Memories of Lillian Gish – As told to Myrtle Gebhart
Motion Picture Classic (Brewster Publications – 1922)
Mary Pickford reminisces about the early days when she first knew the screen’s greatest actress.
“Lillian’s main qualities are her sincerity and loyalty.”
Mary Pickford, sitting there in the golden afternoon beside placid Lake Chatsworth, was opening the book of the past, that I might read the pages of one of most beautiful friendships on record. Years ago Mary and Lillian Gish met, when Mary was six and Lillian a year or two younger, children who labored before their time, knowing poverty, knowing failure. Today they stand, both successful, both women who have won the love and respect of the world. And they are still friends. They have never had a quarrel.
“Yes, I know Lillian is very fond of me, and I treasure her affection.”
“When we were small, Dorothy Lottie and I used to play together with Lillian acting as a sort of Little Lady Mother to us scatter-brained youngsters. She was always correct, always just so. We used to stand and watch her, fearful any moment that she would fly to heaven – for her mother had said she was too angelic to live!”
“Dorothy and I were pals then, but now Lillian and I have more in common. Though, to be sure, Dorothy is much more serious and has a keener brain than she is given credit for – this frivolity of hers I think is a surface coating that hides the real Dorothy.”
“Our first meeting was a casual one, in Detroit, when I was playing ‘The Little Red Schoolhouse,’ a play written by Hal Reid, Wallace Reid’s father. Mother had insisted that I couldn’t go with the show alone, so they had given parts to her and to Lottie. Jack, of course, was a baby. Later, at Toronto, Lillian took my place, playing the role I had created. But it was when we were all in New York that we really became friends. I had been called there to replace Lillian in ‘The Child Wife,’ as she had been offered a better part in another play.
My mother had received a lucrative offer to go on the road, one that she couldn’t afford to refuse, so Mrs. Gish offered to take care of us children. Imagine having the three of us to look after, in addition to her own two! She was very patient and lovely to us, making our clothes and washing our ears! One of my happiest memories is of those months at Mrs. Gish’s house in New York. It was my first experience in the big city, and I envied Lillian her aplomb – with Mrs. Gish at one end and Lillian at the other, we would cross the crowded streets: all six of us holding hands for fear one of us would get lost!”
“Yes, Lillian is very remote. Even I who have known her since childhood I admit I am baffled at times. She is very elusive. Often I have an intangible feeling that I haven’t quite grasped her. She is remarkably subtle and fine in sensitiveness of thought.”
“She is so frail to have endured those years of hardships,” I suggested, alternating with Mary in petting Zorro her time-clock dog who howls regularly at quitting time, twelve-thirty and four-thirty every day. “So ethereal. That is the impression she gives every one.”
“And it isn’t so!” Mary exclaimed, a gleam in her hazel eyes. “Lillian is very slim but has an amazing endurance. Mr. Griffith works his people very hard, exacts every particle of self that they have to give to their work. Had Lillian been as frail as she seems, she could never have lived through these nine years of constant, nerve-racking work. In making the ice scenes for ‘Way Down East,’ she had to remain on that cake of ice near the rapids until actually numb.”
For a moment Mary was silent except for the tremulous quivering of her chin-a little way she has when excited. Always tranquil, having schooled herself through the years to absolute control, you can always gauge Mary’s emotions now by that little, almost invisible, quiver of her chin.
“Do you call this hot?” indicating that the sun melting in long, gleaming slants into the blue lake shimmering under its golden haze, the glare washing back from the sides of the high hills in the lap of which the lake is splashed, the perspiring actors resting under the trees. “I remember, in the old days, down in Arizona. We were making a picture for Mr. Griffith. They had to follow us about with umbrellas. It was 110 in the shade and no shade around. We could have fried eggs on the rocks. There were times when I thought I couldn’t endure another moment – until I looked at Lillian, so white and composed and tranquil. And I grew ashamed. She has a way of encouraging people, forcing them to greater effort.”
“Frail looking, yes. Her skin is milk-white, almost translucent, that finely veined kind, delicate as a petal.”