Motion Picture Classic 1926 – Letters to “King Dodo”

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish
Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

Motion Picture Classic – June, 1926

Letters to “King Dodo” By Don Ryan and Frederick James Smith


Dear Majesty:

In my last epistle I had the honor to comment to Your Majesty upon the bizarre  practice in moviedom of altering the intention of a play in order to escape censorship. Better not make it, at all, you would think—but the producers believe they must have the play for its name. The Puritan thread which runs thru American life is evidently just as tough as it was in the days of the Salem witchcraft. There always has been, of course, plenty of opposition. But Your Majesty could never guess the quarter from which the latest anti-Puritan propaganda is coming. Lillian Gish is making “The Scarlet Letter” into a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, acting on her own initiative. Her own ancestors were New England roundheads and she always wished to reproduce Hawthorne’s masterpiece as a movie.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Hester Prynne - The Scarlet Letter (Victor Seastrom) 1926 — with Lillian Gish4.

Securely hidden, I watched the frail Lillian making a scene for the picture—the scene in which Hester Prynne meets her husband after she has been decorated with the letter of shame. I never saw so much pains being taken with any scene—and I have watched Von Stroheim at work again and again. Lillian was rehearsing her own scene apparently without any direction from Victor Seastrom, who was just sitting on the side-lines.

Italian postcard, no. 22. Publicity still for The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

But the most pains were being taken with the lights. The lights were the invention of Lillian’s own camera wizard, the former Herr Professor Hendrik Sartov, of Rotterdam. This physicist, weaned from his university, but not from his long pipe and flowing tie, was putting one band of light over Lillian’s eyes while with another arrangement he was getting rid of her cheek-bones. He is undoubtedly a monumental asset.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Lillian and her friends are going to make “The Scarlet Letter” without softening the hard Puritan character, I was told. It will be a lesson for the long-hairs of today, the same lesson that Griffith attempted to convey in “Intolerance” and failed magnificently in the doing. This picture begins to look like another big success for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ; and with such a bright young man as Joseph Hergesheimer for her press-agent, I see a bright future for Lillian.

Motion Picture Classic (June 1926)
Motion Picture Classic (June 1926)

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Religion in the Cinema – By Ivan Butler (1969)

Religion in the Cinema – By Ivan Butler (1969)


Film-makers were quick off the mark in realising the attractions of the religion-sex formula, and as early as 1903 one of the founders of the French cinema, Ferdinand Zecca, having already made a Prodigal Son in 1901, directed what is probably the first version of Samson and Delilah. Pathe followed with a Prodigal Son in 1907 and a Samson and Delilah (“ending with his entrance into Paradise”) in 1908. The first Biblical murder story appeared in 1905 with Melies’s Justice and Vengeance Pursuing Crime (after Proud’hon) which seems—from an extant still showing one skin-clad man fleeing across the rocks from the body of another, pursued by determined-looking angels—to have been inspired by Cain and Abel. In the year 1909 the American Vitagraph Company set out a Biblical feast consisting of a Jephthah’s Daughter, a Salome, a Judgment of Solomon (“Grand Biblical Reel for Sunday Shows”), and a Saul and David. The latter was noted as a novelty in that the characters were introduced “with individual pictures before the commencement of the Story proper.” In 1910 the Company followed these up with a five-reel Life of Moses. An Italian film on Herodias (Erodiade) appeared in 1912 with Suzanne de Labroy in the title role.

1913 saw what might now be called the first Biblical block-buster—D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia. This version of the Apocrypha story was made in Chatsworth, California, on a spectacular scale and is the first flowering of the Griffith genius, revealing already his skill in handling large vistas without losing individual interests. The cast includes most of the later Griffith repertory—Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Edwards, with Miss Bara dripping pearls prodigally as she vamps a buxom John the Baptist (Albert Roscoe) who seems to thrive remarkably well on his diet of locusts and wild honey.

Judith_of_Bethulia-Biograph poster

Priests, Ministers and the Church

A still of 1917 shows Stuart Holmes (later a famous silent heavy) emoting violently in The Scarlet Letter, with Mary Martin as Hester clinging to one arm and a coy little girl named Kittens Reichert sheltering beneath the other. The Pastor’s moustaches look strangely out of place. Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier, the team responsible for From the Manger to the Cross, were director and scenarist. But Hawthorne s classic had to await Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson before coming into its own.

One of the most famous of all silent films, The Scarlet Letter (dir. Victor Sjostrom) was produced in 1926—beautifully photographed, directed and played. Though Lillian Gish may not be quite the doughty Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s novel, she comes much closer to it, particularly as the climax of the film approaches, than some critics have allowed. She entirely convinces us of her ability to persuade the pastor to keep quiet about the fact that he is the father of her child because of the importance of his work to the little community, and her gradual transition from the light-hearted girl to the ferocious defender of her child and her secret is completely credible and often very moving. It is throughout, as Edward Wagenknecht says, “a profound and beautiful study.” Lars Hanson power¬ fully supports her and the final scene, when, tortured by con¬ science when Hester’s lost husband returns, the pastor confesses in public and dies in her arms, is as affecting today, in a scratched and jerky print, as when the film made its note¬ worthy first appearance. The 1934 re-make (dir. Robert C. Vignola) does not stand comparison. Hardie Albright is just a pleasant young American dressed up in costume, and Col¬ leen Moore, most charming of comediennes, cannot compare in more tragic matters with Lillian Gish.

The Scarlet Letter Hvar 8 Dag Swedish Mag 1926
The Scarlet Letter Hvar 8 Dag Swedish Mag 1926

Monks and Nuns

Although portrayals of monks and the monastic life are much less frequent than those of the priesthood, several actresses have had an irresistible urge to don the nun’s robes and veil, even if in the majority of cases the stories have been only superficially concerned with the religious aspect. Generally they make use of the retreat to solve a triangular problem, or afford a Grand Renunciation scene. An early example is The White Sister, first filmed in 1915 by Essanay, with Viola Allen. The great silent star Francis X. Bushman (Ben Hur’s Messala) reputedly walked out of the studio when asked to play opposite her in support, and Richard Travers took his place.

The most famous version was that made by Inspiration in 1924, starring Lillian Gish and most sensitively directed by Henry King. Miss Gish gives one of her best performances as the young girl torn between her call to a life of religious dedication and her love for a young French officer—Ronald Colman is his first American role. It all appears very simple and naive now, but the contrast between Lillian Gish’s fragile beauty and her iron determination to follow her conscience made it the tear-jerker of its day. It was re-made with sound in 1933 but, despite a touching and sincere performance from Helen Hayes, the time and the spirit had passed.

The White Sister
The White Sister
Signed Promotional Photo - Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman - The White Sister
Signed Promotional Photo – Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister
Religion in the cinema
Religion in the cinema

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The White Sister in A Bright Red Coat – 1923

Motion Picture Magazine – December 1923

The White Sister in A Bright Red Coat


ALWAYS they have written of her eyes like shy blue flowers. Of her swift hands like white doves. Of her mouth, quivering like a startled butterfly. Of her genius. Of her Christianity. And this is not curious, for these are the things you see usually when you see Lillian Gish. For she is strangely like an Edmund Dulac fairy princess. . . .

Lillian Gish - White Sister study Albin
Lillian Gish – White Sister study Albin

It is only when you realize there must be stronger things to her or she could not have come the long way from obscurity and the quiet fields of her native Massillon . . . it is only looking for these stronger things that you are apt to find them a vital part of her. Then you see her ordering her life well. You find her availing herself of summer rates at the hotels. You find her entering into extensive research before deciding upon her coiffure or her costumes for “Romola.” Then you learn of her working all night in the factory that “The White Sister” might be cut down to the desired footage.

The White Sister
The White Sister

These are the stronger, the more material things which the years and which experience have given to Lillian Gish. And they are the things also which have given her genius to the eagerly expectant world. For genius unsupplemented will often die unclaimed.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Really Lillian Gish would fit better into Italy’s drowsy and serene picture. She might even be a White Sister . .  with her tender hands and her face like a soul-given form. But she has not chosen retreat. And, given the strife of New York for her background, she has adapted herself. We saw her at her hotel just before the  premiere of “The White Sister,” when blasé, sophisticated critics were flagging other things in order to be present. When they were bidding ridiculously high for opening-night tickets. When, in the same breath with her name, other names, legendary in the world of the theater, were being mentioned. “The White Sister” was her yesterday, could talk nothing but “Romola.” wasn’t unlike a master-chemist paring to compound some life-giving fluid. She had ready. That was still to be taken care of. This must be treated thus and so.

The White Sister
The White Sister

That was nearly completed. . . On a chintz lounge lay a copy of Giovanni Papini’s “The Life of Christ.” A place was marked half-way thru. We asked her if she didn’t think it strange that an atheist had lived to write such an orthodox book.

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

“No,” she said. And because she was very sure, her voice was low. No need to lend conviction by raising your tone when you know. “Atheists.” she said, “are inverted Christians. I’m sure. They have such a perfect conception of the Divinity that the things done in His Name offend them. They turn their hurt faces the other way.”

The White Sister
The White Sister

Talk of books brought us to Leonardo da Vinci. She knows his life as the clergy know their Gospel. She has reverence for him as one of the greatest men that ever lived. And if his greatness is assailed, she champions him with swift words. She bought Brentano’s out of every copy of the story of his life, giving it as gifts to her friends. All of this is what you would expect of Lillian Gish, perhaps. But then her telephone would ring. And fragments of her conversation reaching us suggested that she is a splendid executive. The office was on the wire. And numerous business details and financial matters seemed to be at her finger-tips.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

Her only boast is Dorothy. Dorothy was always quick, she tells you. When they were children, visitors always marveled at Dorothy’s wit … at Dorothy’s intelligence. We spoke of Dorothy as La Clavel in “The Bright Shawl.”

She wasn’t sure she approved of her in that . . . a wrist-watch warned us of another appointment.

“Mother and I were frightfully shocked when she smoked that big black cigar,” she said. “But most of the time I just couldn’t make myself realize it was Dorothy. She wasn’t the Dorothy I know. She wasn’t . . .”

And then, with something like maternal pride: “But wasn’t she beautiful? Oh, I think she was so beautiful!”

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 2
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish in costume]; ca. 1920s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.464

She had come in shortly before we arrived and she was still wearing her wrap. It was a heavy, bright red coat. It was the kind of coat the older schoolgirls wear. It wasn’t at all the sort of wrap you’d expect of Lillian Gish. Her face was even, more wistful and her hair even a paler gold above it. Her wearing that coat was like her sitting up all night to cut film . . . incompatible . . . contradictory . . . paradoxical. . . .

The White Sister
The White Sister

The time had passed pleasantly and swiftly. Our wrist-watch warned us of another appointment. “You live rushing about too,” she dismayed. “Your wrist-watch is your King. It is different in Italy. I’m glad to return for a few months. Minutes don’t matter so frantically there. And the only thing you’ve ever seen bluer than Italy’s sky is Italy’s sea.”

And then the telephone rang again, imperiously, and we left her.

The White Sister
The White Sister

It was an evening, about a week later, that we saw her as she stood alone on the large stage of the Forty-fourth Street Theater while one of the most celebrated audiences ever gathered under one roof paid tribute to her work in ”The White Sister.” She stood there some minutes . . . like a delicate porcelain in her quaint ivory satin frock . . . waiting, waiting for the tumultuous applause to die down so she might explain that only the co-operation of the entire organization had made her dreams for “The White Sister,” realities.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Paradoxical . . . A simplicity of manner to cloak a profundity of thought and a universal comprehension. Interludes, stolen from the trying labors of cutting film and manipulating the high finance of motion-picture production, to read “The Life of Christ.”

. . . Lillian Gish ; a White Sister in a bright red coat.

By Adele Whitely Fletcher – December 1923

The White Sister
The White Sister

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A Life on Stage and Screen – by STUART ODERMAN

Lillian Gish

A Life on Stage and Screen


Lillian Gish - Life With Father (Stuart Oderman - book cover)
Lillian Gish – Life With Father (Stuart Oderman – book cover)


New York City: March 12, 1993. There were 700 mourners in attendance at St. Bartholomew’s. The pews were already filled before the start of the eleven o’clock memorial service.1 Even before it was announced in the newspapers and on radio and television, many knew that Lillian Gish had passed away in her sleep at her East 57th Street apartment, where she had lived alone for many years.
“It was what she had wanted,” James Frasher, her longtime personal manager, told the press.2 “She died at 7:03 p.m. on February 27 in her own bed. She was film. Film started in 1893, and so did she.” Film, in the days of its infancy, meant a quickly cranked black-and-white onereeler exhibited in nickelodeons for an audience of poor people, immigrants eager to plunk down their nickels for a new minutes of escapism from the factories, tenements, and drudgeries of the day. In her silent film years, Lillian had risen from a $5-a-day player hired off the street for the Biograph Company in 1912 by D.W. Griffith to co-star with her sister Dorothy in a one-reel melodrama, An Unseen Enemy, to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leading lady who, in 1927, could command a salary of $400,000, along with her choice of director, script and cast approval, and the added luxury of extra rehearsal time. She had lived long enough to see the “flickers” become “talkies,” which became multi-million dollar color extravaganzas that commanded high ticket prices, sometimes required reserved seats, and caused traffic jams.


Father, Dear Father

The Springfield, Ohio, where Lillian Diana Gish was born to James Leigh and Mary (McConnell) Robinson Gish on October 14, 1893, wasn’t very far removed from the wilderness of an earlier time.

Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street
Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street

If one wanted to learn of the latest births or deaths or new arrivals settling down, or attempt an honorable courtship, the church was of central importance as a proper meeting place. In Springfield and the surrounding areas, there were small churches of different denominations. To attract and maintain new and established congregants, “dinner on the ground” (a link to a time when churches were hard to find – and preachers harder) became very popular.  It was a common sight to see pioneer wives with food baskets coming to worship in the morning and then staying for the afternoon service.

Springfield Ohio - Downtown
Springfield Ohio – Downtown

Always an active theatre state, Ohio was home to touring companies featuring the likes of Jane Cowl, Maude Adams, and playwright Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, who left the security of a tailor’s job in Cincinnati to join a touring company.

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

To this nomadic life, with its frustration and heartbreak, Mary Robinson Gish would have to surrender herself and her daughters if they wished to survive. The origins of James Leigh Gish were not known or easily traceable. Everyone knew that Lillian’s mother, once known as “pretty May McConnell,” could trace her solid American ancestry back to President Zachary Taylor, a poetess named Emily Ward, and an Ohio state Senator, who was their Grandfather McConnell. Even in an era when townspeople discussed their kith and kin with unabashed alacrity, nobody could speak a complete paragraph about Mary Gish’s husband. James often described himself as a travelling salesman, a “drummer.” Although the most skilled drummers (which James wasn’t) could charm their way through town after town, changing their stories and lines of patter as the occasion required, the only James Gish story about which there was complete agreement was his courtship of young, pretty May McConnell. They had met in May’s hometown, Urbana,  and were married very quickly. Thanks to Mary McConnell’s father, James was able to get a job in a grocery store with the hope that one day he and his wife would have saved enough money to open a confectionery business of their own.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mary never criticized her husband or his ideas in front of Lillian or her younger sister, Dorothy. Lillian’s retelling of what had been said to her was greeted with a stony silence. It was bad enough to subject other townspeople to drunken reveries in the subdued light of a local tavern, but to put these wandering notions into the mind of an innocent little girl? Where did he get his upbringing? When would he assume the responsibilities of a Christian, God fearing father and stop playing the role of a feckless ne’er-do-well?

Without James’ knowledge, she and her daughter joined the Episcopal church and were regular worshipers, maintaining the tradition that had begun in Springfield. Perhaps if Mary’s thoughts were spoken in proper prayer and constant Sunday devotion, there might be salvation for James. Indeed, for everyone. We must bear and forbear. Amen.

James Leigh Gish

Before the summer ended, James left his family in search of business opportunities in other cities, tightening the bond between Mary and her daughters. Lillian, somehow becoming aware of James’ erratic behavior patterns, knew not to upset her mother with painful questions. Everything Lillian wanted she had found on her Aunt Emily’s farm: chickens, a cat who was always asleep, and a friendly dog. There was no need to think about an absentee alcoholic father who made her mother cry and wasted money on drink.

James Leigh Gish
James Leigh Gish


The Road to Biograph and Mr. Griffith

At the end of the engagement, Mrs. Gish took her daughters to East St. Louis, where she managed an ice cream parlor, assisting the wife of her recently deceased brother. The workday was long, sometimes twelve to fourteen hours. It left her little time to spend with Dorothy or Lillian. Lillian, never an outgoing person, especially needed to be helped. She had been maturing into a young lady and hadn’t received the benefits of an education or childhood experiences. When not acting on stage, she preferred to be alone, spending those quiet hours looking out of the window or curled in a chair, reading books. Sometimes she helped her mother.


To provide a place for Lillian to play and receive a much wanted education, the Ursuline Academy would supply properly cooked meals, a room, and schooling for twenty dollars a month. It would be a financial burden, but Mary Gish acquiesced to Lillian’s please. With an education, she could play “serious, grown-up parts,” and perhaps read better for a director. Without the right education, she would always sound like a little girl. After the initial weeks of adjustment to convent life, Lillian welcomed the opportunity to be removed from the pressures of touring, the lack of constancy, and the nomadic existence of a stage player. The Ursuline Academy provided her with the first stability she had ever received.

St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)
St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)

Something called “flickers” was beginning to affect the attendance at theatres. While some stage veterans might have viewed these primitive entertainments as the latest novelty for the lower classes and recent non-English speaking immigrants, it did not take producers long to realize that the nickel price for a program of short films and  newsreels, accompanied by a pianist whose melodies could soften the noise of the hand-cranked projector and underscore the action on the screen, was less than the dime needed for a seat in the upper gallery. Suddenly, “live” players didn’t mean that much. “Flickers” could be shown over and over, from the early morning until the very late evening. There would always be a steady stream of customers.

Cinema old

In 1903, a twelve minute one-reeler in fourteen scenes called The Great Train Robbery, filmed by the Thomas Edison Studios in West Orange, New Jersey, was causing a sensation -whether exhibited in formerly empty storerooms with hastily assembled screen and chairs or in specially built nickelodeon parlors. By 1908, the year of the release of D. W. Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie, 8 there were more than 10,000 nickelodeons across the United States.

griffith david wark_737

D. W. Griffith’s American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was a typical New York brownstone of the 1850s: four stories with a commercial basement that opened onto the street. Originally, the brownstone had been a private home prior to being tenanted by the Steck Piano Company. When Steck vacated the premises, the basement stores were rented, and the building was leased to Biograph for five thousand dollars. Because some stage actors had scruples about being recognized entering a place that manufactured such low entertainment, they reported to work through a basement store that served as a rented tailor’s shop. Their fear was not of being seen by the public, but by fellow stage professionals who might spread the scandalous news that they knew someone who had to resort to the “flickers” to pay their room rent or feed their (obviously destitute)  families.

the Biograph Bronx Studio
the Biograph Bronx Studio

From his first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908 ), Griffith proved he was the master showman. The Adventures of Dollie contained all of the elements of melodrama that would appeal to an audience: a child is kidnapped by villains, imprisoned in a barrel, and sent down the river, over the waterfalls, and rescued in the final minutes by a group of boys fishing in a stream.

An Unseen Enemy

  • continued the pattern set by The Adventures of Dollie. By constantly changing the point of view, the audience could not avoid being drawn into the plight of the Gish heroines. Like good storytelling worthy of his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, Griffith successfully utilized Poe’s short story techniques of presenting the main character and a particular problem, then adding further complications that leads to the climax and denouement. “Scare ’em,” and then “save ‘e m.”

Despite the successes of earlier Biograph arrivals Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, Lillian in her first film, An Unseen Enemy, would prove to be Griffith’s romantic notion of the perfect heroine. Through film after film, she would maintain, no matter how great the danger, a vision of spiritual purity worthy of the respect one would show to one’s mother or sister. It was an innocence that did not yield to desire. You wanted nothing to happen to her. You wanted to save her, to cherish her, to protect her from corruption and the evils of the world she might encounter if she left the house. She would rise above any negative environment like an angel heaven-bound. Beneath her outer fragility was the undying strength of iron. Off screen, Lillian had the same aura, recalled Hearst journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who began her long newspaper career in 1913, one year after the arrival of the Gish sisters. Lillian knew how to present herself. She always created her own atmosphere. She had none of the features you would associate with the “vamps” or the bad girls. She had blonde hair and big blue eyes, which we would  associate with the fairy tale princess illustrations or the little dolls girls would play with. Lillian was always radiant, like the children you see in holy pictures: not of this earth, and very ethereal. Because she moved with such elegance and grace, like a trained ballet dancer, I think she intimidated men. She would look them directly in the eye and then turn away very demurely. Men loved it. They respected her. Respect for any lady in Hollywood was very rare. Yet Lillian inspired respect. Even in her Griffith days, in an era before women had the right to vote, men would stand up when she approached their table.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916


The Last Reel

On her birthday in October 1990, the Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, was rededicated after extensive repairs that included the installation of a 35 millimeter projector with surround sound, replaced floor and wall coverings, more Gish memorabilia in the gallery, new lighting, and plush red seats. Each seat had a name plate on the back, acknowledging Lillian’s and Dorothy’s friends and admirers who helped the theatre Lillian called “a little jewel” glitter with even more warmth.

The Gish Film Theater


On February 27, 1993, Lillian, like all good art, became eternal.



“Any artist has just so much to give.

The important thing is to give it all.

Sometimes it’s more than you think.”

Lillian was just making another disappearance.


Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater
Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater


  • Note: The original illustrations from Stuart Oderman’s book are placed in the photo gallery below:

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Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father
Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father


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San Pedro News Pilot 1924 – “The White Sister” – Prologue

San Pedro News Pilot, Volume 11, Number 172, 19 April 1924

The White Sister
The White Sister

Harmonizing Prologue Arranged by the California for Lillian Gish Triumph, The White Sister,” Filmed in Italy

The White Sister
The White Sister

“The White Sister,” Lillian Gish’s greatest triumph, opens for a week’s engagement at the California Theatre Easter Sunday with an especially arranged program with musical selections appropriate for Easter. With a miniature Holy City prologue and vocal selections, “Ava Marie” and “The Holy City,” by Mrs. Eugene R. Whitney, who has appeared in Grauman’s and other Los Angeles theatres, the program promises to be a treat to local theatre goers.

The White Sister
The White Sister

The story was taken from the famous novel by E. Marion Crawford and screened entirely in Italy and northern Africa. Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Tivoli, and even Mt. Vesuvius were some of the “locations” used. Besides Miss Gish to interpret the thrilling story, the crust includes Ronald Colman, a newcomer to the screen who has scored a sensational success; J. Barney Sherry, a motion picture pioneer: Gail Kane, heroine of many Broadway successes, and a thousand others drawn from the ranks of European players.

The White Sister
The White Sister

“The White Sister” tells the story of Angela Chiarmonte, daughter of an Italian prince, who is made penniless because of an intrigue of her older sister. The only thing left to sustain her is her love for Captain Giovanni Severi, of the Italian army. For a time she is happy, but he is called to Africa on a military expedition, and Angela is left to take up the life of a governess.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Then she receives word ho has been killed by the Arabs. Stunned by the blow, Angela is driven , frantic, and In order to find some peace of mind and a definite place in life, she takes the vows of a nun. Shortly after this Giovanni, who has merely been hold prisoner by Arabs, escapes and returns to Rome.

The White Sister
The White Sister

How Sister Angela solves the problem of choosing between her great earthly love and her heavenly vows supplies the dramatic situation that leads up to the powerful climax. “The White Sister” has been called the artistic triumph of the present film season.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Miss Gish has never appeared to better advantage, and her restrained conception of the difficult role of Sister Angela stands at the top of her many famous characterizations. Those who recall her in “The Birth of a Nation,” “Way Down East,” “Hearts of the World,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” will, it is promised; be delighted still further by her versatility and the depth of her playing in her latest effort.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Because of the unusual length of the photodrama and the time required in staging the colorful prologue, only two shows will be given each day. starting at 2:30 in the afternoon and 8:15 in the evening.

Lillian Gish as ‘The White Sister”

The White Sister
The White Sister

San Pedro News Pilot – April 1924

San Pedro News Pilot 1924 - The White Sister Prologue
San Pedro News Pilot 1924 – The White Sister Prologue

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… 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.

Lillian Gish in her 80's

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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Lillian Gish, at 83, TRANSCENDS STYLE

The New York Times

By ENID NEMY  DEC. 31, 1982

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. 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 NY apartment

”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 the 80's

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.”

1981 Lillian Gish

”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.”

Lillian Gish Host of TV Silent Series 1975 PBS New-York, USA
Lillian Gish Host of TV Silent Series 1975 PBS New-York, USA

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.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish

‘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.

Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish

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.)

stamp ceremony

”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.’ ”

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

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.”

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 re-released ”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.”


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.

james abbe - Dorothy is "Nell Gwyn"

”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 Gwyn 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.

Mother and Dorothy

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.

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

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.

” ‘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.”

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.

Lillian Gish Kennedy Center 1983 RPP

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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The New York Times 1983 - Lillian Gish Transcends Style
The New York Times 1983 – Lillian Gish Transcends Style

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“Max Reinhardt” (“Stigmata”; The Film that was never made)

“I did not meet Reinhardt until he was in California, with ‘The Miracle.’ With Rudolph Kommer and Karl von Mueller he came out to our Santa Monica house, for luncheon. Before luncheon we went to the studio and ran, I think, ‘Broken Blossoms.’ Then, in the afternoon, ‘La Boheme’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ They seemed to please him. He spoke no English, and I spoke no German, at the time. Kommer served as interpreter. It was then that Reinhardt suggested that we might work together. He had never made a picture, but was eager to try. He had spent thirty-five years in the theatre, and was tired of it. He had theatres in Berlin and Vienna, the finest in Europe.”

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

From Kansas City, Reinhardt and Kommer telegraphed:

Once more we want to thank you for that most fascinating Sunday you gave us. We greet you as the supreme emotional actress of the screen and hope fervently that the near future will bring us in closer contact on the stage and on the screen. Please do not forget Salzburg when you come to Europe. We shall be waiting for you. Salzburg was Reinhardt’s home, where in an ancient castle, Leopoldskron, he kept open house, for a horde of congenial guests. Reinhardt and Kommer had spoken of a picture they would prepare when she came to New York. Now, at the Drake Hotel, they started on a story for it. Reinhardt, meantime, had brought over a company and was producing “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Danton’s Todt.”

Reinhardt, Lillian said, talked to her about Theresa Neumann, the peasant miracle girl of Konnersreuth, who on every Friday except feast days went through the entire sufferings of Christ, the blood trickling from stigmata on her forehead, her hands and her feet. Nobody but those who have seen it will believe it, but her case is a very celebrated one, and has been studied by scientists of Germany and Austria, and of other countries. Reinhardt believed that a great miracle picture could be based on the case of Theresa Neumann, and Lillian agreed with him. She would come to Leopoldskron, and would go to see Theresa Neumann for herself. “I must do that, of course,” she said, “and familiarize myself with the lives of the peasantry of which she was one.”

“In April, Mother, Miss Davies and I sailed for Hamburg. We arrived at Cuxhaven early one morning. Mother had to be carried to the train and to a private car. Reinhardt was already over there. His secretary met us, and Mr. Melnitz, head of the United Artists in Germany.

“At Hamburg, we put Mother to bed for two hours. She had been up since half-past four. Nurse and I had not slept all night. We took train for Berlin, arriving at six in the evening. I had not realized that Germany is like America in the matter of news. I supposed we would go in quietly. Instead, we found the station literally jammed with people, all trying to get around us. It was terribly hard on poor Mother.”

Lillian Gish arriving in Germany
Lillian Gish arriving in Germany

There were a dozen or two camera-men, and when they found they couldn’t all take pictures of Lillian, they got around Mrs. Gish, who was in a big chair carried with poles. She could not tell them that she did not want her picture taken, and began to cry. When at last they got into an automobile, all the camera-men and reporters jumped into other cars and came racing behind, taking pictures all the way to the hotel. During the next few days, Lillian was too nervous to give more than a few interviews. Reinhardt comforted her by saying that no artist ever had come into Germany with such a reception from the press.

Lillian Gish at the balcony of the Esplanade Hotel Berlin 1930
Lillian Gish at the balcony of the Esplanade Hotel Berlin 1928

At Berlin Lillian consulted Professor Vogt, head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, supposed to know more than anyone else about cases like her mother’s. Professor Vogt said he could not do very much for Mrs. Gish, but warned Lillian that she herself was likely to be headed in the same direction. He advised that her mother be taken to Doctor Sinn’s Sanatorium at Neubabelsburg, advice promptly followed. Mrs. Gish remained there a year.

photo of Gish by Witzel of L. A., signed and inscribed in black ink 1914

To Lillian, in Berlin, came this letter:

O smallest blonde:

You must not think of any other place but Leopoldskron! Max Reinhardt and we all would think that we had failed completely to please you. Besides, the hotels are now terribly overcrowded and you would be perfectly miserable there. So please, do overcome any inhibitions, and come to Leopoldskron! I am expecting your wire about train and hour.

We are just having Anthony Asquith and Elizabeth Bibesco here. This means that the whole castle is one flaming song in gloriam Lilliane Gish. . . .

I do hope that Professor Vogt will entirely satisfy the expectations of your poor mother. My sincerest wishes and regards to her . . . Schloss Kommer and Salzburg are sending you loving greetings. Au revoir! Yours ever,

  1. K. Kommer

“I went to Salzburg,” Lillian said, “to Leopoldskron.

Lillian Gish - Germany
Lillian Gish – Germany

Reinhardt and his secretary, Miss Adler, were on the train, and Kommer was at the station to meet us. Leopoldskron is a huge place, a little way out of Salzburg, built hundreds of years ago. I don’t know how many rooms it has, but only candles were used to light them. I was much impressed when we drove up to it, and when we got inside. There were ever so many guests, distinguished persons from everywhere. It is like a great hotel, and has three dining-rooms. Among the guests, was the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who had come to work on the story we had planned for our picture. Kommer got me a maid, Josephine, whom I afterwards brought to America.

“We worked three weeks on our story, that time; then I went to Paris for a fortnight, then to Mother at Neubabelsburg. Later I went to Leopoldskron for another three weeks, to meet Mr. Joe Schenck, who had come over to hear the story. Frances Marion was in Salzburg by that time. She said we had a wonderful theme. Schenck also liked it—said we should get back to Hollywood as quickly as possible, and make it. Possibly he suspected that some’ thing was likely to happen—something like an earthquake in the picture world. Off there in that corner of Austria, we never dreamed of it.

Miss Lillian Gish - Leopoldskron
Miss Lillian Gish – Leopoldskron

“I was anxious to see something of Austrian peasant life at close range. At Leopoldskron was the artist Feistauer. He himself was a peasant, and he asked me to pose for him. So we made a bargain. I agreed that if he and his wife would go with me, I would get a car, pay the expenses of the trip and he could take us to the part of the country he knew. If he would do this, I would pose for him. He was quite willing, and we arranged our party. There were five of us besides the chauffeur: Feistauer and his wife; von Hofmannsthal’s son Raymond; myself, and Josephine, my maid.

“It was a wonderful experience. I saw peasant life as I should never have seen it otherwise. We would stay a day and a night in a peasant house—huge houses they had, like those in the Schwartzwald, with their animals in one part of it. Their food was a coarse bread, milk and potatoes, placed on a kind of framework in the middle of the table. I was so impressed with it all—different from anything I had ever seen:—the great room below, the small chambers above. The combined living-room and kitchen was sometimes very beautiful. The great cooking-stoves so unlike any I had known. Beautiful, too, because primitive.

Lillian Gish and Max Reinhardt - Germany
Lillian Gish and Max Reinhardt – Germany

“We came one day to a house where a man walked out to meet us, carrying a child in his arms, leading another. I thought he had the most wonderful face I had ever seen, a perfect Christus. He was followed by some geese, two dogs and a baby lamb. He came up and greeted us with the word they use with strangers, ‘Christgott,’ and led us to the house. He apparently knew Feistauer, but his greeting to him was the same as to us. We sat down for a little ; then he took Raymond and myself through the house. We were there perhaps an hour in all. When he had gone I said to Feistauer: ‘If you should ever wish to paint the Christus, I should think you would use that man. He is nearer my idea of the Christ than anyone I have ever seen.’

Feistauer said:

I have done so, often. He is my brother!’ Because Feistauer had given up the land to be a painter in town, he was, in a sense, an outcast, a stranger—no more than any other of our party.

“It was at the end of my second visit to Salzburg that I saw the miracle girl, Theresa Neumann—at Konnersreuth. I was on the way to see Mother again, and stopped off there. She was to be the subject of our picture, and it was very necessary that I see her. No one is allowed to do so without special permission. I had letters from the Archbishop of Regensburg. Josephine, my maid, went with me.

“I found poor, the very poorest, accommodations in the peasant village where Theresa Neumann lived. She is just a peasant girl herself, the eldest of eleven children, about thirty years old when I was there. Hundreds try to see her, but only members of the clergy, or those with special permits, can get near her on the days of the miracle. There is no charge of any sort, and her people are very poor, helped a little by the Church.

Therese Neumann - Bundesarchiv Bild
Therese Neumann – Bundesarchiv Bild

“It is the most amazing sight in the world. Her ecstasy begins about one o’clock Friday morning, and lasts until noon. The wounds, which are closed and black between times, open, and blood flows from them—from those on her hands and feet, from the spear-wound in her side, and the thorn-wounds on her forehead. Tears of blood drip from her eyes, run down her cheeks, and stain her white gown. I was within three feet of her, and saw all this. I don’t expect anyone to believe these things, but I saw them, exactly as I have said, and if it is trickery, it is beyond anything of the sort I have ever heard of. I asked her to pray for Mother, and I believe she did. Mother got better, so it may have helped.

“The miracle has been accounted for in many ways, both by skeptics and believers. The believer, a priest, who talked about it to me, called her a ‘child of grace,’ which may be as good an explanation as any, if one knew what it meant. Dozens of books have been written about her. Perhaps she is all mind, but that seems a poor explanation. It is claimed that she has not taken food or drink for a number of years. Incredible, of course, but no more so than the things I saw.”


(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish – “Reinhardt”)