CHILD ACTORS …

“My sister Dorothy and I were lucky. We never lived in just one place or went to school like other children we knew. We were child actors. We belonged to traveling theatrical companies that performed plays in small towns and big cities. While most children our age were sleeping soundly in their beds at home, we were jouncing along on milk trains in the small hours of the morning, moving on to some distant city.

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One morning I woke up and I realized that here we were – all together at last. We had the house I had dreamed about years before as a small traveling player. We were warm. We could afford good foods, lots of books, and nice clothes. Mother didn’t had to worry one bit about money anymore. Everything we had wanted as children now was ours. It was like a fairy tale: “And they lived happily ever after.” We wondered if we would. (Miss Lillian Gish) (An Actor’s Life for Me! – As Told to Selma G. Lanes – Lillian Gish)

The world was not kind to James Gish. Perhaps those wise ones who know all about the world, and human nature, and the free-will to choose, will say that he was not kind to himself. One must admire those people; they know things with such a deadly certainty. I never in my life knew a thing so certainly as a man who once told me that I could always do the right thing, if I only wanted to.
Apparently I didn’t want to. Nor, as it seemed, did James Gish. When, after less than two years in Baltimore, he sold out to Meixner, he had very little left. Part of that little he gave to his wife; with the rest, he went to New York, where he would find employment and send remittances.

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For a time the remittances came; then they dwindled, skipped, ceased. Mrs. Gish worked, but the money she earned was not enough for the little family. Meixner lent her small sums, then advised her to join her husband, advancing money for her fare and for immediate needs on arrival. Meixner appears to have been a good soul. In New York, Mary Gish took an apartment—small, but large enough to accommodate two boarders. It faced West 39th Street, up one or two flights of stairs. She needed more furniture and bought it on instalments. She also took a job—demonstrating, in a Brooklyn department store. She was twenty-five, handsome, capable, determined to make her way. Up at five, she set her house in order, got breakfast for her family and the two boarders theatrical women, who had their luncheons outside. Leaving the children in the hands of a colored girl, she was off for the day. Back at night, she got the supper; then worked at the making and mending and laundering of the family clothing.

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Gish was there, and may have been employed at times, but his help was negligible. Less than that. As she saved from her modest pay, she gave him sums, trusting soul, to pay on her furniture. But then, one day, when she came home from her job in distant Brooklyn, more distant then than now, the dealers who had sold it to her had come and taken it away. Her husband appears to have vanished about the same time. Later, she sought and obtained legal separation.

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Kind-hearted, weak—James Gish was only one of thousands. That he loved his family is certain. When a year or two later, Mary Gish and little Dorothy were on a theatrical circuit, he was likely to turn up any time, appearing mysteriously in distant places. Hungry for the sight of them, he must have watched them enter and leave the theatre—perhaps went in to see the play. Sometimes he confronted them on a street in a far-off town. Always in Mary Gish’s heart was the dread that he would take one or both of her children from her. She knew he was a Freemason, and in her lack of knowledge, thought he might in some way invoke that secret agency. He seems never to have attempted anything of the sort, and if he secretly followed Lillian, she did not know it. Probably it was Mary Gish herself that he most wanted to see. Those wise ones who know all about the world will not fail to explain that he deserved his tragedy. . . .
Night and day the Loom of Circumstance weaves its inevitable pattern. The filaments proceed from a million sources, stretching backward through eternity. Incredibly they unite, and once united the gods themselves cannot change the design.

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Mary Gish’s fortunes were at low ebb. Her unfurnished room would presently be on her hands. The two actresses, who owed her money, were willing to bunk on the floor, but the theatrical season would open shortly, and what then? Such jewelry as she owned was pawned, even to the last piece—even to her wedding ring. The actresses had likewise parted with their valuables. One of them, who called herself Dolores Lome, had taken a great fancy to little Dorothy. There came a momentous afternoon.

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Mary Gish, arriving from Brooklyn, was met by a startling proposal:
“I can get a good part in Rebecca Warren’s ‘East Lynne’ Company,” Dolores Lome excitedly announced, “if I can get a child to play ‘Little Willie.’ Dorothy would do it, exactly. They will pay her fifteen dollars a week, and we’d have a week’s salary in advance. I could pay you; and I know a woman who can get a part for Lillian, too. A lovely woman, Alice Niles, in a ‘Convict Stripes’ Company.”
Mary Gish stared at her, dazed, staggered. She could not grasp it. Her little girls . . . going away . . . motherless. . . . Poor little Dot, hardly more than a baby . . . and Lillian, barely six . . . on the road with theatre people . . . what would the folks at home say?

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Theatre people! She had not even dared to confess that she had them in her house. Dolores was a good soul . . . but little Dot . . . and Alice Niles—who was Alice Niles?
A stranger! And Lillian, so frail … on the road . . . with a stranger!!! James Gish’s wife, who had borne up in the face of everything, gave way, wept as if her heart would break. Dolores Lome comforted her . . . later, Alice Niles. She believed them good women, both of them. They promised to take a mother’s care of her little girls. They painted life on the circuit as happy—just a long pleasure trip. If they forgot the broken nights on wretched trains, the scanty, stale food, the dragging weariness of delays . . . oh, well, they were human.

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Lillian and Dorothy became excited. They had never been to a theatre, except to the Christmas-tree performance in Baltimore. That had been beautiful. Especially Maxine Elliot. Now, they were going to be beautiful, like Maxine. Tearfully Mary Gish began to assemble two little wardrobes—scanty little wardrobes, of a size to go into two cheap little telescope bags. Also, there were the rehearsals. Mary Gish taught her children their brief lines, which they rehearsed at the theatre. Lillian went at her task in her obedient, thorough way, and became a favorite. Dorothy, who perhaps had ideas of her own, was invited to repeat, and repeat, until both Mr. William Dean, the kindly manager of her company, and herself, were a trifle worn and critical. Finally, when Mr. Dean became really quite fierce, and peremptory, Dorothy, aged four, whispered, her lips trembling a little:

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“Please, Mr. Dean, if you let me alone for a few minutes, I know I’ll be able to do it.”
Mrs. Gish, meantime, had a new and quite definite plan. She would herself become an actress! Very likely her people would cast her out, but never mind. Acting could not be worse than the long hours in Brooklyn. She would equip herself to be with one or both of her children. Alice Niles introduced her at a theatrical agency, and Mary Gish—determined woman that she was—was rehearsing for a small part at Proctor’s almost as soon as the two real actresses of the family had said their heartbreaking goodbyes.

(Life and Lillian Gish by Albert Bigelow Paine 1932)

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