get another little girl!’ ” ”We had to do something to live in the summertime,” she recalled yesterday, ”because theaters closed down. No air conditioning.” Her mother and her younger sister, Dorothy, also turned to acting with various touring companies, and thus the family supported itself.
Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress. You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.
“You had lectures, you had performances, you had basketball games held in the opera houses, commencement ceremonies, that sort of thing,” said Michael R. Hurwitz, of Historic Opera Houses. “These opera houses at the turn of the last century were built in small communities to be a community center, to provide entertainment and were the heartbeat of the community. (An opera house) truly was the community rallying point and the community center for all of these small towns throughout America.” All historic opera houses have a connection to the rich history of their communities, but some boast especially significant ties to national history. An example of this is the Risingsun Opera House with its connection to actress Lillian Gish.
“Risingsun is historic, it is well preserved, and it has the cache of having Lillian Gish, who in theatrical circles and motion picture circles is truly one of the great pioneers of American theater and American film who performed on that stage. It’s a very significant piece of our history — Ohio’s history — but also theatrical history,” Hurwitz said. Gish, nicknamed “The First Lady of American Cinema,” had her very first performance on the stage of the Risingsun Opera House when she was 5 years old. Along with this association to Gish, the Risingsun Opera House is notable because it is very well preserved. Hurwitz, a theater technician, describes it as still being in “remarkably good condition,” as it appears to still be structurally sound and still has the stage, seating and balcony intact.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Lillian Gish had made The Scarlet Letter, La Boheme, Annie Laurie, The Enemy, and The Wind for MGM. The cumulative result for the five pictures— three financial successes and two failures (Annie Laurie and The Wind)— was $418,000 in profits. But after the successive failures of Annie Laurie and The Wind, the relationship between Gish and the studio cooled off. They had a serious argument over time off, then Thalberg asked her to cut her salary, offering her 15 percent of the gross after the studio had recouped its costs in an attempt to placate her. As always, MGM played hardball: “They all point to the harm they could do me by putting me out in bad pictures,” Gish wrote to her lawyer, “which, of course, is only too true. They also tell me that it would do them no harm, as they are so organized that they would go on just the same, but that I would suffer irreparable loss.” By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method.
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.
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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