LEADING LADIES – 1976 (Electa Clark)

An Affectionate Look at American Women of the Twentieth Century


Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association's support for Bristow-Mondell amendment
Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association’s support for Bristow-Mondell amendment

The 1900s



“Humanity marches on into the new and glorious 20th century!” exults a daily paper in its first issue of 1901. “Come, oh century, child of hope!” begins a long poem on page one. Another column trills, “We are 20th century women … with the dower of privilege and responsibility which enriches women in this wonderful era!”

Philadelphia Journal 1900
Philadelphia Journal 1900

The quotations are from the Republican, of Columbus, Indiana, then the center of population of the United States. All across the country, journalists, preachers, and ordinary folk rejoiced with the same exuberance. The nation was rich and would grow richer! Railroads were faster and better every day, factories were busier, cities were larger, people were cleverer, life was more stimulating than ever before!

Of course a few evils remained to be righted: child labor, sweat- shops, epidemics—but the greatest country in the world would quickly set those right.

Americans believed in America.

Votes for Women
Votes for Women

Women were pleased with themselves. “Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” boasts the Republican, “were handicapped in girlhood by a thousand prejudices and cast-iron traditional rules from which we are emancipated.”

Sanger On Court Steps
Sanger On Court Steps

Among the new freedoms was the freedom to join clubs, if their papas or husbands permitted. Most of these were self-improvement clubs in which the ladies read works of Browning or Dante, enjoyed the hostess’s tea and cookies, and returned refreshed to their family duties.

Prohibition W2
Prohibition W2

The 1920s – CALL IT A SPADE 

‘Behind a Veil of Silver Chiffon”


In a grim World War I story. Company K, author William March has a soldier in the muck and misery of the trenches draw a framed magazine picture of Lillian Gish from a pocket every night and every morning to study the sweet pictured face. Knowing that something pure and good still existed in the world was the talisman that preserved his sanity through the war.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – The Hearts of The World

Lillian Gish had a similar effect on millions who saw her in the movies. She was not only talented, she had a unique quality: pure, ethereal, elusive. As if she acted in whispers. As if in her hands, the definite blurred into the indefinite. It was drama critic George Jean Nathan who described her as being “behind a veil of silver chiffon.” He courted Lillian for years, but she eluded marriage.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

She had two great loves: her sister Dorothy and her mother. Her father had deserted his family when the girls were babies. Mrs. Gish, a loving, gentle, sympathetic woman, was not the stereotype mother of actresses; she did not storm her way into producers’ offices or manage her children as if they were properties. She was simply there, warm- hearted and protective.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

The bond between Lillian and Dorothy Gish never weakened. How different they were! Dorothy was mischievous, fun-loving, and irresponsible. She never reached such heights of stardom as Lillian, but she had her followers, who delighted in her gift of comedy. At the same time, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. “Miss Apprehension,’’ her sister and mother called her. Again and again she played major roles in successful plays, and at rehearsals was always her rowdy self, and the cast never guessed her hidden fears; but by each opening night her conviction of failure was so acute that she was nearly ill.

Lillian, who never had Dorothy’s skylarking, slapstick moods, was always grave and dignified. Fans often wrote asking why she smiled so seldom in her movies; yet she had a serenity denied the mercurial Dorothy. In early years, the three Gishes lived together whenever the girls’ engagements were in the same city; but in later life they gave up this practice. Dorothy was too riotously untidy for the fastidious Lillian.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

Miriam Cooper, an actress who later married director Raoul Walsh, tells the story of an evening when she, Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, and other young members of a “Hens’ Club” held a meeting in Dorothy’s room. Lillian was not one of the group. Aloof and studious, she was considered too standoffish. On this evening, as the party became more and more high-spirited, the Hens acted on an impulse, ran across the hall to Lillian’s room, and threw open the door shouting, “Surprise!”

Then they stopped, abashed. Lillian lay on her bed in a filmy negligee, golden hair outspread on a pillow. She looked up from the Shakespeare she was reading, and annoyance flashed across her face. But with instant good manners she stood up, welcomed her guests, and talked cordially as long as they stayed—which wasn’t long. They backed out, discomforted by the difference between this room, which only Dorothy had seen before, and her sister’s room.

Lillian Gish brushing her hair - Nell Dorr 1930
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

Dorothy’s room contained only three or four pieces of shabby Mission oak furniture, but Lillian’s had velvet draperies, gilt-framed mirrors, and lace-trimmed pillows. They were astonished too at the difference between this seductive woman and the sexless girl who walked around the studio with a book under her arm and was ignored by the men on the set.

Lillian 20 Garden

Lillian was known as “Mr. Griffith’s girl,” because they often had dinner together—in public, of course. But as Mr. G. had prim, Victorian standards of behavior; and as his young ladies were strictly supervised; and as everyone on the lot watched everyone else closely, there was no chance for hanky-panky, and no evidence that the Gish-Griffith affair was other than platonic.

Like Maude Adams and other fine actresses, she was sternly disciplined, and no amount of rehearsal was too much to achieve perfection. She never spared herself hardships, be they heat, desert wind, or around-the-clock labor.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

One of her early movies, made under D. W. Griffith’s direction, was the melodrama Way Down East The height of the action comes when Lillian’s inconsiderate employer, believing her to be a fallen woman, orders her out of the house into a blizzard. The silly girl doesn’t stop for hat or coat, but heads for the nearest river and begins walking the ice floes. By and by she faints and is carried downriver toward the neighborhood waterfall. Richard Barthelmess, the farmer’s son, likes the girl better than the old man does, and thinks it would be well to rescue her.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

This was a genuine Vermont blizzard, for which the cast waited a month or more, because no flimsy studio snowstorm would satisfy Griffith. Rehearsing and shooting the river scene took three weeks.

Nobody had it easy. Mr. Griffith’s face froze. Several cameramen came down with pneumonia. To keep the camera upright during the gale, three men had to lie flat in the snow, gripping the tripod legs, and a small fire was kept going directly under the camera to keep its oil from freezing.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

For her scene lying on the ice, Lillian Gish had thought up a piece of business that she was foolish enough to suggest to the director and then had to act upon. She let a few locks of hair and one hand trail through the water as she rocked her way downstream. It certainly added to the woe of the scene, but it also froze her hand, which forever after ached in cold weather. She lay on the ice about twenty times a day for those three weeks of rehearsal before the job was finished.

In the final take of the rescue scene, Richard Barthelmess got his. He wore a heavy raccoon coat, and in his cavorting from one ice floe to another he floundered onto one that was too small and tipped him into the water. He clambered out and that soggy coat must have weighed a ton, give or take a few pounds, but there was no time for a retake because now the rescue was for real. While he had fooled around under water, Lillian’s ice floe had jogged on, dangerously near the edge of that too-genuine waterfall. But he slogged on, scooped her up, and wrestled to shore with the poor girl pressed to that icy fur bosom.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish - ice floe scenes (Way Down East)
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Among the many fine movies that Lillian Gish made during the twenties was Orphans of the Storm, in which Dorothy Gish played the blind sister. To heighten the drama, Griffith had transposed a well-tried old plot to the time of the French Revolution. When the film was shown in France, it raised storms of fury. French pride was outraged because an American producer dared portray French history without its best dress on.

Next Lillian played in The White Sister. The whole cast went to Italy to film the story, the first American company ever to do so. Opposite Lillian Gish was a handsome new actor, Ronald Colman. When her lover is believed killed, the heroine becomes a nun, but after she has taken her solemn vows he returns, and a love scene of great power follows. An unhappy ending is arranged, however, that solves the girl’s dilemma, as he presently drowns in a flood. The White Sister was one of the great successes of the twenties.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)

After that Lillian Gish played in Romola also filmed in Italy; in La Boheme, opposite John Gilbert, and in The Scarlet Letter. To speak again of France, audiences there were mystified by all that fuss over the birth of an illegitimate baby.

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

In 1930 Lillian left Hollywood for Broadway and later appeared on TV. In that medium she played with Helen Hayes in the wonderfully funny Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Even in old age, Lillian Gish never lost her special quality, that elusive enchantment of being afloat behind a veil of silver chiffon.



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