Great names and how they are made – By THODA COCROFT (1941)

  • Great Names
  • AND HOW THEY ARE MADE
  • By THODA COCROFT
  • Copyright 1941
  • The United States, Canada and Great Britain by Thoda Cocroft
  • Printed in the United States of America

The writing of Lillian Gish shows a mental type with delicate sensibilities, whimsical humor, modest tastes, temperate habits, thought for others, surprising firmness. Power of concentration, above the average.

VIII

Blondes Are Volcanoes, Huh?

The third blonde was Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

Shortly after “Topspeed” opened in New York, Richard Maney resigned from the Warner Brothers publicity staff and returned to Jed Harris’ office where he had formerly been associated. I left when he did. Later I went out in advance of Jed Harris’ production of “Uncle Vanya,” in which Lillian Gish played the leading role.

The company was rehearsing at the theatre when Maney took me there to meet her. Unlike most first impressions which shift and rebuild themselves, exhibiting irritating angles under the changing focus of close acquaintance, my first mental picture of Lillian has remained unchanged.

She instantly reminded me of a particular rose in my mother’s California garden called “cloth of gold,” with dull yellow outer petals of the same pale shade as her long hair. She was reminiscent of the rose, too, in her grace and slenderness. So fragant was her personality that talking to her was very much like standing against a sunny wall and sniffing the sweetness of that especial yellow flower. I had expected her to be more guarded, less cordial. And it was remarkable to find that the impact of her cinema fame, the push and strain of the hundreds of letters which she still received from picture fans, had not injured her charm nor imposed that expression of suspicion common to many of the widely publicized people of the screen.

Yet in the same capacity of press agent, when I noted wariness in Katharine Hepburn’s eyes and distrust in her face, I had wondered what she was afraid of. A friend of Hepburn’s had explained it in the Broadway idiom: “Aw, she thinks ya wanta put the bee on her.”

1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena

Apparently Lillian Gish had abundant resources to meet any such impertinences and did not have to erect ugly screens of misgiving. To be sure, certain protections from the public were necessary and one of the things she asked me in that early conversation was that I make her reservations in Boston and other cities under a different name than that of Lillian Gish.

I eyed her inquisitively that day, searching for the blonde tattoos of superheat but could discover none of them. She seemed to be functioning on a mental rather than an emotional plane. We talked about Chekov and “Uncle Vanya,” of how the atmospheric accompaniment of his plays exceeded the plot action in importance, and of how this mood had been created by the rubbing of one character against another. Lillian was thoughtful in her analysis. It was clear she had studied the Russian dramatist and had read a great deal more than I had on the subject. I had not seen her performance then, although I had read a sheaf of enthusiastic New York reviews of it.

Jed Harris was in New Haven when I left New York for Boston for the try-out performance of Liam O’Flaherty’s “Mr. Gilhooley,” in which Helen Hayes and Arthur Sinclair were playing the leading roles. I stopped off there for a couple of hours to see him.

Several years previous to this, when I had lived in Greenwich Village, I had known Jed Harris. He was a theatrical press agent in those days himself, at least whenever he could get an advance agent’s job. Occasionally he came to my apartment and talked of the plays he planned some day to produce. We called him “the infant Belasco” and Jed accepted the title seriously, although he sometimes protested the limitation of a mere Belasco contribution to the theatre.

“I will be the most cultured producer in America,” he declared earnestly. “Belasco,” he shrugged, “is out of date. I will be better than he is, better than the Theatre Guild.”

I laughed at this heresy and at his egotism.

Theater Producer Jed Harris

That day in New Haven I found Jed at the Shubert Theatre watching the “Mr. Gilhooley” rehearsal. It was at this theatre that he had first ushered as a boy. His father had emigrated from Russia and, after a struggle, had established a tailor shop in the Connecticut town. During his early years Jed had known what it was to be penniless and to go hungry. The protective layers of self-esteem he had built up against the hurt and misery of those early days had left him arrogant, cocksure, utterly and entirely ruthless. In appearance he was tall, bony, the black-faced Semitic type. Even when he was freshly shaven the blue-black line of stubble showed through on the skin of his cheeks. He had bold, black, penetrating eyes, a long, prominent nose, and a shrewd mouth.

That day he had not shaved, an omission which became an affectation of his once he achieved the success category on Broadway. His shoulders stooped characteristically, as he paced around the theatre during the rehearsal waits.

He saw me and sat down to talk for a few minutes. Then the rehearsal started again and he changed his seat. Every three to five minutes after that he continued to change his seat, getting up frequently to walk back and ask me what I thought of the play before I had seen enough of the rehearsal to form any sort of judgment.

It was apparent that he was crazy with nervousness as well as distrustful of the play but could not put his finger on the sour spots. At that time his success with “The Front Page,” “Broadway,” “The Royal Family,” and “Coquette” was more like a fairy tale than any reality in the theatre. Crowning these big money-makers, his artistic triumph with “Uncle Vanya” indicated that, after all, the early prediction he had made for himself was no heresy. After “Uncle Vanya,” however, Broadway waited anxiously for the next astonishing chapter in the Jed Harris legend, while wiseacres in show business began to declare that this Arabian Nights episode was finished. His production “Our Town” nevertheless has indicated that another spectacular eruption of the Harris genius is not at all unlikely.

To reach Boston that evening I had to leave directly after the first act. I had an uneasy feeling, even with the little I had seen of the play, that “Mr. Gilhooley” was not in the lucky “hit” class. As it turned out later, the play was a failure.

, Lillian wrote and wired me friendly messages. Her letters were delightful, written in a fragile backhand that seemed exactly to typify her. And always she I thanked me for any routine service included in the course of my duties, as if I were doing her the greatest of favors. Later, at holiday time, her Christmas card written in her own delicate script said simply: “I think of you at Christmas time.”

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

In Chicago, Lillian rented an apartment at the Lake Shore Drive Hotel. I visited her there several times. One morning I arrived before she was dressed and found her in negligee, combing her long, pale hair. It was so long it put me in mind of the princess in the fairy story who let her golden tresses down over the castle wall for her knight to use as a ladder. Falling far below her waist, it was like a heavy shawl in its weight and thickness. In color, it was a natural rose-petal ash blonde. Was she the smouldering type?

But Lillian, at heart, nursed no white-hot fires. Or so I wrote the young director, thinking to put his ‘‘hot- mama’’ theories entirely to rout. In reply he called me “insensitive, unobservant, myopic. . . She’s in love with George Jean Nathan and madly jealous of him—as only a true blonde can be.”

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

With zipped-up interest I returned to my researches in blonde emotions. The George Jean Nathan rumor had been current for several years. Lillian had even admitted that a ring she wore had Nathan’s picture in it. “Friendship,” she had explained. Was it possible a volcano was erupting under my nose and that I was not even aware of it?

While I surreptitiously watched for symptoms the publicity wheels must keep moving. At the Chicago Art Institute I knew there was a portrait of Lillian Gish in the permanent collection, representing her in her motion picture role of Romola and painted by Nicholai Fechin. Purchased for the Institute by the Friends of Modern Art, it has been hung appropriately by the door of the studio theatre. Although it is not an unusual thing for an actress to have her portrait painted, no other portraits of stage people are in the Institute; Lillian Gish is the only living actress whose portrait has such unique distinction.

Passing through Chicago on former trips, Lillian had attempted to see her picture after it had been hung there. But she had not been able to find it on any of these trips and was far too shy to ask for it. I suggested that she make a pilgrimage there and allow newspaper photographers to take her picture viewing this painting of herself. She agreed, with the reservation that in case the photographs were poor they would not be used.

On the day of this scheduled picture she wore a smart black frock with a crisp white collar, white piping at her wrists, and a small black hat contrasting effectively with her blonde hair. The camera men had assembled when she arrived; then, immediately, the students ; poured out of the studio theatre to watch her. To hold back these nosey youngsters it was necessary to call for help from their instructors.

Lillian stood on a high bench to reach the portrait of herself and the camera men made their pictures of her standing there, in profile, viewing it. That night, in | her dressing room, I showed her the results and she was pleased. The next day they were used in Chicago papers and later in syndicates around the country.

Still there came the old chestnut of a question: “Is she engaged or really married to George Jean Nathan?”

When a newspaper woman columnist insisted they were married, I said there was no evidence except the “friendship” ring. Lillian, I explained, had worn the ring for a long time. The newspaper woman immediately played up the ring as a brand new bit of news and a few days later the old stories that “she was secretly | wed to the hard-boiled critic” were dusted off and printed in all the papers.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

I was once more ahead of the play, in another city, I when the story broke and so positive was the assertion of marriage that I did not realize the columnist alone was responsible but thought that Lillian herself had made a public statement. I wired back and asked her. She wrote in reply: “You may be sure I shall tell you if that ring should ever have a greater significance than it has at present. You may be sure if it ever does, it will be a long, long time.”

In the event the ring had the significance the press stories attributed to it, this was a very neat answer. But it was scarcely the retort of a woman keyed to emotional heats. Such a blonde, according to the young director, would have colored her reply with some inescapable shade of possessiveness, had jealousy smouldered in her heart.

“Your blonde theory is the bunk,” I wrote the director, although I was still in the dark about Lillian’s love affairs. To all outward appearances her life was happily organized around her work. And yet there continued to lurk the reminder that still waters flow emotionally deep, and that perhaps, after all, her long training as an actress masked unplumbed intensities of feeling.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

Not until “Uncle Vanya” reached the Harris Theatre in Chicago did I see the play itself. Besides Lillian’s Helena this production was the closest to perfection in its casting that I have ever seen approximated in the theatre. There were Walter Connolly, who had played in Margaret Anglin’s “Woman of Bronze”; Eugene Powers of the same cast; able Osgood Perkins and Kate Mayhew, the remarkable character woman; talented Zita Johann, and Eduardo Ciannelli, who distinguished himself in the screen version of “Winterset.” Such a combination was a tour de force that only the peculiar genius of Jed Harris could possibly assemble.

I felt then that the review of the New York World had not overstated the case when it said: “ ‘Uncle Vanya’ is the finest of Chekov’s plays. Chekov’s plays are the finest plays of the century. The Jed Harris production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ is the best Chekov that America has seen.”

I was enraptured with Lillian’s performance as she floated through the play, like a symbol of fugitive romance, escaping the clutching hands of idealizing men.

“If you know an art theatre when you see one, here it is,” wrote Charles Collins in the Chicago Tribune, proclaiming it better Chekov than what the Moscow Art Theatre had given us.

Seldom does an art theatre make an overwhelming demand at the box office, but considering the pall of the depression that was slowly squashing the theatre in its clammy hands, the receipts of that tour were remarkably good. Theatre managers and theatre public still optimistically believed that happy days were “just around the corner.” And not until three years later did they fully realize that the legitimate theatre’s road territory had been completely washed away and that a fourteen-thousand-dollar gross per week, such as “Uncle Vanya” had drawn at the Harris Theatre, was a figure gone with the chickens that in boom times filled every pot and with the two cars that basked in every garage.

Uncle Vanya

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