A celebration of this year’s Life Achievement Award winner. (Kevin Brownlow – 1985 San Francinso Cine)

If you read in a Victorian novel about an actress that began her career in the early 1800s was still going strong in 1984, you would dismiss it as absurd.But transfer the century to our own and the dates correspond to the career of Lillian Gish. She made her first appearanceon the stage in 1901 at the age of five—as Baby Lillian—acted in her first film in 1912. and recently finished a picture that will be released this year. Lillian Gish is noordinary actress: by common consent, she is one of the greatest of this century.

You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.

lillian gish cca 1945 l

Meeting her is an exhilarating experience,for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed—and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith”and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history.

She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him”the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Nation (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms(1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921).

The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind(1928).

In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill(1958), and A Wedding (1978).

“We used to laugh about films in the early days,” she says. “We used to call them flickers. Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again.The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium.Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.'”


It was this ideal, this integrity, that made compromise so difficult for both of them. The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.

What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.


Photo from a studio photo session New York – 1921, Photographer (studio) AEDA (Photographer: James ABBE)

Excerpt – Kevin Brownlow’s article “Lillian Gish” published in San Francisco Cine – 1985

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Lillian Gish has never cared more than a small hoot about fashion


Lillian Gish – candid cca 1939

Lillian Gish has never cared more than a small hoot about fashion, but she’s always loved clothes. The result is that the legendary actress is still wearing some of the things she bought three, four and five decades ago, and outshining most of the current crop of fashion strivers whenever she appears at gala events.

lillian gish cca 1930 xm

Whether it’s at Radio City Music Hall or the White House, Miss Gish looks so right that there are incredulous glances when she says that she honestly can’t remember how many years the dress has been in her closet and, in fact, whether it originally belonged to her or to her late sister, Dorothy.

lillian gish cca 1945

”I’ve never been in style, so I can’t go out of style,” she said during a recent interview in her East Side apartment, her pale gold brocade Chinese pajamas melting into the gold and green decor.

Lillian Gish in Fortuny gown by Nell Dorr 1930 Amon Carter Museum TX FW
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Lillian Gish wearing tight long dress]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3511
Miss Gish, who is now 83 years old, has no hang-ups about her age, and is, she said, even resigned to the fact that ”no one ever gets it right.”

Miss Lillian Gish pictures today in her Hotel room at the Gazobo Hotel. Miss Gish is 84 this year. September 17, 1979. (Photo by Keith Edward Byron).a

”But it doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t mind if they said I was 100,” she said. ”It would probably make me more interesting.” Her blue eyes twinkled mischievously as she continued. ”You know when I was making films, Lionel Barrymore first played my grandfather, later he played my father, and finally he played my husband. If he had lived, I am sure I would have played his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.” Family’s Arrival in New York

Lillian on Hill (Lillian Gish) by Nell Dorr Amon Carter Museum 1960
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); Lillian on Hill [view 6]; 1925-1970’s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.381
Portrait of elderly Lillian Gish in field with flowing white dress 1960 by Nell Dorr - Amon Carter MTX
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of elderly Lillian Gish in field with flowing white dress]; ; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.466
The years haven’t dimmed her memory, but she has never been certain whether she was 3 or 4 years old when she and her sister arrived in New York with their mother, who soon began playing ingenue roles in the theater (the girls’ father left the family shortly after their birth in Ohio). However, she does remember the family sharing an apartment with a Mrs. Smith, whom Mrs. Gish had met at a theatrical agency, and Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Gladys.


”Mother would give us two nickels to go and see a Biograph film and, some time later on, when we no longer shared an apartment, we saw Gladys Smith in a film,” Miss Gish recollected. ”We rushed home to tell Mother and her reaction was, ‘What terrible misfortune has happened to the Smith family that Gladys has had to go into films?’ ” Gladys not only went into films; she changed her name to Mary Pickford.


Mrs. Gish’s reaction to film acting was not too different from what most people at the time thought of all theatrical folk. Lillian’s stage career started at the age of 5, and Dorothy’s when she was 4, and both were told by their mother that their profession was considered ”a social disgrace.” They were cautioned not to tell anyone that they were in the theater because other children wouldn’t be allowed to play with them.

It was ”little Gladys Smith” who introduced the Gish sisters to D.W. Griffith, the pioneer producer of such silent films as ”The Birth of a Nation.” (Miss Gish was instrumental in having a commemorative Griffith stamp issued recently.)

”The first time we saw them making a film, we thought we were in a crazy house,” Miss Gish said. ”But Lionel Barrymore was there and Mother said, ‘Well, if there’s a Barrymore there, it can’t all be bad.’ ”

She is constantly amused when she is asked about her training and how she made it into films. ”It all just happened,” she said. ”The only acting lesson we ever had was to speak loud and clear. We were told that if we didn’t, ‘they’ll get another little girl,’ and they would have.” Some Opportunities Turned Down

lillian gish cca 1945 l

She occasionally has a few thoughts about the things she could have done and didn’t. One was a film on Joan of Arc, which she was asked to do in the 1920’s by Abel Gance, the director of the recently rereleased ”Napoleon.”

”Then Truman Capote wrote his first play for us and we didn’t do it,” she said. ”And Tennessee Williams did his first play for me, and I couldn’t do it. It was called ‘Portrait of a Madonna’ and he later changed it a little, and it became ‘Streetcar Named Desire.’ I would have had a bigger career doing the things I didn’t do, than the things I did do.”

lillian gish cca 1945 r

With a schedule that has included three round-the-world trips since 1975, a five-year lecture tour that took her to 387 colleges in 36 states, and constant personal appearances, Miss Gish doesn’t have too much time to look back. But a query about a portrait of Dorothy, hanging in her living room (Dorothy Gish died in 1968), led to further reminiscences.

”Mother didn’t like that picture,” she said. ”She thought that Dorothy looked like an actress in it. She wanted us to go back to Springfield, Ohio, and get married. She would never come to the studio with us, except when Dorothy was making a film about Nell Gwynne in London, and she went then because Dorothy didn’t have too many clothes on and she was worried.”

Miss Gish’s interest in clothes, not just any clothes but classic designs with meticulous workmanship, stems from her mother who, at one time, made the entire wardrobe worn by both sisters. ”We Always Had Real Lace”


”We could be hungry but we always had real lace on our panties,” she said. ”Mother made everything – our hats, coats, everything but our shoes and stockings.” Still preserved are drawers-full of embroidered crepe de chine teddys, camisoles and panties, many trimmed with real Alen,con lace.

When Mrs. Gish died in 1948, her daughters discovered that she had a safe-deposit box. ”We were intrigued, we thought that maybe it was full of money, but it was full of handmade Alen,con lace,” she said. ”It’s going to go to a museum.”

After the sisters became stars, many of their clothes carried designer labels. One of Dorothy’s coats, now at the Smithsonian Institution, had an even more noteworthy provenance. It was once owned and worn by James Madison although, according to Miss Gish, ”everyone thought it was a Dior.”

Miss Gish, who now wears clothes from Vera Maxwell and from what she calls ”the best shop in the world – MacHugh’s in Ridgewood, N.J.” – was a Mainbocher customer when his atelier was a ”little cubbyhole” in Paris. His evening dresses sold then for $75, and she regrets now that she gave most of them away. Another favorite designer was Valentina and she still has several of her evening dresses that she wears for special occasions.

”They’ve never been cleaned or changed by so much as a hook, and I get into them easily,” she said, looking justifiably pleased with herself. ”I’m the same size now as I was then.” Wore Dress Again 50 Years Later

One of her favorites is Valentina’s black cut velvet over red mousseline de soie, worn with a bolero of pink silk taffeta. She wore the dress to the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1932 and put it on again earlier this year when the Music Hall celebrated its 50th anniversary. Another favorite is a Grecian design in a stone-colored crepe de chine, made by Valentina between 1925 and 1930.

Also still in use are the scores of evening bags accumulated through the years, shoes that have stood up to time and her Mother’s Russian ermine coat. She has, as well, a Blackglama mink coat received as payment for appearing in one of the advertisements headed ”What Becomes a Legend Most.”


Her jewelry is almost always opals, her birthstone, and many of the pieces were acquired as gifts or as payment for personal appearances.

”When I was in Australia, they asked if I would like to be paid in opals and I said I would,” she said, pointing to her opal earrings she got in lieu of salary.

Lillian Gish photographed with Australian film producer Richard Brennan, at her Hotel Suite, at The Gazebo Hotel. September 18, 1979. (Photo by Nigel Peter Todd).c

” ‘Place an opal on her breast and troubles and cares will lie at rest,’ ” she recited, but then quickly warned that opals were unlucky for anyone not born in October.

In addition to her travels, and the voluminous correspondence set off by personal appearances and the television showing of some of her movies, Miss Gish is busy writing a book on religion.

”Mother’s people were Episcopalian,” she said. ”But Mother always told us that if we weren’t working, we should go to our own church on Sunday, and if we couldn’t find our own church, to go to any church. I got interested in many religions from that time on.”

1974 Mid S Possibly Queen Elizabeth Theater

  • 1974 Mid S – Possibly Queen Elizabeth Theater

Although she has never been interested in accumulating possessions (”Honey, the only things I collect are books”) Miss Gish has acquired a number of awards, the latest an impressive, beribboned gold-plated brass medallion from the Kennedy Center.

The ceremony, on Dec. 4 in the Benjamin Franklin Room in the State Department, was followed by a gala at the Kennedy Center Opera House and preceded by a White House reception. Miss Gish was thrilled, but it wasn’t her first visit.

”I’ve been going to the White House since Harding’s days,” she said matter-of-factly. ”You know, they showed ‘Orphans of the Storm’ there.”

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Dorothy and Lillian Gish – The Gish Girls Talk About Each Other


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


The Gish Girls Talk About Each Other
To ADA PATTERSON (Photoplay Feb – Jun 1921)

All we have in common is our mother,” said one of the most unlike sisters in the world. Lillian Gish spoke. The young tragedienne whom John Barrymore has called “The American Bernhardt” sat staidly in a chair according to the accepted relation of chairs and sitters. Dorothy Gish, the comedienne, perched on hers. It must be chronicled of Mrs. James Rennie that she sits on her feet. She is more comfortable so and neither her sad-eyed sister, nor her mother, nor her bridegroom ever reproves her for the acquired in childhood habit. It’s a part of her and none of the family wants to lose any part of Dorothy.

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (2) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (2) – Remodeling Her Husband

The sisters had promised to talk about each other to me. They had agreed to tell the truth, frankly, as they saw it. The time was a recent Saturday afternoon. The place was the apartment occupied by Mrs. Gish and Lillian. Hard by was that of the”recently made Mrs. James Rennie with her handsome young lord. Yes, at the Hotel Savoy, although the address of the pair is 132 East Nineteenth Street. “We give teas at the Nineteenth Street address but live here,” said the bride. “It will be so until we have thoroughly furnished the apartment.”

“What do you think of your sister’s marriage?”

Dorothy Gish, husb James Rennie and Lillian Gish returning from Italy NY Times 1920

Lillian Gish of the wide, blue, thoughtful eyes, that register such depths of feeling on the silver sheet, adjusted herself and the skirt of her girlish blue serge suit on the gilt backed chair. “I approve it,” she said. “It is fine to have a man about the place. It is the first time in my recollection that we have had one. Our father died when we were babies. It seems odd for Jim to come in to breakfast in his Japanese kimono. I didn’t know men wore such things, at least in the morning.”

“Japanese kimonos? Yes, indeed, they’re emphatically the thing,” Mrs. James Rennie assured her.

“You think a man’s handy to have about the house?”

“Yes, to drive nails and tell you about stocks and bonds and to put the waiter in his place,” rejoined Miss Gish of the wide, wistful eyes.

“And what do you think of your sister being single? Would you like to see her married?”

“Yes, why not?” Dorothy flashed her answer. She is as swift of speech as the tragedienne is deliberate.

“Kipling said something about travelling faster if you travel alone, didn’t he?”

“I don’t believe that,” from Dorothy.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

“Didn’t Duse say that one should live life fully, round out one’s existence with every legitimate human experience? I stand with Duse. Still”—one of those little  grimaces that delight her audiences,—”Lillian may become the old maid of the family.

Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat ... Lillian Gish - Way Down East
Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat … Lillian Gish – Way Down East

Mother always chided me because I had to go fishing for anything in my trunk or bureau drawers. Lillian’s bureau drawers and trunks are always models. If any of her things were displaced,— or should I say. misplaced,—it would be a calamity.”

“Do you ever quarrel.-‘”

“No.” Lillian Gish spoke with her quiet, last-word-on-thesubject manner. “We have never quarreled because we respect each other.”

“Not even when you directed your sister in a motion picture?”

“No. We knew that each was working for the other’s benefit. Dorothy followed my directions as she would any other director’s. We were both pleased with the result. The picture, ‘Remodelling a Husband,’ was a good one. But I shouldn’t want to be a director. I am not strong enough. I doubt if any woman is. I understand now why Lois Weber was always ill after a picture. Directing requires a man of vigor and imagination.”

“What are your points of greatest difference?”

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479
“Dorothv likes to go about. She mingles with people. I don’t.” Mrs. James Rennie wagged her side-bobbed head. “I must be among people. I need them. I think it helps me in my work. I watch how they do things and whatever I see comes back to me when I am before the camera.”

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish turned the blue depths of her eyes upon me. “I have given up going among people,” she said. “They interest me. But I have never been able to keep engagements. I just love Mary Pickford. She often asked me out to her place at Beverly’Hills. I would think I could go but at five o’clock when I should have been going home to dress for dinner we would decide to work until seven. Something like that always happened when I wanted to go out to see Mary. After your friends have asked you five or six times and you have to telephone that you are very sorry but you can’t go, they stop asking. That is quite natural. And so I gave up going out. I draw my ideas of how to do things from within. I think of how I would do whatever I had to do if I were in the person’s place.”

“What do you most admire in your sister?”

For a moment Dorothy Gish’s sparkling eyes took on depths of seriousness.

“Her gentleness. Lillian never offends anyone.” I met Lillian Gish’s calm, blue gaze in inquiry. “I most admire Dorothy’s honesty. No one could make Dorothy tell a lie. Sometimes, when cornered, I evade.” Dorothy Gish leaned far forward, clasping her small hands boyishly between her knees.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy)
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy)

“But people don’t want to hear the truth. I’ve found that out. They have asked me for the truth and I’ve told them and hurt them. I wanted to help them but I only hurt them. I would love to have Lillian’s diplomacy.”

“What is your ambition for your sister?”

“I want to see Lillian on the stage. I believe she would be another Maude Adams.”

Miss Gish, Central City Opera House Laura Gilpin Sepia Amon Carter Museum TX 1932
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; P1979.140.78
“Nobody could be like Miss Adams. My admiration for her is boundless. But she will always keep her niche. No one will ever be like her. Mr. John Barrymore, whom I met the other day for the first time, assured me that screen work is harder than stage work. But I don’t know that I could ever develop my voice to the strength for the stage. I want to see Dorothy progress in her comedy. Comedy is a great deal harder than tragedy. Tragedy plays itself.”

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

“No. Besides, tragedy is what lives. No one remembers a comedy. But ‘Broken Blossoms’ and ‘Way Down East’ will live,” spoke Dorothy.

Even their portraits differ. Lillian, with one of her rare, and rarely sweet, smiles produced an old photograph of a rotund, serious child borne down, it would appear, by a heavy weight of care.

” This is Dorothy’s picture when she was a baby. The family call it Grandma Gish.”

“Yes. Look on this and then on that.”

The “that” at which Dorothy Gish’s brown head nodded was Helleu’s portrait of Lillian Gish as he saw her, a mist of bluish grays, enswirling, cloud-like, a delicate face with. deeply, widely blue eyes, of the soberness and inscrutability of the Sphinx.

Paul César Helleu (1859-1927) - Lillian Gish. Pastel on Paper. France. Circa 1920's.
Paul César Helleu (1859-1927) – Lillian Gish. Pastel on Paper. France. Circa 1920’s.

What of the worldly wisdom of these young pet sons, that wisdom that has to do with the care of earned increment? “Dorothy likes to spend money,” said her sister. “Mother thinks I am the conservator of the Family funds. Perhaps that is true. I have a deep, overwhelming fear of poverty. I look far into the future. I have resolved that when I am old I shall have more than one dress and three hundred dollars.”

“It takes more than that to get into an old ladies’ home now,” said Dorothy. ” The price of old ladies’ homes has gone up. It used to be $300. Now it’s $500.”

“You know that, dear? Then remember it,” admonished Lillian.

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

“We’re here today. Gone tomorrow. Let us enjoy today.” Mrs. Rennie snapped her small fingers. Entered a slender, silver-haired woman, round of face like  Dorothy, graceful and with wide, thoughtful distance between the eyes, like Lillian. Both girls sprang to their feet. Both said: “This is Mother.’

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


“She isn’t a bit like a stage or studio mother,” testified Dorothy.

Through her the talented twain derived their membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution and their eligibility to the Colonial Dames. Through her, too, they are kinswomen of the youngest Justice of the Supreme Bench of the United States, Judge Robinson.

“You were talking of saving and investing?”

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Mother
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Mother

said Mis. Gish. “The family joke is that neither of my daughters cares for real estate, while 1 crave it. We could have bought lots in Los Angeles for $250 a piece a few years ago. I favored it but I was the minority. The lots have since sold for $5000 a piece.”

Lillian Gish with "their" first car
Lillian Gish with “their” first car

Lillian lifted her head. “But if we had bought them we would have had the Gish luck. That part of Los Angeles would not have improved li would have toed stock still.”

Bitterness? No. Only a belief that the Gishes are not of those to whom delightful  things happen. They must earn by toilsome ways their profits and success. They drifted back into recollections of their still near childhood, “Lillian used to put beans up her nose.” From the mask of comedy.

Dorothy Gish 1920 Carpenter Tringle P

“Dorothy would nevet keep quiet. Once she was spanked for it.” From the mask of tragedy.

“Lillian cried because I was spanked. She cried long after I had stopped. She could always cry easily and make others cry in sympathy. She used to make the neighbors cry just by looking at them. They all told mother she ‘would never bring that child up,’ ” Mrs. Rennie mimicked a toothless neighbor’s mode of speech.

At four Dorothy made her debut in public gaze in “Last Lynne.” At the same time