LILLIAN GISH SUED by Charles H. Duell

In the mid-1920’s Miss Gish became embroiled in a long legal battle with Charles Duell, a socialite who had been her financial adviser (and, as she said in 1975, “sort of my Svengali”), over sums he claimed she owed him. Miss Gish munched carrots during the trial, and newspaper photographs of her stirred a carrot-chomping fad across the country. (New York Times)

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

New York Times – 1925 Headlines:

LILLIAN GISH SUED BY FILM PRODUCER; Charles H. Duell Seeks to Prevent Her From Acting Under Direction of Others. STAR CONDEMNS CONTRACT Her Attorneys Call It Tyrannical, and Say Story That She Is to Wed Duell Is Presumption.

Lillian Gish, star of the screen, was made defendant yesterday in a suit filed in Federal Court by Charles II. Duell, who seeks to prevent the star from making motion pictures except under the contract he has with her. (Jan 31, 1925)

Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director

“to answer to the charge of perjury.”

A brief lawsuit in which Lillian was involved at this time added greatly to her prestige. In October (1924), for what she felt to be just cause, she had broken off relations with her producers. Suit for breach of contract followed. At the trial, held in a small, crowded room of the Woolworth Building, the chief executive of the picture corporation testified to a number of remarkable things, among them that Miss Gish had engaged herself to marry him, all of which notably failed to convince Judge Julian W. Mack, who, on the second or third morning of the trial, rose and summarily dismissed the case against Lillian, and after a few well-chosen words to her accuser, held him “to bail in the sum of $10,000” (I quote the minutes) “to answer to the charge of perjury.”

He was indicted, but Lillian, with no wish, as she said, to send anyone to prison, declined to appear against him, and the case was dismissed.

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

Lillian’s following was now enormous … of the whole world, for in no obscure corner of it was her face unfamiliar, or unwelcomed. There was something almost magical about this universal homage. Men and women alike paid tribute. Reporters ransacked dictionaries for terms that would convey her elusive loveliness—likened it (one of them) to “the haunting sadness of an old Spanish song, heard as the light fades from the evening sky.” What heaps of letters! And if, as has been said, she was wanting in sex-appeal, why all the marriage proposals? Why so much poetry? Just one young man wrote eleven little volumes of poetry—pretty good poetry, if there is such a thing, even if not entirely sane (what poetry is?) —and it was printed by hand with the utmost care and beauty.

(Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932)

Charles H. Duell’s name (Inspiration Pictures director) – was never mentioned in Paine’s book.

Lillian Gish will NOT marry Duell - Photoplay, Julne 1924
Lillian Gish will NOT marry Duell – Photoplay, Julne 1924
Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director 2
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director

Duell asked me to assign my share of the profits from The White Sister to him. I realized that I was in trouble, but I did not know to whom I should turn. Not to D.W.Griffith; he was equally helpless when it came to legal matters. But the previous year in Rome I had met Senator Hiram Johnson, his wife and his son Jack. The Johnsons had treated me as an adopted daughter and had told me to call them if ever I needed help. I wrote to them of my troubles and they suggested a law firm to take care of my interests. Accordingly, I decided to go to Chadbourne, Stanchfield and Levy and to consult them about my predicament.

When I told Duell he said, “If you do that, I will ruin you.”

“How can you ruin me?”

“I can say whatever I wish about you, and they will believe me. You are only a motion-picture actress, while I am in the Social Register.”

If I had not been so startled by this treat, I would have thought it was something out of an old melodrama. In a letter written some time later, he suggested that I shouldn’t worry even if the percentages on The White Sister stopped briefly, as I would soon be getting my full salary on our next picture. He warned me that it would be to my advantage to agree without further fuss; otherwise, the consequences would be disastrous. The result of any conflict, he implied, would be to hurt us both in the industry.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)

The New York Morning Telegraph – January 31, 1925

A serious breach in the business relations of Lillian Gish and Charles Duell, her lawyer, trustee, adviser and employer, was forecast yesterday when Charles H. Duell Incorporated, filed a summons and complaint asking an injunction to restrain the star from appearing with any other company and asking that she be made to fulfill her contract with the Duell organization….

When questioned about the injunction proceedings brought by Charles H. Duell, Jr.’s personal company against Miss Lillian Gish, the latter’s attorney, Messrs. Chadbourne, Stanchfield and Levy said, “This latest move is part of a design to force Miss Gish to support Mr. Duell. The experiences of Richard Barthelmess and Henry King are only repeated in Miss Gish’s experience with Mr. Duell. Each of these outstanding artists has found it impossible to live under his business arrangements. Miss Gish’s situation discloses, in our opinion, the worst condition of the three.”

The New York Herald Tribune – February 14, 1925

… Max D. Steuer characterized Duell as a “deep-eyed scoundrel” for whom the actress would never work again even if it meant giving up her screen career …

… Steuer declared that Miss Gish’s contract was “grossly one-sided.”

Miss Gish appeared in court with her mother and listened intently to her lawyer’s argument. Holland S. Duell, brother of the plaintiff, testified in support of the producer’s complaint, declaring Miss Gish had already been stated in two successful pictures under the terms of the agreement which she wished to cancel. Steuer asserted that by five modifications of the contract, Miss Gish was defrauded of $120,000 by Duell …

“It was at that time that I became known as a vegetarian. Because I was nervous during the hearings, I took carrots with me to nibble on. The carrot fad thus began in the United States, with resulting world-wide publicity. Some friends took me to the Grand Street Follies to see a young actress impersonating me on the stage and eating a carrot”.

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

Finally, on April 2, 1925, extras were on the streets at noon carrying this headline:

“Duell Held as Perjurer; Lillian Gish Wins Suit”

“Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – 1969”

DUELL ASKS TRIAL ON PERJURY CHARGE; Indictment Growing Out of Suit Against Lillian Gish, Pending Nearly a Year.



Film Daily, April 26, 1928.
Film Daily, April 26, 1928.

The Los Angeles trial began on April 18, 1928; two days later all of the defendants were dismissed except for Lillian. Finally, on April 24, learning that she was exonerated once again, Lillian “smiled in almost an embarrassed fashion. ‘Why, I actually haven’t faced a camera since last August, and that’s years for anybody in motion pictures – she said. ‘I don’t know whether I remember how to behave when anybody takes a picture of me.’ ” But Lillian’s coy smile was premature. Duell was indefatigable in his attempts to recover money from her and to destroy her reputation, ever threatening to publish the story of their presumed affair. Lillian’s lawyer recommended that “we be prepared not to suppress any testimony which Duell may give of a scandalous nature, but to broadcast our version of the same, and in local newspapers and through the Associated Press paint Duell as a persecutor and blackmailer of this girl.” Lillian had beaten a man, Charles Duell, not the system. Duell had gone too far and had, in fact, detached Lillian from the studio system when he personally assumed her contract. The star’s contractual relationship to the studio was not successfully challenged until the early 1940s when Olivia De Havilland won her suit against Warner Bros.

In this legal saga of Dickensian proportions, Duell was unsuccessful in further suits against Lillian brought in 1930 and 1932, before he desisted at last. He never published his “tell-all” memoir. For ten years he had pursued her, first as would-be husband, then as litigant. He married Edith Brisbane in 1933, supervised the manufacture of a dispensing container invented by his wife, eventually practiced patent law in Washington and New York, and died in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 20, 1954. His entry in the Encyclopedia of American Biography makes no mention of his first wife, Elsie, or of Lillian Gish. In 1925, after Judge Mack’s decision, Charles Holland Duell Jr. was disgraced, disbarred, and insolvent. Lillian Gish emerged victorious from the trial, wealthy, her honor intact, her image perhaps enhanced.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Just as in most of her movies, the victim had prevailed over life’s adversities. And Lillian had indeed been a victim of Duell’s financial machinations. But he, too, had suffered—from her prevarications over the engagement and her dissembling after it had been broken. Although the public considered her a paragon of probity, in her own defense she had resorted to dishonesty. Ironically, Lillian vanquished Duell with a name whose prestige he had helped increase. Already celebrated as a great actress, as a result of the trial publicity Lillian Gish now commanded even greater fame. A proven movie star who would have been a prize for any one of the big production companies, she was rewarded with a terrifically lucrative contract from the most promising studio in Hollywood.

(- Charles Affron -)

Gossip of All The Studios – By Cal York

LILLIAN GISH is back in New York after a long stay abroad, waiting to make “The Swan.” She’s living at a quiet little hotel on a side street—going to the theater now and again with George Jean Nathan, who seems as devoted as ever. Oddly enough, she came back on the same ship with her former boss, Charles H. Duell, who sues her for millions every now and then, and spent most of the trip avoiding him, to hear her tell it.

Her mother, Mrs. May Gish, is in London, carefully tended by Sister Dorothy. Mrs. Gish’s health is a little improved. She’s been an invalid now for some years, you remember.

Photoplay Magazine 1929

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24 Carrots Gold