Lillian Gish may have ruled the silent screen, but her life spoke volumes. Best known for her partnership with director D.W. Griffith—and her big, expressive eyes—the American actress was a visual staple for the early history of the moving picture. But what was so controversial about the First Lady of American Cinema? Shush up to these 42 shocking facts about Lillian Gish.
1. Exit, Pursued by a Papa
Gish’s childhood was less than Hollywood magic. Born on 14 October 1893 in Springfield, Ohio, her father was an alcoholic who soon abandoned the family. Her mother went into acting to support Gish and her little sister, Dorothy.
2. Get Her While She’s Cheap
As a child, Gish performed with her younger sister Dorothy in melodramas for a plum rate of $10 a show. Of course, acting didn’t completely put food on the table. To help make ends meet, she and Dorothy sold food to patrons of the old Majestic Theatre.
3. Sweet Unemployment
Thanks to a candy store fire, Lillian Gish had her first brush with stardom. When she was a girl, the store where her mother and sister worked burned down. The family moved to New York, where Gish became close to her next-door neighbor, Gladys Smith…AKA the future superstar Mary Pickford. Pickford introduced the Gish sisters to director D.W. Griffith, who signed them to contracts with Biograph Studios.If only it were that easy for everybody.
4. Never Too Early to Rack up References
Before she was 10 years old, Gish danced onstage with legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt.
5. Sister Act
Gish shared her film debut with her little sister, Dorothy Gish, in D.W. Griffith’s short movie An Unseen Enemy (1912). The pair played orphaned on-screen sisters fending off burglars in their house. At the time, Gish looked down on this new-fangled medium of “flickers,” and continued to put her heart in stage work.
6. Gotta Film Fast
Back when movies where much smaller-scale productions, Gish was able to star in more than 25 films in just her first two years as a screen actress. No wonder she was called “the First Lady of American Cinema.”
7. So Much for Girl Power
Gish is also one of the first Hollywood film directors. She directed her sister Dorothy Gish as the star of Remodeling Her Husband (1920), which Lillian Gish also wrote. In fact, the production was staffed almost entirely by women—a remarkable feat for this time as well as ours. Unfortunately, Gish did not like directing, and told reporters that it was “a man’s job.”
Tragically, the film is now lost to time.
8. She Can Spare Two Dimes
Gish left D.W. Griffith for a six-movie contract with MGM studios in 1926. Originally, MGM offered her $1 million (which was $13.4 million in 2015), but Gish took less money in exchange for being promised that extra funds would go to hiring only the best professionals for her movies.
9. Past My Prime?
Gish made her bread and butter by playing ingenues in silent film. With the entry of “talkies,” however, the “vamp” character rose to be the height of fashion—and Gish’s roles started to look outdated. To some critics, she was now a “silly, sexless antique.”
10. My Honor Before My Street Cred
To help Gish survive the transition to talkies, studio head Louis B. Mayer had the idea of orchestrating a public scandal. It would “knock her off her pedestal,” in Mayer’s words, and make Gish more sympathetic. Unwilling to bring drama into her real life, Gish said no, and returned to her first love on the stage.
11. Too Sexy for Shakespeare
For most of the 1930s and 40s, Gish dominated the stage. Her defining role in this phase of her career was as Ophelia in Guthtie McClintic’s 1936 revival of Hamlet. Gish would insist she brought her own twist to the legendary Shakespeare character, saying, “I played the lewd Ophelia!”
12. Throwback Thursday
Gish returned to film for 1946’s Duel in the Sun, where she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. Her character dies, and critics noted how much her role in this film bore resemblance to her most famous silent screen acts.
13. Gone With the Paths Not Taken
Gish was in the running for several roles in Gone With the Wind. In another universe, Gish played Scarlet O’Hara’s mother Ellen or the sex worker Belle Watling. However, these roles really went to Barbara O’Neil and Ona Munson, respectively.
14. Can’t Silence This Artist
Sound picture was not going away any time soon—especially by the 1970s. Nevertheless, Gish remained a staunch advocate for appreciating the increasingly lost art of the silent film. In addition to doing screenings of classic works, she hosted the PBS film program of silent movies, The Silent Years, in 1975.
15. No Words Speak a Thousand Words
Gish never received a competitive Oscar for her work in sound pictures, but she did win a 1971 Special Academy Award for “superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.”
16. Ladies Second
Gish was only the second female recipient of the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award (Bette Davis beat her to it). Moreover, Gish is the only winner of that award who was a big player in the days of silent film.
17. The Final Sister Act
Fittingly—because Gish’s first film role was alongside her real-life sister—her last film role was playing elderly sisters (this time with Bette Davis) in The Whales of August (1987). She was 93 years old.
18. More Than a Mister?
The exact nature of Gish’s relationship with creative collaborator D.W. Griffith has been the subject of speculation for decades. The two were very close, and associates were certain they were romantically involved, even if just briefly. Nevertheless, Gish would only refer to her creative partner as “Mr. Griffith” for the rest of her life.
19. The Silent Spinster
Gish was a lifelong bachelorette, and never had children. The less the merrier, if you ask me!
20. Best Friends Forever, and She Means It
One of Gish’s best friends was actress Helen Hayes, who was known as “the First Lady of American Theatre.” A fitting pal for Gish, who was known as the “First Lady of American Cinema.” When Gish died, Hayes was left as executor of her estate—even though Hayes only outlived her best friend by less than a month.
21. The Mother of All Stars
Gish was godmother to actor James MacArthur, who was the son of her best friend Helen Hayes, and also the future star of Hawaii Five-O.
22. Not Too Sick to Stand out
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic infected 500 million people and took between 50 to 100 million lives—and it almost took the life of Lillian Gish. She was filming Broken Blossoms when she became infected. Of course, Gish survived to go on and build a healthy filmography.
23. The Wind Beneath My (Right) Wings
In her private life, Gish was a hardcore Republican. In the 1970s, she was a staunch supporter of future President Ronald Reagan.
24. Put up Your Fists, or Shut up About It
In the beginnings of World War II, Gish was a strong opponent against US interventionism. She even served on the ant-interventionist America First Committee with general Robert E. Wood and famous pilot Charles Lindbergh. This changed after Pearl Harbor: Gish was temporarily blacklisted until she signed a contract agreeing to cease her anti-interventionist work.
She then even had to deny such a contract existed.
25. Musical Cameo
The debut Smashing Pumpkins album, Gish (1991), is titled after the famous silent film star. According to frontman Billy Corgan, it is also an homage to his grandmother. Gish once rode through the small, remote town when Corgan’s grandmother lived via train, and this was one of the biggest events in the matriarch’s life.
26. Too Cute to Be Distinguished
As small children, Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy looked so alike that they had to tie their hair in different-colored ribbons so D.W. Griffith could tell them apart. Griffith would direct them on set by addressing them as “Red” and “Blue.”
27. Lace up or Shut up
Gish didn’t deign to wear a historically-accurate corset for her role in La Boheme. The costume designer refused to follow Gish’s diva demands—and it’s largely agreed this is why the designer didn’t last long in Hollywood.
28. No Such Thing as Sick Days in the 1920s
You can’t accuse Gish of having a bad work ethic. She completed the whole of filming for The Scarlet Letter in just three days—but for good reason: Gish’s mother had a stroke and she needed to drop the act and visit her.
29. Gotta Hand It to the Heat
Gish scalded off a part of her hand while filming The Wind (1928). The weather was incredibly hot, and a door handle got so heated, it burned off a part of Gish’s palm when she touched it.
30. Jack of All Trades?
Gish thought she knew better than the director of photography for Zelig (1983). While shooting the film, she gave Gordon Willis a step-by-step demonstration of how she wanted the scene to be lit. The crew stood by, agog at Gish’s hubris, but Willis did the smart thing and obeyed the legend. We’ll never know if Gish was a good lighter, though: the scene never made the final cut.
31. I Have Faith in Myself First
Needless to say, Gish did not follow her father’s family business. For generations, the Gish men served as Dunkard ministers. Not only did Gish not enter the clergy, she was a lifelong Episcopalian, like her mother.
32. From the Womb to the Tomb
At the age of 99 years old, Lillian Gish passed away in her sleep from heart failure on 27 February 1993. She was buried next to her sister, Dorothy.
33. Beauty Should Be Rewarded
At the time of her death, Gish’s estate was worth millions. The lion’s share of it went to fund The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, a cash award given every year to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Flexible terms, but it might be worth it.
The 2017 recipient, Meredith Monk, won $300,000.
34. Chemistry Isn’t Always Professional
Gish inspired a big-time crush in her La Bohème co-star, John Gilbert. He would purposely mess up love scenes with her, just so they would have to redo them again. According to witnesses, Gish simply brushed off Gilbert’s advances.
35. Ready, Aim, Don’t Underestimate Me!
Gish was supposed to learn how to shoot for the 1960 film The Unforgiven. To do so, colleagues John Huston and Burt Lancaster drove her out to the desert and schooled her on the world of guns. As it turned out, though, Gish didn’t need much schooling: she was seemingly a natural and could shoot with higher accuracy than even the men could.
Reportedly, Gish had actually already learned to be sharpshooter from no less than the outlaw-turned-actor Al Jennings.
36. Love Has Limits (or Prejudice?)
In the 1920s, Gish had a long-term relationship with critic George Jean Nathan. The two never married, reportedly for reasons related to Nathan’s Jewish background. Although he was not a practising Jew, he never told Gish about his background. Gish was allegedly turned off by either his secrecy or his religious history.
Some even said the reason went deeper than all that, whispering that Gish was afraid to get married and repeat her parents’ mistakes.
37. Too Talented to Survive
Gish’s childhood friend—and future Hollywood colleague—Mary Pickford was scared that Gish would die at any moment. Apparently superstitious, Pickford believed that “the good die young.” Just take the compliment, Gish.
38. So Much for Love Letters
In the 1920s, Gish embarked on an affair with drama producer Charles Duell. Unfortunately and rather luridly, most of what we know about the affair comes from Duell’s subsequent lawsuit against Gish. Suing Gish, the details of their private life made the tabloids, and caused a scandal in those prudish times.
39. No Gold for You
Gish’s final screen performance in The Whales of August garnered her Oscar buzz. She received a standing ovation at Cannes and even won a National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. When she was not nominated for an Oscar, people in the industry were outraged. Gish, however, merely quipped that it saved her “losing to Cher.”
40. Until the Morning…
The Whales of August is Gish’s last film role, but her last official performance was a cameo appearance in a studio recording of Show Boat in 1988. Fittingly, her last recorded words were “Good night.”
41. Ice Cold Ambition
Gish was arguably the first quirky method actor to risk it all for the craft of acting. In D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, her character was supposed to float down the river on an iceberg. She insisted on actually laying on a real iceberg, and dipping her long hair and fingers into the water. The result was a great performance, but also severe consequences.
Sadly, it resulted in permanent nerve damage to her precious pointers.
42. Too Close to the Real Thing
Also in line with her dramatic commitment, Gish’s starved herself for three days before her death scene in La Bohème (1926). The director worried he would be filming the demise of both the character and the actress herself.