A Life on Stage and Screen – by STUART ODERMAN

Lillian Gish

A Life on Stage and Screen


Lillian Gish - Life With Father (Stuart Oderman - book cover)
Lillian Gish – Life With Father (Stuart Oderman – book cover)


New York City: March 12, 1993. There were 700 mourners in attendance at St. Bartholomew’s. The pews were already filled before the start of the eleven o’clock memorial service.1 Even before it was announced in the newspapers and on radio and television, many knew that Lillian Gish had passed away in her sleep at her East 57th Street apartment, where she had lived alone for many years.
“It was what she had wanted,” James Frasher, her longtime personal manager, told the press.2 “She died at 7:03 p.m. on February 27 in her own bed. She was film. Film started in 1893, and so did she.” Film, in the days of its infancy, meant a quickly cranked black-and-white onereeler exhibited in nickelodeons for an audience of poor people, immigrants eager to plunk down their nickels for a new minutes of escapism from the factories, tenements, and drudgeries of the day. In her silent film years, Lillian had risen from a $5-a-day player hired off the street for the Biograph Company in 1912 by D.W. Griffith to co-star with her sister Dorothy in a one-reel melodrama, An Unseen Enemy, to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leading lady who, in 1927, could command a salary of $400,000, along with her choice of director, script and cast approval, and the added luxury of extra rehearsal time. She had lived long enough to see the “flickers” become “talkies,” which became multi-million dollar color extravaganzas that commanded high ticket prices, sometimes required reserved seats, and caused traffic jams.


Father, Dear Father

The Springfield, Ohio, where Lillian Diana Gish was born to James Leigh and Mary (McConnell) Robinson Gish on October 14, 1893, wasn’t very far removed from the wilderness of an earlier time.

Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street
Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street

If one wanted to learn of the latest births or deaths or new arrivals settling down, or attempt an honorable courtship, the church was of central importance as a proper meeting place. In Springfield and the surrounding areas, there were small churches of different denominations. To attract and maintain new and established congregants, “dinner on the ground” (a link to a time when churches were hard to find – and preachers harder) became very popular.  It was a common sight to see pioneer wives with food baskets coming to worship in the morning and then staying for the afternoon service.

Springfield Ohio - Downtown
Springfield Ohio – Downtown

Always an active theatre state, Ohio was home to touring companies featuring the likes of Jane Cowl, Maude Adams, and playwright Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, who left the security of a tailor’s job in Cincinnati to join a touring company.

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

To this nomadic life, with its frustration and heartbreak, Mary Robinson Gish would have to surrender herself and her daughters if they wished to survive. The origins of James Leigh Gish were not known or easily traceable. Everyone knew that Lillian’s mother, once known as “pretty May McConnell,” could trace her solid American ancestry back to President Zachary Taylor, a poetess named Emily Ward, and an Ohio state Senator, who was their Grandfather McConnell. Even in an era when townspeople discussed their kith and kin with unabashed alacrity, nobody could speak a complete paragraph about Mary Gish’s husband. James often described himself as a travelling salesman, a “drummer.” Although the most skilled drummers (which James wasn’t) could charm their way through town after town, changing their stories and lines of patter as the occasion required, the only James Gish story about which there was complete agreement was his courtship of young, pretty May McConnell. They had met in May’s hometown, Urbana,  and were married very quickly. Thanks to Mary McConnell’s father, James was able to get a job in a grocery store with the hope that one day he and his wife would have saved enough money to open a confectionery business of their own.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mary never criticized her husband or his ideas in front of Lillian or her younger sister, Dorothy. Lillian’s retelling of what had been said to her was greeted with a stony silence. It was bad enough to subject other townspeople to drunken reveries in the subdued light of a local tavern, but to put these wandering notions into the mind of an innocent little girl? Where did he get his upbringing? When would he assume the responsibilities of a Christian, God fearing father and stop playing the role of a feckless ne’er-do-well?

Without James’ knowledge, she and her daughter joined the Episcopal church and were regular worshipers, maintaining the tradition that had begun in Springfield. Perhaps if Mary’s thoughts were spoken in proper prayer and constant Sunday devotion, there might be salvation for James. Indeed, for everyone. We must bear and forbear. Amen.

James Leigh Gish

Before the summer ended, James left his family in search of business opportunities in other cities, tightening the bond between Mary and her daughters. Lillian, somehow becoming aware of James’ erratic behavior patterns, knew not to upset her mother with painful questions. Everything Lillian wanted she had found on her Aunt Emily’s farm: chickens, a cat who was always asleep, and a friendly dog. There was no need to think about an absentee alcoholic father who made her mother cry and wasted money on drink.

James Leigh Gish
James Leigh Gish


The Road to Biograph and Mr. Griffith

At the end of the engagement, Mrs. Gish took her daughters to East St. Louis, where she managed an ice cream parlor, assisting the wife of her recently deceased brother. The workday was long, sometimes twelve to fourteen hours. It left her little time to spend with Dorothy or Lillian. Lillian, never an outgoing person, especially needed to be helped. She had been maturing into a young lady and hadn’t received the benefits of an education or childhood experiences. When not acting on stage, she preferred to be alone, spending those quiet hours looking out of the window or curled in a chair, reading books. Sometimes she helped her mother.


To provide a place for Lillian to play and receive a much wanted education, the Ursuline Academy would supply properly cooked meals, a room, and schooling for twenty dollars a month. It would be a financial burden, but Mary Gish acquiesced to Lillian’s please. With an education, she could play “serious, grown-up parts,” and perhaps read better for a director. Without the right education, she would always sound like a little girl. After the initial weeks of adjustment to convent life, Lillian welcomed the opportunity to be removed from the pressures of touring, the lack of constancy, and the nomadic existence of a stage player. The Ursuline Academy provided her with the first stability she had ever received.

St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)
St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)

Something called “flickers” was beginning to affect the attendance at theatres. While some stage veterans might have viewed these primitive entertainments as the latest novelty for the lower classes and recent non-English speaking immigrants, it did not take producers long to realize that the nickel price for a program of short films and  newsreels, accompanied by a pianist whose melodies could soften the noise of the hand-cranked projector and underscore the action on the screen, was less than the dime needed for a seat in the upper gallery. Suddenly, “live” players didn’t mean that much. “Flickers” could be shown over and over, from the early morning until the very late evening. There would always be a steady stream of customers.

Cinema old

In 1903, a twelve minute one-reeler in fourteen scenes called The Great Train Robbery, filmed by the Thomas Edison Studios in West Orange, New Jersey, was causing a sensation -whether exhibited in formerly empty storerooms with hastily assembled screen and chairs or in specially built nickelodeon parlors. By 1908, the year of the release of D. W. Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie, 8 there were more than 10,000 nickelodeons across the United States.

griffith david wark_737

D. W. Griffith’s American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was a typical New York brownstone of the 1850s: four stories with a commercial basement that opened onto the street. Originally, the brownstone had been a private home prior to being tenanted by the Steck Piano Company. When Steck vacated the premises, the basement stores were rented, and the building was leased to Biograph for five thousand dollars. Because some stage actors had scruples about being recognized entering a place that manufactured such low entertainment, they reported to work through a basement store that served as a rented tailor’s shop. Their fear was not of being seen by the public, but by fellow stage professionals who might spread the scandalous news that they knew someone who had to resort to the “flickers” to pay their room rent or feed their (obviously destitute)  families.

the Biograph Bronx Studio
the Biograph Bronx Studio

From his first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908 ), Griffith proved he was the master showman. The Adventures of Dollie contained all of the elements of melodrama that would appeal to an audience: a child is kidnapped by villains, imprisoned in a barrel, and sent down the river, over the waterfalls, and rescued in the final minutes by a group of boys fishing in a stream.

An Unseen Enemy

  • continued the pattern set by The Adventures of Dollie. By constantly changing the point of view, the audience could not avoid being drawn into the plight of the Gish heroines. Like good storytelling worthy of his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, Griffith successfully utilized Poe’s short story techniques of presenting the main character and a particular problem, then adding further complications that leads to the climax and denouement. “Scare ’em,” and then “save ‘e m.”

Despite the successes of earlier Biograph arrivals Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, Lillian in her first film, An Unseen Enemy, would prove to be Griffith’s romantic notion of the perfect heroine. Through film after film, she would maintain, no matter how great the danger, a vision of spiritual purity worthy of the respect one would show to one’s mother or sister. It was an innocence that did not yield to desire. You wanted nothing to happen to her. You wanted to save her, to cherish her, to protect her from corruption and the evils of the world she might encounter if she left the house. She would rise above any negative environment like an angel heaven-bound. Beneath her outer fragility was the undying strength of iron. Off screen, Lillian had the same aura, recalled Hearst journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who began her long newspaper career in 1913, one year after the arrival of the Gish sisters. Lillian knew how to present herself. She always created her own atmosphere. She had none of the features you would associate with the “vamps” or the bad girls. She had blonde hair and big blue eyes, which we would  associate with the fairy tale princess illustrations or the little dolls girls would play with. Lillian was always radiant, like the children you see in holy pictures: not of this earth, and very ethereal. Because she moved with such elegance and grace, like a trained ballet dancer, I think she intimidated men. She would look them directly in the eye and then turn away very demurely. Men loved it. They respected her. Respect for any lady in Hollywood was very rare. Yet Lillian inspired respect. Even in her Griffith days, in an era before women had the right to vote, men would stand up when she approached their table.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916


The Last Reel

On her birthday in October 1990, the Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, was rededicated after extensive repairs that included the installation of a 35 millimeter projector with surround sound, replaced floor and wall coverings, more Gish memorabilia in the gallery, new lighting, and plush red seats. Each seat had a name plate on the back, acknowledging Lillian’s and Dorothy’s friends and admirers who helped the theatre Lillian called “a little jewel” glitter with even more warmth.

The Gish Film Theater


On February 27, 1993, Lillian, like all good art, became eternal.



“Any artist has just so much to give.

The important thing is to give it all.

Sometimes it’s more than you think.”

Lillian was just making another disappearance.


Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater
Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater


  • Note: The original illustrations from Stuart Oderman’s book are placed in the photo gallery below:

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father
Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father


Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Dorothy Gish, reveals how she happened – Los Angeles Herald 1919

Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLV, Number 6, 8 November 1919

That tomboy of the films Dorothy Gish, reveals how she happened

Dorothy Gish Cca 1930 FSF

Toss of coin tells which sister to interview …

 But Dorothy Talks Much of Lillian and So Dear Reader You Have ‘Em Both

There never were two sisters in all the history of the world better known than the celebrated Gish girls. Featured by that master producer and director, David Wark Griffith, their fame has girdled the earth and extended from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Many believe that they are twins, but this is not true. Today we have from her own lips the story of how Dorothy, the younger of the sister stars, achieved to fame:

By RAY W. FROHMAN Copyright. 1919, by Evening Herald Publishing Company

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 4
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3480


In the name of Steve Rodie, give me a chance to explain how I ‘‘took a chance.” Which starry sister of the Gish constellation should we have in our series? That was the question. The vivacious Comedienne? Or the ethereal tragedienne—whom even her sister says is “so beautiful”? “BOTH!” say you? Ah yes. But— Separately, ‘twould make this somewhat of a family party, wouldn’t it?

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

And together—”How happy would I be with either. Were t’other dear charmer away.” Torn between two such “winners” in the same story, who could do justice to either? SO— I borrowed a coin from the boss and Rambled with myself: “Tails”—Lillian. “Heads”—Dorothy.

Dorothy as "The Little Disturber"
Dorothy as “The Little Disturber”


You, dear readers, who may not approve of my consulting the fickle goddess, had a “sure thing”! Both the Gishes are young. both are talented, and both are beautiful. YOU couldn’t lose! “Heads” won — and so you have today the story of DOROTHY Gish, that rollicking tomboy of the screen. Lillian, at least a thousand pardons! It’s tough on both of us to miss you, but Dorothy “slipped in” a lot about you—and It’s “all in the family” anyway. And now that everybody’s happy, let’s go.


 It may not be too much to say that Dorothy Gish is attaining the highest art, for she is acting HERSELF. As the Little Disturber in Griffith’s “Hearts of the World” some two years ago—that queer, saucy creature with the flexible hips and the mannish swagger, now making a moue, now kicking up a wicked heel—the maker of stars, the general public, first really “discovered” Dorothy Gish.

Ever since, much to her regret, she has been doomed to wear that heavy black wig, in hot weather, beneath powerful lights in interiors; and, much more to her regret, she has been the girl clown, as she was in “I’ll Get Him Yet,” “Nobody Home” and her other starring vehicles,

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 49


How does she do It? How Is It that this dainty cameo, this normal, slender, blue-eyed girl with the “humorous mouth,” can play the harlequin so well? Here’s the answer: She’s a mistress of screen “business,” True to the best clown traditions, Dorothy doesn’t hesitate to make herself homely to be funny. But a “close-up” of Dorothy In person, during and after rehearsal at the Griffith studio in Hollywood, and the yarn of how she got her start and how she “arrived,” as told by herself In delightfully natural fashion, reveals that not merely “getting the most out of” stage business but putting HER OWN SELF on the screen is what makes “Dot” Gish what she is today. For she is chic; she is piquant: she is “cute”; and she is not only as “cunning” as she can be, but as pretty as she can be —another living refutation of the popular  fallacy that it is the photographer’s art to which screen stars owe their loveliness.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 10
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3547


You’ll find this natural comedienne —the sort of practical joker which your family and every family has in it – rehearsing before ever it comes under the camera her own interpretation of the good old “simple country maid coming to the city to go on the stage” motif, under the wing of her director, Elmer Clifton, with good-looking young Ralph Graves, very-y villainous Charley Gerard and a vamp or two as fellow conspirators. She is wearing a simple, one-piece blue dress white shoes and stockings, and her own light brown hair in a pair of curls over each shoulder, with hair-ribbons that don’t match. Even her bangs are impromptu.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 67

Drag her out into the sunshine, perch her on a lucky soapbox, have anuzzer yourself, and she will tell you of her blighted life as follows:

“I was chased out of Dayton, Ohio, a few months after I was born. Mother inflicted me on New York. “A friend of hers said that she (the friend) could play the maid in ‘East Lynn” if she could get a child to carry on, and applied for me. Mother didn’t like it but we were rather hard up then and she let me go.


“So, at the age of 4, I got my start on the stage on the road as Little Willie in ‘East Lynn’ with Rebecca Warren. We opened somewhere in Pennsylvania

“I was in road shows till I was 10, playing child parts. (One season it was “Her First False Step” with  Lillian in it, too. Several years I was with Fiske O’Hara, the Irish tenor, and my last stage appearance was with him in “Deacon O’Dare.” Then the adorable Dorothy attended grammar school for three years at Massilon, Ohio, where she lived with her aunt, and one year at Allegheny Collegiate Institute, Alderson, W. Va., where the climate did such things to her that her mother and sister stopped and burst into tears at their next meeting. Reunited, the Gish trio went to Baltimore on a promised trip to New York for the girls, Lillian wanted to go on the stage again and Dorothy dittoing with all her might as she “had been on the stage so long.”

Fiske O'Hara, The Irish Tenor
Fiske O’Hara, The Irish Tenor


Whom should they discover on the screen in Baltimore, in a Biograph film “Lena and The Geese.” But Gladys Smith? The girlish Gishes had been in plays with the “three Picks” – Gladys, Lottie and Jack. Dorothy tells the rest of the story thusly:

“I called at the Biograph studio on Fourteenth street to see Gladys Smith. ‘I guess you must mean Mary Pickford,’ they said. Mr. Griffith said Gladys could bring her friends in – we were in the lobby, as you weren’t allowed to go in – and I was introduced to him.

“I thought he was Mr. Biograph, as he seemed to have the ‘say so,’ and I didn’t  catch the name. I thought there was a Mr. Vitagraph, too, as there was a Mr. Edison.

“Lillian and I were both engaged as extras.”

This was in 1912, when Dorothy was 14.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

“Mary (Gladys) was leaving there for Mr. Belasco’s ‘A good Little Devil.’ Belasco’s manager, Mr. Dean had been the manager of Rebecca Warren’s ‘East Lynn’ company when I was in it, and introduced me to Mr. Belasco.

“Among us then, ‘Belasco’ was a name to tremble at, a god! I was so fluttered and fussed! He told me later it was the funnies thing he ever saw – Lillian and I kept trying to get back of each other.

“’You don’t want to go on the stage, do you?’ he said to me. ‘You want to go back to school.’ I wanted to choke him – I thought I was so old. Lillian became a fairy in that show on the road. He ‘didn’t have any part young enough for me.’”


When Lillian left this company to go to the Pacific Coast to go into pictures, Dorothy, paying her own way, and their mother had preceded her. Lillian received a regular salary playing parts with the Biograph stock company. Dorothy led a busy life as an extra: in the morning an Indian (a blue-eyed indian) squaw, in the afternoon an Indian man registering a puff of smoke from his trusty rifle, later in the day a white lady in a sunbonnet.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 12

Then , at 15, she went back to New York, succeeded in convincing Griffith that she was worth $40 a week and first began to play ingénues.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 11

“My age was always against me – it was the worst thing I had to put up with,” explained the veteran of 21 summers from her throne on the soap box. “They’d always say: ‘You’re too young – you can’t act till you’re 35.’

“I wanted to be a tragedienne. I only wanted sad parts. When mother read the press notices when I was on the road, saying I was a ‘comedienne,’ the tears rolled down my cheeks. I thought comedians had to have black on their faces, or red beards, and weren’t nice.”

Dorothy had followed the Griffith banner ever since her Biograph days – into the Reliance and Majestic company, then into Triangle plays, where Lillian and Dorothy – still wanting to be a tragedienne – were “starred” in ingenue parts – and then out when he left.


Then Lillian, who had a contract with him, went to Europe with her mother. Later Dorothy was sent for. The result was “Hearts of the World.”

“I had starred before, and I’d had quite a few comic parts, but I wasn’t interested in them” said Dorothy – o’ – the – soapbox, discussing this turning point in her and her sister’s careers.

After this, including her present Paramount starring vehicles being supervised by Griffith, it was always comedienne and black wig for Dorothy – the latter, perhaps, to help differentiate her on the screen from Lillian.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

“I used to ‘kid’ around at home,” continued Dorothy, “and everybody would say: ‘Why don’t you play YOURSELF?’

“’If you’d be yourself, instead of putting on all that heavy acting – ‘ Mr. Griffith said to me.

“It’s hard to do! I don’t know myself. I’m so young and self-conscious-though I’ve got over most of that. In all these seven Paramount pictures I HAVE been freer. I’d like to make people who see me in comic pantomime on the screen feel the way Mark Twain makes the readers feel.

“BUT” – and at this point the Mark Twain “fan” who goes to the other extreme and likes Victor Hugo; too, swallowed a couple of dashes – “they make me play myself, and I wanted to be an ACTRESS!”

By RAY W. FROHMAN – 1919

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola


Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish Stars in Play “Grass Harp” On TV (1960)

Desert Sun, Volume XXXIII, Number 262, 18 June 1960

Lillian Gish Stars in Play “Grass Harp” On TV


National Telefilm Associates’ “The Play of the Week” celebrates its twenty-fifth week in television with a performance of Truman Capote s romantic fantasy, “The Grass Harp,” starring Lillian Gish in the role of Dolly Talbo. The play will be televised Thursday, June 23. over KCOP – Channel 131 Los Angeles at 8 p. m. IN ADDITION to Miss Gish, who makes one of her rare television appearances, Russell Collins will be starred as Judge Charlie Cool and Carmen Mathews as Verena Talbo.

The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp

Capote’s drama is an idyll of the pure in heart who, like the meek, inherit the earth. The story spotlights two aging sisters with different concepts of life The gentle one, harassed by the more boisterous sister joins an aimless youth and an outspoken Negro mammy, to take refuge in a tree-house in the woods—openly defying convention. They are joined by a philosophical ex-judge, all four thumbing their noses at society THE TOWN IS shocked by this display of defiance, and an armed posse invades the woods to march the “traitors” to society back to civilization The final curtain finds everyone making adjustments and looking at life with new understanding. Featured are Jonathan Harris, as Dr. Morris Ritz, and Enid Mackey. as the baker s wife. Others in the past include Georgia Burke, Nick Hyams. Katherine Raht, Woodrow Parfrey, Edward Asner, Barbara Dana and Jane Connell.

LILLIAN GISH and Carmen Mathews - The Grass Harp
LILLIAN GISH and Carmen Mathews – The Grass Harp

LILLIAN GISH and Carmen Mathews are shown in a scene from Truman Capote’s romantic-fantasy. The Grass Harp.” KCOP’s presentation of the Play of the Week at 8 p.m., Thursday.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

LEADING LADIES – 1976 (Electa Clark)

An Affectionate Look at American Women of the Twentieth Century


Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association's support for Bristow-Mondell amendment
Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association’s support for Bristow-Mondell amendment

The 1900s



“Humanity marches on into the new and glorious 20th century!” exults a daily paper in its first issue of 1901. “Come, oh century, child of hope!” begins a long poem on page one. Another column trills, “We are 20th century women … with the dower of privilege and responsibility which enriches women in this wonderful era!”

Philadelphia Journal 1900
Philadelphia Journal 1900

The quotations are from the Republican, of Columbus, Indiana, then the center of population of the United States. All across the country, journalists, preachers, and ordinary folk rejoiced with the same exuberance. The nation was rich and would grow richer! Railroads were faster and better every day, factories were busier, cities were larger, people were cleverer, life was more stimulating than ever before!

Of course a few evils remained to be righted: child labor, sweat- shops, epidemics—but the greatest country in the world would quickly set those right.

Americans believed in America.

Votes for Women
Votes for Women

Women were pleased with themselves. “Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” boasts the Republican, “were handicapped in girlhood by a thousand prejudices and cast-iron traditional rules from which we are emancipated.”

Sanger On Court Steps
Sanger On Court Steps

Among the new freedoms was the freedom to join clubs, if their papas or husbands permitted. Most of these were self-improvement clubs in which the ladies read works of Browning or Dante, enjoyed the hostess’s tea and cookies, and returned refreshed to their family duties.

Prohibition W2
Prohibition W2

The 1920s – CALL IT A SPADE 

‘Behind a Veil of Silver Chiffon”


In a grim World War I story. Company K, author William March has a soldier in the muck and misery of the trenches draw a framed magazine picture of Lillian Gish from a pocket every night and every morning to study the sweet pictured face. Knowing that something pure and good still existed in the world was the talisman that preserved his sanity through the war.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – The Hearts of The World

Lillian Gish had a similar effect on millions who saw her in the movies. She was not only talented, she had a unique quality: pure, ethereal, elusive. As if she acted in whispers. As if in her hands, the definite blurred into the indefinite. It was drama critic George Jean Nathan who described her as being “behind a veil of silver chiffon.” He courted Lillian for years, but she eluded marriage.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

She had two great loves: her sister Dorothy and her mother. Her father had deserted his family when the girls were babies. Mrs. Gish, a loving, gentle, sympathetic woman, was not the stereotype mother of actresses; she did not storm her way into producers’ offices or manage her children as if they were properties. She was simply there, warm- hearted and protective.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

The bond between Lillian and Dorothy Gish never weakened. How different they were! Dorothy was mischievous, fun-loving, and irresponsible. She never reached such heights of stardom as Lillian, but she had her followers, who delighted in her gift of comedy. At the same time, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. “Miss Apprehension,’’ her sister and mother called her. Again and again she played major roles in successful plays, and at rehearsals was always her rowdy self, and the cast never guessed her hidden fears; but by each opening night her conviction of failure was so acute that she was nearly ill.

Lillian, who never had Dorothy’s skylarking, slapstick moods, was always grave and dignified. Fans often wrote asking why she smiled so seldom in her movies; yet she had a serenity denied the mercurial Dorothy. In early years, the three Gishes lived together whenever the girls’ engagements were in the same city; but in later life they gave up this practice. Dorothy was too riotously untidy for the fastidious Lillian.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

Miriam Cooper, an actress who later married director Raoul Walsh, tells the story of an evening when she, Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, and other young members of a “Hens’ Club” held a meeting in Dorothy’s room. Lillian was not one of the group. Aloof and studious, she was considered too standoffish. On this evening, as the party became more and more high-spirited, the Hens acted on an impulse, ran across the hall to Lillian’s room, and threw open the door shouting, “Surprise!”

Then they stopped, abashed. Lillian lay on her bed in a filmy negligee, golden hair outspread on a pillow. She looked up from the Shakespeare she was reading, and annoyance flashed across her face. But with instant good manners she stood up, welcomed her guests, and talked cordially as long as they stayed—which wasn’t long. They backed out, discomforted by the difference between this room, which only Dorothy had seen before, and her sister’s room.

Lillian Gish brushing her hair - Nell Dorr 1930
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Lillian Gish standing and brushing her hair]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3506

Dorothy’s room contained only three or four pieces of shabby Mission oak furniture, but Lillian’s had velvet draperies, gilt-framed mirrors, and lace-trimmed pillows. They were astonished too at the difference between this seductive woman and the sexless girl who walked around the studio with a book under her arm and was ignored by the men on the set.

Lillian 20 Garden

Lillian was known as “Mr. Griffith’s girl,” because they often had dinner together—in public, of course. But as Mr. G. had prim, Victorian standards of behavior; and as his young ladies were strictly supervised; and as everyone on the lot watched everyone else closely, there was no chance for hanky-panky, and no evidence that the Gish-Griffith affair was other than platonic.

Like Maude Adams and other fine actresses, she was sternly disciplined, and no amount of rehearsal was too much to achieve perfection. She never spared herself hardships, be they heat, desert wind, or around-the-clock labor.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

One of her early movies, made under D. W. Griffith’s direction, was the melodrama Way Down East The height of the action comes when Lillian’s inconsiderate employer, believing her to be a fallen woman, orders her out of the house into a blizzard. The silly girl doesn’t stop for hat or coat, but heads for the nearest river and begins walking the ice floes. By and by she faints and is carried downriver toward the neighborhood waterfall. Richard Barthelmess, the farmer’s son, likes the girl better than the old man does, and thinks it would be well to rescue her.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

This was a genuine Vermont blizzard, for which the cast waited a month or more, because no flimsy studio snowstorm would satisfy Griffith. Rehearsing and shooting the river scene took three weeks.

Nobody had it easy. Mr. Griffith’s face froze. Several cameramen came down with pneumonia. To keep the camera upright during the gale, three men had to lie flat in the snow, gripping the tripod legs, and a small fire was kept going directly under the camera to keep its oil from freezing.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

For her scene lying on the ice, Lillian Gish had thought up a piece of business that she was foolish enough to suggest to the director and then had to act upon. She let a few locks of hair and one hand trail through the water as she rocked her way downstream. It certainly added to the woe of the scene, but it also froze her hand, which forever after ached in cold weather. She lay on the ice about twenty times a day for those three weeks of rehearsal before the job was finished.

In the final take of the rescue scene, Richard Barthelmess got his. He wore a heavy raccoon coat, and in his cavorting from one ice floe to another he floundered onto one that was too small and tipped him into the water. He clambered out and that soggy coat must have weighed a ton, give or take a few pounds, but there was no time for a retake because now the rescue was for real. While he had fooled around under water, Lillian’s ice floe had jogged on, dangerously near the edge of that too-genuine waterfall. But he slogged on, scooped her up, and wrestled to shore with the poor girl pressed to that icy fur bosom.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish - ice floe scenes (Way Down East)
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Among the many fine movies that Lillian Gish made during the twenties was Orphans of the Storm, in which Dorothy Gish played the blind sister. To heighten the drama, Griffith had transposed a well-tried old plot to the time of the French Revolution. When the film was shown in France, it raised storms of fury. French pride was outraged because an American producer dared portray French history without its best dress on.

Next Lillian played in The White Sister. The whole cast went to Italy to film the story, the first American company ever to do so. Opposite Lillian Gish was a handsome new actor, Ronald Colman. When her lover is believed killed, the heroine becomes a nun, but after she has taken her solemn vows he returns, and a love scene of great power follows. An unhappy ending is arranged, however, that solves the girl’s dilemma, as he presently drowns in a flood. The White Sister was one of the great successes of the twenties.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)

After that Lillian Gish played in Romola also filmed in Italy; in La Boheme, opposite John Gilbert, and in The Scarlet Letter. To speak again of France, audiences there were mystified by all that fuss over the birth of an illegitimate baby.

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

In 1930 Lillian left Hollywood for Broadway and later appeared on TV. In that medium she played with Helen Hayes in the wonderfully funny Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Even in old age, Lillian Gish never lost her special quality, that elusive enchantment of being afloat behind a veil of silver chiffon.



Back to Lillian Gish Home page


Letters of Carl Van Vechten – 1987

Carl Van Vechten 1956
Carl Van Vechten 1956

Letters of Carl Van Vechten – 1987

selected, and edited by Bruce Kellner

Bruce Kellner by Van Vechten
Bruce Kellner by Van Vechten

Being intimate does not take courage, but it takes experience. . . .

I have never been anything else, writing letters or writing books.

— Carl Van Vechten to Paul Padgette, 3 November 1963

Self Portrait of Carl Van Vechten
Self Portrait of Carl Van Vechten

During a long and productive life in American arts and letters, Carl Van Vechten was widely recognized for several careers—as music and dance reviewer, literary critic, scandalous novelist, photographer, jazz enthusiast, popularizer of young black writers, and promoter of the avant garde.

Now another facet of his remarkable talent is available through this selection of his letters to 150 people, culled—from among the thousands he wrote—by his friend and biographer Bruce Kellner. Amusing or informative as signposts along the cultural avenues he traveled, the letters are addressed to a literary, artistic, musical, and theatrical Who’s Who, including Theodore Dreiser (who shared his bootlegger), Lillian Gish, Langston Hughes (whose career he fostered), Ellen Glasgow, James Weldon Johnson, Alfred and Blanche Knopf (his longtime publishers), Sinclair Lewis, Mabel Dodge Luhan, H. L. Mencken (who genially fought with him about music).

Lillian Gish - Beinecke Library YALE Orbis catalog
Lillian Gish – Beinecke Library YALE Orbis catalog

There is an intimacy to letters, as Carl Van Vechten knew, if only because of our own thumbs at their margins, a friend’s touch, a lover’s touch, sometimes a stranger’s, and words for us alone. A telephone call is surely more immediate, and eventually we will be facing each other for short as well as long distance communication on television phones—extensions in the kitchen to watch each other cook, plug-ins in the bath to eavesdrop on ablutions—as progress has its way. Letters will grow even rarer than they are at present, and letter writers will seem more anomalous than they now must to many people. Already the daily mail amounts largely to batches of catalogs and pleas for worthy causes. An occasional letter camouflaged among them is rare enough. A message travels faster by wire and wind, but hang up the receiver and it’s over; hang on to the letter and it’s not. Those of us lucky enough to have come in at the end of the written era were luckier still if we were on the receiving end when Carl Van Vechten wrote letters. He worked them into a busy chronology spanning the first half of the century, during which, in the best sense of an old-fashioned word, he was its leading dilettante: a lover of the arts, a connoisseur.

Lillian Gish, the American actress, was an acquaintance

through Van Vechten’s wife Fania Marinoff.

Fania Marinoff - Vogue 1923
Fania Marinoff – Vogue 1923
Fania Marinoff 1934
Fania Marinoff 1934

TO FANIA MARINOFF [24 January 1927]

Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles, California

The fun began about 5 when I went to a party at Lois Moran’s, where I met Lillian Gish, Jim Tully, Joan Crawford, and Florence Vidor. Lillian Gish pretended she remembered me from Good Little Devil days. This I don’t believe …

TO LILLIAN GISH 30 January 1936

146 Central Park West New York City

Dear Lillian, Fania read your interesting contribution to The Spiritual Woman some time ago and doubtless wrote you of her enthusiasm, but I delayed as I have been too swamped in work these last weeks for a man of my venerable years. Last night, however, I read what you had to say with pleasure, and profit. Every word glitters with wisdom and if you can strike subsidies out of hard-hearted senators by your efforts, you will have done something of historical significance. Yet it is obvious that Art should be subsidized, a fact that is readily recognized when our government sends cultural ambassadors abroad.

I am writing this on the day that Mencken died and of course all of us must think of this. However, what a BLESSING the manner of his death!

We send our best love to you. Carlo

“The fascination of Carl Van Vechten’s letters is thrilling. A time and period in our history come vividly to life— and with such nuance. Read on…”

— Lillian Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Letters of Carl Van Vechten
Letters of Carl Van Vechten

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

In Search of Happier Times: Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (1986) – Glenn D. Novak


In Search of Happier Times: Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful

May 1986

by Glenn D. Novak – Assistant Professor of Mass Communication West Georgia College


The NBC Playhouse had tradition of casting competent but relatively unknown stage actors into the roles of its television plays. Through moving performances in one or more of the better dramas produced by Coe, these actors began to make names for themselves, later broadening their careers into motion pictures. Actors and actresses like Joanne Woodward, Rod Steiger,  Kim Stanley, and others were thrust from relative obscurity into national popularity through fine performances in live television drama. Big Hollywood names were avoided, for reasons discussed by Associate Producer Gordon Duff in an interview in April, 1953:”If you have an expensive Hollywood name, more people would tune in, but I’m not sure more people would like the show. A name’s great, but we’re not in the business to keep the press agent happy” (“Grownups ‘Playhouse”).

Jo Van Fleet, Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish (The Trip To Bountiful)
Jo Van Fleet, Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish (The Trip To Bountiful)

The Trip to Bountiful represented a break with this tradition. The part of Mrs. Watts was played by Lillian Gish, 57 years old at the time. Her performance was hailed by many critics as one of the finest, if not the finest, of her entire dramatic career. Foote dedicated the play to Ms. Gish, and it is so noted on the title page to the play as it appears in the anthology, Harrison, Texas.

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish - The Trip To Bountiful 1953
Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

A complete list of the cast of The Trip to Bountiful, presented on the Goodyear Television Playhouse at 9:00 PM, EST, onMarch 1, 1953, follows:

  • Mrs. Watts: Lillian Gish
  • Jessie Mae Watts: Eileen Heckert
  • Ludie Watts: John Beal
  • Thelma: Eva Marie Saint
  • Ticket Man_(railroad station): Dennis CrossBus
  • Driver: Charles Sladen
  • Ticket Man (bus station):Will Hare
  • Attendant: Larry Bolton
  • Sheriff: Frank Overton
  • Ticket Man (second bus station):William Hansen

The director of the production was Vincent Donehue. Fred Coe was producer and Gordon Duff was associate producer.

Lillian Gish - The Trip To Bountiful (1953)
Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful (1953)

Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful is especially significant because it marked a reversal of the common trend during the earliest days of live television drama, the reliance on successful Broadway plays as material for television. Not only was The Trip to Bountiful an original play specifically written for television (a common practice by 1953), but it became the first television play ever produced on Broadway. Time magazine commented on this unusual situation soon after the play opened: “While seeming to throttle stage and screen with one hand, television is generously offering help with the other”(“Friend and Foe”).The stage play opened on November 3, 1953, at the Henry Miller Theatre, and enjoyed a run of about a month. The producer and director were unchanged from the television broadcast, and Ms. Gish continued in her role as Mrs. Watts.

Jo Van Fleet, Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish (The Trip To Bountiful)
Jo Van Fleet, Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish (The Trip To Bountiful)

Ludie was played by Gene Lyons, and Jo Van Fleet (who would turn in a powerful performance two years later in East of Eden) replaced Eileen Heckart as Jessie Mae. The play marked Eva Marie Saint’s first appearance on Broadway, as she re-created the role of Thelma (“Trip to Bountiful” Theatre Arts). The reviews of the stage play were mixed, but the majority of negative comments seemed to concentrate more on acting and sets than on the situations or dialogue. Eric Bentley’s criticism in the New Republic, however, did raise an in teresting question regarding Foote’s characterization of Ludie Watts:”The plot, the theme, the exigencies of theatre all demand that he speak, that he explain himself, but he is maddeningly and fatally silent, pleading some fifth amendment of the dramatic constitution.”Critics were in general agreement, though, concerning the moving performances of Gish, Van Fleet, and Saint, and more than one expressed surprise and sadness at the fact that the play had such a brief run.

Playbill - the trip to bountiful - Miss Lillian Gish
Playbill – the trip to bountiful – Miss Lillian Gish

The television writing of Horton Foote can best be described as the careful and sensitive exploration of the human mind and spirit. In The Trip to Bountiful he endeavors to portray that quality in all of us which spurs us on to an important goal, the attainment of which will satisfy an intense longing.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY – HORS D’OEUVRES (1992) – by Gregory Speck

Lillian Gish


BY Gregory Speck

Journalist Gregory Speck, best known for articles originally published in Interview magazine, has woven interviews with these stars into one extended conversation. Everyone from Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes, and James Cagney to Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland confides memories of their peers, like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper, Vivien Leigh, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow. The book also includes vivid character portraits of the great directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, and John Huston, and hilarious anecdotes about the making of cinematic masterpieces, such as Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and Moby Dick.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

Everyone at MGM knew that Greta Garbo was having an affair with Jack Gilbert, and that she was just playing with him. Well, as a result her popularity went right up, so Mr. Mayer called me into his office and said to me, “You are sitting way up there on a pedestal, and nobody cares. Let me knock you off, and everybody will care.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I said, “Well, what do you mean, Mr. Mayer?” He said, “Let me arrange a scandal for you.” You see, I had never had any sex thing in my life. Mother wasn’t there, for I guess she was off with my sister Dorothy some- place in England at the time, and I had no one to talk it over with.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

Well, I realized that I had to give a performance onscreen and well as one off screen, and I knew that I didn’t have enough vitality to do both. So, I told Mr. Mayer, “But this will mean a performance as a sexpot offscreen as well as my work onscreen!” Without knowing it, I was “the unattainable.” So, there was more sex gossip about me than about Greta Garbo, who was attainable. I just was not a sexpot, and never have been. Anyway, Mr. Mayer tried to arrange a sex scandal for me, and I said, “No, I don’t want one.” Then he said, “You know, I can ruin you.” “I know you can, Mr. Mayer,” I replied. Then he sent word out that if anybody ran a picture of mine or used me in any way he would never be in the movies again. That’s the kind of man he was, and the kind of power he had as the head of MGM.

I heard about this, and left the movies to go back to the theater, where I had started. The first thing I did was Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and for six years I enjoyed great success in the theater, on Broadway and elsewhere. This was in the thirties. After that I went back to make some more movies.

1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

But in the twenties I was working twelve hours a day. When they asked me if I wanted to remain unattainable I replied with a question: “What kind of wife would I be?” All of my energy went into making pictures, and since the unions didn’t even exist until after the twenties there was nothing to stop producers or directors from having us work at least twelve hours every day. “I’m just dead tired when I get home, and I would make a terrible wife. I couldn’t take care of a husband, and I wouldn’t want to ruin a man’s life,” I said to Mayer. Thank goodness I never did marry a man. My life was an open book. They knew what I was doing every minute of every day and night. They controlled me when I was making films, and then when I went back to the theater I had one success after another, in Uncle Vanya in 1930, in Camille in 1932, in The Joyous Season in 1934, in The Old Maid in 1936, and in Hamlet that same year.

But as for Garbo, she came from a country where they had sunlight three months of the year, and the rest of the time it’s pretty dark. They are all very dour people as a result, I think. They are all “inward.” I went to Sweden in the summer once and looked up at night, and there sat the sun. It didn’t move. The rest of the year there is almost no sun. I think that’s why Greta Garbo was always so reclusive. She, like most Swedes, was very inwardly directed. They are an “inside” people. But after working twelve hours a day in front of lights and cameras, who wants to go out and have a social life? It drains you of energy.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Hollywood royalty : Hepburn, Davis, Stewart, and friends at the
Hollywood royalty : Hepburn, Davis, Stewart, and friends

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish – A tribute to a Trouper (Anita Loos – 1984)


Lillian Gish – A tribute to a Trouper

Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures.


Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy (younger by two years), had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time, motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home. Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals, integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.

vThe Gish Sisters (2)

Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art, Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Lillian plays the Southern belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who endlessly rocks the cradle in Intolerance, a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience.