THE PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE – December, 1914
I Go A-calling on the Gish Girls
By Richard Willis
Most people don’t like making calls, but I am of those old fashioned individuals who enjoy it. We had met before, these delightful Gish girls and I, and there already existed between us the easy friendship of youth with middle age, so it was with a light heart and a half smile of pleased anticipation that I approached their house that sunny afternoon. Someone was playing on the piano – not regularly playing, just strumming idly as though to fill a tedious interval when there was nothing to engage her attention.
I rang the bell and the strumming stopped abruptly, quick steps crossed the hall and the door was thrown hospitably open by the very tall, very fair girl, with her very blonde hair hanging down her back, who is Dorothy.
“Why, Mr. Willis, how good of you to come to see us,” she cried clasping hand with the firm heartiness of a friendly boy. “Lillian, oh, Lillian, here’s Mr. Willis,” she called raising her voice a little. In response to her call there entered another very tall, very fair girl, with color in her cheeks a little more vivid than her sister’s and with her very blonde hair piled high on her head. “How do you do, Mr. Willis,” she cried gaily, sweeping me a little curtsy, and then sitting down beside her sister on the broad couch before the west window. As for me, I simply sat and beamed at them for the moment. Certainly two sisters never made a prettier picture than did Lillian and Dorothy Gish, there in the west window on that quaint old brocaded couch, Lillian in a delicate pink frock with a turquoise brooch at her throat and Dorothy in a dress of filmy white, with the sunlight that streamed through the window turning their blonde hair to gold.
Except that Dorothy wore her hair down her back and Lillian’s was done high, they looked almost of an age. But of course, Lillian is a little the older in years and a good deal the older in motion picture experience. But when Dorothy once got started she advanced very rapidly and I never knew anyone prouder of a sister’s success than Lillian is. Where one might have expected a little strain, a little jealousy even, there is nothing but the most enthusiastic and genuine pride in each other.
“Whatever you do,” said Dorothy impetuously – I had divulged the fact that I had an “ax to grind” in making this call – and had been met with, “We knew that you hadn’t come all this way just to see two foolish girls,” – “please don’t refer to us as ‘stars’. It is too silly, because we haven’t had time to be stars yet, have we Lillian? But, oh, we do want to be some time!”
“And please don’t drag in that threadbare statement that I am the most beautiful blonde in the world,” Lillian pleaded. “That sounds so silly, too. Really, you know, it is not particularly encouraging when you’ve been working your ,head off on a part and think that you’ve done good work in it, to have everyone say that ‘she looked very beautiful.’ Sometimes I wish I were really homely just so that my acting would have to count instead of my hair and eyes,”
“You see, Lillian’s been on the stage since she was four,” broke in Dorothy, “so she ought to know something about acting. Of course, we had to stop and go to school for a while in the Ursuline Convent at St. Louis to sort of finish up, but most of the time we’ve had tutors and studied and acted at the same time. Lillian was only six when, she played in ‘The Little Red Schoolhouse’ and we were all so proud of her.
Tell Mr. Willis about that time, Lillian,” she urged.
“Well,” Lillian said, “I remember that I wasn’t a bit frightened and that I certainly was pleased. It seemed just like a game to me. I remember the lines I had to say, perfectly. A little boy, came up to me and said, ‘Do you like, chicken?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and then he held out his arm and said, ‘Then take a wing,’ ,and I took it and we walked out together.
Mary Pickford played, the same part afterwards. And Vivian Prescott was in the same company and played the soubrette. “Dorothy , was only four when she started too. Her first part was that of little Willie in East Lynne – remember it?, Do you remember how you always insisted on opening your eyes in the wrong place, Dorothy?”
,’Yes,” Dorothy answered. “I did, that because it was such fun to have someone whisper, “shut your peepers darling.” That always sounded so nice and comforting and then I’d shut my eyes tight. Fancy acting as a little boy, though”
“Didn’t you like acting boy parts?” I queried.
, “Certainly not,” said Miss Dorothy disdainfully. “I hated it so much that ,sometimes they had to be quite severe with me. Mother had one, perfectly awful threat that she saved for my most rebellious moments and that was that she’d make me walk home in my knickerbockers.’ It had its effect, too. Lillian played little Willie, too, didn’t you Lillian?”
“Yes, but in another company,” Lillian said., ‘I didn’t mind being a boy although I always preferred girl parts. One has to go through the little Willie and the little Eva and all the other ‘littles’, you know, if one, travels with repertoire companies and ,is a child actress-don’t you dare write down prodigy, sir, and make it sound as though we were some strange freaks.”
I promised, while protesting that I had had no intention of using the word-I don’t like the sound of it myself, as it happens.
“This is the way we looked at that time,” said Dorothy, bringing out a great big scrap book in which she has all her pictures and press notices since her debut at four, and showing me a picture of two little tots, with round little faces and very curly blonde hair. Even then, however, they didn’t look any more alike than they do now. And even then Lillian’s mouth wasn’t any more of the rosebud order than it is now, and Dorothy’s was almost as straight and determined. I could see that her mother, probably had need of the dire threat that she had mentioned. The little heads were very close together in the picture and I said, banteringly: “You were really fond of each other, then, were you not?” Lillian looked up reproachfully and Dorothy came back at me sarcastically with:
“Oh, no, of course, not. We used to fight just like cats and dogs. We were just as bitter enemies as we are now, weren’t we sister? Why, when Lillian was eight and I was six and we acted together in ‘Her First False Step’ we just hated it, didn’t we? We had to stand being together for three whole seasons, and then, Lillian was taken on tour with Sarah Bernhardt as one of her fairy dancers – and it nearly broke my heart.”
Lillian smiled as she described her first meeting with the great French actress. “She saw me standing in the wings all alone and came over to me and putting her hand under my chin, turned my face up to hers and looked at me intently and then began playing with my hair, all the time talking rapidly in French. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I was certain that she was telling me that she thought my hair was pretty and that comforted me a lot”
While Lillian was playing in Sarah Bernhardt’s company, Dorothy was engaged by Fiske O’Hara to play the part of a little Irish girl in “Dion O’Dare,” a part she loved, and later still she played a little East side girl in “Blarney from Ireland.” She was with O’Hara for four years and became a great favorite wherever she appeared.
“I was ten years old then,” she told me, “and I was sent to school for a while first in Ohio and then in Virginia and then I became ill and Mother and Lillian came for me.”
“Yes,” broke in her sister, “and I can see her now. She nearly broke our hearts, she was so thin and so languid. And she had been such a chubby little girl when she went away that I laid it all- to her illness and felt very bitter. Mother tried to make me see that it was perfectly natural for her to lose her chubbiness between six and ten, but I was very sure that we had neglected her. We took her away w.ith us and we have never been apart since except for one engagement that I had. I certainly was homesick that time. It was the first time I had ever been away from mother.”
This little account of their early experiences made me realize sharply what motion picture acting means to the Gish sisters and their mother. If they had stayed on the legitimate stage their lives would have been a succession of leave takings. It would have been practically impossible for the girls to get engagements in the same company and equally impossible for their mother to have them both with her. But now they could even act in different motion picture companies and still live together as they do and have time for outdoor play and for all of the social intercourse that girls need and enjoy. Best of all, the girls say, they have time for study. Dorothy is learning to play the piano and Lillian has outlined a course of reading for herself. She showed me her books and I must say that It was rather a remarkable collection for a girl of her age. There was a lot of good classical poetry with a sprinkling of modern poets; there were plays and plays and plays, there were books of dramatic criticism and dramatic technique, and a very fair collection of the first rate modern novelists. I tried to find out what her interests were outside her reading, but could gather little. Certainly her work and her reading are her two great enthusiasms. As for Dorothy, her enthusiasm for her work is so big a part of her life that they tell me she is almost unbearable to live with if she has to stay at home for more than a day.
“She gets the whole house into fidgets, so that we are all glad when she has to go back to the studio again,” said Lillian laughing. “The only thing that really interests her, outside of the studio,” she went on, “is-”
“Sleeping!” Dorothy interrupted. “I admit it. But I insist that I have a perfect right to be interested in sleeping,” she said with mock defiance. “I’m a hard working woman and I need sleep. And if you dare to call me a girl, why I’ll call you an old man, so there.”
“You would never be so unkind,” I said with an affectation of seriousness. “Considering my age, it would hurt my feelings terribly. Indeed, rather than risk such a dire calamity I shall depart immediately and not tell a thing about how you got into pictures through knowing Mary Pickford nor what David W. Griffith thinks of you… nor what are your favorite parts.”
“That doesn’t hurt me in the least,” Dorothy maintained, “for I haven’t any favorite parts. I don’t care what I act in as long as I have a chance to act and Lillian is almost as bad. However, I don’t think it would be fair to foist any more stuff about us on the poor readers of Photoplay. If they are really interested in Lillian and little me, still there is a limit. If we were clever, now-” Whereupon I prepared for a hasty retreat after accusing her of fishing, at which she protested vehemently, and after promising to “come again.” They came to the door to wave goodbye to me, with their arms around each other, Lillian in her delicate pink frock, and Dorothy in white, and I repeat-they made an altogether charming picture. I wish you could have seen them!