What Was Lost – By Herbert Morris (2000)

  • What Was Lost
  • By Herbert Morris
  • Counterpoint Washington, D.C. 2000

Certain Mysteries Flowing from the Gown

Miss Gish, unrecognized, already seated, sat in the dark of the tenth row, expectant, hushed, waiting with the rest to be transformed, are matters left, this late, to speculation.

(Had Edward Albee muttered to John Gielgud: What must one feel, sharing a stage with her?; enlarged, I should think, or perhaps diminished.) Had Fortuny accepted a commission Lillian Gish extended for a dress— how had she put it?—utterly resplendent,

the shade astonishing, unprecedented, standing that summer evening, as surmised, at Mr. Griffith’s massive, sculptured gates— mythical cupids?, cherubs?, garlands?, bursts of flowers to be seen in no known country?—, feeling “quite pretty”—had she put it that way?—,

feeling, in her Fortuny, “quite transformed,” one of the guests arriving at the party to celebrate, at last, with Mr. Griffith the final shot of Orphans of the Storm, the filming over-budget, taxing, long.

Did Mr. Griffith sigh, bow, kiss her hand,

as courtly as before, yet newly stirred, escort her to the ballroom, and beyond, savor the splendor of a powdered shoulder, understand, at last, what one might well live for?

Did ribbons, blue, grace Mary Pickford’s hair?

Was Charlie Chaplin there, and did they dance?

Among the words which surfaced in his speech, was Chaplin heard to utter, once, “resplendent,” once whisper to Miss Gish she seemed “transformed”? And was the weather kind, the evening fair?

I would ask, as well, of Monsieur Fortuny, couturier extraordinaire, poor man,

his role, his gift, his flair, his feel for luxe, the pride he may have felt, the sense of mission, sleepless, returning to the workroom, late, to view the thing once more, caress its folds, telling Lillian Gish the shade she craved, “unprecedented,” “utterly resplendent,” might be all but impossible to do—

“the only thing worth doing,” her response?—: pink is intractable, orange elusive; apricot has one foot, Miss Gish, in each— a mystery, a mix, a mystic footing— but—our misfortune—both long to be elsewhere; shall we try something simpler, then: beige?, teal?

And, equally, I seem to need to know of seamstresses who lavished hope and care, who came to feel love for it as they stitched, the drapers and the fitters, twelve pale girls employed to cut, to baste, to trim, to hem, discreetly scatter glitter on the bodice, a touch of soutache here, a sequin there, the shirring raised, the gathers lowered, just so, flow unto flow, a rising and a falling, perfections of the life and of the art—-and at what cost?, one feels compelled to ask—,

so that Miss Gish know splendor in the evening, know, once more, once more, what there was to live for, astonishing through the first waltz, transcendent— Chaplin enthralled, Griffith smitten, ecstatic—,Irene Worth no less so, decades later, reading one winter evening from Miss Wharton (would that be how they phrased it, her “discretion,” the grace in her which moved them most at Scribner’s— at what cost?—, left them shaken?), Henry James— loving her motor cars, jaunts to be taken, choices before one, roads, flow unto flow— never far from the gleaming, transformed center.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Lillian Gish wearing tight long dress]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3511

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