Sunday, February 15, 2009

Opals, Romance, and the Movies: the Story of Silent Screen Star Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish, about 1914.

Do you know the name Lillian Gish? It wouldn't be surprising if you did not. She was a movie star long, long ago: one of the early stars of silent films in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Film buffs know her because she was one of the great ones. But it has been ninety-four years since her breakthrough role in BIRTH OF A NATION, and that's a long time for anyone to remain a popular culture star.

I've been thinking about her lately because I happened to pick up her book The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (1969, Prentice-Hall) and have been re-reading it as a way of winding down in the evening. It is from my own library and I came upon it when I was unpacking.

It brought to mind an interview I did with Miss Gish in Washington, D.C., in the nineteen eighties. In 1984, she was the recipient of the American Film Institutes's Life Achievement Award at the Kennedy Center, but I believe I interviewed her in 1987 when she was making THE WHALES OF AUGUST and was part of the evening lecture series at the Smithsonian Institution.

She was born in 1893 so she was 94 years old when we met. I noticed how tiny she was. She wore an ancient, but beautifully made, velvet suit with a collar of real French lace, probably by one of the old Paris designers--Worth, Chanel, or Lanvin--and she had on a little velvet and lace cloche hat that matched.

I was working with camerawoman Nina Falvello that day and we both cracked up when the first thing Miss Gish said to us, as we were setting up was: "Now I want a high camera there, young lady, and a low light. High camera: low light. That's how I look best." Well okay, we said, thinking how funny it was that a 94-year-old lady would be that vain. We were very young and stupid back then.

La Gish in her 30s.

But since I am a lover of jewelry, I must tell you what I remember best about Miss Gish: her gorgeous opals. She had a huge choker of them around her neck, a matching bracelet with several strands of opals on each wrist, matching earrings, a large opal ring, and a pin of opals on her hat.

"Oh yes, my dear," she said when I asked her about them. "Mr. Griffith gave them to me you know."

Mr. Griffith was D.W. Griffith, probably the greatest of the directors of silent films. They worked together from 1912 until about 1920 when she moved on to work for other companies, joining the MGM of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg in 1925. There were always rumors that Gish and Griffith were more than friends, and I asked her about that, but she was pretty deaf and only heard the word "Griffith" and began telling me what a great director he was. She had an elderly gentleman with her who was a press agent or manager who knew her well and when she couldn't hear my question, he would repeat it to her and she was able to understand his voice better than my own.

Miss Gish in her eighties. She still had two more decades of acting ahead.

Miss Gish never married and from the things I've read about her I have wondered from time to time if she ever really liked men. But, those aren't the kinds of things one finds out in an interview with an ancient star at the Smithsonian. Nor about anything much besides her professional life.

Her mentor, D.W. Griffith, did not do well as silent films grew more sophisticated and as they then moved into the era of sound. He planned comebacks, drank too much and died of a stroke in 1948.

Little Miss Gish was made of sterner stuff. After her career as an ingenue began to fade, she starred on Broadway and continued to move back and forth between the stage and character parts in films. You may have seen her in her wonderful supporting role in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, with Robert Mitchum in 1955, or in her one hundredth film, Robert Altman's A WEDDING in 1978, or in THE WHALES OF AUGUST, made the year of my interview with her.

It was a delight to meet her and she signed the copy of her book I'm reading today in her neat hand: "For Robin--With every fond wish/Lillian Gish."

She died in 1993, just eight months short of her one hundredth birthday. I read in the New York Times that she left her suite of opals to her friend, the actress Helen Hayes. When Hayes died just a few months later I said to myself: "Oh no! The opals! I wonder who will get them now?" But Hayes has a son you may have heard of--the actor James MacArthur--and he himself has three children, so I'm figuring those opals, with their mysterious history, have very likely found a nice home.

But as to a romance with Griffith? We'll probably never know the real story. Richard Schickel, in his biography of Griffith (D.W. Griffith: An American Life--Simon and Schuster, 1984) says even Lillian's sister Dorothy told friends she could only speculate, " ... as to what, exactly, her sister and Griffith did when they walked out together." And what is it to us in any case? Gish left a body of work that speaks for her now--from BROKEN BLOSSOMS and WAY DOWN EAST in the silent era to the more modern THE COMEDIANS and SWEET LIBERTY and others.

Anyway, I think we know the truth. Do you know a man who would give that many opals to a woman ... friend?

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VS said...

Yes, I think I know that sort of man. Then there is another difficulty: do you know a woman who will accept them?

Robin Chapman said...

VS, you make a worthwhile point. A woman wouldn't want to accept a gift that left her under obligation to a man ... unless she felt she had already made a concession to him. So, we're still back where we started I think. Griffith was married during many of the early years that he knew and worked with Gish, but he was also separated from his wife. Anyway, Gish never married, and Griffith subsided into alcoholism, so she seemed to have moved on professionally and we can still only speculate about her personal feelings for him.

J.A.Hill said...

I recently saw the movie The Birth of a Nation. I was so drawn in to this absolute beauty, who on this movie had no voice but her movements and beauty. I am amazed that a woman of this calaber did not have someone sweep her off her feet. I will say, that it is almost an awe seeing her for the first time, seeing her eyes which seemed to flutter to your heart. It left me with one thought, what was her voice like? Is that not funny.

Robin Chapman said...

Gish made a number of sound films in which you can hear her voice. The best of them is probably the strange "Night of the Hunter" with Robert Mitchum and Shelly Winters, directed by Charles Laughton. So you can hear her voice, which is small and lovely.

On the romance side: I think she had two loves; D.W. Griffith, who was, sadly, married and an alcoholic; and her work, which she didn't really want to give up for anyone.

Margaret said...

When I was a child, I met Ms. Gish at my uncle's summer home in New taken with her elegance and sense of propriety. That had a great influence on me, as well as meeting Katherine Hepburn. Wish there were more "grand dames" such as they were today!

Robin Chapman said...

We have big stars, but most of them lack the mystery and the glamour. Perhaps that will return one day. You were lucky to meet Miss Gish.