In the very earliest days of her career, Gish, then known as “Baby Lillian,” began performing with the tenants of the theatrical boarding house her mother operated in New York City. Her father had abandoned the family when Gish and her sister, fellow actress Dorothy Gish, were very small, and their mother continually struggled to support them. She allowed Gish to travel with a number of vaudeville shows and companies as a young child, often without a guardian. During these difficult times, Gish developed the determination and commitment that would become her professional trademarks.
Lillian and Dorothy Gish arrived in Hollywood during the early days of the silent film industry. There, the Gish sisters encountered Gladys Smith, an old friend from New York. Smith—better known by then as Mary Pickford, the silent film star—introduced Gish to the already prominent director D.W. Griffith. In the years that followed, Gish worked closely with Griffith on a great many films, sometimes making as many as twelve movies in a year. He helped to polish and improve her skills in acting and dancing, and it was as the star of Griffith’s films that Gish became a leading film actress, developing a reputation as the “Bernhardt of the screen.” With Griffith, she made more than fifty short and feature-length films, including the notorious and still controversial Birth of a Nation. In film appearances she was often thought to be “fragile and misty;”1 a quality of innocence and frailty emerged from her forceful and deliberate performances, and was at the center of Gish’s distinctive acting style.
When “talkies” arrived ending the silent film era, Gish left Hollywood after nearly twenty years and returned to New York to pursue work in the theater. In spite of the incredible success Gish achieved as a silent film actress, many doubted she could perform as well on stage. Her early stage appearances proved that Gish was a talented actress on the boards as well on the silver screen. Her 1930 portrayal of Helena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya earned her critical praise and the enthusiastic response of audiences. When she appeared as a character based on Lizzie Borden in John Colton’s Nine Pine Street, one critic wrote: “[Miss Gish] gives a fine performance in all its varied details, and they are many, ranging as they do from love to murder. She injects into the whole play a feeling of sincerity and those parts of it that seem most real are due to her.”2 Of her roles throughout the thirties and of Carl Van Vechten’s photographs of her during the period, Gish wrote to the photographer, “The subject looks a little more world-weary than she feels at the moment—no doubt due to the fact that she was playing sad, sad parts and has now turned into a happy comedienne.”3
Later in her life, Gish returned to film and began making television appearances. She made films well in the 1980s, staring in her last film, The Whales of August in 1987 with Bette Davis. Gish died in 1993 at the age of ninety-nine. She worked in theater and film for more that seventy-five years.