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.

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

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