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EASTSIDER LILLIAN GISH 78 years in show business
EASTSIDER LILLIAN GISH 78 years in show business


D.W. Griffith, the father of motion pictures, used to say there were only two people who outworked him — Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Pickford, who died last May, made her final film in 1933. But Lillian Gish never got around to retiring. At 83, she is perhaps the most active living legend in America.

Sipping tea at her Eastside apartment, which is decorated like a Victorian drawing room, Gish appears to have defeated time. Her clear blue eyes, porcelain-smooth complexion, and slender, girlish figure have not changed all that much since she rose to international stardom in Griffith's controversial 1915 classic, The Birth of a Nation. She also starred in his 1916 film Intolerance, a box office failure when released, but later recognized as a masterpiece.

An animated speaker who makes sweeping gestures, she still has the crystalline voice and flawless enunciation that enabled her to make the transition from silent films to talkies and Broadway shows in the early 1930s. The 1978 Robert Altman film A Wedding marked her 100th screen appearance.

"I've never worked harder in my life than I have in the last three or four years," says Miss Gish, who, during that period has made her singing and dancing debut in Washington's Kennedy Center, hosted a 13-week series for public television, The Silent Years, appeared in an ABC-TV movie of the week, and toured the world three times to present a one-woman show that combines film clips with narration. Her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, has been translated into 13 languages.

"I dedicated the book to my mother, who gave me love; to my sister, who taught me to laugh; to my father, who gave me insecurity; and to Mr. Griffith, who taught me that it was more fun to work than to play," she recalls with merriment, describing how her mother wound up in the theatre around 1901 due to financial need. Five-year-old Lillian and her 4-year-old sister Dorothy soon followed in the business. "We didn't use our real names because we didn't want to disgrace the family. … They used to have signs on hotels: 'No actors or dogs allowed.'"

She never got a chance to attend school. "I loved the book Black Beauty, and everybody would read it to me on the train or waiting for the train. Well, I finally had it read to me so much, I knew it by heart. And that's how I learned to read. When we were travelling around, mother would always take her history book. When we were in historical places, she'd take us to where history happened."

At the height of her silent film career, Lillian received 15,000 fan letters a week, many from overseas. "Silent films are the universal language that the Bible predicted would bring about the millennium. … When Mr. Griffith made his first talking picture in 1921, he said, 'This is committing suicide. My pictures play to the world. Five percent of them speak English. Why should I lose 95 percent of my audience?'

"One of the things I'm trying to do now is to bring back silent films and beautiful music. I'm doing it with my film La Boheme, which was made in 1926. I've done it in the opera house in Chicago with an organist, and at Town Hall here. Harold Schonberg of the New York Times gave it the most ecstatic review."

Her credits include an honorary Oscar award, dozens of major stage roles, and a movie that she co-wrote and directed. But Miss Gish, with characteristic modesty, prefers to talk about her friends and family. Bitterness and complaint are alien to her nature, although life has not always been easy. She never married, and her mother, to whom she was highly devoted, spent the last 25 years of her life as an invalid. "But she was never unhappy," testifies Lillian. "She was always the first to laugh, and the gayest."

Following her mother's death in 1948, the apartment was given to Dokey, her nurse, who died the following year. Then Lillian and Dorothy Gish shared the apartment until Dorothy's death in 1968. Although Lillian now lives alone, she has no opportunity to be lonely. Besides work, travel, and reading — her favorite activities — she has 13 godchildren.

One thing that helps keep her young, says Miss Gish, is her intense curiosity. "I was born with it, thank heavens. I feel sorry for people who say they're bored. How in the world can anyone be bored in the world today? How can fiction complete with what's going on?"

A few of her films, have been lost forever, since no original prints exist in good condition. Most, however, are still shown around the globe, which explains why her autobiography is available in such languages as Burmese and East Malaysian. The Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street has one of the country's finest collections of vintage Gish films.

One of her upcoming projects is a movie based on a story by the Danish writer Isak Dinesen, scheduled to begin shooting in Europe this winter. Another is a television pilot to be shot in California for Julius Evans.

Asked to name some of the things she is most curious about today, Miss Gish quickly replies, "Naturally what's happening in Cambodia — how they're going to solve that problem. Those poor children. It breaks my heart. … And who's going to be our next president. We've come to the point where we should have two presidents, I think — someone to look after the world and somebody to look after us."

died of natural causes 2-27-93. born 10-14-1893

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