Sunday, December 1, 2013

Guest Post: The Movies, Lillian Gish and Me


By Russell Adams

I did not get back to NYC to try and see Ms. Gish, but over the next few years, we swapped cards, notes and gifts. I was working at Universal Studios at that time and arranged to make a cassette for her of an “Alfred Hitchcock Hour” in which she’d guest starred in 1963. 

I got back a sweet note telling how much she enjoyed seeing the program – which she had not remembered – and was pleased to see that it was good! I told her about seeing “True Heart Susie” at a screening in Los Angeles, which was attended by her cousin Arthur, and she was very happy about that, as it was one of her favorite silent films.

Ms. Gish was also kind enough to sign various items for me and respond to my many questions. Jim Frasher once told me that she enjoyed my queries, because I did not ask the same things, and she actually had to think about her responses.

She had retired from film after The Whales of August. Jim Frasher told me he was on the Maine location with her during production and Bette Davis’s treatment of her was atrocious, shocking even the veteran members of the crew and director Lindsay Anderson. After that experience, Ms. Gish said, “If working in the movie industry today means dealing with persons like Ms. Davis, I don’t want any part of it!” Instead she devoted her time to speaking tours on behalf of film preservation for the American Film Institute. She also was an advocate for women in film and was an inspiration to many.

According to Jim Frasher, an annual tradition in the Gish household was watching the local NYC news on her birthday, as they never failed to mention it in their broadcasts. Together Jim and Ms. Gish would channel surf as one after another station wished her a happy birthday…and got her age wrong! One would report her 98th birthday, while another noted that she was 96. One year when the ABC affiliate said that she was only 93, she gleefully exclaimed, “That’s settles it. I’m watching ABC from now on!” Sadly, Lillian Gish passed away on February 27, 1993, nine months short of her 100th birthday, which was her final goal. She had done everything else. As Jim said, “She just went quietly in her own bed. It was very peaceful.”

Services were held at her beloved St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in NYC, and her life was remembered in comments by her godson James MacArthur (adopted son of Helen Hayes), and she was interred there alongside her mother and sister Dorothy. In her lifetime, Lillian Gish received an Oscar, AFI Life Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors, among many others.

Her will provided for an award, The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most remunerative of its kind, which is presented annually to an individual, who in Ms. Gish’s words “has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (Anna Devere Smith was the 2012 recipient.) Always proud of being a ‘Buckeye’ – she was born in Springfield, Ohio – Ms. Gish was a generous benefactor of Bowling Green University, home to the Gish Film Theatre and Gallery.

Sotheby’s conducted an auction of Ms. Gish’s personal belongings. Among the items for bidding were a pair of doorstops. One was a golden fox, the other a cast-iron pug, which had been a birthday present from D.W. Griffith. I placed a bid on the pair, not at all certain I wouldn’t be outbid by some wealthy fan.

One day I received a call at my office and heard Jim Frasher excitedly exclaim, “Do you know what you’ve done? You outbid Steven Spielberg!” Spielberg, a noted collector of Gish and Griffith memorabilia, had underbid me by fifty dollars. Woo-hoo! Jim told me not to be discouraged by the condition of the little pug dog. He’d guarded the door between Ms. Gish’s kitchen and the dining room for decades – and was tripped over by all the greatest names of the twentieth century!

The next year Universal sent me to NYC for some business, so I called Jim for a lunch. We met at Sardi’s and had a delightful visit, during which he presented me with one final gift from our favorite silent film star. It was an ornate pillbox with Oriental design, a present from Helen Hayes that had sat on Ms. Gish’s coffee table for years. It was the perfect conclusion to my brush with a true immortal.

This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.

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