Lillian Gish in St. Louis

Lillian Gish became a boarder in the Ursuline Academy at Saint Louis [in 1909-1910]. Here she found herself in surroundings altogether novel. At first she was unwilling to have either nuns or fellow boarders know that she had been on the stage. In fact, she was under the impression that the sisters would consider an actress, even a fifteen year old one, a very undesirable boarder and she had had all of the labels removed from her trunks before coming to the convent.

Ursuline Academy at Saint Louis


Lillian was not long in coming to love the convent and all it stood for. She reveled in the solitude, the shut-in-ness of the place. She became utterly devoted to the nuns, and was heard to say more than once that they were the most truly refined women she had ever met. Naturally spiritual, she was attracted by the convent routine, and more than once was heard to say that she would like to be a nun. Her teachers say she was always gracious and pleasant to her companions, but her natural reserve kept her from being ‘a good mixer.’ She once asked her favorite sister to point out any faults she might be guilty of, saying: ‘I want to eradicate any fault in me that might be an annoyance to others.’ The sister declares that, after watching Lillian carefully for weeks, she was unable to find any fault in her. She was a perfect boarder.
Years later, when Lillian Gish played in ‘The White Sister,’ it was remarked by the critics that she must at some time have been intimately connected with nuns to be able to depict a religious so perfectly. She was very desirous of dedicating this play to her old teachers, but the management objected.

St. Louis Streets – in the Early 20th Century

“Lillian Gish is a very famous star, and as such she is naturally of great interest to us. In addition, she has an appealing personality that exerts its charm even over the radio, and her beauty is apparent even in newspaper pictures. But she has a stronger appeal than all this to us Ursuline girls, because she was at one time an Ursuline pupil, having been at school about a year with our sisters when the academy was on Twelfth and Russell Boulevard in Saint Louis.

St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)

Miss Gish Recalls –

St. Louis and Sodas at the Busy Bee

“My sister Dorothy and I loved to play in St. Louis because of the ice cream sodas. We hit St. Louis many times where we were children touring in Belasco’s productions. There was a place near the theater – I can’t remember the name of the play much less the theater – were we got the best ice cream sodas in the world. Chocolate. Not the sweet chocolate. Bitter chocolate. It was called the Busy Bee Ice Cream Parlor. Mary Pickford toured with us in a few shows (she was known as Gladys Smith then) and the three of us came to know St. Louis for its ice cream.”

St. Louis Streets – in the Early 20th Century

But there were less happy days in the city. “Things got rough and my father left us. We had an aunt in St. Louis and my mother, my sister and I moved in with her. We opened a confectionery in the city and Dorothy and I went to school and worked in the store. (The Misses Gish attended Ur- suline Academy for a year. [1909-1910]) Somehow though we got back on our feet and back on the stage.”

streets-of-st-louis-missouri-1900s

Excerpts from Albert Bigelow Paine’s “Life and Lillian Gish” 1932

“Lillian does not remember where she first met “Nell” Nellie Becker, a sweet-faced, happy-hearted girl, somewhat older than herself. Lillian was tall for her years, and serious-minded—the difference did not count. What did count was their instant attraction to each other. Beginning in what school- girls know as a “crush,” it presently ripened into something less fleeting, something that was to stand the wear of years. Each was the other’s ideal — the companion of which she had dreamed. They shared their hearts’ secrets, read books together.

Lillian Gish in 1910

A fine young fellow, named Tom, was going to marry Nell one of these days; a boy called “Alb,” for short—a very proper boy, particular about his umbrella and overshoes—appears to have been wishfully interested in Lillian, who, being of a sober turn and not yet thirteen, was not too violently disturbed by his attentions. Whatever romantic love she had, she gave to Nell. When, at the end of the summer, she joined her mother in East St. Louis, she wrote frequent letters, though letter-writ- ing was always her bane.” (Albert B. Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

St. Louis Streets – in the Early 20th Century

First Letter written to Nell Dorr: “Not many girls of her age would have set out on a long railroad trip, with changes, but rail travel had few terrors for the child actress, who for six or seven years had known little else. She stopped over in Dayton, to see her Grandfather, and her first letter, with its very plain, school-girl writing, some uncertainty as to spelling, and a large indifference to punc- tuation, is dated from there: September 12, 1909:
“Well dear I am away from Massillon once again, but feel as if I had left something behind this time that I never left before. I arrived here at 4:05 yesterday afternoon and have been on one continual trot ever since then, and I leave here tonight at 11:25, and when I wake up I’ll be in St. Louis, as this is an awfully fast train. . . .” (Albert B. Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

St. Louis Streets – in the Early 20th Century

… “ [An all-night ride in a day coach, but what was that to her?]

Poor Dorothy what did she do when I left? I could hardly keep the tears back, and I couldn’t say a word for the lump in my throat. … I do hope she won’t be homesick. You know that feeling . . .

“You know that feeling“—who knew it better than herself? The letter ends, “Your loving make-be- lieve sister.”

It bears her East St. Louis address: 246 Collinsville Ave.

A week later she wrote, “How is my little fat sister? Does she seem to be satisfied? Bless her old fat heart, she is bad but I love her.” She tells of a day’s trip to a small town in Illinois, and how, when she got back to the store, they were “awfully rushed, so of course I had to help.” In another letter, we hear of a girl named Mertice, who is going to give a party for her, “at a big Hall.”

St. Louis Streets – in the Early 20th Century

They have ordered an automobile, seven passenger—45 horsepower, but it won’t be here untill March. Oh, I wish you would hear her talk about all the trips we are going to take. She knows all about you, Nell. She couldn’t help but know if she is around me very long.” (Life and Lillian Gish – 1932)

Lillian Gish Profile, cca 1910 – Everett

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