- LILLIAN GISH
- An Actor’s Life for Me!
- AS TOLD TO SELMA G. LANES
- An actor’s life for me
- Text copyright © Lillian Gish and Selma Lanes, 1987
- Illustrations copyright © Patricia Henderson Lincoln, 1987
In vivid anecdotes that are funny, heartbreaking, and remarkably evocative of that fascinating period, stage and screen star Lillian Gish tells the story of her childhood years in the American theater at the beginning of the 1900s.
From the perspective of nearly a century. Miss Gish recalls the kindness of her fellow actors during a Christmas spent on a train; hilarious—and sometimes frightening—slipups from many performances; the pain of separation from her mother and younger sister; and the thrill of being a professional actor.
For every child who has ever wondered about the glamour and excitement of being on the stage, about how and why a person becomes an actor, this remarkable childhood reminiscence offers a unique and lively insight, as well as a memorable piece of Americana.
LILLIAN GISH is truly a legend in her own time. As a young girl in the early days of movies, she became a star, the leading lady of such D.W. Griffith classics as Birth of a Nation (the first feature-length film), and her career continued successfully into the talkies. On Broadway, in the 1930s, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet. Most recently she appeared in Sweet Liberty with Alan Alda. To date, she has appeared in over a hundred films and fifty plays. In 1984, Miss Gish received the American Film Institute’s coveted Lifetime Service Award for her extraordinary contributions to the industry. But before all this, in 1902, when she was six, she began her distinguished acting career on a small, improvised stage in Risingsun, Ohio… where this charming, bittersweet childhood reminiscence of the actor’s life begins.
I am Lillian Diana Gish. I was named that by my parents. But sometimes I was called Florence Niles, Baby Alice, Baby Ann, and just plain Herself, for reasons that I will explain.
My sister Dorothy (who was nicknamed Doatsie) and I were lucky. We never lived in just one place or went to school like other children we knew. From the time I was six and Doatsie just four and a half, we were child actors. We belonged to traveling theatrical companies that performed plays in small towns and big cities all along the East Coast and in the Middle West.
There was no television, movies, or even radio at the beginning of this century when we began working. All over America, going to the theater was a popular evening entertainment. Most of the plays that Doatsie and I acted in were called melodramas.
I began life in Springfield, Ohio. I was born in my Grandmother Gish’s house in October 1896.
The nicest thing I remember about Mother and Father together is seeing them both standing at the foot of my bed one night, when I was still quite small. Mother was wearing a red satin dress with a long train and Father had on a dark, elegant suit. They must have been going to a party. They both looked so beautiful that the image has always stayed in my mind, clear as a photograph in a family album. Surely they were happy then.
When my sister Dorothy was just a baby. Father would sometimes take me for walks. I was not yet three, and we would stop to rest and have some refreshment. We never stopped at an ice-cream parlor, always at a saloon. I remember the wood walls, the sawdust on the floor and the strange bitter smell. Father loved to show me off. While he stood drinking beer, he would lift me up onto the bar, where I sat and ate my fill of the free lunch.
We looked on the movies only as a way of feeding and sheltering ourselves until we got back on the stage.