Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan (Charles Affron)

  • Movie Digest – 1925
    Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood
  • Jack Foley

CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground. THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.

George-Jean-Nathan-1928

For the first ten years of her career, Lillian Gish had been nearly impermeable to the most common sort of movie-star publicity—speculation about her love affairs. Only the rare mention of a possible relationship between D. W. Griffith and his leading lady challenged the notion that the object of Lillian’s affection, after her mother and sister, was the movies. The entanglement with Charles Duell had, of course, altered that perception.

And, at the same time, she was linked with another man, a writer and intellectual, the most influential drama critic of the period. There is no doubt that George Jean Nathan, champion of modernist, “serious” theatre, who flaunted a snobbish disdain for the movies and all other manifestations of popular culture, fell in love with Lillian Gish. Nor is there any question that for ten years, George was the most important man in Lillian’s life, perhaps the great love of her life. He also exerted a formative influence on her taste and her professional activities. Struck by her beauty and style, Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell had included versions of Lillian Gish in their novels. But it was as George Jean Nathan’s female companion that Lillian secured her place among the elite of America’s arts and letters during the 1920s and 1930s.

They were from adjoining states, Ohio and Indiana, born eleven years apart, Nathan on February 14, 1882. In terms of affluence, religion, and schooling, their backgrounds and upbringings were dissimilar. George’s father, Charles Naret-Nathan, a Jew from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, was well educated, wealthy, and cosmopolitan. His mother, Ella Nordlinger, was a native of Fort Wayne, George’s birthplace. Part Jewish, she attended a convent school and converted to Catholicism. As we know, Lillian attended school sporadically. While little Lillian was touring in melodramas, George was studying in Italy, France, and Germany, before his graduation from Cornell in 1904. Through the good offices of his uncle Charles Nordlinger, drama critic for the New York Herald, George found a job on the paper and was soon writing theatre reviews for Harper’s Weekly. Nathan’s name would often be associated with that of the Baltimore journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken. Six years after Nathan met Mencken in 1908 in the office of The Smart Set, the two men became this magazine’s coeditors and turned its pages into a forum for the cause of modern literature.

Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan — Chateau Du Plessis France

Nathan stewarded the first American publications of James Joyce, two stories from Dubliners; the young Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were given boosts by inclusion in The Smart Set where works by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Theodore Dreiser appeared as well. The Mencken-Nathan circle included Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather, all of whom contributed to The Smart Set. In partnership with publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Nathan and Mencken founded a more prestigious journal in 1924, The American Mercury. Its stated goal was “to offer a comprehensive picture, critically presented, of the entire American scene,” including the arts, politics, industrial and social relations, and science, all from the perspective of “the civilized minority.”

Nathan’s concerns were not so catholic, however. “What interests me in life is the surface of life: life’s music and color, its charm and ease, its humor and its loveliness. The great problems of the world—social, political, economic, and theological do not concern me in the slightest. I care not who writes the laws of the country so long as I may listen to its songs. I can live every bit as happily under a king, or even a Kaiser, as under a president.” With political views “slightly to the right of Marie Antoinette’s,” Nathan was a dandy who suffered from an excess of “noblesse oblige.” He was also a condescending racist who, without a trace of irony, urged his readers to save their tears for the African-American. According to this opinion-maker, the black man should be “happier by far than he ever was, which is more than his average white brother-democrat can say for himself.” After all, in recent years, Nathan proudly asserted, more whites had been lynched than blacks. And black men could even marry white women! Although Mencken was situated on the same side of the political spectrum as Nathan, the two men clashed over the focus of The American Mercury. Nathan almost immediately resigned his coeditorship but continued to contribute pieces on theatre for five more years.

George-Jean-Nathan

Nathan and Mencken belonged to the same ” civilized minority” that treated the movies and their stars with unmasked contempt. The coterie made an exception of Lillian Gish. In fact, the fourth issue of The American Mercury featured an article by Joseph Hergesheimer entitled ” Lillian Gish.” Full of the usual condescension to the movie business, it recounted Hergesheimer’s meetings with Lillian to discuss his portrait of her in Cytherea and movie projects he wished her to consider. First, at her refusal of a drink and a cigarette, Hergesheimer was seduced by her public image and delighted in her prudishness: “It made flawless her quaint rigidity of bearing, her withdrawn grace.” From the little she said, he was struck by the passionate way she referred to her work: “It was her religion, since it had accomplished for her the offices of a religion—it had raised her from the earth to the sky.” Then came Hergesheimer’s attacks against petit bourgeois attachments to mother, patriotism, and home, along with his hope that Lillian’s mind might be “liberated from the tyranny of mob sentimentality.” Poor Lillian, of course, “was wholly superior,” but she “hadn’t associated with the people and ideas that would have given a clear and aesthetic form to her thoughts. She hadn’t the relative calm, the superiority, of an intelligent background.” Hergesheimer’s critique of the bourgeoisie was the party line of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. For his part, Nathan clearly took pleasure in heaping scorn upon the cinema, an enterprise emblematic of all that was wrong with the tasteless, materialistic society that produced and worshiped it. “Controlled in the overwhelming main by the most ignorant social outcasts … by hereditary toothpick suckers, soup coloraturos and six-day sockwearers, controlled in the mass by men of a complete anaesthesia to everything fine and everything earnest and everything dollarless, the moving pictures—the physic of the proletariat—have revealed themselves the most effective carriers of idiocy that the civilized world has known.” There is some irony in that the policy makers of these magazines, Mencken and Nathan, were particularly close to Lillian Gish, an actress who, in her Griffith films, incarnated some of the very notions that the intellectuals deplored. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the middle-class homilies Lillian enunciated in her letters to Nell through the early 1920s, but her long sojourns in Italy and her troubled relationship to Charles Duell had certainly changed her. At this point, Lillian seemed ready to continue the worldly education that would liberate her from the confines of home and hearth, and perhaps even from Griffith’s essentially prewar worldview. Although they denigrated the movies and, to some degree, patronized the poorly educated actress, Lillian Gish became the muse of some of the smartest men in America, attracting them with her charm, beauty, intelligence, and most flattering of all, her receptivity to their genius. Of all the Griffith actresses, Lillian had been the director’s most diligent student. She now turned her concentration to a richer curriculum. The genius central to Lillian’s life was George Jean Nathan. Although there is some dispute over when their initial encounter took place, it was probably with Mencken, in 1924, soon after her return from Italy following the completion of Romola and hard upon the end of her “unofficial” engagement to Duell. “The first time I met him was at lunch. I sat between them [Nathan and Mencken] after thanking them for printing Joseph Hergesheimer’s piece on me in their April issue of their new magazine, The American Mercury. They both started to talk at once, the subject poetry. Neither listened to the other, just a rapid fire of talk and jokes as was their custom.” Lillian, who knew Nathan by reputation, had expected an older man, “sixty, at least, white-haired, and probably paunchy,” but found him to be “dark and vigorous,” with a particularly attractive speaking voice. (Director Harold Clurman described him as “Latin-looking, very handsome.”)

Nathan and his friends represented a new world, a new way of thinking for Lillian. “I sat in the group of gay, facile conversationalists and found myself unversed but appreciative. With no hope of being one of them, I searched for anecdotes that might possibly be dropped in quietly and entertain them for a time. And George, all subtle attention, leaning toward me with ‘and what happened next?’ in his eyes. Things of that kind. If you looked for one special quality in George, you’d find that swift, definite courtesy. A good basis for friendship. He was the first man to show me that a smart hat was more becoming to me than a halo of blonde hair in soft-focus camera effect.” The opposition of the smart hat to the halo of blond hair must have been George’s way of extracting Lillian from her pervasive mind-set of moviemaking. He helped her see herself as part of a larger, more varied world than she had ever known.

Lillian’s predecessor in Nathan’s life was Fred Astaire’s sister and showbusiness partner, Adele. Nathan had dedicated The House ofSatan to Adele, who hoped to marry him. After offering various excuses for broken appointments, “he told her that the French ambassador, Paul Claudel, a famous poetdramatist, was in town and that he must confer with him. He found out that the French ambassador was Lillian Gish.’ ” Nathan was smitten with Lillian, and, it appears, she with him. Just two days prior to the New York premiere of Romola, Nathan sent a telegram to Lillian that testifies to their mutual affection:

“a today without you is to me always a yesterday that INCLUDED YOU I MEANT EVERY WORD I SAID LAST NIGHT AND HOPE YOU ONLY MEANT EVERY OTHER WILL TELEPHONE AT NOON SUNDAY LOVE GEORGE.”

In his adulatory article on her acting in the November 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, George all but declared his love for Lillian. Betraying his Germanophilia, George entitled the piece “Die Kino-Konigin: a Critical Appreciation of the First Lady of the Cinema.” Leave it to George to write a panegyric to the Queen of Cinema while decrying the movies as unworthy of her talents. But since he allows that “some of the most beautiful performances of Duse and Bernhardt were wrought out of dramatic rubbish, the beautiful performances of Lillian Gish have been wrought from rubbish, no less.” Along with the lyric flights of his pen, he offers some insight into the quality of her art. “Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion, . . . behind a veil of silver chiffon.” Nathan is particularly struck by the sense that she combines directness and simplicity with elusiveness. “She is always present, she always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight around the corner.” His deep feelings for her emerge in comparisons no less sincere for their lack of originality. “The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl . . . are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes.”

Just a few months following the appearance of this article, and directly after Lillian’s exoneration in the Duell trial, word spread of her engagement and impending marriage to Nathan. “America’s most celebrated womanhater and a devastating critic of movies” was a dandy who, at first nights, reserved the adjoining seat “for his hat, stick and opera coat.” Lillian Gish was the new occupant of the seat. “It is reported that he will now write scenarios for his fiancee.” Speculation about engagement and marriage would continue for years, always to be denied by the couple. But a couple they were, and very much in the news. Long the chaste goddess with an edifying book in her hand, Lillian now attracted the measure of racy publicity that befit a star of the first magnitude.

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

Even before Lillian was freed from Duell’s injunction, other companies began to bid for her. Harry Carr telegraphed from London: “joe schenck [United Artists] WISHES TO know if you will do nothing definite with any other organisation until he returns to new york.” Mary Pickford, one of the partners in United Artists, urged her old friend to sign with the company. “I am sure Mr. Schenck could arrange for the financing of your pictures and releasing through our company, that is if you cared to be with our United Artists. I shall be very happy to suggest this to him when the time comes.” Once the trial reached its successful outcome for Lillian, Mary could afford to be insistent: “there is no question that this is where you should be.” Pickford lauded Joe Schenck, “the most progressive and capable manager in the business,” for his integrity. (Schenck must have been remarkably fair-minded, secure in his marriage, and thoroughly convinced of Lillian’s box-office appeal. His wife, the extremely popular, talented, and highly paid Norma Talmadge, had moved her production unit to United Artists. Talmadge and Gish, likely to be considered for the same kinds of roles, were the current front-runners in the ” great dramatic actress” sweepstakes.) According to Mary, United Artists would protect Lillian by not demanding “more pictures than are artistically possible to produce.” However, it was not Joe Schenck, chairman of the board at United Artists, who succeeded in putting Lillian under contract, but his brother, Nicholas, vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Schenck brothers already had an indirect connection to the Gish sisters and their mother. Before entering the movie business, they had owned amusement parks, among them Fort George in Upper Manhattan, where Mary Gish had run a candy stand and her little girls had learned to ride horses.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

When Lillian Gish joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the major forces in the movie industry were Paramount Pictures, in business since 1914, and First National, founded in 1917. Warner Bros., Fox, and Universal were other strong studios. United Artists, established in 1919, merged the huge boxoffice appeal of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W Griffith, and produced excellent movies, though not very many of them. At the time of its formation in 1924, M-G-M was obviously the newest studio on the block, but it was far from the weakest. Loew’s, Inc., Metro Pictures Incorporated, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (without its founder, Samuel Goldwyn), and Louis B. Mayer pooled their energies and resources to create a studio that immediately joined the first rank. In its initial year of business, M-G-M realized a profit of more than $4.7 million, trailing Paramount alone in this regard. The former Goldwyn lot in Culver City was equipped to produce a steady stream of movies designed to satisfy the extensive Loew’s theatre chain. Among the studio’s proven stars were Lon Chaney, Alice Terry, Buster Keaton, Mae Murray, Blanche Sweet, John Gilbert, and Marion Davies. Its roster of directors included Fred Niblo, Rex Ingram, King Vidor, and Erich von Stroheim. The dynamic chief, Louis B. Mayer, and his head of production, the young and creative Irving Thalberg, supervised the vast operation that was M-G-M, a studio destined to become, under their leadership, the most potent and prosperous in the history of the movies. Mayer undoubtedly believed that the Gish name would sell movie tickets. But he also had a fond memory of how much The Birth ofa Nation had meant to his initial success in the movie business. He had made a fortune on his down payment of $20,000 for the New England rights to exhibit Griffith’s landmark film. Mayer, Thalberg, and Nicholas Schenck were so eager to bring Lillian to M-G-M that she was able negotiate an enviable contract, signed on May 12, 1925. Although lacking her much-desired provision for a percentage of the profits, in every other way it showed how highly the studio valued Lillian’s services, which became theirs exclusively for two years. Her salary of $800,000 was posited on making six pictures, with the possibility of a seventh. Several clauses in the contract indicate the degree of respect Lillian commanded. She was not required to make personal appearances or do any promotional work. (This clause came in handy when she was able to refuse the studio’s request to put her name on candy boxes.) Even more surprising, she was guaranteed consultation on the selection of her stories, directors, and cast. Although the studio reserved for itself the final decision, this degree of star power and input was unusual. And despite Lillian’s recent notoriety, there was no morals clause in the contract.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Lillian was apprehensive about the burden the contract placed on her. With the memory of Romola’s excessive production cost fresh in her mind, she feared that her high salary would inflate the budgets of her M-G-M movies, thereby inhibiting their profitability. And despite the claims of star status Lillian’s attorney made in the Duell trial, this practical, clear-eyed woman must have known that she was far less popular than Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford. Others certainly knew it: “Miss Gish holds a peculiar position. She has never been a great box office star but she has gained tremendously in the last two years. Her claim for popularity rests entirely upon her ability as an actress. The public is slow to appreciate great art. She must have been heartened when the writer went on to predict “a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.” Neither he nor Lillian could have dreamed how prescient he in fact was.

Excerpt from “Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life” by Charles Affron

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