Lillian Gish

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Lillian Gish : biography

October 14, 1893 – February 27, 1993

Early life

Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, to 17-year-old Mary Robinson McConnell (an Episcopalian) and James Leigh Gish (who was of German Lutheran descent). She had a younger sister, Dorothy.

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 was in the American Revolutionary War and is buried in a cemetery in Pennsylvania for such soldiers, a bit of an oddity because Dunkards are supposed to be more pacifist than Amish or Quakers. Letters between Gish and a Pennsylvania college professor indicate that her knowledge of her family background was limited.

Gish’s father left the family before she was old enough to remember him; her mother then took up acting to support the family. 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 where the candy store was 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. When Lillian and Dorothy were old enough, they joined the theatre, often traveling separately in different productions. They also took modeling jobs.

In 1912, their friend Mary Pickford introduced the sisters to D. W. 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 nineteen, she gave her age as 16 to the studio.

Legacy

  • The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize
  • A street in Massillon, Ohio, is named after Gish, who had lived there during an early period of her life and fondly referred to it as her hometown throughout her career.
  • Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio, is home to the Gish Film Theater and Gallery, which is dedicated to the works of both Dorothy and Lillian Gish.
  • Gish was a leading character in The Biograph Girl, a 1980 stage musical about the silent film era.
  • The American alternative-rock band The Smashing Pumpkins titled their debut album, Gish (1991). Lillian Gish was the only memory that Billy Corgan could recall as to why he named the album Gish. In the liner notes for the 2012 re-release of the album, Corgan states that his grandmother remembered seeing her once and the name "Gish" stuck.
  • The experimental UK-based psychedelic rock/shoegaze band Lillian Gish, founded originally as Sunlight Machine in 2007, take their name from the actress.
  • Francois Truffaut’s movie, Day for Night from 1973, is dedicated to Dorothy and Lilian Gish.

Books

Autobiographical:

  • 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)

Death

She died in her sleep of natural causes, age 99, and is interred beside her sister Dorothy at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City. Her estate, which she left to Hayes (who died a month later) was valued at several million dollars, and went to provide prizes for artistic excellence.

Documentaries about Gish

  • Terry Sanders’ 1988 documentary Lillian Gish: An Actor’s Life for Me.
  • Actress Jeanne Moreau produced a documentary on Gish.