The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL – 1974 (Life with Lillian)

 

The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL – 1974 (Life with Lillian)

  • The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL
  • Past deities of stage and screen, their roles, their magic, and their worshippers
  • EDITED By Anthony Curtis
  • Illustration consultants: Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson
  • St. Martin’s Press New York 1974
  • Copyright © 1974 by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd.

After the First World War a new generation of idols emerged in the theatre. In this period Sandy Wilson traces the trajectory of that idol of the first magnitude, Ivor Novello, who is also, nostalgically remembered by Micheal MacLiammoir. Noel Coward’s career is discussed by Sheridan Morley, while Vivian Ellis reminds us of the importance of great impresarios such as C. B. Cochran and a host of idols from the world of musical comedy. The spotlight then turns, to Broadway where George Oppenheimer reveals the strength of the great dynasties of idols, such as the Barrymores and the Lunts, and O. Z. Whitehead recalls nostalgically life with Lillian Gish. Paris had its own way with idols and Roland Gant wanders along the boulevards in search of the cabotins, from Guitry to Arletty. Back in the West End of London, Philip Hope-Wallace looks back over a lifetime spent in the stalls and remembers many unforgettable peaks in performance.

Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish in ‘Camille’ [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.2

Life with Lillian

O. Z. Whitehead

During the fall of 1930 my first term at Harvard University, my cousin, George Greene, a senior student, came to see me at my rooms one night and said, ‘I have two tickets in the first row of the balcony to see Uncle Vanya’ Fortunately, I was free to go with him. I had never seen or read a play by Anton Chekhov before.

This remarkable production by Jed Harris of Uncle Vanya had been a great success in New York the season before. His direction and everyone in the cast had received enormous praise. I can see Lillian Gish now as Helena, Serebryakov’s young wife, looking radiantly beautiful, in her first entrance, as she walked silently with much grace from the garden into the house. I can remember, too, the appealing manner in which, at the end of the second act, she said to her husband’s daughter, ‘Sonya, I have a longing for music; I should like to play something,’ and then, with much disappointment, learns from Sonya that her father would object. Lillian played Helena with fine feeling and wonderful charm. I wondered why she was no longer in films.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

In the fall of 1937, three years after I had gone on the stage myself, I went to see John Gielgud in Hamlet at the Empire Theater. Lillian was playing Ophelia. After having seen her in three silent films and in one play I did not expect to see the kind of performance that she gave in this part. In her scenes before her madness she was quiet and modest, but after that she lost all reticence. She even went so far as to roll on the ground. Lillian made the madness of Ophelia certainly disturbing. She gave a most striking performance.

After the play was over I went backstage to see John Cromwell, a friend of mine since the time when we went to the Buckley School in New York. He was playing Rosencrantz and under-studying John Gielgud. As I was on my way downstairs I saw Lillian standing outside her dressing-room. Wearing an attractive dressing-gown she was saying goodbye to an old lady who had been visiting her. She spoke to this lady in a kind, gentle tone, ‘Be careful, honey, about going downstairs.’ I looked at Lillian carefully; I could see that she noticed this. I did not expect to meet her again.

In fact I met Lillian for the first time at a small lunch party that Mrs Charles Lindley, a friend of my family’s, gave at the Colony Club during the spring of 1939. At this first meeting she struck me as having unusual quiet charm. Becomingly dressed in pastel colours, she looked younger and even more attractive than she had when I had first seen her two years and a half before in the doorway of her dressing-room. I said to her, ‘You know an old friend of mine, John Cromwell.’ ‘Oh! yes,’ she said. ‘He is a very sensitive actor. We were in Hamlet together. I would like to have seen his Marchbanks in Candida with Cornelia Otis Skinner.’ I said to her ‘I thought that he was very good.’

Although extremely intelligent and not lacking in artistic perception Mrs Lindley did not understand how actors approached their work or what they went through in between jobs. She described a little how Michael Chekhov taught acting at a school in Connecticut that her friend, Beatrice Straight, was financing. What Mrs Lindley said about his method was very strange and complicated. I do not think that anyone has ever taught like that. Holding her fingers together as if in an attitude of prayer Lillian listened calmly. At the end of Mrs Lindley’s description Lillian smiled with amusement and said nothing. Mrs Lindley became more personal and asked her, ‘Are you working now?’ Lillian answered her with subtle humour. ‘Oh! yes, I’m working very hard, I’m moving.’

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936

Eventually, I became an actor myself. Early in January of 1940 about six weeks after I had finished playing a part in John Ford’s now classic film The Grapes of Wrath from the book of the same name by John Steinbeck, Oscar Serlin, the producer, asked me to play Clarence Day Junior in a company of Life with Father that, after a week in Baltimore starting on 12 February, was to open in Chicago at the Blackstone Theatre for an unlimited engagement. The original company with Howard Lindsay as father and Dorothy Stickney as mother had already opened with enormous success almost three months before at the Empire Theater in New York. This play was adapted by Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse from two books of sketches, God and My Father and Life With Father, written by Clarence Day about his childhood. Before making up two books all of the sketches had appeared in The New Yorker. Although I had never read any of the sketches I had certainly heard a great deal about them.

Four days before the first rehearsal Oscar Serlin gave me a script. I had been taking lessons from a great teacher, Boris Marshalov, for more than two years and a half. I began to work with him on my part without delay. Our first rehearsal took place on the stage of the Empire Theater on the set that the company in New York was using.

Lillian arrived at rehearsal just a little while after I did. She wore a becoming hat and an attractive sweatered dress. As always extremely beautiful, she still looked a little pale. Although I naturally felt nervous at the prospect of a first rehearsal, I could not believe that an actress of her vast experience felt the same way. She shook hands with me in such a manner as to make me think that she was glad that I was in the cast. Oscar Serlin asked Bretaigne Windhurst, the director, and the cast composed of sixteen, to sit around the diningroom table used in the play. Oscar had with him a copy of the current issue of Life magazine. He said to us ‘This issue contains an article about The Birth of a Nation.’ Lillian said with enthusiasm, ‘Oh! yes, there’s a story about it and many photographs.’ Oscar said agreeably, ‘That is very nice.’

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father -- 1940
Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father — 1940

On this first morning of rehearsal we read through the play. Our director did not believe in giving his cast much time for lunch. I think that Lillian’s consisted of a chocolate ice cream soda. The first days of rehearsal went smoothly. Percy Waram, who had obviously done a great deal of work on his part beforehand, already seemed to be just right as my father, Clarence Day Senior. The rest of us were gradually trying to understand our parts and at the same time to learn our lines and positions.

One night after rehearsal as I was crossing Sixth Avenue on the way to Fifth I met Lillian walking up Sixth Avenue with Malcolm, her West Highland white terrier.

‘Hello, John,’ she said in a rather tired, absent-minded tone.

‘You are thinking of my friend, John Cromwell,’ I said.

‘How is he?’ she asked.

‘He was very successful last year,’ I said. ‘Now he is looking for a part again. My name is Zebby,’ I added.

‘Oh! yes, dear,’ she said.

When I came close to Lillian I could see large circles under her eyes. We walked cross town together and stopped every once in a while because of Malcolm.

‘Were you out late last night?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, I went out dancing, but don’t tell on me.’

As we continued walking down the street she became a little more lively.

‘Are you looking forward to going to Chicago?’ I asked her.

‘In this play, yes.’

‘When did you decide to do it? I asked her.

‘Oh, I went to see this play during the first week that it opened and I thought that it was the darlingest play that I had ever seen. I said to myself I could be in this play, and then I went to see it again to make sure that I was right. My second visit confirmed me in my opinion. I made an appointment to see Oscar Serlin and asked him to let me tour in this play. I met Mrs Clarence Day, Howard Lindsey, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst. The next day Oscar Serlin telephoned me and offered me the part in the company going to Chicago, but I wasn’t really sure that I was going to be in it until I went into rehearsal on Monday.’ ‘When I get home,’ she added, ‘I’ll have to get hold of my sister and have her come over to mother’s apartment and cue me.’

I left Lillian at the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street. She walked by herself to the apartment at 430 East 52nd Street that she and her sister, Dorothy, provided for her mother and where for the time being Lillian was also living.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm

On the afternoon of the third Monday after the company had started to rehearse, Bretaigne Windhurst said rather casually, ‘I want you to run through the whole play today without stopping. Whatever goes wrong – just go ahead with it as if nothing was the matter.’

I do not think that much character, humour or real vitality emerged from this rough rehearsal. No one seemed certain of what they were doing. At the end, after a chilling silence, a man stood up in the back of the balcony. He walked forward to the front row and looked down at us. I heard someone say, ‘It’s Howard Lindsey.’ Bretaigne Windhurst, seated in the front row of the orchestra, made no comment. The rest of us, with much concern, waited for Howard Lindsey to come up on the stage and say what he thought of us.

He criticized each member of the cast with dry humour and great severity. I feel sure that we all deserved his disapproval. After he had at last finished Lillian asked him gently, referring to his wife, Dorothy Stickney, ‘Where is Dorothy? I want her to help me on make-up.’ He replied, ‘She is resting quietly at home in preparation for the evening’s performance.’

During the last week of rehearsals in New York we gave a performance on two successive afternoons before invited audiences at the Empire Theater. Howard Lindsey, attending both of them, showed sincere satisfaction at our general improvement. Lillian said, ‘I will have to get one day in which to do business before we leave for Baltimore.’ I do not think that she managed to get more than half a day.

On Saturday morning, 10 February, two days before the opening in Baltimore, the company took the train for there. Dorothy Gish came along too. This was the first time that I had met her. She looked very tired as if she had been up late on the night before. Her bright, blonde hair made her face look like a masque. Lillian looked young and fresh beside her. Dorothy offered everyone chocolates out of a big, fine box. On Sunday night after the dress rehearsal I walked part of the way back to the hotel with Lillian and her dog. With no lack of confidence, but a little tensely, she said, ‘Now that we’ve finished rehearsing we should be ready to play it.’

The audience as well as Oscar Serlin, Mrs Clarence Day, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst, seemed pleased with the opening night’s performance. Ruth Gordon, a great friend of Lillian’s came down from New York to see it. This enormously gifted actress, talented writer and extraordinary woman, said to Oscar Serlin, ‘Thank you, it was a great treat.’ With much enthusiasm she walked on to the stage and carefully examined the set with its interesting old Victorian furniture.

During the week in Baltimore the Gish sisters spent some time with their old friend, the distinguished journalist, H. L. Mencken, whose home was in that city.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish – 1943

The sisters and I were staying in the same hotel. After the Wednesday matinee Lillian knocked on my door and asked me to join them for dinner. Still suffering from a cold that I had caught on the day after Howard Lindsey had come unexpectedly to the unfortunate rehearsal I have already referred to, I was looking forward to taking a rest and having dinner alone in my room. Despite this I could not refrain from accepting her invitation. I had so far only talked to Lillian a little and to Dorothy not at all. What were they going to be like? I tried to forget my still tired feeling and stuffed up nose in happy anticipation of finding out.

Their suite consisted of a sitting-room and two bedrooms. Lillian had not taken off her make-up. Rested by now, Dorothy looked very bright and attractive. After they had made sure that I was comfortable the sisters sat down opposite me, Lillian on a small sofa, and Dorothy on an easy chair.

What struck me most strongly at this my first meeting with them both, apart from their rare charm and feminine appeal, was their admiration and love for each other. There seemed to be no real conflict between them. Lillian obviously found whatever Dorothy said amusing and seemed content just to listen to her. Dorothy had come to Baltimore to help Lillian over what is always a trying period for an actor or actress, the opening week of a play. Enormously pleased with her sister’s performance as Vinnie Day, Dorothy certainly showed no envy that she was not playing her, only happiness at what she now felt was going to be a great success for her sister in Chicago.

After Lillian had ordered dinner for us, Dorothy said to her, ‘I wonder how mother is?’ Lillian said, ‘We can telephone to New York now and see.’ While the operator was getting her number, Lillian explained to me, ‘Mother came to the trenches in France during the First World War, while Dorothy and I were making propaganda films for the English War Department, to encourage the war effort of this country. She has been an invalid ever since.’ Dorothy added, ‘She has done so much for us that we can never do enough for her.’ Their mother could only speak a few words, and never over the telephone.

Lillian, Dorothy and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell) – 1930’s

Miss Fairborn who had been taking care of Mrs Gish for many years, assured the sisters that their mother was fine.

Much to my concern we started back to the theatre a little late. As we were getting out of the taxi at the stage door a middle aged woman came up to us and said to the sisters, ‘You are Lillian and Dorothy Gish, aren’t you?’ They quickly admitted, ‘We are.’ She said with much enthusiasm, ‘I have admired you both all my life.’ The sisters acknowledged her remark politely.

On Saturday evening after the performance the cast and everyone connected with the production took the train to Chicago and arrived there late on Sunday afternoon. The Blackstone Hotel was situated at the comer of the impressive Michigan Avenue that faced the lake. Lillian had engaged a suite and Percy Waram a room at this hotel for as long as the play should run. Dorothy decided to live there for the two weeks that she planned to stay in Chicago. Because this hotel was very expensive I only took a room there temporarily. The Blackstone Theater where the play was going to open on the following evening was situated down a side street only a few doors from this hotel.

I did not see either of the sisters on Sunday evening. I think that they were resting like myself. A short rehearsal was called on Monday afternoon to which all the company came. Bretaigne Windhurst gave the cast a few notes.

Most actors are naturally nervous on opening nights. On this one Lillian appeared very calm. When I came downstairs ready to go on, she said brightly, ‘How do you feel, dear?’ I said, ‘All right.’ She then made some small sugges¬ tion to improve my make-up. I had plenty of time to fix it.

About five minutes before the rise of the curtain Lillian, most becomingly as Vinnie Day, a lady of New York in the 1880s, stood off stage on the landing waiting to go downstairs into the main room of the house belonging to her husband Clarence and herself. I, as their eldest son, meant to be seventeen years old, waited directly behind her and the three boys playing my younger brothers waited behind me.

As soon as the curtain had gone up on an empty stage, in a very dignified manner well suited to the character that she was playing, Lillian walked downstairs. The audience applauded her entrance with considerable enthusiasm. I could hear her first remarks in the play to Annie, the maid. Clear and distinct, her voice showed no signs of nervousness. When I followed her on the stage to greet my mother before breakfast I could quickly feel her complete assurance.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish and Percy Waram
Life With Father – Lillian Gish and Percy Waram

Perhaps because the distinguished actor, Percy Waram, who played Father spoke rather too loudly, which threw his performance somewhat off balance in relation to Lillian’s and the rest of the company’s, I do not think that the play went as well as it had in Baltimore. For this reason and because I was not satisfied with myself I did not feel happy after the play was over.

On my return to the hotel I saw Lillian standing in the lobby. She looked rather tired, and very serious.

‘Hello, Zebby,’ she said from a little distance. ‘I am going to a party.

Glad to be under no obligation for the evening I went by myself downstairs into the grill room and ordered scrambled eggs, toast and milk. Dorothy Gish was seated at a table nearby with a distinguished-looking gentleman with grey hair whom I did not know. Deeply engrossed in her conversation, Dorothy at first did not seem to notice me. After a while, however, when she saw that I was alone, she called my name and said, ‘Come over here and sit with us.’ After I had reached her table she said ‘This is Mr H. L. Mencken. He half stood up and said warmly as if he meant it, ‘I saw your play again tonight. I thought that you were all very good. He then spoke with much enthusiasm about Lillian’s performance. ‘I think that it will be a great success here, he said. ‘That will be a relief to me,’ I said. ‘I have acted in several failures. I mentioned one that I had been in during the winter of nineteen thirty seven Oh Evening Star by Zoe Atkins, which lasted five performances at the Empire Theater.

He explained to Dorothy and me: ‘Zoe Atkins was at one time a serious writer. She even wrote beautiful verse. She was very poor. The opening of her play Declassee, starring Ethel Barrymore, was an obvious success. The evening afterwards when I was sitting in The Algonquin, Zoe walked in wearing a plumed hat and an expensive fur coat. I said to her “Zoe you look so different.” She said, “Can’t one dress up when one is opulent?” ’ Mr Mencken did not want us to leave him until he had finished all that he had to tell us. I could have listened to him indefinitely.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy and Lillian Gish standing at railing view 3]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3518

The next morning I hastened to buy all the newspapers as they came out. Each critic, Robert Poliak, Lloyd Lewis, Claudia Cassidy, Ashton Stevens and Cecil Smith, gave the play most excellent notices and the performances too, with one reservation about Lillian’s and two about Percy Waram’s. Although happy and relieved to read the notices and pleased too at what the critics had said about me, I still felt that all of us could have been much better.

In the afternoon I met Dorothy walking with Malcolm on Michigan Avenue. ‘How is Lillian today?’ I said. ‘Ah! fine. You should both be happy about the notices/ ‘Do you want to go into Woods and have ice-cream?’ I asked her. ‘Certainly,’ she said.

With no apparent sadness in her tone, Dorothy spoke about how little she had been working lately. Although people had offered her many plays she had felt compelled to turn them down either because she did not like the plays or because she did not think that the parts were right for her. During over six years and a half since my first appearance on the stage I had spent a great deal of time either in looking for parts or in waiting for one. Because of this I could well understand how Dorothy must be feeling.

Before the second night’s performance Oscar Berlin, his face temporarily twisted from nervous tension, came backstage. Waving his hands in the air, he said to the cast, ‘We’re in all right. We’re in.’

Shortly before it was time for the curtain to go up I walked out on the stage to join Lillian. Looking very relaxed and rested, she came up to me and said lightly, ‘Where did you and Dorothy go?’ She added, ‘I had to do my mail all alone.’

Although Lillian would have liked her to stay longer, Dorothy returned to New York on the second Saturday after we had opened.

I often called for Lillian at her suite on Sundays. The first time that we went out together she was dressed most becomingly in a blue sweatered suit, hat and veil, both of the same colour, the last just slightly over her forehead. She looked very fresh and young, hardly old enough to be playing Vinnie Day, supposedly the mother of four children, the oldest being seventeen. As we walked down Michigan Avenue towards The Auditorium to attend a concert, she said, ‘I want to see all of the United States in this play. Maybe we will run here for three months and then start to tour in June. Wouldn’t you like that?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t want to stay in this play for too long. I want to act in films.’

‘Ah!’, she said, ‘but one’s work in a film is quickly over. A play like this is very hard to find. Films are not so hard to come by.’

‘I should think that if one toured in a play for too long one would be almost forgotten.’

‘To work in a successful play like this is a career in itself, dear. I’ve waited a long time to find it.’

She looked up at me for a moment. ‘When we started to rehearse your colour was very bad, almost green,’ she said. ‘You’re looking much better now since you have been working.’

‘I have never been very strong,’ I said.

‘You must take care of yourself, dear, and become stronger,’ she said warmly. ‘Regular work will be good for you.’

One Sunday evening a few weeks after we had been in Chicago I took Lillian to see John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath in which, as I mentioned before I played. Lillian liked this film. She said, ‘Mr Ford directed films in the silent days. He learned how to tell a story with plenty of movement and without the constant use of dialogue. Most of the directors nowadays make the actors talk all the time.’

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (left), 1942

After the film during dinner I asked her, ‘Lillian, why don’t you consider seriously going back into films?’ A fiery expression came into her eyes. She said, ‘I was the little pet out there once. Everyone did as I said. I did fine pictures that I liked and they always made money. I never did a story just because I thought that it would make money. The people out there now wouldn’t understand that kind of thinking. I would have to do just what they said and I wouldn’t want to do pictures that way.’ I asked her, ‘Couldn’t you produce with your friend, Mary Pickford?’

‘Oh! no, dear, Mary and I have very different ideas about doing films. She always did stories that she thought people would go to see, not necessarily what she liked. I am more selfish than that. Mary and I could never do pictures together. To try might end a life-long friendship.’ I understood what Lillian meant. ‘Couldn’t you produce them alone?’ I asked. ‘Not any more. No one would listen to me. Everything that you do has to get past the exhibitors and their taste is not mine.’ Despite my enthusiasm I could think of no further questions to ask on this subject.

During the first few weeks of the run in Chicago many people said that they thought our company was better than the one in New York. Although I am not sure how many members of our company agreed with this opinion still none of us failed to appreciate the compliments that most people gave us. Some said to Lillian, ‘We like your Vinnie Day even better than Dorothy Stickney’s.’ Lillian said graciously, ‘I should be better. I have been on the stage much longer than she has, thirty-five years since childhood.’

Because of quick changes that she often had to make during the play, Lillian used an improvised dressing-room hidden from the audience at the top of the set’s staircase. During moments of waiting which she experienced once in a while, she often wrote letters. Sometimes she would just lie down, with her feet high up on a chair.

The anniversary performance of our show celebrating a year’s run which took place on the evening of February 1941, was a great success. Many people who had seen the play before came again. Lillian seemed happy about it, like the rest of us.

One day, soon afterwards, I read in the newspaper that the Museum of Art was going to have a special showing of Broken Blossoms on the following afternoon. That evening at the theatre I suggested to Lillian that we go to see it. ‘Well, I might,’ she said, ‘if it’s the first time for you.’

D. W. Griffith had directed this remarkable film in 1918. I had seen it about three years later when I was around ten. Some of the scenes had stuck vividly in my memory. The next afternoon at four o’clock, Lillian and I arrived at the small auditorium of the Museum, mostly filled with women.

Lillian’s performance as the twelve-year-old girl living in London’s Chinatown with her brutal father was deeply moving. Richard Barthelmass played beautifully the pure-hearted Chinaman who tried to rescue her. Donald Crisp acted the father with much effectiveness. Lillian’s death scene with Richard Barthelmass was unforgettable.

Simple, unpretentious, in no way sordid, without a trace of vulgarity, and obviously directed by a master, the film had a fine sense of tragedy. I thought that it was a masterpiece. At the end of the showing, after a moment’s silence, the audience broke into applause. Someone asked Lillian to say a few words. She stood in front of the audience and said modestly,

‘I hope that it moved you. It did me a little.’

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

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