Gish, Dorothy (1898–1968) and Lillian (1893–1993)

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Gish, Dorothy (1898–1968) and Lillian (1893–1993)

American actresses, sisters, and stars of the silent-film era .

Gish, Dorothy. Born Dorothy Elizabeth Gish on March 11, 1898, in Dayton, Ohio; died of bronchial pneumonia in Rapallo, Italy, on June 4, 1968; younger daughter of Mary (McConnell) and James Lee Gish (a struggling grocer and candy merchant); descendant of Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the U.S.; married James Rennie (an actor), on December 20, 1920 (divorced 1935); no children.

At age five, debuted as the boy "Little Willie," in the play East Lynne; made New York stage debut as an Irish girl in Dion O'Dare (1906); hired as an extra at D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios (1911); placed under major star contract (1915); revealed great comic gifts in film Hearts of the World (1918); made her first talkie, Wolves, for Herbert Wilcox in England; made her last professional appearance in the stage play The Chalk Garden with her sister (1956).

Selected films:

An Unseen Enemy (1912); (bit) The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912); (extra) The New York Hat (1912); My Hero (1912); The Perfidy of Mary (1913); The Lady and the Mouse (1913); Almost a Wild Man (1913); Her Mother's Oath (1913); The Vengeance of Galora (1913); The Adopted Brother (1913); The Lady in Black (1913); The House of Discord (1913); (bit) Judith of Bethulia (1914); The Mysterious Shot (1914); The Floor Above (1914); Liberty Belles (1914); The Mountain Rat (1914); Silent Sandy (1914); The Newer Woman (1914); Arms and the Gringo (1914); The City Beautiful (1914); The Painted Lady (1914); Home Sweet Home (1914); The Tavern of Tragedy (1914); A Fair Rebel (1914); The Wife (1914); Sands of Fate (1914); The Warning (1914); The Availing Prayer (1914); The Saving Grace (1914); The Sisters (1914); The Better Way (1914); An Old-Fashioned Girl (1915); How Hazel Got Even (1915); Minerva's Mission (1915); Out of Bondage (1915); Her Mother's Daughter (1915); The Mountain Girl (1915); Victorine (1915); Bred in the Bone (1915); Old Heidelberg (1915); Jordan Is a Hard Road (1915); Betty of Greystone (1916); Little Meena's Romance (1916); Susan Rocks the Boat (1916); The Little School Ma'am (1916); Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916); Atta Boy's Last Race (1916); Children of the Feud (1916); The Little Yank (1917); Stage Struck (1917); Her Official Fathers (1917); Hearts of the World (1918); The Hun Within (1918); Battling Jane (1918); The Hope Chest (1919); Boots (1919); Peppy Polly (1919); I'll Get Him Yet (1919); Nugget Nell (1919); Out of Luck (1919); Turning the Tables (1919); Mary Ellen Comes to Town (1919); Remodeling Her Husband (1919); Little Miss Rebellion (1919); Flying Pat (1920); The Ghost in the Garret (1921); Orphans of the Storm (1922); The Country Flapper (1922); Fury (1923); The Bright Shawl (1923); Romola (1924); Night Life of New York (1925); The Beautiful City (1925); Clothes Make the Pirate (1925); (title role) Nell Gwynn (Eng., 1926); London (Eng., 1927); Tip Toes (Eng., 1927); (title role)Madame Pompadour (Eng., 1927); Wolves (Wanted Men, Eng., 1930); Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944); Centennial Summer (1946); The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951); The Cardinal (1963).

Gish, Lillian. Born Lillian Diana Gish on October 14, 1893, in Springfield, Ohio; died at her home in New York City on February 27, 1993; elder daughter of Mary (McConnell) and James Lee Gish; descendant of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the U.S.; attended various schools including the Ursuline Academy in East St. Louis, Missouri; never married, no children.

Debuted in Convict's Stripes, starring Walter Huston, around age five; hired as an extra at D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios (1911); gained attention in The Mothering Heart (1913); established stardom in Broken Blossoms (1919); made first talkie One Romantic Night (U.A., 1930); made television debut in "The Late Christopher Bean" (1948); made last film The Whales of August (1987). Awards: honorary Academy Award (1970) and American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award (1984). Selected publications: (with Ann Pinchot) The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (Prentice-Hall, 1969).

Selected films:

An Unseen Enemy (1912); (bit) Two Daughters of Eve (1912); The Aisles of the Wild (1912); The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912); (bit) My Baby (1912); Gold and Glitter (1912); (extra) The New York Hat (1912); The Burglar's Dilemma (1912); A Cry for Help (1912); (extra) Oil and Water (1912); (bit) The Unwelcome Guest (1912); A Misunderstood Boy (1913); The Left-Handed Man (1913); The Lady and the Mouse (1913); The House of Darkness (1913); Just Gold (1913); A Timely Interception (1913); The Mothering Heart (1913); During the Round-Up (1913); An Indian's Loyalty (1913); A Woman in the Ultimate (1913); A Modest Hero (1913); The Madonna of the Storm (1913); Judith of Bethulia (1914); The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914); The Green-Eyed Devil (1914); The Battle of the Sexes (1914); Lord Chumley (1914); The Hunchback (1914); The Quicksands (1914); Man's Enemy (1914); Home Sweet Home (1914); The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914); The Angel of Contention (1914); The Tear That Burned (1914); The Folly of Anne (1914); The Sisters (1914); (as Elsie Stoneman) The Birth of a Nation (1915); The Lost House (1915); Captain Macklin (1915); (as Annie Lee) Enoch Arden (1915); Enoch's Wife (1915); The Lily and the Rose (1915); Daphne and the Pirate (1916); Sold for Marriage (1916); An Innocent Magdalene (1916); Intolerance (1916); Diane of the Follies (1916); Pathways of Life (1916); The Children Pay (1916); The House Built Upon Sand (1917); Souls Triumphant (1917); Hearts of the World (1918); The Great Love (1918); The Greatest Thing in Life (1918); A Romance of Happy Valley (1919); Broken Blossoms (1919); True Heart Susie (1919); The Greatest Question (1919); (directed only) Remodeling Her Husband (1920); Way Down East (1920); Orphans of the Storm (1922); The White Sister (1923); (title role) Romola (1924); (Mimi) La Bohème (1926); (Hester Prynne) The Scarlet Letter (1926); Annie Laurie (1927); The Enemy (1928); The Wind (1928); One Romantic Night (1930); His Double Life (1933); The Commandos Strike at Dawn (1943); Top Man (1943); Miss Susie Slagle's (1946); Duel in the Sun (1947); Portrait of Jennie (1949); The Cobweb (1955); The Night of the Hunter (1955); Orders to Kill (Eng., 1958); The Unforgiven (1960); Follow Me Boys! (1966); Warning Shot (1967); The Comedians (1967); A Wedding (1978); Hambone and Willie (1984); Sweet Liberty (1986); The Whales of August (1987).

Around 1908, an abandoned wife and mother named Mary McConnell Gish used her savings to buy an ice-cream parlor in East St. Louis. While her 10-year-old daughter Dorothy stayed with relatives, her 15-year-old daughter Lillian boarded at the Ursuline Academy, a convent school that she loved for its tranquility and discipline. This prosperity and stability was short-lived, however. A nickelodeon, the precursor of the modern movie theater, that was adjacent to the shop caught fire and destroyed Mary Gish's business. Thus the Gish sisters, who would find wealth and acclaim in films, were forced back on the road and toward their destiny.

Their earlier days were marked by poverty and dislocation. When their father James Lee Gish first disappeared from the family in 1903, Mary had moved with her daughters from Ohio to New York, partly to look for him. There she worked in a department store, but the young actresses she took in as boarders persuaded her to go into the theater. Soon Lillian and Dorothy went on the road in touring companies, where they were featured as needy children in the melodramas of the day. While the younger Dorothy traveled with her mother, Lillian often toured alone, with only friendly troupers to care for her. Of one mishap, where she had to go on stage after a prop misfired and she had been peppered with buckshot, Lillian wrote: "I had already been trained to conceal my private feelings in public. Pride helped me to survive without tears."

While staying at a theatrical boarding house in New York, the Gish sisters attended the theater with a girl named Gladys Smith to learn acting tips from watching child actors in Broadway shows. Lillian managed to land a role as a dancer with Sarah Bernhardt's French company, which was visiting America. She found the Europeans brusque compared to American troupes and also found Bernhardt forbidding, though Bernhardt ran her fingers through the girl's long hair. Recalled Lillian, "To my eyes she was an apparition with her dead-white face, frizzed red hair and eyes the color of the sea."

When the Gishes returned to New York after the candy business failed, they sought out their friend Gladys Smith and located her at Biograph Studios, in a Victorian brownstone on East 14th Street. There, Gladys was making "flickers," under the name Mary Pickford , for D.W. Griffith in between more prestigious stage work. Griffith would later recall his first sight of the Gish sisters:

They were blondish and were sitting affectionately close together. I am certain that I have never seen a prettier picture.… Lillian had an exquisite ethereal beauty. As for Dorothy, she was just as pretty a picture in another manner; pert—saucy—the old mischief seemed to pop right out of her and yet with it all, she had a tender sweet charm.

Griffith offered them parts in An Unseen Enemy immediately, but Dorothy was appalled: "Sir, we are of the legitimate theater!" Even so, he convinced them to try a film scene, then chased them around the room, firing a gun. Possibly because they were unaware that he was aiming at the ceiling, they were brilliant as frightened, hunted females, and the munificent ten dollars earned persuaded the sisters and their mother to join his company. While Griffith was impressed with their work, he was unable at first to tell them apart; he pinned a blue ribbon on Lillian and a red one on Dorothy and called them by the color they wore. They and Mary Pickford resisted Griffith's attempts to set up rivalry. Pickford told them, "He thinks we'll all give better performances if we think someone else might get the part." Twelve-hour days passed in a blink, and there was never a script to be memorized. During winters, when Griffith moved his shooting to Los Angeles, the Gish family followed him.

Lillian Gish">

When I go to a party—it stops being a party. On the other hand, Dorothy is the party.

Lillian Gish

In the spring of 1914, Griffith cast Lillian in Birth of a Nation, which he shot in nine weeks (a protracted shooting schedule for the time), and spent three more months in cutting, editing and selecting the score. The finished film ran two hours, which was then unheard of, and had a high admission price of two dollars. Lillian played a sweet, virginal girl ravaged by black men after the Civil War. Now considered racist and controversial, the film was seen as a great epic in its day. After critics demanded to know the actors' names, Griffith gave the players credit, which made their names more prominent than his and began the star system.

Lillian truly became a star with Broken Blossoms in 1919. Her pure, elusive quality served her well in the tragic story of an abused Chinese girl. That same year in Way Down East, she suggested that she could improve a scene in which she fainted on an ice floe by trailing her hand and hair in the water as she drifted toward a waterfall. To capture the moment, she mounted a slab of ice 20 times a day for three weeks of rehearsal. Her hair froze, and she suffered frost bite that flared up even in her old age, but Lillian Gish created an indelible moment in the history of film. Her only frustration was that Griffith insisted her hair be thawed and dried and her numb face be fully made up so that she would look beautiful when rescued.

Intensely loyal to Griffith, with whom she undoubtedly had an affair, Lillian said of him, "David's idea of womanhood was that of the child wife—frail, delicate, compliant, loving. When he married he dreamed of a snug cottage, fresh curtains, spring flowers—even grace before meals. But the dream was in conflict with reality. He idealized womanhood on the screen, but when he had to live with it he could not make the adjustment."

Lillian became one of the world's first great film stars. Except for her insistence on avoiding scandal, which bordered on paranoia, she was the prototype of the Hollywood celebrity. She went to the White House to show both presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding her films and had great faith in the importance of exercise, diet, and quiet personal time each day. She was devoted to self-improvement and studied voice as well as dancing with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. "Within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or an athlete," she said. She also knew she had to manage her celebrity and hired a personal press agent to keep her name out of the papers. She feared that if her name was seen too much, the public would tire of her.

As the silent era drew to a close, Dorothy appeared in, among others, An Unseen Enemy, Nell Gwynn , and Orphans of the Storm, a melodrama of the French Revolution which she made

with Lillian. Her favorite role was The Little Disturber, a vagabond minstrel in war-torn France, in Hearts of the World in 1918. Dorothy spotted particular talent in a young Latin extra named Rudolph Valentino, but Griffith dismissed him as "too foreign-looking" and pointed out that he took too long to get ready for his scenes.

Paramount-Artcraft Studios was so impressed with Dorothy's comedic talents that it offered her a million-dollar, two-year contract, but Dorothy said that at her age (20) all that money would ruin her character. Her subsequent films included Remodeling Her Husband, which co-starred her future husband, James Rennie, and was directed by Lillian. Dorothy's way with comedy was compared to that of Chaplin and Keaton, but she believed, according to an article she wrote for Ladies' Home Journal in 1925, that the public "did not want to see a woman play outright comedy." The loss of most prints of her comedies makes it difficult to evaluate her important early work. In the talkie era, after she

left Griffith, Dorothy made only three films—Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944), Centennial Summer (1946), and The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951). She missed the atmosphere of the early days of film: "To me, there's too much spit 'n' polish about today's film technique," she said in 1951. "When Lillian and I were in silent films, we did everything for ourselves—mother made our costumes, we did our own hair, put on our own make-up. Nowadays you have a couple of people getting you into costume, another couple fussing around on your hair, others with your face. You feel, somehow, like Marie Antoinette —even with the best will in the world, rather aloof and removed."

In early 1922, shortly after Orphans of the Storm was released, Griffith urged Lillian to capitalize on her popularity and go out on her own. Thus the sisters' professional relationship ended after having made 40 films together, including one- and two-reelers.

After Lillian left Griffith, Charles Duell, a lawyer and socialite, handled her business affairs. He acted as her lawyer, producer and financial adviser, and the two developed a romance. She grew skeptical, however, when he gave her a diamond ring and charged it to his production company. He further suggested that she assign her profits to him, move her headquarters to Rome, and that they both enter politics. Lillian changed lawyers, and Duell dragged her into court. To avoid a sensational trial, Gish went to the publishers of leading papers in New York and Los Angeles with her story and with documentation. While all papers covered the trial closely, hints of scandal and speculation were minimized, even when her love letters were read in court. Gish, who started a fad when she was seen munching raw carrots in court, won, but Duell harassed her with nuisance suits for years, and the experience made her wary of romantic and professional relationships.

Lillian then went to MGM, where she did La Bohème, The Wind, and The Enemy. The studio was able to proceed with The Scarlet Letter only after Lillian assured church leaders and women's organizations, who had threatened to boycott such a lurid story, that she would be personally responsible for the film. When Irving Thalberg told her that a scandal would boost the public's interest in her and offered to have his publicity department set something up, she declined. She soon offended MGM's head Louis B. Mayer by refusing to sign contracts without consulting her personal attorney. Knowing such insubordination numbered her days at MGM, she left when her contract expired. The part of Anna Karenina, which she coveted, went to Greta Garbo , then a rising young star.

Lillian returned to New York and stage work. The writer and critic George Jean Nathan repeatedly proposed to her, but she declined, fearful of his possessiveness and his resentment of her attachment to her mother and sister. Nathan introduced Lillian to all the important writers of the '20s and '30s, including Theodore Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather , Eugene O'Neill, and H.L. Mencken, of whom she was especially fond. Lillian said this intellectual circle fascinated her, but marriage did not. "From the age of nine I was always falling in and out of love. But marriage is a twenty-four-hour a day job, and I have always been much too busy to make a good wife."

In 1948, Lillian made her television debut at the behest of Fred Coe, who produced "Philco Playhouse" on NBC. Excited by the medium and the live performance, she persuaded Dorothy, who was then semi-retired, to do "The Story of Mary Seurat" (Mary E. Surratt ) for Coe. With Coe, Lillian helped create "Silver Glory," a biography of D.W. Griffith, who had recently died, and whose memory she sought all her life to honor.

In a business known for rivalry and competition, particularly between star siblings, the relationship of the Gish sisters was remarkably harmonious. They understood each other very well and marveled at the other's character, in which each found admirable traits she thought missing in herself. In their early 20s, they produced character sketches of each other for Stage Magazine. Lillian said of Dorothy:

Her funny stories, her delight in sitting on men's hats, her ability to interest herself in a hundred and one people in whom she has not the slightest interest, her talent for quick and warm friendships, her philosophy of silver linings—why was I denied these?

Wrote Dorothy in turn:

How I envy her that singleness of purpose, the indefatigability, the unabating seriousness which have taken her straight to the heights she has reached and will carry her on and on! Nothing really matters to her except her work and career. She has little time or patience for anything or anybody unrelated to her work. Her eyes are fixed on her goal; her ears are attuned only to the voice of her duty. If she misses some of the beautiful shyer souls that require a patient search, of which the reward is only a flash, perhaps, of beauty—why, that is the sacrifice she must make and she makes willingly, almost scornfully.

The emotional and financial insecurity of their childhood affected the sisters in opposite ways. Lillian, the elder, became wise and serious, relying on little but her own resources, more likely to help others than trust others to assist her. Dorothy became more dependent and all her life had trouble making decisions and assuming responsibility. As a newlywed, she expected that she and her husband would move in with her mother, until her mother insisted the couple find a place of their own. Dorothy took no interest in domestic duties, and when she met a strange woman on her staircase, she discovered it was the cook who had been working for her for three months. Dorothy was prone to accidents and often mislaid important things—including Lillian's address book, which for some reason she took to a supermarket and left there. Whenever Dorothy complained that no one would let her do what she wanted to do, Lillian and their mother said she simply did not know what she wanted to do, and tidied up after her. In contrast, Dorothy and their mother teased Lillian about her endless activity and devotion to work. Despite her dependence, Dorothy was fiercely protective of her mother and sister. In 1914, when Biograph was filming its landmark Birth of a Nation, Dorothy was struck by a car while crossing the street with the actress Mae Murray and dragged 40 feet. Griffith carried her to a doctor's office, where she learned the tip of her toe would be amputated. She grabbed Griffith's ears to help her bear the pain and told him: "Don't tell my mother, don't tell my sister!" At a Thanksgiving meal soon afterward, she said, "I'm so glad it didn't happen to my sister. That's what I'm grateful for this Thanksgiving."

The Gish sisters last appeared together in The Chalk Garden at Saratoga Springs in 1956, but Dorothy became a recluse soon afterward. Eventually, Lillian placed Dorothy in a sanitarium, where she died in 1968. Lillian Gish continued to work until her death, on February 27, 1993, when she died peacefully at home in her sleep.


Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944.

Gish, Lillian, with Ann Pinchot. Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1978.

The New York Times (obituary). March 1, 1993.

Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

suggested reading:

Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Paine, Albert Bigelow. Life and Lillian Gish. NY: Macmillan, 1932.

Kathleen Brady , author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball and Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (University of Pittsburgh Press)