Lillian Gish - study


By William Saroyan – 1976
Here is William Saroyan’s passionate memoir: Saroyan writing about Saroyan and the people he remembers— lightly, politely, and impolitely. Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang In Forever is a love letter, written with a pen dipped in acid, to all the unknown and well-known stars in the writer’s life. The people, both loved and hated, range from Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway, Louis B. Mayer, and Katharine Hepburn to relatives and childhood companions at the Fred Finch Orphanage— the vast, universal family of man:
“What a fool I’ve been all my life, and how right it has been for me, what a blessing in disguise, as the saying is, always unable not to defy the odds. Unable not to insist that God is on my side, the mystery is with me…”
“The cowboy bogus-boob Will Rogers enjoyed a lot of sickening fame for his coy head-down chewing-gum pronouncements about human politics, looking up at the world like an Arab girl to her betrothed.”
“Charlie Chaplin had a real talent for cleaning the fingernails at table (alone) without offending God, and an ability to kick a cop and run that was never matched by anybody else in reality or imagination.”
“Gypsy Rose Lee was a tall girl who spoke with a slight lisp, possibly the consequence of an overbite…”
Lillian Gish embroidering 1916

Lillian Gish and Kitty Duval

At the Liberty Theater in Fresno I had seen Lillian Gish in some of the nicest silent movies ever made, one of them by the great innovator David Wark Griffith: Way Down East.
"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish promotional
I had also seen her in ToVable David, with the title role played by that fine American lad of legend and lore Richard Barthelmess. But most unforgettable in the movie was Ernest Torrence, the supreme villain of movie dreamland, and yet even to a nine-year-old kid a grand member of the real human family. He was always in need of a shave, he looked out of his eyes with deep suspicion, which had clearly come from knowing himself, knowing what he had done and would do again at the first opportunity. He was just right in a movie containing so much tender love. With her older sister Dorothy, Lillian Gish was a sweet and appropriate evocation of the innocence of American fantasy after the turn of the century.
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
And then instead of falling away and disappearing as so many others had done, as Theda Bara, and Clara Kimball Young had fallen away, for instance, Lillian Gish went right on being both a real person in the world, and a great actress, in films and plays. Early in 1939 George Jean Nathan saw my first play, My Heart’s in the Highlands. Now and then he’d phone me at the Great Northern Hotel, and say something like, “I’m going to my table at 21, why don’t you come by for one drink, that’s all, because I’ve got to go back to work on my Encyclopedia of the Theatre.” And so I would walk over to 21 West 52 nd Street and be greeted by Red on the sidewalk, and by Harry standing at the door, and by Don taking hats, and by iMac Kriendler, and by Gus the bartender, and I would go straight to the table in the corner and sit down, and George Jean Nathan would start the conversation by saying,  Girls—in all the world, is anything more amazing than girls?” Van the corner waiter would quickly bring a big Scotch and water, which was the drink of those days, and I would take a gulp and say, “Well, they’re the other half of us, at any rate.” “Not at all,” Nathan would reply with his quavering voice, “they are far more than the other half of us, show me a man who is anything, and I’ll show you at least three women who did it—his wife, his mother, and his daughter.”
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Or something else just as final and just as unimportantly meaningless. And so, on and on the easy talk would go. In those days he spent quite a lot of time with the one American girl that I myself would have preferred had I had the good luck of having been given a choice, and one evening as we left 21, he said, “Walk with me up here a bit, I’m going to call on Lillian.” Thus, for the first time in my life, I met Lillian Gish in person, in her own apartment, which I still remember as having been like herself, a kind of self-portrait, as I suppose all places where people live are. And she was even more like a demure and shy flower than she had been in Broken Blossoms.
Lillian Gish Promotional - Broken Blossoms, Full Frame - James Abbe 1919 b
Lillian Gish Promotional – Broken Blossoms, Full Frame – James Abbe 1919 b
As George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish chatted, I kept thinking, I’ve got to write a play for Lillian Gish. And I did. I wrote the part of Kitty Duval in The Time of Your Life for her, only to realize that a twenty-year-old San Francisco streetwalker could not be performed in 1939 by a world-famous silent-movie actress of the early 1900s. I therefore decided I had better not tell anybody that Lillian Gish had given me the idea for the heroine of my first and only money-making play.
George Jean Nathan invited me to his corner table one afternoon and introduced me to Julie Hayden, a fragile and beautiful girl he told me he just might marry, and the next time we met I suggested that she was the ideal girl to play Kitty Duval, which pleased him, and of course indeed she was, and performed the part in the original production. But I hadn’t even met her when I wrote the part and the play. Now and then when I came upon Lillian Gish somewhere I thought I ought to tell her, but I never did. Finally, in 1969, I dedicated a book of plays to her, but the stupid, fly-by-night publisher spelled her name Lillian Gist. I couldn’t have felt more as if the situation was now totally and irrevocably hopeless, and I can only hope that this confession at last will in some small measure be the equivalent of “Lillian Gish, I love you, always have, and always will.”
Sons Come and Go - William Saroyan cover
Sons Come and Go – William Saroyan cover

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