From the Archives: Death Takes Screen Legend Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish, whose portrayals of fragile innocence graced the golden age of silent films, extending into an eight-decade testament to dramatic perpetuity, is dead.
Her longtime personal manager, James Frasher said Sunday that the internationally recognized star died in her sleep Saturday night in her stylish apartment on Manhattan’s Sutton Place. She was 99.
“She often said she wished if at all possible that she be allowed to die in her own bed and the Lord granted her request,” Frasher said.
Her final film was “The Whales of August” in 1987. Mike Kaplan, a producer of that tribute to sisterly patience, recalled: “She said afterward: ‘I will never top this.’ ”
A performer raised in the dawn of filmmaking, Miss Gish portrayed forever-menaced heroines in D. W. Griffith silent movies. A wistful “child-woman” with big eyes and a rosebud mouth, she was one of Hollywood’s first stars to become famous in other countries.
Between 1912 and 1987, she appeared in 105 films, from a one-reel movie made for Griffith, “The Unseen Enemy,” to “Whales.”
One of the last and best-known survivors of the early days of film, Miss Gish over the last several years gave scores of lectures, was host of a television series and wrote two books about her experiences between 1912 and 1922, when she made “The Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm” and other films for Griffith.
Miss Gish was, according to many historians, the silent screen’s greatest dramatic actress, and starred in more Griffith films than any other performer. Her work for him produced some of the silent era’s most famous moments: the closet scene from “Broken Blossoms,” in which she played a 12-year-old reacting in abject terror to a brutal father’s pounding on the other side of the door; or the “smile” from the same film, in which, to form the only smile her anguished character could manage, she pushed upward the corners of her mouth with her fingers.
In addition to lecture tours during the past decade, in which she showed films from her private collection, Miss Gish continued to act on television. She appeared in a 1980 “Love Boat” episode and in a 1981 television movie, “Thin Ice,” starring Kate Jackson.
In 1986, while on location on Maine’s rugged coast for “The Whales of August,” a reporter seemed incredulous that she would put herself through such a rigorous schedule at age 93.
“I started working so young (at age 5) that I don’t know how to play,” she said.
“Work was always the most important thing in my life,” she said during a 1982 Los Angeles Times interview in her apartment. She never felt a sense of destiny, she added, only the childhood poverty making work a necessity, work that seemed to become an end in itself.
When reporters came to visit in later years they would find—over tea served on bone china—the ever-ladylike Miss Gish perched in an elegant French chair, amid her peach-toned apartment with its Aubusson carpets, antiques and old photographs. In old age, her hair turned a pale rose blonde, and she wore little makeup around her clear blue eyes.
Recalling her past, she would clasp her hands in front of her, as if punctuating her words with a sense of wonder. Fifty years after her last silent film, much was still reminiscent of that ephemeral celluloid figure of long ago.
Invariably her memories turned to the hardships she faced in her early years, hardships she shared with her adored mother and her sister Dorothy (who died in 1968), and her time with Griffith.
But perhaps the most revealing statement she ever made was years earlier—the inscription in her first book “Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” published in 1969:
“To my mother who gave me love,” it read, “To my sister who taught me to love; to my father who gave me insecurity; to D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.”
Lillian Diana Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1893. Her ancestors included colonial settlers and President Zachary Taylor.
Her father was an unsuccessful candy merchant who left the family after moving them to New York City. Her mother rented out her bedroom to two actresses, and slept on a mattress in her daughters’ room. After briefly working as a department store demonstrator, Mrs. Gish took a job acting with a stock company.
Because roles for small children were available with other companies, Lillian, age 5, and Dorothy, two years younger, were soon traveling and performing themselves. Because their only free time was during the summer, when the weather was too hot for theaters to stay open, Miss Gish had only a minimal formal education and was largely self-educated. She remained a voracious reader all her life.
“I was getting $10 a week, and saving $6 or $7 for summer,” Miss Gish once said. “We were very poor, and needn’t have been. My grandfather would have supported us, but mother had too much pride. She said: ‘It’s my bed, I’ll lie in it.’ ”
In contrast to the respect and admiration she was later to enjoy, Miss Gish was taught in those years that acting was shameful. Her mother changed her own name when performing and insisted that the girls do the same. “We were billed as ‘Baby Alice,’ baby something or just ‘herself,’ like a dog or cat,” Miss Gish said, “just so we could keep the name from being used and not disgrace the family.”
When they summered with their family in Ohio, the sisters were forbidden to say what they did the rest of the year. Away from the family, Miss Gish added, she routinely saw signs reading “No dogs or actors allowed” outside second- or third-rate hotels in towns where she performed.
In later years she never idealized those early experiences. “We always had to say our prayers at night, kneel by the bed. Some nights I remember I said: ‘Please, God, don’t let us wake up in the morning.’ ”
Money—not art or enjoyment—was always the object, she continued. “The only acting lessons we ever had were: ‘Speak loud or they’ll get another little girl.’ ”
The “disgrace” of acting was never mitigated, as far as their mother was concerned, by later success or the money earned by the Gish sisters. Once they were established in films, their mother never went to the studio, scoffed at their excitement over their rising fame, and cried angrily when crowds gathered around them, Miss Gish said.
In the 1982 interview, Miss Gish pointed to a large, dramatic portrait of her sister hanging in the living room. She had discovered it hidden away in storage, she said, about 30 years after their mother’s death in the 1940s.
“Mother didn’t like pictures of us that looked like actresses,” Miss Gish said, and although the painting was stunning, it had never been hung “because Dorothy looks like an actress.”
The road to financial security, and stardom, began in 1912 when Lillian and Dorothy found jobs with David Wark Griffith. The girls visited his Manhattan studio after an old friend and child trouper, Gladys Smith, worked there. The friend, who had changed her name to Mary Pickford, introduced them to Griffith, who hired them as extras.
Using them first in the one-reeler, “An Unseen Enemy,” he gave Lillian a blue hair ribbon to tell her apart from Dorothy, who wore a red one. Griffith directed them by barking out orders for “Red” or “Blue.”
The next year when Griffith took his troupe to Hollywood, where he spent part of every year, Lillian stayed behind to appear in a Broadway play. It was to be her last stage appearance for 17 years.
She soon decided to go to California to rejoin Griffith, who paid her $50 a week.
“Hollywood had a big white hotel with a porch with rocking chairs and old maids rocking in them,” she recalled. “No theaters, only churches and orange trees and the perfume of orange blossoms wherever you went.”
Over the next several years she appeared in about 60 Griffith films. “We never had a script,” she later said. “He (Griffith) had nothing written. You were in a room, he called out the plot, and you ran through it over and over and over until you found the character. He said: ‘I can’t be bothered with the character; you find it.’ He didn’t want to discuss it with you.”
She was left to do her own costumes, her own hair, her own makeup; and as there were no doubles, her own stunts. In “Way Down East” (1920), playing an unwed mother driven by her father into a blizzard, she lay on a slab of ice 20 times a day for three weeks. “It was below zero and all I wore was a thin dress,” she said. She did not become ill, but several members of the crew contracted pneumonia.
Miss Gish did not become recognized as a star—a word not even coined when she began her career—until “The Birth of a Nation” appeared in 1915. Up until then, Blanche Sweet was Griffith’s principal female player. But after playing the part of Elsie Stoneman, a Northern belle in the Civil War epic that was later a source of controversy because of its stereotypical portrayal of blacks, her popularity soared.
Miss Gish had what critics referred to as an “ethereal aura” that projected purity, frailty and vulnerability. In contrast to her screen image, she was strong-minded, opinionated and independent. “That virginal character hadn’t anything to do with me,” she once said.
She did not hesitate to say what she thought. “He didn’t direct me,” she said of Griffith. “He said: ‘It doesn’t matter. She’ll do what she pleases anyway.’ ”
Scenarist Frances Marion, who worked with Miss Gish on “The Scarlet Letter,” a 1926 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film, once commented: “She was as fragile as a steel rod.”
Miss Gish always referred publicly to Griffith as “Mr. Griffith” and never acknowledged a rumored romance with him. She once told Life magazine: “People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship. But if you ask me, I was the Svengali.”
Griffith employed several directors, and Miss Gish later estimated that she worked only three of her nine years with him personally. Meanwhile, she became an avid student of the craft, spending as much time watching film being developed, printed and cut as she did before the camera.
Griffith allowed her to direct several screen tests—she did Mary Astor’s—and in 1920 let her direct a five-reeler called “Remodeling Her Husband” starring sister Dorothy.
Not only did she direct, she said, “but I wrote the story, designed the sets, rented all the furniture. I made it in 28 days, and it made money.” The movie cost $58,000 and netted $160,000.
Years later while filming “The Whales of August” in Maine, she stunned her far younger crew with the way, after appearing to have difficulty moving or remembering lines, she seemed to “switch on” once the cameras rolled.
The crew also noted her deft handling of imperious co-star Davis, who according to a report in People magazine, rarely spoke to Miss Gish and treated her like “a piece of talking furniture.”
When Davis spoke her lines during filming, the crew found that Miss Gish would play deaf, claiming: “I just can’t hear what she’s saying.” This didn’t happen, though, with her other co-stars. “While Bette sat seething,” the magazine said, the director would repeat Davis’ line, whereupon Miss Gish would “instantly pick up her cue and continue.”
Once, even though shivering from the cold at the end of one grueling day, Miss Gish stopped short when she noticed the camera set at an angle that she believed was incorrect. “I’m looking up, not down, or else my eyes will look half closed,” she said, and instructed: “Look through the camera.” The crew, at first skeptical, made the change.
Davis was only the latest to encounter the true Gish behind her fragile facade. As early as 1922, after making “Orphans of the Storm,” she left the fabled Griffith—as Pickford and others had before—because, she said, he could not pay the salary her stardom commanded.
Miss Gish joined Inspiration Pictures and played a nun in “The White Sister” (1923), reportedly earning 15% of the $1.3-million gross profits. But she never got the money she wanted in later negotiations with Inspiration, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or United Artists.
“I learned about money in films,” she said decades later, still apparently frustrated about the subject. “United Artists offered me three films, $50,000 for me per film and half the profits. But net. I don’t want net. You never see net. I wanted a little bit of the gross. I couldn’t get that from anybody.”
After making one more film, “Romola” (1924) for Inspiration, she left over a contract dispute and signed with MGM for $800,000. There she made “La Boheme” (1926), “The Scarlet Letter” (1926) and “The Wind” (1928), involving herself intensely as she had under Griffith with several aspects of production, from the scriptwriting to choice of co-stars and costumes.
However, Miss Gish did not remain the huge box office draw she had been. Times had changed—it was now the flapper era of the Roaring ‘20s and the rise of such “non-innocent” heroines as Clara Bow and Pola Negri.
Miss Gish did not change to suit the times, not even to bob her waist-long hair. She did not drink or smoke, and never took part in the legendary party life of Hollywood. She was busy working, she explained.
“I worked 12 hours a day,” she said. “I’d come home so tired mother wouldn’t even speak to me; she’d just help me to bed.”
Because of work, she said, she never married: “What kind of wife would I have been? I was the man of the family, you see. Mother was ill. I had to take care of the family. I couldn’t think of marrying anybody.”
Until her mother’s death in 1948, the sisters and their mother were so close they slept in the same bed whenever they could. “I slept in the middle,” Gish said in a 1987 interview, “because I had nightmares that trees were chasing me.”
She did maintain a close friendship with New York theater critic George Jean Nathan for more than nine years. But in the end, she said, “mother and Dorothy were quite enough for me.”
Through Nathan and despite her educational shortcomings, she was included in gatherings of such famous writers of the times as H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They liked her because, as she once put it, “I was a good listener. I wanted to learn.”
In 1930, Miss Gish made her first “talkie,” “One Romantic Night.” The reviews were mediocre, and some accounts at the time said the sound was poorly recorded. But Miss Gish’s later recollection was that the movie, and the sound, were successful.
“They came to me and said: ‘Oh, you’re so lucky, your voice photographs. Now you’ve got a whole new career. We’re going to redo all your successful pictures with talk.”’ She sighed, adding: “Well, could anything be worse than to redo what you’ve already done as best you knew how?”
With the public leaning to such types as the earthy directness of Carole Lombard, or the sultry sexiness of Greta Garbo and disdaining its former silent stars, Miss Gish returned to the New York stage, starring in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” More than 40 stage roles followed, such as “Camille,” “Hamlet"—playing Ophelia opposite John Gielgud—and “Life With Father.”
Late in life, when asked which role was her favorite, she bypassed all the films and replied: “Ophelia.”
She retained, however, a strong sense of her contribution to the film medium, pride in herself and love for the craft.
“I think the things that are nice in my profession are taste, talent and tenacity,” she once said, adding wistfully: “I think I have had a little of all three.”
In 1984, when she stood up to receive the American Film Institute’s award for work that “has stood the test of time,” the little lady who looked vastly younger than her then 90 years, clasped her small trophy and smiled at the overflow Los Angeles crowd.
“Thank you for my life,” she said.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.