An Applause Original THE SMART SET:
George Jean Nathan & H.L.Mencken
- by Thomas Quinn Curtiss
- Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Quinn Curtiss
Nathan had been denouncing the movies as a menace to the arts for many years, but the screen appearance of Miss Gish bewitched him. A year earlier he had published a rapturous essay about her in Vanity Fair, attempting to explain the spell her celluloid image cast. That she is one of the few real actresses that the films have brought forth, either here or abroad, is pretty well agreed upon by the majority of critics. But it seems to me that, though the fact is taken for granted, the reasons for her eminence have in but small and misty part been set down in print.
“The girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so. Her genius lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite. Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion. The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes. The whole secret of the young woman’s remarkably effective acting rests as I have observed, in her carefully devised and skilfully negotiated technique of playing always, as it were, behind a veil of silver chiffon. She always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight. There is ever something pleasantly, alluringly, missing, as there always is in the case of women who are truly ‘acting artists.’
Nathan proposed that Hergesheimer profile Lillian Gish and the novelist complied with an essay that ran in the August 1924 Mercury and is considered one of the memorable contributions to the magazine. The critic also told Hergesheimer that he would very much like to meet Miss Gish, but just then she was away filming in Italy. In November 1924, back from Italy, Miss Gish was on her way to spend a weekend at Joe Hergeshiemer’s home in Pennsylvania when, on the train to Philadelphia, a man introduced himself to her. She remembered him as being handsome and charming. She was suprised to find that he was George Jean Nathan, as she had imagined him to be a much older and ruder fellow, in keeping with his destructive humor. He, too, probably by pre-arrangement, was to be a guest at the Hergesheimers, and they chatted away the two hours of railroad journey. He was immediately and utterly enchanted. Miss Gish, however, was not entirely at ease with her new admirer. Once back in her New York apartment she was reluctant to accept Nathan’s frequent telephone calls. When he caught her on the line she would disguise her voice and, pretending to be her maid, would say that her mistress was out. Eventually, though, she began to accept Nathan’s phone calls and his invitations to first nights and dinners.
A calamity brought Lillian Gish from Hollywood on a lighten-ing visit in the summer of 1926. Her mother, who had gone to London where her daughter Dorothy was filming Nell Gwyn had suddenly suffered a severe stroke. Lillian was in the last week of shooting The Scarlet Letter. She learned that by leaving Los Angeles in three days she could catch the liner, Majestic, leaving New York for England. The last week of filming was compressed into the three days available and she was rushed to the Los Angeles depot with a police escort. Nathan saw her off on the Majestic and continued to write to her:
“Darling, I hope for all time: I tell you again what I have told you daily for the last solid year; that you are the only girl who can ever figure in my life, that you are the only one I can ever really and deeply love, and that I wish you would feel the same way about me as I do about you. “
The Gish girls nursed their mother in London and in a few weeks she was sufficiently improved to be transported to New York. There they broke the journey, preparing for the five-day train trip back to California. Nathan was most attentive during their New York stay. He gave Lillian a wirehaired terrier which she named Georgie, a playful puppy who cut his teeth on all the best chairs of the hotel drawing room. Nathan also presented the actress with a ring on which his profile was engraved. She wore it often and it attracted the attention of interviewers who asked whether it represented her engagement. To this she would evasively reply, “Mr. Nathan is a very brilliant man and my friend.” After Lillian went back to California, Nathan sailed for an inspection of the London theatres. While there, he visited A.B. Walkley, the British drama critic. During a day spent with Walkley at his seaside home, Nathan asked his host—who showed little partiality to Americans in general—how he explained the affinity that made his host and he friends. “You are the only American I have ever met who when you speak does not make me fear that all the dishes on the table will crash to the floor,” replied the advocate of Artistotelian reasoning.
Nathan kept encouraging Lillian Gish to pursue the theatre in her career. She eventually did decide to enact mature drama as well as motion pictures. She gave her initial Broadway performance as Helena in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya on April 15, 1930. Jed Harris, a flamboyant producer, led the moving measure of the company and the excited public.
Her next three plays were Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils, Sean O’Casey’s tragedy about a prostitute, Within the Gates, and John Gielgud’s Hamlet, she playing Ophelia. Shortly after the death of George Jean Nathan on April 8, 1958, after he was stricken with arteriosclerosis in 1956, Lillian Gish came to see me. She spoke of the letters she had owned since 1924. Most of her friends believed that he wanted to marry her. But in 1933 she wrote him that she had no more love for him. He replied that he was ready to commit suicide. She persuaded him to survive and he swallowed the bitter experience.