Interviewing Miss Gish …

  • Where are you from? What’s your family like?
    I’m originally from Springfield, Ohio. I moved around a lot (Oderman 5). When I was five, just around the time my younger sister was born, my family moved to Dayton. Later we moved to Baltimore so my father could pursue business as a candy store owner. He wasn’t very happy there. He moved to New York, leaving my mother, sister, and I to fend for ourselves in Baltimore (Affron 20).
    My mother and I were very close. Whenever I was with her I felt safe and secure. This was not how I felt about my father. He was an alcoholic. He was in and out of the house from the time I was very six (Affron 21). My sister Dorothy, affectionately know as Doatsie, was my best friend. We loved to play together. (Gish/Lanes 2)

What events in your early life made you interested in the arts?
My family and I moved to New York in 1901 and my mother became an actress. My sister and I would stay in Mother’s dressing room on matinee days. She didn’t act because she loved the art, but for the purpose of supporting our little family because my father was not around. Because this was my mothers main source of income, my sister and I spent a lot of time in the theater. Her show ran three times daily at the Proctor Theater (Oderman 11).
Mother was approached by an actress named Dolores Lorne about Doatsie playing a role in the production East Lynne. Dolores boarded with my family. She got my mother into the acting business. I was surrounded by theater! At first my mother did not want Doatsie to be in the show because Mother’s extended family viewed acting as a bad way to make a living. “Respectable” people thought actors were scum, and believed acting was for the poor and unsophisticated. Mother eventually gave in because we needed the extra money. Soon after I was asked to perform too, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity (Oderman 12)

  • What role did mentors play in helping you develop the interests and talents you have as an artist?
    I always say my first and last acting lesson was while I was in the play Convict Stripes. I was very young at the time. However, I did have the wonderful mentoring of D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a well-respected very smart director at Biograph Studios. He taught me that going out and observing life was the best acting lesson. He was most definitely right (Affron 27)
    I became an observer. Griffith told me to view life in all situations (Oderman 26). I would watch the behavior of people at weddings, funerals, or the arrival of a baby. I went to hospitals, insane asylums, death prisons, and the houses of prisoners. I caught humanity off guard. Watching life taught me everything I know about acting (Oderman 27)

What was the world of acting like when you entered the art field?
I was born into the acting world on the stage. A few years after I made my debut, films became all the rage. At first no self-respecting actress or actor would be in a movie, but soon the steady income won us over. My family friend, Gladdis, made us aware of all the perks. She had a studio apartment, a chauffeur, and was getting payed 175 dollars a week! Though, in todays times, this is not much money but in the early 1900s this was an enormous amount.(Oderman 23)
After traveling around the country for several years for stage acting, I came back to New York. I heard from Gladdis about the Biograph, a filming company. Mother wanted us to try out the film life. We had hopes of meeting Mr. Griffith at the company, and we did. He told us that our prepared monologues did not matter, after all it was a silent film audition! He liked how Doatsie and I acted and decided to take a chance on us.

  • How did the major cultural, economic, and political situations of the time impact your work?
    My family was pressed for money. Father had left us and we were running out of options. My mother moved us to New York and decided to become an actress. Acting was considered a bit vulgar at the time, but we had no other choices. Doatsie and I started acting soon afterward (Wismer, Massilon History)
    Politically drama was affected immensely. I was in Birth of a Nation, which is an extremely political and controversial movie about the Civil War. Dramatic entertainment was often an escape from the world problems and issues. But in some cases audiences were thrust into reality with no choice otherwise. I, as an actress, had to study politics in the 1800s for my role (PBS, Lillian Gish).

What were your major accomplishments in acting? What methods did you use while performing?
I believe just being able to make a living in the movie business was an accomplishment. I directed and acted my heart out. I was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. I received and honorary Academy Award. I was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. These were all very honorable things to be awarded for, but I believe my whole life was an achievement because I lived it to the fullest ( The Official Website of Lillian Gish).
Acting is life. Do you use a method for life or living? I sure don’t. Acting should seem and become reality. Never get caught acting (BGSU, Gish Sisters)

  • What were the key opportunities you had that led you to turning point in your life and acting?
    Quite honestly, a really great opportunity arose from my father leaving. My mother, sister, and I had to become independent. We all became so through acting. If my family had not made it in the acting world my mother would have had to become a maid or a nanny for a rich family who wouldn’t pay her even close to enough to support our family. At first acting was just a money source, but it became so much more. It became the love of my life (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).
    I also received many opportunities from D.W. Griffith. He was my discoverer. Mr. Griffith put me in my first movie. I owe so much to him. Although I did eventually have to leave his production company, I still hold him dear in my heart. MGM brought me many new opportunities too. I was in my first talking movie there (Beaver, Lillian Gish).
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

What roadblocks or hardships did you have to overcome to be an artist?
My mother struggled to support us and often had to leave Doatsie and I with her actress friends. I learned a lot from them but I always missed my mother. At a young age I had to grow up very fast and get a job. I would often travel in a show without a guardian. I put away childish things to help support my family and to find out that I truly loved acting (Gish Film/Theater Collection).
Later in my life, after I’d had success in silent films, I went back to the theater. Talkies had become popular with everyone except me. I believed it would be the end of elegance in the movie world. Many believed I wouldn’t be a good theater actress. They admired my work in silent films but doubted that my on stage talent was quite as good. Boy, did I prove them wrong! (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).

  • Who are the people you admire in the arts and beyond? Why do they inspire you?
    I admire my mother more than she ever knew. She is a strong, independent woman who never gave up. She taught me that I didn’t need a man, or anybody for that matter, to succeed. She raised Doatsie and me, and I’m forever grateful. She also brought me into the acting business. I wouldn’t have such a successful career without her. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)
    My dear sister, Doatsie, has always inspired me. She is strong, funny, and never took no for an answer. I love her dearly. D.W. Griffith inspires me, too. He is an amazing director. He put Doatsie and me in our first movie. He is a good teacher, mentor, and friend. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)

What anecdotes best illustrate how you became successful in the arts?
The stage manager in my first show once told me “Speak loud and clear, or they’ll get another little girl.” I did just that, and look how far I’ve come! I am grateful to that stage manager, because he may have helped me jump-start my career. You should always listen to the comments and critiques of stage managers, they really know what they are talking about. (Affron, 27)
My first audition for a film was with D.W. Griffith. My sister and I had prepared monologues, but he told us to forget about them. He told us to sit and talk to each other. He then proceeded to pull out a gun. He chased us around the audition room, and the whole time Doatsie and I were screaming. After a while he put the gun away looking satisfied, and told us we got the parts! (Oderman, 26)

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Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. New York: Scribner, 2001. Print.
“Gish Film Theater Collection.” BGSU, 2003. Web. 26 February, 2012.
Gish, Lillian. Lanes, Selma. An Actors Life for Me. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1987. Print.
“Gish Sisters.” BGSU. 2003. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: About Lillian Gish.” PBS Online, 2001. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: Actress.” Extravagant Crowd, 2007. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish (1893-1993).” Golden Silents, 2010. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“News.” The Official Website of Lillian Gish, 2006 Web. 28 February, 2012.
Oderman, Stuart. Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000. Print.
“Talking About Movies: Lillian Gish.” University of Michigan, 2011. Web. 28 February, 2012.
Wismer, Amanda. “Lillian Gish” Massillon Museum of Art. 2006.Web. 29 February, 2012.

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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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I’ve never been in style …

I’ve never been in style, so I can’t go out of style …

LILLIAN GISH 1920s James Abbe
LILLIAN GISH 1920s James Abbe
Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

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


Die FilmWoche 1928 B Nr 46 Deutschland

Photo: Lillian Gish – Die FilmWoche 1928 Nr 46 (Deutschland)

“I wore my best dresses in these movies. This is one Madame Frances made for me. It was pink taffeta, black velvet and ermine.


Lillian Gish 1922 - Picture Play (Street and Smith) Cover Source Photo
Lillian Gish 1922 – Picture Play (Street and Smith) Cover Source Photo
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – SS Ille de France returning to US Nov.16, 1928
Lillian Gish – SS Ille de France returning to US Nov.16, 1928
Lillian Gish – New York, Returning from abroad R-6-4-26 (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – New York, Returning from abroad R-6-4-26 (International Newsreel)

We didn’t get extra money for wearing our own clothes, we just wanted to look our best.” (Dorothy and Lillian Gish – By Lillian Gish)

Lillian Gish Portrait in Mirror 1929 Cecil Beaton BW
Lillian Gish Portrait in Mirror 1929 Cecil Beaton BW
Lilian Gish (Pacific) 1930s presse photo (France)
Lilian Gish (Pacific) 1930s presse photo (France)
July 22 1942 Press Photo - Lillian Gish in Seattle, Washington
July 22 1942 Press Photo – Lillian Gish in Seattle, Washington
A Timely Interception - Lillian Gish - Biograph
A Timely Interception – Lillian Gish – Biograph

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Photo Gallery:

Photographer: Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portraits of Lillian Gish] nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX;


Photographer: Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portraits of Lillian Gish] nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; (above)

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