Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lillian Gish, Delicate Beauty

Lillian Gish, 1922, from the Lillian Gish Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain.

The delicate beauty of Lillian Gish left her audience breathless, but she was also a diverse and complex actress whose talent was beyond compare. Life wasn’t easy for Lillian, but with dedication and perseverance she managed to create a stage and screen career that lasted 75 years.

The Early Years of Lillian Gish

On October 14, 1893, Lillian Diana Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, to Mary Robinson McConnell and James Lee Gish. Lillian made her first performance at the age of five when she and her younger sister, Dorothy Gish, started acting and modeling to help support the family.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish with their mother in 1900. Photo in public domain.

In 1902, Lillian made her first theater performance in Rising Sun, Ohio. The next two years were spent acting with her mother and sister in melodramas for $10 a week. In 1905 she danced in a Sarah Bernhardt production in New York City. By the time she was a teenager, Lillian Gish was an experienced professional.

The Dedication and Appeal of Lillian Gish

Lillian’s wide-eyed, dark beauty and delicate features gave her a look of vulnerability that served her well in silent films where she often played the orphaned victim, but Lillian’s success in films was more than just skin deep. She often subjected herself to the same extreme conditions as her characters to achieve the desired look for the screen or stage.

Lillian Gish, 1921, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain.

Her thin and fragile appearance also helped her to convince her audience that she was three years younger than her actual age--it was not until 1984 that her true birth date was made public.

Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith

Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, were friends with the popular actress Mary Pickford, and Pickford introduced them to silent film director D.W. Griffith. It was Griffith who cast Lillian in her first film. Lillian and Dorothy played orphaned sisters in the 1912 crime thriller An Unseen Enemy.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish, trailer screenshot from An Unseen Enemy.

Lillian made over two dozen films with D.W. Griffith and in her autobiography she claimed they often worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. During her time with Griffith, Lillian also directed the 1920 film Remodeling Her Husband, which starred her sister, Dorothy, and Dorothy's husband, James Rennie.

Rumors and Scandals Regarding the Private Life of Lillian Gish

Lillian worked very closely and often with D.W. Griffith and there were rumors of romantic involvement that she refused to confirm or deny. She did, however, have a relationship with George Jean Nathan, founder and editor of the literary magazine American Spectator.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish with D.W. Griffith, 1922, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain. 

She was also involved with producer Charles Duell, a relationship which was made public in the 1920s when Duell filed a lawsuit against Gish.

Lillian Gish moves to MGM Studios

In 1924, Lillian was offered an $800,000 contract with MGM Studios where she continued her remarkable performances in films such as the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter.

Lillian Gish in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912, trailer screenshot.

In the 1930s, however, her career seemed to dwindle and she returned to theater performances and occasionally performed on the radio, as well. Lillian appeared on television for the first time in 1948 and continued to appear regularly on television for the rest of her career.

The Final Performance of Lillian Gish

In the later years of Lillian Gish’s career she starred in numerous films that brought her great critical acclaim, such as her performance as Laura Belle McCanles in the 1946 Duel in the Sun, which earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. She also portrayed Rachel Cooper in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter and received many positive reviews.

Lillian Gish, 1922, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain.

In 1960, Lillian portrayed Matilda Zachary in John Huston’s The Unforgiven, which also starred Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, and Audie Murphy, and again she received many positive reviews.

Lillian Gish photographed in her own apartment by photographer Allan Warren in 1973.

Her final film appearance was in 1987’s The Whales of August, a performance that many critics believed deserved an Oscar nomination. In this film, Lillian’s character, Sarah Webber, is the elderly caretaker of her blind sister, Libby Strong, played by Bette Davis. Lillian was 93 years old when she made the film and this gave her the distinction of being the oldest actress to feature in a leading role.

The Death and Legacy of Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish died of natural causes on February 27, 1993. She was 99 years old. She never married and she had no children. She was buried beside her sister, Dorothy, at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Manhattan. She left her estate to her close friend, actress Helen Hayes.

Lillian Gish card, 1915. Unknown Photographer, Public Domain.

Lillian Gish appeared in a total of 119 films during her career. In 1971, she received an Honorary Academy Award. The American Film Institute named Gish one of the greatest female stars of all time and in 1984 she received an AFI Life Achievement Award. 

Lillian Gish on the cover of the December 1921 issue of Photoplay. Public Domain.

The Gish Film Theater and Gallery in Bowling Green State University is dedicated to the works of both Dorothy and Lillian Gish and Gish gifted numerous items of memorabilia from her acting career to the theater. Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, both have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish, screenshot from Orphans of the Storm, 1921. 

There is also a street named after Lillian Gish in Massillon, Ohio, where she lived as a child. Lillian Gish wrote three autobiographies, including: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me with Ann Pinchot, published in 1969 by Prentice Hall; Dorothy and Lillian Gish, published in 1973 by Charles Scribner's Sons; and An Actor's Life for Me with Selma G. Lanes, published in 1987 by Viking Penguin Press.

  • "History." The Dorothy & Lillian Gish Film Theater & Gallery. Bowling Green State University Website.
  • LillianGish. American Masters. PBS.Org.
  • The Official Website of Lillian Gish.
  • The Whales of August. Dir. Lindsay Anderson. Perfs. Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern. Nelson Entertainment, 1987.
G is for Lillian Gish! 


  1. She is one of my favourites and she was one strong cookie. I have yet to find a full biographical book on her. I have seen some of her films and when the AFI saluted her and watched her being saved by Richard Barthelmess on the icy river, the people in the audience cheered. It was riveting all those decades later

    1. There are a few classic actresses who were ignored by biographers. I may need to rectify that situation when I get some time...

  2. Fascinating! I knew nothing about Lilian Gish except that she was an actress. I really want to see some of her movies now and read more of your writing.

    1. Thank you, Donna! I think the Gish sisters were amazing. Keeping in mind the special requirements necessary for black and white and silent films, they both had unique talent.

  3. I love Lillian Gish. She could say more with the subtle shift of her eyes than most actors manage with a page of dialogue.

    1. I agree, Kate. Her beauty is remarkable, as is her sister's. They must have turned a lot of heads when they were out together!

  4. Great photos and interesting info, but the photo of Dorothy and Lillian as kids isn't with their mother; it is from "Her First False Step" in 1903, and the lady is actress Helen Ray.

  5. Unfortunately, you chose to post as Anonymous, so we do not know if you have any credentials that would qualify you to make this identification. However, the Wisconsin Historical Society identified the woman in the photo as their mother, and Wikipedia--which is not considered a reliable source as it is fluid, constantly changing with the opinions of others who do not state their credentials--is the only source identifying the woman in the photo as Helen Ray, so I will stick with the opinions of the Historical Society, which also offers copies of the photo for sale: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294955414&dsRecordDetails=R:IM97305

  6. I have also contacted the Wisconsin History Society and asked for assistance in identifying the woman in the photo as well as usage rights as they claim it is not in public domain, so I appreciate your message as it has made me aware of a potential issue with this post. Thank you.

  7. I have confirmed the identity of the woman in the photograph as Mary Robinson McConnell, mother of Dorothy and Lillian Gish, through the Wisconsin Historical Society. The organization has the original of the photo and the identity of the woman in the photograph is documented on the back of the photo. The photograph is in Public Domain, but if you wish a copy of the photo, Anonymous, for your own use, please contact them directly through their website. Also, please be aware that I will no longer post comments by "anonymous" readers as they are generally posted by trolls or people simply trying to create controversy, and the readers of this blog are serious students of the Old West and do not have time for trolls or silly arguments. Thank you for reading!


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