Gish, Lillian Diana

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Gish, Lillian Diana

(b. 14 October 1893 in Springfield, Ohio; d. 27 February 1993 in New York City), stage and screen actress who appeared in such landmark films as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).

Gish was the older of two daughters of James Lee Gish, a traveling salesman, and Mary Robinson McConnell, a homemaker. Her sister, Dorothy Gish, was born in 1898 in Dayton, Ohio. James Gish’s addiction to alcohol forced Mary to become the breadwinner. On an afternoon in 1902, while Mary was working, Lillian and Dorothy watched furniture men remove most of their possessions because James, who had sneaked away from the premises, had stolen their money. To help pay the rent, Mary took in boarders. A touring actress living with them suggested that Lillian be allowed to play a small role in a stock production of In Convict’s Stripes at a theater in Risingsun, Ohio.

Over family objections, the three Gishes crisscrossed the United States, playing in popular melodramas of the day. During the summer of 1912, when they were living in Baltimore, Lillian chanced to see fellow trouper Gladys Smith, now known as Mary Pickford, on a motion picture screen in Lena and the Geese. When Mary Gish learned that “Little Mary” and her golden curls were earning $175 per week, she suggested that her daughters try to find work in the “flickers” in New York City.

Mary Pickford introduced Lillian and Dorothy to Bio-graph studio director D. W. Griffith. He improvised a story about a robbery and started the camera rolling. What he failed to mention was the gunshots he would add. As the sisters ran around the room, their emotions were filmed. Because the camera responded to their extraordinary beauty, Griffith immediately cast them in An Unseen Enemy (1912). This initial effort was a hit, and the sisters were given a $5-per-day contract. Lillian appeared in eleven more short films that year, including The Musketeers of Pig Alley and The New York Hat.

At the end of each shooting day, Lillian would remain at Griffith’s side, watching him clip sections of film together to form a smooth narrative. She was learning and mastering every aspect of filmmaking. As her popularity increased, her salary rose to $50 a week. The training in two-reelers served her well. She soon played the imperiled Southern heroine of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a sweeping Civil War and Reconstruction story told in an unprecedented twelve reels. Although condemned in some quarters for its racist point of view, this film galvanized the entire country and firmly established the motion picture as a mature art form. The next year, Gish’s expressive beauty earned her a brief but iconic role in Griffith’s epic Intolerance, another landmark of the cinema.

In the summer of 1917, the three Gishes, in a black-sailed ship under cover of darkness, went to England and France during wartime to film Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918). Lillian played another fragile heroine in Broken Blossoms (1919) and fled memorably across an ice-choked river in Way Down East (1920). Orphans of the Storm (1922), her last collaboration with Griffith, was her sixty-second film.

Knowing she could not make an effective transition into the Charleston Era as a dancing flapper, Lillian appeared in period classics that showcased her timeless vulnerability: The White Sister (1923), Romola (1924), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and Annie Laurie (1927). Aware of her own popularity, and refusing to allow Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio chief Louis B. Mayer to “allow a scandal to be arranged” in an effort to revive her career, she left Hollywood in 1928 after completing The Wind. An unsuccessful early sound film, One Romantic Night (1930), made her rethink her life and career. She returned to the theater. Shepherding her theatrical comeback was the drama critic George Jean Nathan, with whom she had a ten-year relationship.

Despite personal coaching from Eugene O’Neill, a friend of Nathan’s, her 1928 attempts to star in O’Neill’s Marco Millions (1927) and Strange Interlude (1927) were rejected by Theatre Guild director Phillip Moeller, who still viewed Gish as the girl on the ice floes in Way Down East.

Producer Jed Harris, another friend of Nathan’s, provided Gish the opportunity to make her mature theatrical debut, as Elena in his production of Uncle Vanya (1930). Her Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s production oí Hamlet, starring John Gielgud (1936), was highly successful. Other plays that decade included Phillip Barry’s The Joyous Season (1934), Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates (1934), Zoë Akins’s The Old Maid (1936), Maxwell Anderson’s The Star Wagon (1937), and Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse’s Life with Father (1939). In the 1940s, however, Gish’s reluctance to take a chance on an unknown playwright led her to reject the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Fiercely isolationist, Gish nevertheless withdrew her association with the America First Committee when the Chicago box-office receipts oí Life with Father significantly dropped. Six months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Returning to the screen in 1943 with Top Man and Commandos Stride at Dawn, she later played supporting roles in David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948). Gish made her television debut that same year in a Philco Television Playhouse production of Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean. Other television work included Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1956) and Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1968).

For two decades, she was an active presence on stage, appearing in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (1953), T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1958), Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home (1960), and George Bernard Shaw’s Too True to Be Good (1963). Her last stage performance was in A Musical Jubilee, which opened in New York in 1975. Her forays into film included Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960), and Walt Disney’s Follow Me, Boys! (1966). Her last film performance was opposite Bette Davis in the 1987 film The Whales of August.

A year after her sister Dorothy’s passing in 1968, Lillian Gish’s The Art of Film, a compilation of scenes from major American silent films, with an emphasis on her work with D. W. Griffith, premiered at Columbia University’s McMillan Theatre. The program was seen at 387 colleges across the United States, in addition to three worldwide tours. Gish received an honorary Academy Award in 1971 and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. The Gish Film Theater was dedicated at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1976, and in 1990 a documentary version of her autobiographical book An Actor’s Life for Me was televised as part of the American Masters series on PBS.

Gish’s romantic involvements were unconventional. In the mid-1920s a relationship with the producer Charles Duell during the filming of The White Sister caused her to seek legal counsel when Duell tried to sue her for breach of contract. Her association with George Jean Nathan was complex in nature. She never married.

Only her death, a few months short of her 100th birthday, put a closing to a career that spanned the century. Gish passed away in her sleep at her East Fifty-seventh Street apartment, where she had lived alone for many years. She was laid to rest alongside her mother and sister at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in New York City.

“[A death at home and burial beside her family] was what she wanted,” James Frasher, her longtime manager told the press. “She was film. Film started in 1893, and so did she.”

Gish-related material can be found at the New York Public Library’s Library for the Performing Arts and the Jerome Library at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Gish wrote several autobiographical works. Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, written with Ann Pinchot, was published in 1969. Dorothy and Lillian Gish, a collection of reminiscences edited by James E. Frasher, was published in 1973. An Actor’s Life for Me (1987), coauthored by Selma G. Lanes, was written for a young audience and covers her years as a child actor. Biographies include Albert Bigelow Paine, Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen (1932), Charles Silver, Lillian Gish (1999), and Stuart Oderman, Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Mar. 1993).

Stuart Oderman