Lillian Gish

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Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish-edit1.jpg
Lillian Gish, 1921
Born Lillian Diana Gish
(1893-10-14)October 14, 1893[1]
Springfield, Ohio, U.S.
Died February 27, 1993(1993-02-27) (aged 99)
New York, New York, U.S.
Cause of death Heart failure
Occupation Actress
Years active 1912–1987
Height 5' 4"

Lillian Diana Gish [2](October 14, 1893 – February 27, 1993) was an American actress of the screen and stage,[3] as well as a director and writer whose film acting career spanned 75 years, from 1912 in silent film shorts to 1987. Gish was called the First Lady of American Cinema, and she is credited with pioneering fundamental film performing techniques.[4]

Gish was a prominent film star of the 1910s and 1920s, particularly associated with the films of director D. W. Griffith, including her leading role in the highest-grossing film of the silent era, Griffith's seminal The Birth of a Nation (1915). At the dawn of the sound era, she returned to the stage and appeared in film infrequently, including well-known roles in the controversial western Duel in the Sun (1946) and the offbeat thriller The Night of the Hunter (1955). She also did considerable television work from the early 1950s into the 1980s and closed her career playing, for the first time, opposite Bette Davis in the 1987 film The Whales of August. In her later years Gish became a dedicated advocate for the appreciation and preservation of silent film. Gish is widely considered to be the greatest actress of the silent era, and one of the greatest actresses in cinema history. Despite being better known for her film work, Gish was also an accomplished stage actress, and she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1972.


The American Film Institute named Gish 17th among the greatest female stars of Classic American cinema.[5] She was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1971, and in 1984 she received an AFI Life Achievement Award.[6] Gish, an American icon, was also awarded in the Kennedy Center Honors.

Early life[edit]

Dorothy and Lillian Gish with actress Helen Ray,[7] their leading lady in Her First False Step (1903)

Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, to Mary Robinson McConnell (1875–1948) (an Episcopalian) and James Leigh Gish (1872–1912) (who was of German Lutheran descent).[8] She had a younger sister, Dorothy, who also became a popular movie star.

The first several generations of Gishes were Dunkard ministers. Her great-great-great-grandfather came to America on the ship Pennsylvania Merchant in 1733 and received a land grant from William Penn. Her great-great-grandfather fought in the American Revolutionary War and is buried in a cemetery in Pennsylvania for such soldiers. Letters between Gish and a Pennsylvania college professor indicate that her knowledge of her family background was limited.

Gish's father was an unreliable alcoholic. When he left the family, her mother took up acting to support them. The family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they lived for several years with Lillian's aunt and uncle, Henry and Rose McConnell. Their mother opened the Majestic Candy Kitchen, and the girls helped sell popcorn and candy to patrons of the old Majestic Theater, located next door. The girls attended St. Henry's School, where they acted in school plays.

The girls were living with their aunt Emily in Massillon, Ohio, when they were notified by their uncle that their father, James, was gravely ill in Oklahoma. Lillian traveled to Shawnee, Oklahoma, to see her father, who by then was institutionalized in an Oklahoma City hospital. She saw him briefly and stayed with her aunt and uncle, Alfred Grant and Maude Gish, in Shawnee and attended school there. She wrote to her sister Dorothy that she was thinking of staying and finishing high school and then going to college, but she missed her family. Her father died in Norman, Oklahoma, January 9, 1912, and, soon after, Lillian returned to Ohio.

When the theater next to the candy store burned down, the family moved to New York, where the girls became good friends with a next-door neighbor, Gladys Smith. Gladys was a child actress who did some work for director D. W. Griffith and later took the stage name Mary Pickford.[9] When Lillian and Dorothy were old enough, they joined the theatre, often traveling separately in different productions. They also took modeling jobs, with Lillian posing for artist Victor Maurel in exchange for voice lessons.[10]

In 1912, their friend Mary Pickford introduced the sisters to Griffith and helped get them contracts with Biograph Studios. Lillian Gish would soon become one of America's best-loved actresses. Although she was already 19, she gave her age as 16 to the studio.[11]


Early Career[edit]

Gish's stage career began at age eight. She recalls dancing in a play starring Sarah Bernhardt.

Film Career (1912-1928)[edit]

After 10 years of acting on the stage, Gish made her film debut opposite Dorothy in Griffith's short film An Unseen Enemy (1912). Lillian went on to star in many of Griffith's most acclaimed films, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). One of the enduring images of Gish's silent film years is the climax of the melodramatic Way Down East, in which Gish's character floats unconscious on an ice floe towards a raging waterfall, her long hair trailing in the water.

Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms
A 1921 fan magazine cover by Rolf Armstrong

Having appeared in over 25 short films and features in her first two years as a movie actress, Lillian became a major star, becoming known as "The First Lady of American Cinema" and appearing in lavish productions, frequently of literary works such as Way Down East. She became the most esteemed actress of budding Hollywood cinema. In 1925 reluctantly ended her work with Griffith to take an offer from the recently formed MGM which gave her more creative control. MGM offered her a contract in 1926 for six films, for which she was offered 1 million dollars ($13.4 million in 2015 dollars). She turned down the money, requesting a more modest wage and a percentage so that the studio could use the funds to increase the quality of her films — hiring the best actors, screenwriters, etc. Her contract with MGM ended in 1928. Her last picture in the contract and her favorite film of her career was The Wind (1928), a commercial failure, but now recognized by many as among her finest performances and one of the most distinguished works of the silent period.

She directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), when D. W. Griffith took his unit on location. He told Gish that he thought the crew would work harder for a girl. Gish never directed again, telling reporters at the time that directing was a man's job.[12] Though not a box-office hit as before, her work was respected more than ever, and MGM pressed her with offers to appear in the new medium of sound pictures.

Sound debut, return to the stage, and television and radio[edit]

Her debut in talkies was only moderately successful. The leading ladies of silent film, such as Gish and Pickford, had been wholesome, innocent, and childlike. But by the 30s and the wide adoption of sound pictures vamps, Gish's diametric opposite, had eclipsed this ideal, and Greta Garbo had usurped Gish as MGM's leading lady by the late silent era. Gish was increasingly seen as a "silly, sexless antique" (to quote Louise Brooks's sarcastic summary of Gish's criticism). Louis Mayer wanted to stage a scandal ("knock her off her pedestal") to garner public sympathy for Gish, but Lillian didn't want to act both on screen and off, and returned to her first love, the theater. She acted on the stage for the most part in the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in roles as varied as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic's landmark 1936 production of Hamlet (with John Gielgud and Judith Anderson) and Marguerite in a limited run of La Dame aux Camélias. Of the former, she said, with pride, "I played a lewd Ophelia!"

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore in D. W. Griffith's film Way Down East (1920)

Returning to movies, Gish was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1946 for Duel in the Sun. The scenes of her character's illness and death late in that film seemed intended to evoke the memory of some of her silent film performances. She appeared in films from time to time for the rest of her life, notably in Night of the Hunter (1955) as a rural guardian angel protecting her charges from a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum. She was considered for various roles in Gone with the Wind ranging from Ellen O'Hara, Scarlett's mother, which went to Barbara O'Neil,[13] to prostitute Belle Watling, which went to Ona Munson.

Gish made numerous television appearances from the early 1950s into the late 1980s. Her most acclaimed television work was starring in the original production of The Trip to Bountiful in 1953. She appeared as Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the short-lived 1965 Broadway musical Anya. In addition to her later acting appearances, Gish became one of the leading advocates of the lost art of the silent film, often giving speeches and touring to screenings of classic works. In 1975, she hosted The Silent Years, a PBS film program of silent films. She was interviewed in the television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980).[14]

Gish in 1973

Gish received a Special Academy Award in 1971 "For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures." In 1979, she was awarded the Women in film Crystal Award in Los Angeles[15] In 1984, she received an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming only the second female recipient (preceded by Bette Davis in 1977) and the only recipient who was a major figure in the silent era. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1720 Vine Street.

Her last film role was appearing in The Whales of August in 1987 at the age of 93, with Vincent Price, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern, in which Davis and she starred as elderly sisters in Maine. Gish's was received glowingly — winning her the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. At the Cannes festival Lillian won a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. Some in the entertainment industry were angry that Gish did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role in The Whales of August. Gish herself was more complacent, remarking that it saved her the trouble of "losing to Cher."[citation needed]

Her final professional appearance was a cameo on the 1988 studio recording of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, starring Frederica von Stade and Jerry Hadley, in which she affectingly spoke the few lines of The Old Lady on the Levee in the final scene. The last words of her long career were, "Good night."


Gish starred in an episode of I Was There, broadcast on CBS. The episode dramatized the making of the film The Birth of a Nation.[16] On May 31, 1951, she starred in an adaptation of Black Chiffon on Playhouse on Broadway.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Lillian and her sister Dorothy, 1921

Gish never married or had children. The association between Gish and D. W. Griffith was so close that some suspected a romantic connection, an issue never acknowledged by Gish, although several of their associates were certain they were at least briefly involved. For the remainder of her life, she always referred to him as "Mr. Griffith". Lillian Gish was the sister of actress Dorothy Gish. Gish was a survivor of the 1918 flu pandemic. She caught the flu during the filming of Broken Blossoms.[18]

Gish learned French, German, and Italian from spending 15 years in Europe, which she first visited in 1917 during World War I. She never married, but was involved with producer Charles Duell and drama critic and editor George Jean Nathan. In the 1920s, Gish's association with Duell was something of a tabloid scandal because he had sued her and made the details of their relationship public.[9] George Jean Nathan praised Gish's acting glowingly—comparing her to Eleonora Duse.

During the period of political turmoil in the US that lasted from the outbreak of WWII in Europe until the attack on Pearl Harbor, she maintained an outspoken noninterventionist stance. She was an active member of the America First Committee, an anti-intervention organization founded by retired General Robert E. Wood with aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh as its leading spokesman. She said she was blacklisted by the film and theater industries until she signed a contract in which she promised to cease her anti-interventionist activities and never disclose the fact that she had agreed to do so.[19]

She maintained a very close relationship with her sister Dorothy, as well as with Mary Pickford, for her entire life. Another of her closest friends was actress Helen Hayes, the "First Lady of the American Theatre". Gish was the godmother of Hayes's son James MacArthur. Lillian Gish had also designated Hayes as a beneficiary of her estate, with Hayes surviving her by less than a month.


She died in her sleep of heart failure, age 99, and is interred beside her sister Dorothy at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City. Her estate was valued at several million dollars, the bulk of which went toward the creation of the Dorothy and Lillian legacy Trust.


Gish posed as Elaine of Astolat in Way Down East

Gish is widely regarded as the greatest actress of the silent era, and is considered one of the finest actresses in cinema history. A retrospective of her life and achievements was showcased in an emmy award winning episode of PBS's American Masters.

The All Movie Guide wrote of her legacy:[20]

"Lillian Gish is considered the movie industry's first true actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact. While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waiflike frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength. More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remain the standard against which those of all other actors are measured."[21]

Turner Classic Movies writes:[22]

"Having pioneered screen acting from vaudeville entertainment into a form of artistic expression, actress Lillian Gish forged a new creative path at a time when more serious thespians regarded motion pictures as a rather base form of employment. Gish brought to her roles a sense of craft substantially different from that practiced by her theatrical colleagues. In time, her sensitive performances elevated not only her stature as an actress, but also the reputation of movies themselves.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the episode Rome-Old and Juli-Eh of The Simpsons, Grandpa puts a poster of Lillian Gish on the wall of Homer's games room. Gish was born in a town called Springfield, the same town name used in the cartoon.
  • The debut album of The Smashing Pumpkins, released on May 28, 1991, is entitled Gish in reference to her. Singer Billy Corgan explained in an interview, "My grandmother used to tell me that one of the biggest things that ever happened was when Lillian Gish rode through town on a train, my grandmother lived in the middle of nowhere, so that was a big deal..."[26]




  • The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (with Ann Pinchot) (Prentice-Hall, 1969)
  • Dorothy and Lillian Gish (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973)
  • An Actor's Life For Me (with Selma G. Lanes) (Viking Penguin, 1987)

Biographical and other:

  • Lillian Gish an Interpretation – Edward Wagenknecht (University of Washington, 1927)
  • Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine (Macmillan, 1932)
  • Lillian Gish: the Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, by Gish co-authored with Ann Pinchot; ISBN 0-491-00103-7, W.H. Allen 1969, and ISBN 0-916515-40-0 Mercury House, 1988.
  • Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis – Charles Affron (E.P. Dutton, 1977)
  • A Moment with Miss Gish – Peter Bogdanovich (Santa Teresa Press, 1995)
  • Lillian Gish A Life on Stage and Screen – Stuart Oderman (McFarland & Company, 2000)
  • Lillian Gish Her Legend, Her Life – Charles Affron (Scribner, 2001)
  • Lillian Gish Her Legend, Her Life – Charles Affron (University of California Press, 2002) revised paperback edition

Documentaries about Gish[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life
  2. ^ Although there are unsupported claims that the Gish sisters were born with the surname "de Guiche", in fact their surname at birth was "Gish". According to Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life (2001), a biography by Charles Affron: "The Gish name was initially the source of some mystification. In 1922, at the time of the opening of Orphans of the Storm, Lillian reported that the Gish family was of French origin, descending from the Duke de Guiche ... [S]uch press-agentry falsification was common."
  3. ^ Lillian Gish - North American Theatre Online
  4. ^ AFI: 1984 Lillian Gish Tribute
  5. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars". 
  6. ^ "The AFI Life Achievement Award". 
  7. ^ Dorothy and Lillian Gish (1973) p12
  8. ^ "Lillian Gish Biography". February 27, 1993. Retrieved October 4, 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Charles Affron (March 12, 2002). Lillian Gish: her legend, her life. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23434-5. Retrieved July 23, 2010. 
  10. ^ Oderman, Stuart (2000). Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen. McFarland & Co. ISBN 9780786406449. Retrieved 2015-03-07. 
  11. ^ Charles Affron (March 12, 2002). Lillian Gish: her legend, her life. University of California Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-520-23434-5. Retrieved July 23, 2010. 
  12. ^ Charles Affron (March 12, 2002). Lillian Gish: her legend, her life. University of California Press. p. 138. ISBN 978-0-520-23434-5. Retrieved July 23, 2010. 
  13. ^ Lambert, Gavin (1976) [1973]. GWTW: The Making of Gone With the Wind (mass market paperback ed.). New York: Bantam Books. p. 53. 
  14. ^ Brownlow, Kevin; Gill, David (1980). Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. (video). Thames Video Production. 
  15. ^ "Past Recipients: Crystal Award". Women In Film. Retrieved May 10, 2011. 
  16. ^ "She Was There (caption)" (PDF). Radio Life. January 16, 1944. p. 32. Retrieved 18 April 2015. 
  17. ^ "Your Radio Today". Tucson Daily Citizen. May 31, 1951. p. 24. Retrieved May 10, 2015 – via  open access publication - free to read
  18. ^ Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, ISBN 0-13-536649-6.
  19. ^ Sarles, Ruth and Bill Kauffman. A Story of America First: The Men and Women Who Opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II. Praeger, Westport, Conn., 2003, p. xxxvii.
  20. ^ [1]
  21. ^ [2]
  22. ^ "Overview for Lillian Gish". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2015-11-12. 
  23. ^ Royster, Jacqueline Jones (2003). Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003. Ohio University Press. p. 224. ISBN 9780821415085. Retrieved 2015-03-06. 
  24. ^ Dixon, Wheeler Winston (1993). Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut. Indiana University Press. p. 46. ISBN 9780253113436. Retrieved 2015-03-06. 
  25. ^ March, William (1989). Company K. University of Alabama Press. p. 54. Retrieved 2015-03-06. 
  26. ^ Caro, Mark (December 28, 1990). "Smashing Pumpkins Finds a New Home at Caroline Records". Chicago Tribune.

External links[edit]