The Face Most Familiar to Me

During the thirty-one winters that have passed over her dear head, she has learned to know life’s vicissitudes. Instead of hardening her, they have made her a patient, sympathetic God fearing woman, who seems to make the burdens of life easier for those around her. She is settled and reserved in manner, and she is to be distinguished by her low soft voice, which seems to go with her dignity of motherhood. She is of medium height and size. Her hair is of a golden brown, streaked with grey, and her large steel-grey eyes seem to see into the depths of everything. Her nose and chin are slightly pointed and her lips are closed in a way that suggests a smile. Her short, quick decisive step shows the magnanimity of her nature. It is my most sincere wish that I may grow up to be a counterpart of her.

Lillian Gish  (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mary Robinson (McConnell) Gish (1876 – 1948)

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell Gish (Mother) cca 1930

Press – Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell Gish (Mother) cca 1930

Mary Robinson Gish formerly McConnell
Born 16 Sep 1876 in Dayton, Ohio,
Daughter of [father unknown] and Elizabeth Ellen (Robinson) McConnell
Sister of Robert Murray Robinson
Wife of James Leigh Gish — married 7 Jan 1893 in Lutheran Church, Dayton, Ohio,
Mother of Lillian Diana Gish and Dorothy Elizabeth Gish
Died 16 Sep 1948 in New York City, New York, U.S.

Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother 1920 Nell Dorr b
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3496
Errata: Amon Carter Museum description “Lillian Gish and an elderly woman in lace”; “The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me” – description of this photo session – “with Mother”
On an evening in October—the 14th, to be exact, 1896
—in a very modest dwelling, in Springfield, Ohio, May
Gish—Mary Robinson Gish (born McConnell)—waited
for her first child. She was barely twenty, and it was
hardly more than a year earlier that James Gish, a travelling
salesman—young, handsome, winning—had found her
at Urbana, and after a whirlwind wooing, had carried
her off, a bride, to Springfield.
No one knew very much of Gish. From that mysterious
“Dutch” region of Pennsylvania, he had drifted into
Springfield, made friends easily, and found work there,
with a wholesale grocery. He might be Dutch himself;
“Gish” could easily have been “Gisch”; or French—a
legend has it that the name had once been “Guise” or
“de Guise” … all rather indefinite, today.
On the other hand, everybody in Urbana knew about
pretty May McConnell.

Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother 1920 Nell Dorr 2
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3499
Errata: Amon Carter Museum description “Lillian Gish and an elderly woman in lace”; “The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me” – description of this photo session – “with Mother”


A girl child, born with a caul . . . supposed to mean
good fortune, even occult power. Mary Gish did not much
concern herself with this superstition; she had been rather
strictly raised; when she gave her daughter the name of
Lillian, and added Diana—Lillian because she was so fair,
and Diana because a big moon looked into her window
—she thought it a happy combination and hoped well for it —no more than that.

Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother 1920 Nell Dorr c
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3495
Errata: Amon Carter Museum description “Lillian Gish and an elderly woman in lace”; “The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me” – description of this photo session – “with Mother”


In summer time Mrs. Gish took her little girls to visit
her sister Emily, who had married and lived at Massillon,
in the eastern part of the state. It was a happy place for
children. There was a green dooryard, with chickens, a cat
asleep on the porch, a dog—a kindly dog who would not
hurt a little girl and her baby sister.

Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother 1920 Nell Dorr
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish and Mother]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3497
Errata: Amon Carter Museum description “Lillian Gish and an elderly woman in lace”; “The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me” – description of this photo session – “with Mother”
If one might have looked into Mary Gish’s heart at this
time, just what would one have found there? Chiefly, of
course, devotion to her children—thought of their immediate
welfare and needs. After that? Was it to equip them
for the career of actresses—a life which, unless they were
at the top, was hardly to be called enviable, and even at
its best was one of impermanent triumphs and fitful rewards?
She knew pretty well that with their special kind
of beauty, which each day she saw develop—their flair for
subtle phases of human portrayal—given health, they
could count on at least reasonable success. Did she greatly
desire that? I think not. I think she considered it, but
that her real purpose was to keep her children and herself
on the stage only until by close, the very closest, economy,
she had saved enough to establish herself in a permanent
business which would give them a home, where they could
go to school and grow into normal, or what she regarded
as normal, womanhood. I think the old prejudice which
she had shared with her family as to the theatre, did not
die easily, and that for years she felt herself more or less
“beyond the pale,” willing to stay there only because it
meant a livelihood, with the possibility of something better,
something with a home in it, not too far ahead. We
shall see the effort she made in this direction, by and by,
and what came of it—how the web of circumstance had
its will with her, as with us all.
Whatever her plan, Mary Gish saw that she must educate
her children. Herself reared in a town that rather
specializes in education, she had known the advantage of
excellent public schools. That her children should have
less than herself was a distressing thought. From little
books, at every spare moment, she taught them. In every
town of importance, she made it her business to learn what
she could of its history, its population, its industries, and
of these she told them in as interesting a form as she could
invent. In the South, she told them of the war; when it
was possible, showed them landmarks, often taking them
on little excursions.

Life and

Lillian Gish and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell)
Lillian Gish and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell)

As I pressed my face against the train window, the rain seemed to cover it with tears. I wondered if it was raining on Dorothy’s train, wherever Dorothy was. I wished Dorothy and Mother and I could be with one another all the time instead of only when the three of us were engaged by the same touring company. At such times we were overjoyed, for it meant that we could spend our days and nights together. But then we would have to separate again, and we might not see one another for a long time. But Dorothy and I were luckier than other little girls. We didn’t have to stay in one town and go to school—we were in different places nearly every day. We had our lessons in dressing rooms, stations, rented rooms. If we were all together. Mother would arrange the most interesting outings that combined lessons with sightseeing.

Mother and Dorothy

Perhaps a schoolmaster in a little red schoolhouse might criticize this form of education, but Dorothy and I loved it. Mother always carried a history book under her arm so that she could read to us and answer our questions. In Massachusetts, she took us to Plymouth Rock, and we learned about the Pilgrims. Another time we went to Bunker Hill and Old North Church and heard about the American Revolution. Once, in Pennsylvania, she took us to Gettysburg, and, as we looked out on the gentle landscape where so many young soldiers rested in what Mr. Lincoln had called “hallowed ground,” she told us about the Blues and the Grays. It all became very personal for us when she added that her father, Henry Clay McConnell, had been, at fourteen, a drummer boy in the Civil War. For the North, of course; he came from Ohio. Imagine Grandfather McConnell a drummer boy! On our next visit to his saddler we saw him in a different light. Up north there were factories to visit. Detroit was particularly interesting. We saw from the beginning how an automobile was made, even though we had never ridden in one. And in Durham, North Carolina, we went by streetcar to see tobacco growing in the fields. Later, m the tobacco factory, a big, beautiful black woman stopped the machine and gave us a cigarette three yards long curled in a box. Another time we were shown how cotton was picked. Then Mother brought us to the cotton gin to watch the cotton made into cloth.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

“These are gifts from God,” Mother said, “and are provided by the earth for people who are intelligent enough to know what to do with them.” Sometimes Mother took us to the national cemeteries, and we looked for the names of our ancestors on tombstones. Among Mother’s ancestors were English who came to America in 1632; the head of the family, Francis Barnard, decided to settle in Hadley, Massachusetts. His descendants intermarried with Scots, Frenchmen, and Irishmen. By the time Mother was born, the McConnells had migrated to Ohio. Mother’s maternal grandfather was Samuel Robinson, a state senator and influential Ohio politician. Our father was James Leigh Gish. When we were older, we learned that Professor J. I. Hamaker, who taught biology at Randolph- Macon College and whose mother was a Gish, was writing a book, Mathjas Gish of White Oaks. The Professor traced the family back to 1733, when Mathias first settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When I asked him once if we had lowered the family standards by becoming actresses, he replied: “Oh, that’s all right. I’m only bringing it up to the time of your grandmother, Diana Waltz Gish.” There were so many family names to remember: McConnell, Ward, Robinson, Taylor, Nims, Barnard, Waltz. Our Great-Aunt Carrie Robinson was always interested in the past, and she told us about our ancestor Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States. All those names were sometimes confusing. Mother, for instance, was originally Mary Robinson McConnell, later Mrs. James Leigh Gish. When she first went on the stage, she did not want to disgrace her family by using their real names, so she took the name of Mae Barnard. Dorothy and I were usually billed as “Baby” Something or even as “Herself,” much as a dog or cat would be identified on the program. But the little girl whose face looked back at me from the train window knew who she was.

She was Lillian Diana Gish.

(The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896


The world was not kind to James Gish. Perhaps those wise ones who know all about the world, and human nature, and the free-will to choose, will say that he was not kind to himself. One must admire those people; they know things with such a deadly certainty. I never in my life knew a thing so certainly as a man who once told me that I could always do the right thing, if I only wanted to.


Apparently I didn’t want to. Nor, as it seemed, did James Gish. When, after less than two years in Baltimore, he sold out to Meixner, he had very little left. Part of that little he gave to his wife; with the rest, he went to New York, where he would find employment and send remittances.

For a time the remittances came; then they dwindled, skipped, ceased. Mrs. Gish worked, but the money she earned was not enough for the little family. Meixner lent her small sums, then advised her to join her husband, advancing money for her fare and for immediate needs on arrival. Meixner appears to have been a good soul. In New York, Mary Gish took an apartment—small, but large enough to accommodate two boarders. It faced West 39th Street, up one or two flights of stairs. She needed more furniture and bought it on instalments. She also took a job—demonstrating, in a Brooklyn department store. She was twenty-five, handsome, capable, determined to make her way. Up at five, she set her house in order, got breakfast for her family and the two boarders theatrical women, who had their luncheons outside. Leaving the children in the hands of a colored girl, she was off for the day. Back at night, she got the supper; then worked at the making and mending and laundering of the family clothing.


Gish was there, and may have been employed at times, but his help was negligible. Less than that. As she saved from her modest pay, she gave him sums, trusting soul, to pay on her furniture. But then, one day, when she came home from her job in distant Brooklyn, more distant then than now, the dealers who had sold it to her had come and taken it away. Her husband appears to have vanished about the same time. Later, she sought and obtained legal separation.

Kind-hearted, weak—James Gish was only one of thousands. That he loved his family is certain. When a year or two later, Mary Gish and little Dorothy were on a theatrical circuit, he was likely to turn up any time, appearing mysteriously in distant places. Hungry for the sight of them, he must have watched them enter and leave the theatre—perhaps went in to see the play. Sometimes he confronted them on a street in a far-off town. Always in Mary Gish’s heart was the dread that he would take one or both of her children from her. She knew he was a Freemason, and in her lack of knowledge, thought he might in some way invoke that secret agency. He seems never to have attempted anything of the sort, and if he secretly followed Lillian, she did not know it. Probably it was Mary Gish herself that he most wanted to see. Those wise ones who know all about the world will not fail to explain that he deserved his tragedy. . . .

Night and day the Loom of Circumstance weaves its inevitable pattern. The filaments proceed from a million sources, stretching backward through eternity. Incredibly they unite, and once united the gods themselves cannot change the design.


Mary Gish’s fortunes were at low ebb. Her unfurnished room would presently be on her hands. The two actresses, who owed her money, were willing to bunk on the floor, but the theatrical season would open shortly, and what then? Such jewelry as she owned was pawned, even to the last piece—even to her wedding ring. The actresses had likewise parted with their valuables. One of them, who called herself Dolores Lome, had taken a great fancy to little Dorothy. There came a momentous afternoon. Mary Gish, arriving from Brooklyn, was met by a startling proposal:

“I can get a good part in Rebecca Warren’s ‘East Lynne’ Company,” Dolores Lome excitedly announced, “if I can get a child to play ‘Little Willie.’ Dorothy would do it, exactly. They will pay her fifteen dollars a week, and we’d have a week’s salary in advance. I could pay you; and I know a woman who can get a part for Lillian, too. A lovely woman, Alice Niles, in a ‘Convict Stripes’ Company.”

Mary Gish stared at her, dazed, staggered. She could not grasp it. Her little girls . . . going away . . . motherless. . . . Poor little Dot, hardly more than a baby . . . and Lillian, barely six . . . on the road with theatre people . . . what would the folks at home say?

Theatre people! She had not even dared to confess that she had them in her house. Dolores was a good soul . . . but little Dot . . . and Alice Niles—who was Alice Niles?


A stranger! And Lillian, so frail … on the road . . . with a stranger!!! James Gish’s wife, who had borne up in the face of everything, gave way, wept as if her heart would break. Dolores Lome comforted her . . . later, Alice Niles. She believed them good women, both of them. They promised to take a mother’s care of her little girls. They painted life on the circuit as happy—just a long pleasure trip. If they forgot the broken nights on wretched trains, the scanty, stale food, the dragging weariness of delays . . . oh, well, they were human. Lillian and Dorothy became excited. They had never been to a theatre, except to the Christmas-tree performance in Baltimore. That had been beautiful. Especially Maxine Elliot. Now, they were going to be beautiful, like Maxine. Tearfully Mary Gish began to assemble two little wardrobes—scanty little wardrobes, of a size to go into two cheap little telescope bags. Also, there were the rehearsals. Mary Gish taught her children their brief lines, which they rehearsed at the theatre. Lillian went at her task in her obedient, thorough way, and became a favorite. Dorothy, who perhaps had ideas of her own, was invited to repeat, and repeat, until both Mr. William Dean, the kindly manager of her company, and herself, were a trifle worn and critical. Finally, when Mr. Dean became really quite fierce, and peremptory, Dorothy, aged four, whispered, her lips trembling a little:

“Please, Mr. Dean, if you let me alone for a few minutes, I know I’ll be able to do it.”


Mrs. Gish, meantime, had a new and quite definite plan. She would herself become an actress! Very likely her people would cast her out, but never mind. Acting could not be worse than the long hours in Brooklyn. She would equip herself to be with one or both of her children. Alice Niles introduced her at a theatrical agency, and Mary Gish—determined woman that she was—was rehearsing for a small part at Proctor’s almost as soon as the two real actresses of the family had said their heartbreaking goodbyes.


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