Lillian Gish

Paperback (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $1.99
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 94%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (29) from $1.99   
  • New (8) from $8.50   
  • Used (21) from $1.99   


At the time of her death in 1993, Lillian Gish was universally recognized as a film legend.
In this revealing and absorbing narrative, Charles Affron uses newly released documents to uncover a life that was cast in the shadow of self-generated myth. Filling the gaps left by Gish's selective memoirs and authorized biographies, he shows how the actress carefully shaped her public identity while keeping much of her life private.

A New York Times Notable Book

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Richard Schickel
Affron's chronology is occasionally confusing, but he politely, consistently refutes Gish's line, remaining unfailingly generous to his subject's art and indomitability, all the while fastidiously and expertly devastating the fairy tale in which she wrapped herself. If we are ever to rescue silent film from its status as a dwindling cult's enthusiasm and restore it as a vital part of our cultural heritage, we need more work of this balanced and balancing kind.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Following her renowned performances in such classic silent films as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Gish was famous worldwide until her death in 1993, just before her 100th birthday. While a tremendous amount has been written about Gish's career (she herself penned numerous memoirs and autobiographies), this appreciative biography corrects the multiple misunderstandings and mistakes (many originating from Gish herself) that have become part of the actress's mythos. Affron (Start Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis) has uncovered much new information about Gish's personal and professional life, based on extensive research, including confidential correspondences. There is nothing startling here--Gish's orderly, nonsensational life was centered around her career, which spanned the years 1902 to 1987--but he provides many new details, such as Gish's possible romance with business partner Charles Holland Duell Jr. and her complex relationship with critic George Jean Nathan. Affron is sensitive to Gish's political sentiments--she always defended D.W. Griffith against charges of racism for Birth of a Nation and harbored nascent pro-German sympathies in the late 1930s--but he never exploits them for scandalmongering. Well attuned to the sexual politics that pervade the entertainment industry, he is also deft in discussing how Gish's fragile innocence was used in films and to further her success. Well written, ambitious and intelligent, this biography is an essential addition to the work on Gish and on American film and theater. Agent, Curtis Brown, Ltd. (Mar. 20) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520234345
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 462
  • Sales rank: 1,470,162
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Affron is Professor of French at New York University. He is the author of Sets in Motion, Cinema and Sentiment, Divine Garbo, and Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis. He lives in New York City.

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter 1: An American Family

The daughter of James Leigh Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell, Lillian Gish was proud of her roots, deeply planted in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America.

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, who fled France to escape his military duties. This French connection is reported in the program bio for Orphans of the Storm, in keeping, perhaps, with the French locale of the picture. Such press-agentry falsification was common. Just a few years later the story was modified slightly so that de Guiche becomes the more illustrious Duc de Guise. It is also possible that Lillian was, at this time, genuinely ignorant of her father's origins. Her ties were infinitely stronger to her mother's side, and she had, in fact, had little contact with her father's family for many years.

The first "Gish" to settle in North America was Matthias Gisch, who came from the Saar region, around Wolfersweiler. The family historian, J. I. Hamaker, a professor at Randolph-Macon Women's College, alerted Lillian in 1933 to the two hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Gish homestead near Manheim, Pennsylvania, six miles north of Lancaster, where Matthias received a land grant of 170 acres from William Penn. A monument marks the site at eight-tenths of a mile south of Penryn, at Gish and Newport Roads. The Newport Road was a highway that linked Harrisburg and the port at Wilmington, Delaware. Matthias was a prosperous smithy as well as a farmer. When it was sold in 1942, the farm consisted of ninety-eight acres, a brick house built in 1851, and a barn with a cornerstone dated 1733.

Because of conflicting records, it is not clear whether Lillian belonged to the fifth or sixth generation of Gishes born in America. Many in the family migrated from Pennsylvania to Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and as far west as Idaho and California. Some stayed in Pennsylvania as practicing Mennonites. Among the Gish ancestors were a great-uncle probably murdered on a business trip to Philadelphia and four cousins who served in the Civil War. Lillian's father, James Leigh Gish was the youngest of four sons of David Gish (1814-88) and Diana Caroline Waltz. Baptismal records exist for two of James Leigh's brothers, David Edwin (June 30, 1860) and Alfred Grant (July 19, 1864) but none for James Leigh.

Lillian's mother, Mary Robinson McConnell, the daughter of Henry Clay McConnell and Emily Ward Robinson, had a sister, Emily, and two brothers, Henry and Frank. When she was a little girl, Lillian's personal mythology was informed by her maternal ancestors and the stories she heard from her great-aunt Carrie Robinson. A tenth-generation American on her mother's side, Lillian inherited a family history that reads like American history — emigration from the Old World, settlement and struggle in the New World, military service and political commitment, even distinction in the arts. Francis Barnard emigrated from England in 1632 or 1634 to Hartford, Connecticut, and then Hadley, Massachusetts. John Taylor, born in 1641, also from England, was an early resident of Northampton, Massachusetts. Joseph Barnard, who helped settle Deerfield, Massachusetts, was killed there by Native Americans in 1695. His gravestone is still standing. Other members of these lines were a brigadier major in the French and Indian War, an Ohio state senator, a drummer boy in the Union Army. Lillian's great-grandmother Emily Ward Robinson, who was the first young woman from Ohio to attend Mount Holyoke College, also had her poems published in Harper's Magazine. But the most illustrious member of the family was President Zachary Taylor, whose portrait hung in Lillian's apartment. (A more recent claim to celebrity lineage was Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, her seventh cousin thrice removed.) For Lillian Gish, American history was, at the microcosmic level, in part, a family affair. She described how, when she was a child actress touring the country, her mother took her to graveyards where they would search for the family names. "It surprised us to see how many times familiar names turned up, but, of course, this country was a lot younger then. Mother's great-great-grandmother shook hands with President George Washington when she was a little girl!"

References to the courtship and marriage of James Gish and Mary McConnell are brief. Lillian herself dates their meeting "a few years" after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, a misrepresentation designed to shave "a few years" from her own birthday in that very year. The dates in the rest of her account are also inaccurate. James had left Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, to clerk in a wholesale grocery firm in Springfield, Ohio. Remembering her father as fair-haired and good-looking, Lillian, in her handwritten corrections to the manuscript of Paine's biography, adds "young, handsome and winning" to the description of "James Gish, a traveling salesman." She also puts James's age at twenty-one when he met and soon thereafter married Mary, a pretty, blond, petite young woman, who she claimed to be three years his junior. The couple first settled in Springfield, Ohio. Lillian Diana Gish was born in a rather large two-story house at 219 Linden Avenue, October 14, 1893. She was born with a caul, and according to her grandmother, this was a good omen. Three weeks later, the grandmother saved her from a life-threatening attack of membranous croup. But all this really transpired when Lillian's father and mother were still teenagers; James was seventeen or eighteen and Mary seventeen. James's death certificate indicates he was born in 1875 or 1876; Mary's birthday was September 16, 1876. They had to falsify their declarations to obtain a license in the state of Ohio, where a statute forbade marriage for men younger than twenty and women younger than eighteen. They were married on January 7, 1893, at a Lutheran church in Dayton.

The Gish's second daughter, Dorothy, was born in Dayton on March 11, 1898. That date was always correctly reported, while Lillian Gish's birth date was a vexed issue throughout her professional life. When she first began to work as a child actress, she was not yet nine years old, but it was in her interest to pass for younger. Audiences of melodrama took particular delight in the disasters that threatened the cute tots on the stage: the younger the tot, the more vulnerable the victim, the greater the thrill and the pathos. Actually, Lillian's little sister, Dorothy, probably preceded her on the stage. Dorothy, four and a half years Lillian's junior, did not have to falsify her age to play Little Willie in East Lynne. She could not have been more than four years old at the time. The span of years between the two sisters was shortened to give Lillian the chance to be a littler girl than she actually was, thus extending her marketability in theatrical troupes that toured melodramas just after the turn of the century. This subterfuge served Lillian well when she joined D. W. Griffith at Biograph in 1912. Already a veteran actress, going on nineteen, she needed to be young in a medium that cherished the freshness of youth. Griffith often cast her and his other favorites in the roles of girls and very young women.

Sidney Sutherland, the author of Lillian's 1927 serialized biography in Liberty Magazine, confessed to perplexity about the age of his subject. Not unsurprisingly for a movie star, Lillian's own memory apparently failed when called upon to provide details. Sutherland did some checking and found the court records that gave Dorothy's accurate birth date as March 11, 1898, and Lillian's as October 14, 1893. Why then did Who's Who indicate October 14, 1896? he asked. "And yet Dorothy's birth record shows your father gave his age in 1898 as twenty-four — so he must have been nineteen when you were born, according to Clark County, a manifest absurdity." Absurd perhaps, but true. Sutherland consulted Griffith, who advised him to leave vague the matter of Lillian's age.

Albert Bigelow Paine, her 1932 biographer, puts her birth date in 1896, not 1893, on the first page of his work, as Lillian instructed. Paine thought this forthrightness very brave of her, and entirely consonant with her admirable character: "You are not in a class with those who are willing to sail under false colors." Over the subsequent decades, Lillian's year of birth was variously reported as 1896 and 1898. It was not reported at all in her 1969 autobiography. And as late as 1987, when she was going on ninety-four, she still indulged in the creative chronology that actors often think their prerogative. "I was born ten weeks before the beginning of the twentieth century. I'm not 90 years old, as many people seem to think, but I am as old as the century." That neat calculation subtracted seven years from the august total.

Paine relishes the stories of Lillian's childhood — how she preferred playing with her sister, Dorothy, to her rag doll, her taste for castoria cured only when her aunt half-filled the bottle with cod-liver oil, the recurrent nightmare of a masked face appearing in a window. Since marital separation did not fit Paine's idealized portrait of the girl who loved to say her prayers and adored her mother, he deals only briefly and reticently with the most important event of little Lillian's life: the breakup of her parents' marriage. Lillian herself always attributed the failure of the union to the extreme youth of the couple, and the father's immaturity and dreamy nature.

At the time of Dorothy's birth, in 1898, the four Gishes were living with James's grandmother in Dayton, a situation that did not suit Mary. There are a number of variations on the account of the family's fortunes, the most fanciful of which is that James "was the owner of a prosperous and ever-extending chain of confectionery stores, one of the real founders of the chain stores system in this country." In fact, an opportunity did arise for James to go into the confectionery business in Baltimore, where the family relocated. It was here that Lillian made her first appearance on a professional stage, at Ford's Theatre, along with popular actors Nat Goodwin and Maxine Elliot, distributing Christmas stockings to poor children.

In the official versions, the restless James soon sold his share and moved on to New York City, leaving Mary and the girls in Baltimore. An undated typescript in Lillian's files supplies a more candid explanation of the events. It refers to James's alcoholism and Mary's hope that a move to New York would help cure him. He only got worse. For a while, Mary worked for James's ex-partner, Edward Meixner, packaging candy. When the family was reunited in New York, Mary was engaged as a demonstrator in a Brooklyn department store and became the principal wage-earner for the four Gishes. They lived in rooms on West Thirty-ninth Street, near Pennsylvania Station.

The final crisis occurred when James failed to pay the $3 weekly installment on the furniture Mary had bought on time. The bedroom suite was repossessed, and James Leigh Gish walked, or was sent, out of the lives of his wife and daughters. He made several reappearances, begging to be allowed to return. Mary was adamant in refusing to reconcile until he proved able to support the family. But James never reformed. The marriage was over and a legal separation was secured. Whenever James resurfaced in their lives, Mary feared that he, abetted by the Freemasons, would abduct one of the girls. Lillian was terrified that he would separate her from her mother and sister. She once asked if her mother would ever remarry. Mary Gish replied, "Your father destroyed me. Another man would destroy us." The girls' attachment to Mary was profound, and so it remained until her death in 1948.

Lillian presented her father's addiction as an essentially unfathomable aberration. "Why my father suddenly, and for no apparent reason, should renounce all responsibility and destroy himself with alcohol fills me with sad wonderment. It had not been inherited." How then to understand that her father had become a hopeless drunk? She looked to family for an explanation and found none. Her own, in particular, was a model of sobriety and reliability. "My mother's mother, my grandmother, died when she was twenty-eight and left four children...Families were closer then than now. And perhaps that is why America was, as we think, healthier. Because, what is America but one big family? And families make a country, good or bad." Again, personal history and national history meld, but neither account for the irresponsible, alcoholic James Leigh Gish. An ulterior comment on Lillian's father paints the classic dreamer with a brilliant scheme for success who, like so many others, needed only some money to prevent losing "his brain-child to others." There is no indication about the breed of brainchild that would have made his fortune. But as Lillian was fond of saying, he lavished upon his biological child a gift, without which she would not have persevered down the hard path of her career: "I think I was so lucky that my father gave me insecurity, that he put me out to work at five [sic]. That way I learned what it was like to work. be hungry at times." The ethic of deprivation and hard work was fundamental to the American dream and to Lillian Gish's narrative of her life.

Copyright © 2001 by 18 Frames, Inc.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)