Lillian Gish Archive to Go To Performing Arts Library
By William Grimes – Jan. 23, 1997
The New York Times – January 23, 1997, Section C, Page 15
Lillian Gish’s personal archive of letters, business documents, photographs and scrapbooks has found a home at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Gish, the legendary stage and film star, died at the age of 99 at her home in Manhattan in 1993, leaving a rich repository of material on her life and career.
”These materials will be of invaluable use to scholars investigating any aspect of the 20th-century dramatic arts,” said Paul LeClerc, the president of the New York Public Library. ”We are thrilled that we can preserve them and make them accessible as part of our Billy Rose Theater Collection.”
The correspondence addressed to Gish, perhaps as many as 10,000 unpublished letters from friends, colleagues and business associates, forms the heart and soul of the archive. The names are dazzling. In addition to Gish’s sister, Dorothy, they include D. W. Griffith, Helen Hayes, George Abbott, Sean O’Casey, Maxwell Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Brooks Atkinson and Sir Alec Guinness. There are thick folders of letters from her agent, A. George Volck; Sir John Gielgud and Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill.
The O’Neill relationship dates from the late 1920’s, when Lillian Gish optioned ”Strange Interlude” for $75,000 as a possible vehicle for herself. The document is included in the archive. Gish had to drop the project when the play became the subject of a nuisance lawsuit against O’Neill. The film was eventually made in 1932 and starred Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.
The collection includes letters from the French director Abel Gance in 1926, asking Gish to play Joan of Arc. In a lengthy telegram in April 1925, Mary Pickford tries to persuade Gish to join the United Artists studio, arguing that she would be treated as an artist and not asked to turn out too many films. A year later, Pickford writes to apologize for an interview in Movie Weekly in which it appeared that she was trying to make herself seem younger than Gish.
One highlight is a 1936 letter from the Broadway producer George Abbott, who had seen her playing Ophelia opposite John Gielgud’s Hamlet and decided that she needed to be cast against type. ”I think that you are swell in the mad scenes and unconvincing in the ingenue scenes,” he wrote. ”I think you were marvelous in ‘Camille.’ You have not aged in face or figure, but you are a more mature person. You have a more adult soul, and those parts in which the key note is freshness are not so well suited to you as those in which there is a woman and a soul.”
One of the more peculiar letters is from Joseph Medill Patterson, publisher of The Daily News, who in 1930 thought, erroneously, that Gish intended to play Desdemona opposite the black actor Paul Robeson. Patterson pleaded with Gish to drop the idea, which, he wrote, ”would have a disastrous effect on your popularity in many parts of the country.”
Conspicuously absent from the archive are any love letters from the critic George Jean Nathan, with whom Gish had an affair.
In addition to the correspondence, the archive includes production photographs from many of the plays and films in which Gish appeared, family photographs, medical records, appointment ledgers, scripts and books.
”This is one of the great American working lives in film and theater, and these are the working documents,” said Robert Marx, the executive director of the performing arts library, which is in Lincoln Center. ”There’s a solid professional correspondence that balances the personal correspondence.”
In her will, Gish left instructions that her archive be left to a university or research institution and not be sold. Her trustees conducted a yearlong search before choosing the Library for the Performing Arts last March. The library decided to delay an announcement until it had done preliminary cataloguing and preservation work and organized a public program on Gish’s life and work.
The trustees chose the library because it is in New York, where Gish spent much of her life and career, and because it already contains abundant material, like the Helen Hayes collection, that dovetails with the Gish archive. As it happens, Gish was the first actress to use the theater collection. In 1931, officials allowed her special access to research the title role in ”Camille,” which she was preparing to play on Broadway.
”Lillian Gish Remembered,” a series scheduled to run at the performing arts library from March 6 to June 2, will feature readings and reminiscences by friends and colleagues of Gish and screenings of her films. The archive will be available to scholars in the fall, after the library has completed its cataloguing and preservation work.