Lillian Gish’s Largesse
The Talk of The Town
New Yorker – August 15, 1994
THERE are people who contrive to perform the only uncharacteristic act of their lives after they are dead. The actress Lillian Gish was such a person. She died here last year, at the age of ninety-nine, having devoted a lifetime to hard work and to remaining an unobtrusive presence in our midst: a small, trim woman, pale-skinned, with big eyes and a wistful smile. In her old-fashioned way, she saw no reason for calling attention to herself, but now the imminent disposition of a portion of her large estate is bound to make a noise in the world-what she would probably have called a fuss and would have deplored as quite unsuitable. By the terms of her will, the income from some five or six million dollars–a sum that will be in excess of two hundred thousand dollars a year-is to be established as a prize bearing her name and that of her sister Dorothy, who was also an actress, and who died in 1968. The prize is to be awarded annually to an individual who will be chosen by a committee appointed for the purpose, and is among the richest of its kind.
Miss Gish evidently had strong convictions about the criteria for awarding it and for the means by which it was to be administered. With the help of her attorney, Nathan Hale, who was also a longtime friend, Miss Gish drew up a will that is almost twenty pages long and is notable for the clarity with which it expresses her intentions (one can imagine her tidily dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”). The section of the will dealing with the establishment of the prize is worth quoting at length:
I have devoted my entire career to the performing arts. As an actress in films and on the stage and as a writer and lecturer on the subject of films, it has been my desire to contribute, through the performing arts, to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life. In order to carry out my purposes I direct my Trustees to hold my residuary estate in trust and pay the net income there from, for each taxable year of the trust in one sum to the person chosen by the Prize Committee, which shall be established as hereinafter provided, to be the recipient of “The Dorothy And Lillian Gish Prize.” It is my desire that the prize be awarded to a man or woman who has made an out outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life through performances on the stage or in films or any other area of the performing arts, by writing or composing a book, libretto, score, composition or other artistic work to be used in the performing arts, by directing performances, plays or films, by conducting orchestras or recitals or who has designed a stage set, theater, concert hall, opera house or other artistic or architectural creation for use in the performing arts or through other fields of art such as architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry and literature. The recipient should by excelling in his or her field have served as a model and encouragement to all others who would follow in his or her path. It is my desire, by establishing this prize, to give the recipients of the prize the recognition they deserve, to bring attention to their contributions to society and to encourage others to follow in their path.
The will goes on to say that the trustees of the estate are to appoint five people who will be the initial members of the prize committee. In a conversation with Mr. Hale, we learned that the trustees have chosen as members of this initial committee Arthur Penn, John Williams, Carol Burnett, Roddy McDowall, and Hugh Hardy – respectively, a stage and film director, a composer, an actress, an actor, and an architect—with Mr. Penn serving as chairman. Of the five, only Mr. Penn and Mr. McDowall happen to have known Miss Gish. The committee will be meeting next week somewhere in the Massachusetts countryside to pick the first prize-winner, who will receive the award at a ceremony to be held here in the fall.
Mr. Hale, a handsome, gray-haired man in his early sixties, is a great-great-great-grandnephew of the Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale, and a great-grandson of Edward Everett Hale, the author of “The Man Without a Country.” Mr. Hale said of Miss Gish that she had always been an excellent businesswoman, and that, even in recent years, when she was asked to give a talk about her early moviemaking days she would make sure to strike a favorable bargain when it came to setting her fee. She began her professional career at the age of five, billed as “Baby Lillian,” and her last stage role here was in “A Musical Jubilee,” in 1975. The two most important men in her life were the director D. W. Griffith, for whom she starred in his classic early movies “The Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East,” and the theatre critic George Jean Nathan, who proposed marriage to her many times over the years, but whom she always refused-on the ground, so she told him, that she would spoil his life. Mr. Hale explained, with a gentle shake of his head, “It was the mother who mattered most, then Dorothy. And it was just like Lillian to have put Dorothy first in giving the prize its name.”