Interviewing Lillian Gish


“We got along all right on that one, I’d say. I did everything I could do to please her, of course. I don’t recall ever having had an actor or an actress with whom I couldn’t get along. I’ve never thought about my being first or second in the billing, and I never brought up the fact that my name should be used, above or below the title. If it wasn’t used it was better for me, I thought, because of my family. I just never had any big head about “me,” and I always felt that I was so lucky. Everyone was so good to me throughout my career, and I can say in all honesty that I don’t recall having had a quarrel with anyone ever.” (Lillian Gish – The Whales of August)

From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for the pictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”

Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.” (Duel in the Sun)

Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”

In “Broken Blossoms,” for instance, and in “Way Down East,” I had physical distress to help me out. My appeal was in a measure made for me. I always had something the matter with me. In one I was a poor, frail, half-living little thing and in the other a down-trodden, storm-tossed girl. As Henriette I was well taken care of, beloved by the dashing Chevalier, watched over by Danton. Of course, I had lost my sister, but I was not sure that she was not well cared for, too. I had to make the loss of my sister and my instinctive fear for her overshadow my own personal well-being. That made Henriette a more difficult role than any I have yet played. (Motion Picture Magazine 1922)

“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios. “After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.

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Lillian Gish, 69, Still Part of Motion Picture History – By Bob Thomas (San Bernardino Sun, 1966)

San Bernardino Sun, Volume 72, 13 April 1966

Hollywood Beat

Lillian Gish, 69, Still Part of Motion Picture History

By Bob Thomas

Hollywood (AP)  – Lillian Gish neither looks nor acts like a museum piece. Her history would indicate that she should be put on display at some repository of movie history. After all, she appeared in her first film in 1912 and starred in D.W. Griffith classics: “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” etc.

Yet the soulful Gish eyes remain as alert as a teen-ager’s, and she has an outlook to match.

“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios.

Lillian Gish, Fred MacMurray photo from Walt Disneys Follow Me Boys

“After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.

1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head – Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations

Miss Gish flew here from an Italian vacation to appear in “The Warning Shot” with David Jannsen. During her stay here she will visit with old friends and coworkers. If there is any time left over, she may do some work on the memoir she us writing about her great mentor, Griffith.

“But that is terribly hard work for me,” she admitted, “and I usually have to hole up in a room in Switzerland to get anything written.”

Her schedule may seem remarkable for a 69-year-old, but it doesn’t seem so to Miss Gish. Fortunately for her, she is not required to maintain an income. During her heyday on the screen, from the age 12 to 30, she managed herself well. She never succumbed to the grand living that consumed the assets of many stars.

“I never even bought a home in California,” she explained. “New York was always my home and still is. The money I made went into the bank, not into acquisitions.”

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The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant

  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

Dorothy and Lillian – Unbroken Blossoms

I went to tea with Lillian and Dorothy the following afternoon. Their New York apartment was charming and they had a Southern butler, straight out of “Gone with the Wind” who appeared to have been with them for years. From the elegance and richness of the furnishings, it was obvious that Lillian and Dorothy had not squandered their money like so many of the early silent stars; having known what poverty was from their youth, they had, in fact, sensibly invested in real estate.

I was shown into the drawing-room where the sisters introduced me to their mother, a beautiful, exquisitely dressed, white-haired old lady whom they obviously adored. This was the actress who had instilled into Lillian her love of the theatre and whose own career had come to a tragic end. In 1925, Lillian, who was starring in ” The Scarlet Letter ” in Hollywood, heard that her mother was seriously ill in New York. Greatly distressed, she told the director, Victor Seastrom, that she must go to New York at once: he understandingly agreed. When she arrived, Lillian found that her mother had had a stroke which had totally deprived her of the power of speech. Ever since then, Lillian and Dorothy had looked after her; she lived with them, met their guests, was present at all their dinner parties-a gracious, fragile, silent and infinitely touching figure.

On that first visit, while we were taking tea, there seemed to be a mad cocktail party going on in the adjoining dining-room, the door to which was not quite closed. Through the small gap came a babble as of a coven of witches gossiping, with malevolent chuckles and shrieks of eldritch laughter; then one cackling voice could be heard with disconcerting clarity saying, ” That Dorothy Gish-she thinks she’s an actress ! Hee-hee-hee ! She’s no actress-that Dorothy Gish!” I coughed and rattled my teacup on its saucer and made conversation in a loud voice to drown the flow of disparagement from next door. Nobody else took the slightest notice of it and eventually the sounds died away; I assumed that the cocktail-takers had drunk themselves into a coma.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

One of them, it seemed, came to just as I was leaving. I had telephoned for a cab and when the porter rang back to say he had one waiting for me I said, ” I’ll be right down.” From the next room a horrid, mocking voice echoed, ” I’ll be right DOWN ! ” ” Who was that? ” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Oh, that’s our parrot,” said Lillian, ” you must meet her next time you come. She’s very lively for her age-we’re told she’s well over a hundred-and really a lovely person.” Dorothy, who had just entranced me by announcing, “I’ll go along with Rodney-I’m meeting Zasu and Gloria,” made no comment on the bird; it was conceivable that her affection for the garrulous ancient was more restrained than Lillian’s.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

At our subsequent meetings, Lillian, probably realizing that my love for the cinema was incurable, allowed herself to be lured into talking of early Hollywood days. I wanted to know how Griffith had got that wonderful close-up of her with frozen eyelashes in the blizzard scene of ” Way Down East “; had it been faked? Lillian was indignant. Certainly it had not been faked; the scene had actually been shoL in a blizzard, for which they had waited weeks, and not only her eyelashes but all of her had been frozen. ” I thought I would die of cold,” she said, ” but Griffith just kept shouting, ‘Give her some more hot tea and carry on.’ “

How, I asked, had she done that terrifying scene, in the same picture, where she was on an ice-floe when the ice broke up?

“Why, I just did it,” said Lillian, looking mildly surprised at the question. ‘We all did things in those days.” Recalling the wide use to-day of stand-ins and stunt-men, it seemed to me the modem actor was somewhat lacking in spirit. ” But, I said to Lillian, gazing at her with awe, ” surely you were risking your life? “

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

”Oh, yes, I suppose so,” said she: “as a matter of fact, I was in hospital for six months after that film.” One of Griffith’s most promising women players, Lillian told me, had actually died in the blizzard scene; Griffith re-cast the part and went on shooting.

Reminiscing about “Birth of a Nation,” she told me, with amusement, how one scene, which is still regarded as an outstanding example of screen art, came to be shot. The scene is that which shows the Southemer Colonel Cameron, returning from the Civil War to his ravaged home : he looks like a man who has been through hell. Griffith, it appears, was all set to shoot the scene of the colonel, full of high hopes and patriotic zeal, going off to the Civil War-but Henry B. Walthall, who was playing Cameron, had been on a terrific bat the night before and turned up at the studio looking ghastly and suffering from an imperial hangover.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Griffith immediately changed his plans : ” We can’t shoot him like that setting out,” he said. “We’ll shoot him coming back.” And it was done.

“Everything was so different in the old days,” said Lillian. ” There were no strict union rules then, of course, and everybody was adaptable; we all worked together to make a good film-and we took pride in working together. Films lost so much when talkies came in, I just felt I must leave Hollywood. So in 1930 I crone to New York-and played in Jed Harris’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya.'”

” But surely you did make one talking picture? ” I asked.

“Wasn’t it ‘ One Romantic Night,’ with Rod la Rocque, directed by Paul Stein? ,,

One Romantic Night – The Swan

At the mention of that name, Lillian’s face became (as Edmund Pearson described her ‘Lizzie Borden ” face in the play ” Nine, Pine St.”) .. as venomous and implacable as that of the great murderous queen in ‘ Agamemnon.’ ” ” I can’t bear to think of it,” she said. We agreed that it was the only stinker she had ever appeared in. She had, of course, not yet made ” Duel in the Sun.”

The White Sister

Lillian recalled her experiences with Ronald Colman, whom she had discovered as a small-part stage actor. In 1923 she formed her own film company with Henry King and (which may surprise those who think the current fashion to film in Italy is something new), took Colman to Italy to appear with her in her film of “The White Sister ” which she made there. In one scene, Colman, cast as the impetuous Italian lover, had to display burning passion as he tried to persuade Lillian, the nun of the title role, to break her vows. The scene was rehearsed over and over again. Mr. Colman’s display of passion was not even lukewarm. It seemed as if his inner self, clad in white flannels and brandishing an embarrassed tennis racquet, held him back, murmuring, ‘Oh,. I say, old man-look here ! That sort of thing’s all right for foreigners, but I mean to say …. ! ” In desperation, Lillian poured him half-a-tumblerful of brandy; in desperation, Mr. Colman drank it down, neat and in one gulp. A few minutes later, positively incandescent with passion and alcohol, he gave a performance so scorching that, when it reached the screen, women in the audience glowed with responsive rapture and swooned away. Out of the glass of brandy a star was born.

One of the reasons I stayed on in New York (apart from the delight I took in Lillian’s company) was that I was trying to get somebody to present my play of ‘Crime and Punishment ” there. The New York Theatre Guild took an option on it and we at once began to discuss casting. I wanted Lillian to play Katerina Ivanovna-the part Edith Evans had played in London-but could not think of an actor to play Raskolnikov. Lillian suggested Burgess Meredith, who was then appearing in “The Playboy of the Western World.”

There was a charming story going the rounds at the time. The New York Irish took as great exception to the play as the Irish in Ireland had done when it was first presented, and one night a crowd of Irish toughs gathered at the stage door and mobbed Burgess Meredith and his wife, Paulette Goddard, as they sat in their limousine. The finger of scorn was pointed at Miss Goddard and Mr. Meredith was challenged to ” get out and foight.” ” Don’t you do it, Buzz,” cried Paulette. “Just open the window and let me hit them with my diamond necklace.”

Lillian and I went to see Burgess to ask if there was any possibility of his being able to play in” Crime and Punishment.” For the time being, there was none : he planned to go to Dublin when the run of ” The Playboy ” ended, to appear there with Paulette in” Winterset.”

He did go to Dublin-and when I met him a year later he told me the play had not been very enthusiastically received. On the morning following the first night, a chambermaid entered their hotel bedroom bearing a breakfast tray and a bundle of newspapers. She put the newspapers at the foot of the bed and set down the breakfast tray. “There y’are now,” she said cosily. “Eat up yer breakfast before ye desthroy yerselves reading the notices.”

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith – promotional for ‘The Star-Wagon’

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An Interview with LILLIAN GISH

By Ronald Bowers

  • A Survey of 1982 Films Edited by FRANK N. MAGILL

There is simply one “First Lady” of American cinema, and she is Miss Lillian Gish. Her career in motion pictures is without equal. Along with her mentor, D. W. Griffith, she was a pioneer who created her own art form. Imitated by generations of performers, she has herself always been a pioneer, never an imitator. “D. W. Griffith was the father of film form and grammar,” she explains. “The French had hinted at the possibilities of film before him, but he put it all together first.” The same could be said of Lillian Gish and her self-evolved style of screen acting.

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

Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father, James Lee Gish, was a traveling salesman from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and her mother, Mary Robinson McConnell Gish, numbered among her ancestors the poet Emily Ward and President Zachary Taylor. Gish’s father’s work required the family to live in various cities before the turn of the century, and it was in Dayton, Ohio, that her sister, Dorothy, was born on March 11, 1898. Eventually, Mrs. Gish separated from her husband and took her two daughters to New York City to look for work. As Dorothy once explained in an interview: “We were practically destitute. [Mother] rented one of the old fashioned railroad apartments, and advertised for ‘genteel lady roomers.  One of the genteel ladies who rented a room was an actress [Dolores Lome], and after she had been with us a few weeks, she had an offer for a part in a road company production of East Lynne, provided she could find a small child of either sex to play the part of Little Willie. She asked Mother if she could borrow me for the role, and Mother was willing, and so, at four, I became Little Willie. Then Lillian got parts too, and so did Mother, and there we were, all three of us, actresses.”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

Officially, Gish made her stage debut when she was five years old, in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a play called In Convict’s Stripes; as she recalls, “I took my first curtain call on the shoulders of the handsome leading man, Walter Huston.”

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

On rare occasions, the three Gishes were able to act together in the same play, but for the most part, they worked separately, with Mrs. Gish accompanying her younger daughter and Lillian being chaperoned by a family friend. During one period of unemployment, the Gishes worked at a candy concession in Brooklyn’s Fort George Amusement Park, where they were joined by another temporarily out-of-work family, the Smiths, consisting of mother Charlotte and three youngsters named Gladys, Lottie, and Jack. Gladys eventually became known as Mary Pickford.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

In 1905, nine-year-old Lillian was employed as a dancer with the Sarah Bernhardt stage company, then on tour in New York City, and Gish recalls that the divine Sarah “was kind, . . . but discipline was rigid in that company.” The Gishes continued to act in road-company productions, and 1912 found both Lillian and Dorothy in Baltimore. Gish remembers: “We weren’t children, but we weren’t grown-up either. Whenever we had saved up a nickel, we would go see Biograph pictures. They were the only ones we liked. So when we saw that our friend Gladys Smith was in a movie called Lena and the Geese (1912), we went to see it. However, we thought she must be in some kind of trouble if she was in the movies instead of acting in the theater, because we didn’t think movie acting was quite legitimate then. But later we learned that Lionel Barrymore worked there, and Mother said. ‘Well, if there’s a Barrymore there, it can’t be all that bad.'” Leaving Baltimore, the Gishes returned to New York City and paid a visit to the Biograph Studio at 11 East 14th Street to see their friend Mary Pickford who by then had appeared in more than one hundred motion pictures (mostly one-reelers) and had become Biograph’s most popular actress. Pickford introduced her two friends to the formidable D. W. Griffith, and that same afternoon, Gish says, he hired them at five dollars a day and began rehearsing them. “His rehearsal consisted of chasing us around the room and firing a gun filled with blanks at the ceiling to see how we could express fright. We thought we were in an insane asylum.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.

Both Gish sisters worked as extras with Griffith’s stock company, and soon they were cast as sisters in leading roles in a melodrama entitled An Unseen Enemy (1912). Griffith then chose Lillian to play the sweatshop worker who is harrassed by hoodlums in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) important as an early example of Griffith’s expert directorial technique.

While the family welcomed the money—often their weekly salary in theater had been only ten dollars—Gish’s aspirations were always for the theater. Late in 1912, she signed with David Belasco to appear with Pickford in A Good Little Devil. The play opened in January, 1913, but shortly thereafter Lillian fell ill with ‘pernicious anemia.’ As was his practice during the winters. Griffith took his Biograph players, including Dorothy, to California. Before leaving. Griffith offered Lillian fifty dollars a week to join them upon her recuperation. Gish did giving up her theater ambitions for the time being to participate in a revolutionary era in motion-picture history.

DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish - background Robert Harron
DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish – background Robert Harron

From the very beginning of their association. Griffith never told Gish, or any of his performers, how to act. Gish says, “He never taught us how to act. He simply said study the human race. And he was right. That’s the best way to learn. And also one should play ever) game, like tennis, that one can. I took fencing lessons and all kinds of dancing lessons so that I learned to control the way my body moved. But nobody can teach acting. Just speak loud and clear and learn to have absolute control over your body and voice.”

Fine Arts Griffith Stars 2
Fine Arts – Griffith Stars Back Row: Dorothy Gish, Seena Owen, Norma Talmadge Middle Row: Robert Harron, Harry Aitken (producer), Sir Beerbohm-Tree, Owen Moore, Wilfred Lucas Front Row: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Constance Collier, Lillian Gish (Marfa in Sold For Marriage), Fay Tincher, DeWolfe Hopper Photograph – Raymond Lee of Roy George Association

From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for thepictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”

1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos - Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos – Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Gish perfected her craft in picture after picture, and in 1912 alone she appeared in three films with Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, most notably The New York Hat, which was based on the first screenplay written by the inimitable Anita Loos. Gish and Loos remained lifelong friends, and Gish recalls: “We called her Mrs. Spinoza’ because she was so wise; we didn’t open our mouths around her. She wrote stories and subtitles and was a talented, beautiful, and funny lady.”

Pickford soon left Griffith to establish her unique place in silent films, but she and Gish remained lifelong friends. “Mary always credited me with her successful career playing a child,” says Gish, “I told her to play a child. I had seen her play Essex the child in Little Lord Fauntleroy and I suggested she do a full-length film about a child. At the time, Marguerite Clark was successful playing children on the screen because she was tiny four feet, ten inches] and weighed only about ninety pounds. But Marguerite was dark and a different type, so I told Mary she should try it also. And she did.”

Many years later, the mature, retired Mary Pickford announced that she was going to burn the prints of all of her old films. Gish heard about it and intervened: “I told her she had no right to destroy her films. They don’t belong to you,’ I said. They belong to the world.’ And thank heavens she listened.” In 1913, Griffith starred Gish in a picture developed expressly for her talents — The Mothering Heart—then cast her as the young mother in his four reel epic, Judith of Betluilia ( 1913). When he left Biograph at the end of 1913, Lillian and Dorothy followed him to the Mutual Company. Gish quickly grew in popularity with the American public, and consequently Griffith cast her as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), a part originally intended for Blanche Sweet. The film remains a hallmark in American motion-picture history and in Gish’s career. “We shot that picture in nine weeks. We rehearsed it extensively and then shot it—every scene but one— in one take. We had to shoot Mae Marsh’s death scene twice because she forgot to wrap the Confederate flag around her waist.”

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

It had become Griffith’s practice to rehearse his actors repeatedly to save both money and film when shooting time came. “We rehearsed extensively and never with a script,” remembers Gish. “Nothing was written down. He called the part out to us, and it was up to us to find the character. During those nine weeks on The Birth of a Nation, we stopped only here and there so he could go out and get some more money. That film cost sixty-one thousand dollars, and he had only fifty thousand dollars, so he would borrow from anyone he could. One day Mother offered him three hundred dollars, andhe asked how much money she had in all. She said just that three hundred, and he refused to accept it. He always considered others before himself. And when he died, even though he was broke, he owed no one a penny. He was a true Southern gentleman.”

Thereupon followed Gish’s star years with Griffith: Intolerance (1916); Hearts of the World (1918), with her sister, Dorothy; Broken Blossoms (1919); Way Down East (1920) ; and Orphans of the Storm (1921). again with Dorothy.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

In Intolerance, Gish’s part was a small but pivotal one. Swathed in white, she was the mother rocking the cradle in the scene which linked the four part story together. Hearts of the World was a popular and important film, but Gish’s favorite among her films is Broken Blossoms, in which she starred to great acclaim with Richard Barthelmess. It was in this film that she gave her highly personal lyrical style its fullest  expression. By this time in their association, Griffith had complete confidence in Gish’s talent; “I give her an outline of what I hope to accomplish and let her work it out her own way. When she gets it, she has  something of her own. Of course she is imitated. A dozen actresses copy whatever she does and even get themselves up to look like her, which obliges her to change her methods.”

Gish worked in two more Griffith films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, and then, by mutual consent, she struck out on her own. It was simply a matter of economics. She was worth more than Griffith could pay her, and as he had done with other actresses before her who had gained stardom under his aegis—Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh — he suggested that Gish should seek the fortune and acclaim she so richly deserved. “Thus,” she says, “in the most friendly way, an artistic and business association of many years was broken off as casually as it had begun.” In 1922, Gish signed an eight-year contract with Inspiration Pictures for $1,250 a week plus fifteen percent of the profits and story approval. Her first Inspiration film was The White Sister (1923), directed by Henry King. Gish played a nun, and the picture was shot in Italy during a period of seven months.

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

Shortly before the cast and crew were scheduled to sail for Europe, there was still no leading man. Gish recalls: “Ronald Colman was appearing on Broadway in La Tendresse, with Ruth Chatterton. The photographer James Abbe, who was going to photograph the stills for The White Sister, saw him in the play and told me about him. and so Henry and I went to see him. I thought he would be an excellent choice for the part of the Italian Captain Severi, and so we went to talk with the play’s producer, Henry Miller. That was on a Thursday. Miller graciously released Colman, and we sailed on Saturday.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and Ronald Colman in Rome during the filming of The White Sister - 1923 — with Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman.

“Colman was a charming man, but there was one scene which caused him difficulty. He was British to the core, and the scene called for him to lose his temper like an Italian. He was too British to unbend. So one night at dinner. I suggested to Henry that we give him too much to drink and shoot the scene that night. We did,” she laughs, “and he finally did unbend.”

Romola (1924), also with Colman, was Gish’s second and final picture for Inspiration; she had experienced contractual difficulties with Charles H. Duell, the company’s president, from the beginning. She signed an $800,000, six picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the films were to be made during a two-year period, and she was to have  approval of both story and director.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert

At M-G-M, Lillian worked closely with Irving G. Thalberg. Her first picture for them was La Boheme (1926), about which she says, “I adored Irving from the beginning. Next to Griffith, I respected him the most. Louis B. Mayer was the businessman, but it was Irving who was so sensitive and artistic. And he was greatly overworked. When I went to M-G-M, I asked him to screen The Big Parade (1925) for me, and after seeing it, I asked him to get me the director [King Vidor] and the leading man [John Gilbert] for La Boheme. I also requested photographer Hendrick Sartov, who had photographed a number of my Griffith films and who had invented a soft-focus lens which he called the ‘Lillian Gish lens.’ Irving agreed, and he let me do it my own way.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)4

“I told my friend Madame Freddie [dramatist Madame Frederick de Gresac] to adapt the story for me [it was based on the novel The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1848), by Henri Murger], and she worked on it, and then Frances Marion took over and wrote the screenplay. Irving was wonderful throughout. John Gilbert couldn’t have been nicer to work with. He was never any trouble.” However, some M-G-M practices did distract her. “Griffith never used mood music on his sets, but when I went to M-G-M for La Boheme, I realized it was an accepted practice to have mood musicians playing while the actors were acting. I love music, but not when I’m working. It distracted me, but the others could not do without it. Also, I was used to extensive rehearsals before actual filming began, but they did not rehearse at M-G-M. It embarrassed them to rehearse. They would do a scene, and if it wasn’t right, they would shoot it again, and again if necessary. Since I was in the minority, I went along and did it their way.”

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish 1926 Mimi passed away ... (the last scene)

Years after the release of La Boheme, King Vidor wrote that he suspected that Gish had used cotton balls in her mouth for her famous death scene. Gish replies: “It was absolutely not true. I think he must have been thinking of Helen Hayes when she played Queen Victoria as an old lady, because there it was appropriate. But Mimi in La Boheme was emaciated and dying of tuberculosis. The last thing you would do would be to fill out the cheeks. They should be sunken in. I went to the county hospital with a priest to see the tuberculosis patients, and in my death scene I endeavored to imitate their thinness and their sunken cheeks, exactly the look of someone in that condition. That was simply more of studying the human race, like Griffith had advised me years before. I don’t know where Vidor got that idea, but nonetheless, he supposedly had to look away while shooting the scene because hehad tears in his eyes. He was a talented, gentle man.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

Gish’s second M-G-M feature was The Scarlet Letter (1926), and once several obstacles were overcome, her working experience with Thalberg was as always a rewarding one. The main obstacle was that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel had been banned by a number of women’s clubs and church groups.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

“I went to Mr. Mayer and said I wanted to do The Scarlet Letter: he said it was impossible because of the ban. I said. ‘If I can get the ban lifted, will you let me do it? He said yes, and we did it. I went to Irving, and he screened The Story of Gosta Berling (1924) for me. The film starred Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson, and when I saw Lars’s face I said. There’s my Dimsdale. I wanted Victor Seastrom as director because I had seen him direct something at M-G-M and I thought he came nearer to re-creating the tempo of our own people in 1640, which was the time period of The Scarlet Letter. People moved at a slower pace then, and he suited the Puritan image. He was a wonderful man, a beautiful director, an artist. And again Irving agreed with my every decision. I think it relieved him of some of his heavy workload.” Gish’s triumphant portrayal of Hester Prynne has been described best by critic Pauline Kael: “Her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was another, who can move like Lillian Gish: it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it!”

Seastrom directed Gish in another remarkable performance in The Wind (1928), which also costarred Lars Hanson, but the arrival of sound prevented that picture from gaining the audience it deserved. The arrival of sound caused Gish to reassess her career, and she ended her contract with M-G-M after The Wind, the fifth of the proposed six films.

THE WIND, Lillian Gish, 1928 HC8WJ8

Always a dedicated artist, Gish had described vividly the vicissitudes of an acting career in an interview in 1927: “Perhaps much is lost in selecting an acting career. Personal contacts and friendships must be neglected because long and irregular working hours eliminate the possibility of planned social gatherings. You must be terrifically earnest and interested in your work and not be swayed from the path which leads to your desired goal. You must live with the story you are going to appear in from the moment the scenario goes into the writing until the time it is completed, breathing with the character until you become it. The life of a motion-picture actress might be likened to a billowing wave in the mighty Pacific, with new waves constantly rushing on and pushing it to shore. It takes strength and sureness to successfully battle in the big pond and to keep your place there.” This dedication to acting is the primary reason why Gish never married, she never did believe that an actress would be a good wife. You’ve simply got to be one or the other — never both. I would have been a very bad wife.”

Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928

In striving to maintain her place in the “big pond.” Gish considered several projects which never materialized. She spent considerable time discussing with French director Abel Gance a production of Joan of Arc. “‘We planned to shoot it on actual locations in France, and the French government was going to finance it. but I had contract obligations which interfered, and we never got to do it. “I also worked for a year with Max Reinhardt and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal on a project called The Miracle Girl. It was the story of a peasant girl who could not even write her name but in ecstasy exhibited signs of the stigmata. It simply had to be done as a silent picture or it would have been ridiculous, so the arrival of sound prevented our ever doing it.”

Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan

Gish signed a contract with United Artists to star in three films of her choosing, making her talking debut in One Romantic Night (1930), an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play – 1920: The Swan, (1929) costarring Conrad Nagel and Rod LaRocque. Gish’s voice was immediately accepted by the critics, but the picture was not. and Gish cancelled her contract and returned to the stage.

1930 promo - Nine Pine Street
Nine Pine Street

Gish starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1930). followed by Nine Pine Street (1933) and Camille (1936). Motion pictures took second place in her career, and more plays followed: Hamlet (1936). in which she was Ophelia to John Gielgud’s melancholy Dane: Life with Father 1947), another personal triumph; and Crime and Punishment (1947).

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

Her occasional work in films included two supporting roles in David O. Selznick productions. In the extravagant Wagnerian Western. Duel in the Sun (1946). she played the wife of rancher Lionel Barrymore and the mother of feuding brothers played by Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck. In Portrait of Jennie (1948). she played a nun. Her role in Duel in the Sun brought Gish her only Academy Award nomination. Recalling her role in the latter. Gish observes: ‘”Years earlier Lionel Barrymore had played my grandfather, then my father, and now my husband. I suppose if he had lived long enough, he would have played my son!”

Duel in The Sun, (behind the scenes) Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, on Set, 1946

Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.”

In 1953. Gish played one of her favorite roles—the woman searching for her lost spirit in Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful. Originally, she had starred in the television version for NBC-TV’s Philco Hour.

Philco Television Playhouse Lillian Gish Bert Lytell

It received excellent reviews, and Gish notes that “It was the first television film that the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives.” Foote expanded the television version for the stage, and Gish repeated her role when it opened in November. 1953. to some of the best reviews of her career. The stage version costarred Jo Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint and was directed by Vincent Donahue. Many critics called it the greatest performance of Gish’s career.

Two years later, Gish had an excellent film role as the eccentric old maid in The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton from a script by James Agee. “Charles Laughton went to the Museum of Modern Art and asked to see all of my old films with D. W. Griffith. Then he called and asked me to tea with James Agee and several others. He said, ‘When I was starting out in this business, people used to go to a movie and sit up in their seats and look at the screen. Now they go to eat popcorn. I want to sit them up in their seats again.’ After hearing that, I was convinced I should do the picture with him. Once we began work on it, we would sometimes ask him questions about what he meant by this or that, and he would exclaim, ‘Oh, oh, what am I doing wrong?’ He had no belief in himself. If he had, he would have been a great director.” Gish describes Robert Mitchum, the star of The Night of the Hunter, as a “very underrated actor; he was charming to work with.”

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

In 1956, Lillian and Dorothy starred together in a stage production of The Chalk Garden, and in 1960, Lillian starred in a televsion version of Truman Capote’s first play, The Grass Harp. Capote had written that play for the Gish sisters, and they both had considered appearing in its original stage production in 1953. Gish explains why that did not come to pass: “Dorothy and I were interested in starring in The Grass Harp, but the producers prevented our doing so. We met with them, and they said they had signed scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones to do the sets. We both liked Jones very much, and since the play was a kind of fairy tale, we knew he would provide the right touch. But after the meeting with the producers, we talked with Jones, and he said he had never been approached. We knew we couldn’t work with people like that, and we never did. When it was produced, they used a tree that Die Gotterdammerung could not have dominated. The  production failed, but it could have been done well. Eventually I did get to appear in the television version.”

More stage vehicles followed for Gish: All the Way Home (1963), Romeo and Juliet (1965), Anya (1965), and I Never Sang for My Father (1968). She also appeared in the film version of Graham Greene’s The Comedians (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Lillian Gish and Richard Burton - The Comedians
Lillian Gish and Richard Burton – The Comedians

Finally, she fulfilled two goals by starring in the 1968 television presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace. That was another play originally written for the Gish sisters, but their run-of-the play contracts for Life with Father had prevented them from starring in the original version. Gish happily signed to do the television version not only to finally get a chance to play the role but also because it afforded her the opportunity of costarring with one of her dearest friends, Helen Hayes.

opening of uncle vanya june 4 1973 h hayes l gish a

“I met Helen through John Barrymore and playwright Edward ‘Ned’ Sheldon in 1930. One season, she, Ruth Gordon, and I were all appearing on Broadway in different plays, and on Saturday evenings after our performances we would all spend the night at Helen’s house in Nyack. I became the godmother to her son James MacArthur [Alexander Woollcott was the godfather], and years later I became godmother to Jamie’s son, Helen’s grandchild. Helen is a wonderful lady and a wonderful friend.”‘

james macarthur new-york-usa 19 jun 1960

Gish’s greatest film performances were in films made before the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and her only nomination was as Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun in 1946. Quite appropriately, the Academy Board of Governors voted her an honorary award in 1971 for “Superlative Artistry and for Distinguished Contributions to the Progress of Motion Pictures.” At the awards ceremony, Melvyn Douglas delivered the following presentation speech which had been written by screenwriter Leonard Spigelglass: “Miss Lillian, as D. W. Griffith used to call her, is the youngest human being in the theater tonight if youth be measured by zest, enthusiasm, and sheer physical strength. This beautiful woman so frail and pink and so overwhelmingly feminine has endured as a working artist from the birth of the movies to their transfiguration. For underneath this wisp of a creature there is hard steel. In the hundreds of films she has made, she and her beloved sister, Dorothy, coped with danger and peril beyond measure. . . .Miss Lillian has written a book about all this sternly called The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Note the order. In her dedication she wrote:

Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack

To my mother who gave me love, To my sister who taught me to laugh, To my father who gave me insecurity To D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.

Lillian Gish and Melvyn Douglas at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards -1971

High time we dedicated something to her. And so, to Lillian Gish, who has touched all our lives with her gifts, her dignity, her funny little smile and her immense invulnerability, the members of the Academy and millions and millions of people in the audience say, You have taught and keep teaching us that time is an ally, that laughter and tears coexist, that your starring light is luminous and gentle, yet pierces the darkness. Come and get your long overdue Oscar, Miss Gish, Miss Lillian Gish, Miss Lillian.”

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish - Griffith Stamp ceremony
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish – Griffith Stamp ceremony

Two years later, on the centenary of D. W. Griffith’s birth, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor as a result of Gish’s personal campaign to have him so remembered.

signed promotional full cast photo - a wedding

Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”

Robert Altman - Lillian Gish (A Wedding)
Robert Altman – Lillian Gish (A Wedding)

In 1982, Gish was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, with President and Mrs. Reagan as host and hostess. Tennessee Williams, a former recipient, was there, and at a small, private gathering in the Red Room, Williams said, “You know, I wrote [A] Streetcar [Named Desire] for you, and now I can tell the story.”

1982 DC Ronald Reagan - Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)
1982 DC Ronald Reagan – Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)

Gish did know the story, but years earlier, when she went to see Jessica Tandy in the original stage production, she did not. She explains: “You see, he had written a one-act play called Portrait of a Madonna and dedicated it to me, but I could not appear in it because Mother was ill at the time. I was playing Ophelia in Hamlet, and I went to see a matinee of A Streetcar Named Desire. I went backstage to congratulate Jessica on her performance. When I did, she replied, I have you to thank for it.’ I didn’t know what she meant, but later that night at Club 21, Jessica’s husband, Hume Cronyn, explained to me that Streetcar was in fact a revised and expanded version of Portrait of a Madonna, which I had had to turn down.”

Lillian Gish NY apartment

Gish is a youthful, vital octogenarian who, when prompted, can dispense wisdom worth noting by her juniors. Of her broken home, she remarks philosophically: “From my Mother, we got great security — the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father, we got great insecurity, and. as I grow older. I wonder which was more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their character.”

Of the prerequisites of her chosen profession she says: “I think the things necessary in my profession are these: taste, talent, and tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.”

Finally, and most important, of her undying zest for life and curiosity she states: “In all my years, and goodness knows how many pictures, I’ve never lost interest in acting, and I’m still learning. How can anyone learn all there is to know about the human race?”

Ronald Bowers

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Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

… At 90, still making movies – F. M. Winship, 1986

Lillian Gish at 90, still making movies


DEC. 14, 1986

NEW YORK — Lillian Gish has just made her 105th motion picture and she is looking forward to her 106th.

‘I’ve been working for 84 years. I don’t intend to stop now,’ says Gish, ethereal and almost prim in a pearl-buttoned rose Ultrasuede dress as she serves tea in the Manhattan apartment where she has lived alone for decades. She admits to 90 years, although two early theater reference books give her birthdate as 1893.


She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.

‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence.

She still exudes a sweet femininity. She wears Mary Jane strapped shoes. Her hair, ash blond turned mostly white, is pulled into a loose crown, a style seen in photographs of her in the ’20s.

(Original Caption) Former actress Lillian Gish in her New York apartment.
Lillian Gish in her New York apartment.

‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’

She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis.

Gish’s new picture, due for release late next year, is a wry comedy with the working title ‘The Whales of August.’ It was filmed this fall on a small island in Casco Bay, Maine. Gish and Davis co-star as widowed sisters who have lived together for 30 years and are facing an emotional crisis.

Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)
Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)

‘We had only met briefly in the past and we had never worked together,’ said Gish. ‘In spite of this, I think we got along very nicely.’ Gish, of course, is very much Davis’s senior in the film world and can afford to be generous. —

Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford.


Griffith, head of Biograph Films, paid her $50 a week and became the lodestar of her actress life.

There is a lingering legend that the relationship with Griffith, who died in obscurity in 1948, was far more than that of master filmmaker to star. Gish steadfastly maintains it did not go beyond close friend and mentor, and she has spent the decades since his death in a successful effort to restore his reputation as ‘Father of Film.’

She even titled her 1969 autobiography ‘The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.’

Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack

From a book-laden coffee table, she produces a copy of the autobiography translated into Burmese, one of the dozen languages in which it was published. There is also a watercolor sketch sent by a fan that incorporates the U.S. postage stamp portraying Griffith. The stamp represents five years of campaigning by Gish.

‘Griffith was a man of warmth and good spirits,’ she said. ‘But there was an air about him that forebade intimacy. In all the years I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith, and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish, until about 1939 when we went on a first-name basis.’

Lillian Gish in the 80's

Miss Lillian’s eyes are still large in a small, plump, pensive face that could express supplication in a way that became a trademark. Griffith recorded his impression of Gish on their first meeting as that of ‘exquisite, ethereal beauty.’

Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen.

Her 104th film was ‘Sweet Liberty,’ an Alan Alda comedy about the making of a movie that takes liberties with the American Revolution. It was less than a box-office smash.

sweet liberty, from left writer-director-actor alan alda, lillian gish, on set, 1986 universal detail

Gish played Alda’s cantankerous but lovably dotty old mother.

‘I thought they had mistaken me for my sister, Dorothy, who could be a very funny, whereas they always said I was about as funny as a baby’s open grave,’ she says, pouring tea into pink-and-white English china.

‘So I said ‘no’ four or five times, and then they sent Alan Alda to see me. Well, that did it.’ she says, lifting both hands in enthusiasm. The legendary, sweet Gish smile lights a face that is still girlish and without wrinkles.

She is delighted to have added Alda to her list of leading men — a list that started with Walter Huston, father of John and grandfather of Anjelica.

Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress.


Then came Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, Roland Young, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Fred MacMurray, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert Preston and George C. Scott.

Proximity to such male glamor was not lost on her.

She says brightly, ‘Did you know that it was because of me that they changed the laws of New York so that a woman cannot be sued for breach of promise?’

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

Charges were brought against her by onetime manager and financial adviser Charles Duell, who wanted to marry her when she left Griffith in 1923 to star in ‘The White Sister’ for Inspiration-Metro Pictures.

Griffith could no longer afford the $1,000 a week that Gish could command, and Inspiration could. It was the first time she had ever earned a lot of money making films.

‘When Duell found out how much money I could make, he decided to marry me,’ she said, her voice echoing old indignation. ‘He wanted my share of the profits from ‘The White Sister.’ I had to get legal help, and he tried to ruin me in the press.

‘I was smuggled on board a train going to California to avoid papers he tried to serve on me. It was terrible, out of an old melodrama.’

She still likes to recall that she received a ‘most discreet proposal of marriage’ from John Gilbert, Hollywood’s ‘Great Lover,’ when he played Roldolphe to her Mimi in the silent version of ‘La Boheme.’

‘I fell in love for the first time at 9,’ she says ‘I was always in and out of love. More men wanted to marry me. But marriage is a 24 hour-a-day job and I have always been much too busy to be a good wife. My films are my children.’

She was also reluctant to part with her sister Dorothy and their mother. Theater critic George Jean Nathan, a longtime escort, proposed to her numerous times in the 1920s before marrying another actress, Julie Haydon. Gish still believes Nathan resented her family closeness.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

‘I never met anyone I liked better than mother or sister,’ she said. ‘I was really never happy away from them. I certainly wasn’t going to marry anyone who would take me away from my mother if I could help it.’ —

Mother, born Mary Robinson McConnell, was estranged from Gish’s father, James Leigh Gish, when Lillian and Dorothy were small. He was an Ohio confectioner, ever on the move to find ‘fresher horizons,’ as Gish puts it. Finally, Mary Gish moved herself and her children to New York where she found work as an ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company for $15 a week.

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

‘I grew up with love, not money,’ said Gish. ‘Mother gave us security. Father insecurity. As I grew older, I wondered 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.


Gish became an actress when a friend of her mother’s got a job in a touring company that needed a little girl. Her salary was $10 a week. Not long after, Dorothy, two years younger, was taken on the road by another friend to play Little Willie in ‘East Lynne.’

‘Life on the road was incredibly hard for a child,’ Gish recalls. ‘There were oatmeal meals, hard benches and floors to sleep on, uncomfortable trains, and being stranded far from New York and friends. It was difficult to maintain friends. I never learned how to play with other children.

‘I never had an acting lesson. I was simply told, ‘Go out there and speak loud and clear or we’ll get another little girl.’ It was also drilled into us that when an audience pays to see a performance, it is entitled to the best performance you can give. Nothing in your personal life must interfere, neither fatigue, illness, nor anxiety.

‘There were no labor laws then to protect children in the theater from long hours and bad conditions and lack of schooling, and we were always on the run from the Gerry Society that did seek to protect children. I once outwitted a judge at 10 years old by wearing high heels, a long dress and hair done in a knot so I would appear the legal age of 16.’ —

It is the films made with Griffith that gave Gish lasting fame, recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Special Oscar Award in 1971, and by the American Film Institute with a Life Achievement Award in 1984.

Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner w
Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner

Griffith had made 400 short films before Gish and Dorothy went to work for him, but it was his first full-length film, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ that won him and Lillian Gish national attention. In his greatest achievement, ‘Intolerance,’ she played a mother rocking a cradle that linked the four disparate sections of the film into historical perspective.


She is best remembered in such unblushing Griffith melodramas as ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm,’ all achieved, she claims, ‘without ever seeing a script because Griffith only had an outline and it was up to you to find the character in repeated rehearsals.’

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The famous ice floe scene from The Way Down East — with Lillian Gish.

‘Look at my right hand,’ she said, raising it to show several misshapen fingers. ‘Those fingers are crooked because I froze my hand while being photographed on an ice floe on a river in Vermont about 20 times a day for three weeks in ‘Way Down East.’ We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as a result of exposure.’

Later, she said, Hollywood gave up rehearsing scenes and expected actors who may not have met until that morning to be playing together with passion in the afternoon.

‘It’s a wonder films are as good as they are today using that technique. I always tried to find what the character is like and be that character, so rehearsals helped. When you get into a character, you do things you’d never do on your own.’

Gish may be best known to the present generation for TV appearances that began in 1949, in the Philco Playhouse production of ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and continued through ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ a PBS miniseries aired in February and March of this year in which she played Mrs. Loftus.

EM SAint The trip to bountiful

Her most famous TV role was that of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ an original television drama produced by the Philco Playhouse in 1953. This is the same role that won Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in March. Gish also played the role on Broadway when ‘Bountiful’ was transformed into a stage play.

‘It was the first television drama the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives,’ she said. ‘Of course, Horton Foote deserves a lot of credit, and Geraldine gave it to him, but I want to put a word in for Fred Coe, the Philco Playhouse producer, who was really ‘The Father of Television,’ just as Griffith was ‘The Father of Film.”

trip to bountiful

Gish says she almost never goes to see films today, but does watch some television, especially the news.

‘Movies hurt my pride,’ she says. ‘They used to have love, sentiment, and tenderness, but in today’s lovemaking, they just swallow each other’s tonsils. Television had good drama in the early days. But now everything is too busy, too nervous, too unsure of itself.’

Gish prefers reading, especially history, literature, drama, art and religion (she is a devout Episcopalian).

‘Lillian would be equally at home with the Beatles and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ commented Peter Glenville, who directed her in ‘The Comedians,’ a 1967 film about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. ‘And they would equally appreciate her.’

Because she was on the road for most of her childhood, she did not attend regular schools, except for a term spent at an Ursuline academy in Missouri while her actress mother made a brief try at running a candy store in East St. Louis.


‘I used to feel inferior around my cousins, most of whom had gone to college, and I thought they knew a great deal more than I did,’ she says. ‘Now I realize that although I never went to school or received a diploma, I have kept right on learning. I never wanted to own anything but books and I have always been curious and had the energy to pursue my interests.’

She never really had a home either, spending most of her adult life in hotels until she and her mother took apartments in 1929 just off Sutton Place on New York’s smart East Side, a neighborhood in which she still lives.

Lillian Gish in the 80's 5

Sitting on a graceful French canape couch and pointing to the feminine Louis XV-style chairs and tables and the Venetian mirrors in her green-and-gold drawing room, she said, ‘These are all mother’s things. You see, I never really wanted a home.’ —

Gish stands 5-feet-6, erect, and is so healthy she has never had a regular doctor and hasn’t had a headache in 50 years. In fact, she is wary of doctors, observing that ‘My mother’s operation was a great success and she was dead two weeks later. I think if I ever had to go to the hospital, I’d die in the ambulance.’

Gish maintains her girlhood weight of 112 pounds and gives credit for her trimness to her ‘upside down board,’ a contraption given to her by a older male admirer years ago.

‘Older men have always helped me,’ she said. ‘They have given me valuable advice on my health. I find the human race is so dear that when you give them pleasure they want to help you.’

Gish keeps her tilt board by the fireplace just under two Grandma Moses paintings, one given her by Grandma herself when Gish portrayed her on television and the other a gift of Helen Hayes, Gish’s best friend. Gish is godmother to Hayes’ actor son, James MacArthur.

‘I use the board for 30 minutes every morning,’ she said. ‘It puts your feet above your head. Very good for the whole system. Some years ago I took it down the street to Hammacher Schlemmer’s store, which carries all sorts of health machines and they copied it and still stock it.

‘The human body is a miracle. I wish we taught children growing up how to treat it as one. The body is the only house you get to live in and you have to take care of it. —

Lillian Gish NY apartment

‘I have never had a special diet, having always eaten what I want to eat. Anyway, it would have made it difficult for other people if I had been on a diet. I love oysters and fish. I don’t eat beef anymore, however. It makes me think of how cows are slaughtered.’

Gish makes her own breakfast and skips lunch. Her friend-secretary-factotum of 18 years, Jim Frasher, a gifted cook, makes her dinner before he leaves for the day. Frasher, a former stage manager, helps her with correspondence, which averages 40 letters a day.

Her unoccupied maid’s room has been turned into a little gallery of mementoes, ranging from caricatures of Gish by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to a Blackglama ad showing Gish, ‘a legend,’ swathed in mink.


Oil portraits, some quite large, are scattered throughout the apartment. There is one of Gish’s mother in the entrance hall and one of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States and a cousin of her mother’s, in the dining room. A costume portrait of Dorothy, who died in 1968, dominates the living room.

In her book, Gish said Dorothy, whose nickname was ‘Baby,’ never really grew up, had difficulty making decisions, was untidy and disorganized. Gish, a neat, organized person, could not bear to share an apartment with her. Dorothy married James Rennie, one of her leading men in films. They were divorced and Dorothy never remarried.

The precocious moppets of melodrama had parallel careers, starting together with Griffith on location in the Delaware Water Gap, then moving to California in 1913 because he preferred its warm climate and the longer hours of sunlight for shooting.

By 1914 Lillian was pronounced ‘The Most Popular Actress Before the American Public,’ a pinnacle Dorothy would never achieve, although she was a big star in her own right and had a creditable stage career in the 1930s and 1940s. But as drama critic Brooks Atkinson was to point out, they were always ‘the Gish sisters’ in the public mind, ‘as much of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S Truman.’

The Gishes made the transition from silent to talking pictures without difficulty, probably due to their stage experience when they were young. Lillian’s voice is still strong and vibrant.

‘It helped to have been in the theater, and I also had lessons with Victor Maurel, the great French opera singer who lived in Hollywood. He taught me to speak from the diaphram to the mouth without using the throat. Very useful if you have a cold!’

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

Lillian and Dorothy last appeared together in a summer theater tour of Enid Bagnold’s play, ‘The Chalk Garden,’ in 1956.

‘We were much closer than most sisters,’ said Gish. ‘We were always concerned with each other’s welfare. Even when our work separated us, there was a kind of extra-sensory perception that bound us together. I like to think of the first words Hal Holbrook uttered in ‘I Never Sang for My Father,’ the Broadway play I was in just before Dorothy died – ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” —

Gish has never had time to be lonely.

She has been in demand as an actress and an adornment for grand occasions marking anniversaries in the film and theater and honoring other stars. One of the most thrilling was the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial gala in 1983 when she appeared as the dreaming girl in ‘The Specter of the Rose’ with Paris Opera Ballet star Patrick Dupond.

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet - Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

‘The following year, they did a ballet in Paris based on my career and Dorothy’s,’ Gish said. ‘Can you imagine?’

‘Right now I’m waiting for the ‘Lillian Gish’ rose to have its first flowering, so they can officially call it that,’ she said. ‘It’s a hybrid, developed in the Midwest, and I’m very excited about it.’

This year she was guest of honor at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled ‘Hollywood: Legend and Reality,’ in Washington, D.C.

Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s
Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s

Last summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection conferred its annual Star Award on Gish, and she went to Vancouver, Canada, for a screening at Expo ’86 of a documentary that French film star Jeanne Moreau made of her life. Moreau filmed Gish at home, on the streets of New York and at the upstate horse farm of restaurateur Jerry Brody, nuzzling the racehorse named for her.

”Lillian Gish’ has won two races at Aqueduct,’ Gish said proudly.

If Gish had her life to live over, she would like to have done more Shakespeare — certainly Juliet, which eluded her when she was young – because she has ‘always been a snob about my playwrights.

‘I played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, a most remarkable experience. He didn’t play Hamlet. He WAS Hamlet. It was the only play I was ever in when stage hands stood in the wings to watch.’

When she did appear in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production in Stratford, Conn., she played Juliet’s elderly nurse.

Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet - 1965
Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet – 1965

‘Most people do not connect me with Tennessee Williams, but he actually wrote the prototype of the Blanche DuBois role for me in a one-acter called ‘Portrait of a Madonna,’ which evolved in 1947 into the full-length ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,” Gish said.

Another aspect of Gish’s career that is rarely remembered is the major role she took in various aspects of Griffith’s productions, including film editing.

‘He seemed to have faith in my judgment,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the darkroom to pick up the rushes, then I’d fight to have more of me cut out of the film. I always thought an audience should be left wanting more, rather than being surfeited with my image.

‘In those days we worked closely with one another. Now the men who work on developing film are far away from the studios. Everything is different. What was once warm and personal is now mechanical. Film acting became largely a matter of doing what you are told and collecting your salary.

‘When I worked for Griffith, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week because we liked it. There was no place as interesting as the studio.’

If Gish could wish for anything in the world and have it come true, what would it be?

Without hesitation she responds: ‘To follow spring around the world.’

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Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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For me, Lillian Gish put BGSU on the map!

SPOILER WARNING !!!, this material is related to the attack that targeted Miss Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, their reputation and memory.