Through The Looking Glass
Further Adventures & Misadventures
in the Realm of Children’s Literature
Selma G. Lanes
Through the Looking Glass appears at a time when few independent publishers are left in the United States. The merger fever of the last two decades has claimed the great majority: Random House has been melded into the international publishing colossus, Bertelsmann; Simon & Schuster is part of the Viacom conglomerate; G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin, Dial, Viking, Frederick Warne and others have been acquired by the British media behemoth, Pearson. These gigantic, publicly owned mega-corporations must answer to their stockholders who are more interested in seeing their shares increase in value than they are in literature. There is considerable pressure to produce blockbuster books in both adult and juvenile departments. Children’s books have become big business. Where once the Editor – guardian of words – ruled the roost, today a new player, the Marketing Director wields considerable power. “Can it be marketed?” takes precedence over another consideration about a prospective book: “Is it worth marketing?” One children’s book writer was recently asked by her editor: “Our marketing department has come up with the title Stinky Socks; can you write a book for it?” Through the Looking Glass is, in part, a nostalgic trip back to the last half of the last century, a salute to many of the writers and illustrators whose words and pictures are important enough to be remembered.
Is it really possible to uncover fresh autobiographical truths w hen the childhood being examined is at a distance of eight years, and by a highly successful actress who has told bits and pieces of her life story hundreds of times over the years? Miss Gish and her sister Dorothy had been stars since 1915, and she had been interviewed by countless reporters, gossip columnists and magazine feature writers. She had also, at the peak of her career, in the 1930s, had one adult biography written and, of course, she wrote her own autobiographical memoir some years back, Mr. Griffith, The Movies and Me. In part, for us both, it was a trip backward psychically, to how it might have felt to be a child, helpless to alter a course already determined by others, to be required to make the best of a given situation for as long as it might go on, which from the child’s vantage point, might just be forever.
In some respects, I suppose we all invent ourselves anew each time we tell the story of our lives to yet another receptive ear. First of all, our life had advanced a bit from the point at which we last thought about it. And our viewpoint has doubtless altered in some small, or large, way. The present listener may be asking a new question, or exhibiting a special sort of sympathy that was not present to the same degree ever before.
A good biographer is aided by a special sympathy for the subject at hand. It was I who had approached Lillian Gish with the proposal of a biography for children. I’ve been asked why Lillian Gish? Here again, biography enters the picture – my own. Among the stories my mother told me when I was quite young was how she and her older brother Sammy loved to go to the movies – silent films – on Saturday afternoons. They came from an immigrant family living in the West End of Boston, and money for such a luxury was hard to come by. My uncle had an after-school job and so was able to pay for his own ticket. With luck, he would occasionally receive a free pass as a favor for extra work performed, so that he could take my mother along. But she, alas, could only go if she could bring her younger sister – her responsibility on Saturday afternoons. A gifted copyist, my mother took to forging passes for her charge, so that all three children could sit blissfully in the second gallery of the Bowdoin Square Theater and watch the early feature-length films. Often they brough lunch with them and sat through two full shows in a single afternoon. My mother’s favorite actress was, you guessed it, Lillian Gish. I knew the plots of most of Gish’s major films while still in grade school.
As a grown-up, I got the chance in the late 1950s to meet the legendary star herself. The national news service for which I was then working requested a series of Christmas features which would consist of interviewing several famous American women regarding their best remembered childhood Christmas. I got two choices from a list of eight or ten celebrities and, of course, my first selection was Lillian Gish.
When we met, the octogenarian actress told me about sitting in the dirty, cold caboose of a freight train, traveling between theater engagements one Christmas Eve. Her sister Dorothy, then about eight, was with her. This reminiscence eventually became one of the incidents in Part One of An Actor’s Life for Me! It was accidentally coming upon the yellowed newspaper clipping of that feature story about twenty-five years later, while clearing out an old desk, that led to the idea of a children’s biography of Lillian Gish.
Selma G. Lanes – 2004