- Roots of the Rich and Famous
- Copyright © 1998 by Robert R. Davenport
- TAYLOR PUBLISHING COMPANY
- Dallas, Texas
Film pioneer and Oscar-winning actress Lillian Gish proudly hung a painting of her cousin President Zachary Taylor in her living room to commemorate her relationship to the hero of the Mexican War, without whom the United States wouldn’t have California or Hollywood.
Zachary Taylor almost didn’t accept the nomination to be president while he was fighting in Mexico, because the letter sent to notify him arrived postage due, and he refused to accept it!
Incumbent President James Polk, alarmed that he would lose the election to Taylor (who was winning battle after battle in Mexico), used dirty tricks that would make Nixon look like a choirboy. He reduced the size of Taylor’s army, hoping he would be defeated in battle. However, Taylor still managed, although greatly outnumbered, to soundly defeat the Mexican general Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista, and that victory swept him into the White House. As a point of interest, a street in Los Angeles named after that battle later became the home of Walt Disney Studios, and today various subdivisions of the company bear the name Buena Vista.
Noteworthy: Lillian Gish’s ancestor, the Reverend Benjamin Gish, went west with the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, the grandfather of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and settled in Abilene, Texas.
“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.
Mother and her sister, our Aunt Emily, were left motherless quite young. Their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Homer took Emily, and Mother remained with Grandfather McConnell. She was feminine and pretty, with a high, rounded forehead and delicate features. She was sensitive and took after her grandmother Emily Ward, the poet. Our father, James Leigh Gish, clerked for a wholesale grocery firm in Springfield, Ohio. On a business trip to Urbana, he met Mother. He was handsome, his features regular, his eyes blue, his skin and hair even fairer than Mother’s were. They were immediately attracted to each other and were married soon after. He was only twenty, and she was eighteen.
Father left his job and with his savings bought a small confectionery business in Springfield. The young couple was living with Grandmother Gish at the time of my birth, a little more than a year later. I was born with a caul, which Grandmother Gish said would bring me luck. My life did not begin with much promise, however; at three weeks I had an attack of membrane croup. When I was about a year old, Father decided that he would do better in the candy business in Dayton, and it was there that Dorothy was born. If Mother was anxious about my health, she must have been considerably cheered by her second born, who was, in the words of her adoring family, “a dimpled darling.” Relatives who remembered us as babies have told me that I had ash blond hair, very pale skin, and a fragile body.
Dorothy’s curls were reddish blonde, and, although her skin was pale, she did not freckle as I did. Memories of Mother and Father together are few. I do remember waking up one night to see them standing over my bed. They were evidently going to a party. Mother was in red satin with a long train. Father in a dark suit. They looked so beautiful that the image has not entirely faded from my memory even now. Father was gay and lively; he loved people and gatherings. Mother, with her taste and beauty, charmed everyone who met her. I believe they were happy then. While we were still living with Grandmother Gish, I developed a habit that annoyed my father. Whenever a grownup left his chair. Father could never stay in one place for very long. Whether this restlessness was caused by a gypsy temperament or by a fear of being unable to fulfill his responsibilities was not clear to Mother. We moved from Dayton to Baltimore, where he went into partnership with a Mr. Edward Meixner, again in the candy business. But after two years of Baltimore Father again yearned for fresh horizons. Selling his share of the business to his partner, he set out to find the better life in New York City. Mother remained behind, working for Mr. Meixner. She had a flair for packaging, but unfortunately profits were not enough to support two families. Father sent her money but not enough. She decided to go to New York.
In New York Mother rented a flat on West Thirty-Ninth Street near Pennsylvania Station. She found a job as a demonstrator in a Brooklyn department store, bought furniture “on time,” and rented a room to two young actresses. I cannot recall Father being with us immediately, but he was there for a time. I still remember his fair hair and golden beard. He had evidently lost his job, yet Mother managed. I marvel now at her strength. She was not twenty-five, yet she worked to support us, laundered and mended our clothes, and sewed until late in the night—all the while creating an atmosphere of serenity and love. She made all the clothes we wore. Dorothy and I played on the streets, sometimes joining other children, other times watching the organ grinder and his fascinating monkey. Mother had bought some rather shoddy maple bedroom furniture, obligating herself to pay the furniture company $3 a week. A darkbrowed individual known to us as “the Collector” appeared each week to pick up the money, which Mother left with Father. One day, when Dorothy and I were cutting out paper dolls in the dining room, a couple of men arrived and repossessed the bedroom pieces. Father had evidently taken the money and put it to other uses. He disappeared from our lives shortly afterward, although for the next few years he did appear at various times and places when we were on the road. Once, I remember, he was wearing a Van Dyke beard, a cape, and a flowing tie. Perhaps he thought that this theatrical attire would appeal to Mother. He would talk about coming back so that we could be a complete family again, but she would reply that she had tried it too many times to be fooled again. Sometimes he would threaten to take one or both of us with him. Our greatest fear was of being taken away from Mother. She gave us security, Father insecurity. As I grow older, I wonder which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God. Somehow, through exposure to insecurity, you learn to do for yourself and not to count on the other fellow to do it for you. Wherever Mother was there was love, peace, and sympathy, yet without insecurity the blessings Mother offered might have left our characters weak and helpless.
One evening during one of those periods when Father was not with us, Dolores Lome, a young actress, comforted Mother: “Mary, you work for so little money. With your looks, you should be on the stage. I bet Proctor’s could use you. With luck, you could do well—and educate your children properly.” That was how Mother became an actress. She found work as the ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company in New York for $15 a week. Evenings she tucked us into bed before going off to the theater. I can still vaguely see a small room with a table, chairs, and a mattress placed on the floor to protect us from bumps in case we fell out of bed. On matinee days she took us to her dressing room, where we played quietly while she was on stage.
Then one day an actress friend of hers, Alice Niles, came backstage and told Mother that she had been offered a good part in a touring company.
“The only hitch,” she said, “is that I must find a little girl to play with me. What about Lillian? She’s just the right age.” I was five years old at the time. Mother was reluctant at first, but Alice persisted. She pointed out that my salary would be $10 a week and that I could live on 3. The savings would certainly be enough to tide us over the summer when Proctor’s did not operate. Besides, she promised, she would personally look after me; I would be safe with “Aunt” Alice. Her arguments finally prevailed.
It was, oddly enough, a great period for children in the theater. In most melodramas the heroine had a child or two or perhaps a little sister. Not much was demanded of the children; few of the roles were speaking parts of any consequence. Not long after I went on the road with my first play, Dorothy found her first acting job. Mother wrote me that Dolores Lome had taken Dorothy to play Little Willie in East Lynne. The Gish sisters were on the road.
(Excerpts from “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” by Lillian Gish)