Christmas With The Gish Sisters

MERRY CHRISTMAS, my friends! I sincerely hope you’re all having a fine holiday season, no matter where you may be.

You might notice that while Silent-ology goes all out on spooky film-viewing in October, it’s a bit quieter around Christmas. That’s because: A) Back in the silent era, Christmas wasn’t the commercialized extravaganza it is today–there really aren’t a ton of Christmasy silents to choose from, and B) December is a very busy month! So I tend to be more sparing in my Yuletide-themed posts, although I make sure to decorate Silent-ology appropriately.

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Hold on, I’ll just put up a few more ornaments.

So! With that said, here’s a bit of festive Christmas reminiscing from Lillian Gish’s autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, where she occasionally looked back on holidays from her childhood. At times life was hard for Lillian, her sister Dorothy and their mother, especially since their father abandoned them when the girls were young. However, they did have fond memories of holidays past.

Motion Picture Magazine, January 1924.

Here are some of Lillian’s earliest Christmas memories, from back in the days when her little family worked in touring stage companies:

Mother told me that I was three years old wen I made my first stage appearance, unexpectedly. Our Sunday school in Baltimore stuffed Christmas stockings for less fortunate children. That year Mother dressed eighty-six dolls. The Empty Stocking Club’s distribution was held at Ford’s Theater, with Nat Goodwin playing Santa Claus and Maxine Elliott helping to hand out gifts. Dressed in white, perched on Nat Goodwin’s shoulder, I was part of the festivities.

Not more than three years later I was one of the underprivileged children on the receiving end.

We were playing in Detroit that Christmas. The stage entrance to the theater was always down an alley, and in Detroit we passed a large automobile showroom when we turned into the alley. When I came out after our Christmas matinee performance, I saw a Christmas tree in the showroom window and displayed beneath it all the things that I had asked of Santa Claus in a letter a week or so earlier: a sleigh, a little comb, brush, and mirror set; Black Beauty; and a fur piece almost like the one that I had lost. While I was standing there in awe, three strange men came out of the showroom.

“You’re late, Lillian,” they said. “Santa’s been waiting for you.” They led me inside and said the gifts were all mine. Oh, beautiful world, and how kind its people! Every time I play Detroit, I try to find out who those dear men were who, together with the stagehands, actors, and actresses of our wonderful company, went to such trouble for an unknown child.

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The close knit Gish family.

The following reminds us that you can certainly have a good Christmas no matter where you are–how many of those travelling theater companies had to celebrate holidays this way?

Another year Christmas fell on Sunday. Our company manager, a Mr. Schiller, who later became one of the heads of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, must have arranged for the company to travel by freight. We celebrated with a tiny Christmas tree in the caboose. It was a glorious surprise. The company gave us candy, nuts, two oranges apiece–and unheard-of luxury–stockings, hair ribbons and, best of all, a little sleigh big enough to hold both of us, which traveled that winter with the scenery and carried us to the hotel, theater, or depot, pulled by loving hands.

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The sisters in their childhood.

There were leaner Christmases for the Gishs, too, as evidenced by this Dickensian passage:

We were stranded in an isolated southern town without our salaries or fares back to New York. That winter was, I suspect, the low point in our professional careers…The lessons of that ill-fated season, when we were cold, hungry, and discouraged, have lived on in my heart…

That Christmas we learned who filled our stockings. Santa Claus was in symbol and fact our mother. Dorothy and I had hung stockings on either side of the double brass bed that we shared, and we awakened to see Mother filling the stockings with a few candies, nuts, a tangerine, and a bar of soap apiece. They were our only presents that holiday–except for surprise gifts from our first stage-door Johnnies. Two newsboys who evidently admired us presented us with a bottle of scent each. We thanked them shyly. Later, when we wanted to try out the cologne, Mother advised us against it. She said, “I’m afraid it will leave spots on your clothes.”

Looking for a less visible place to us our gifts, we daubed the insides of our shoes. The cologne was evidently made of stronger stuff than we suspected; our slippers developed a dreadful smell and fell apart. But we had tasted the delight of male admiration.


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Dorothy as a young girl.

Here’s a charming memory of a special Christmas for little Dorothy. At the time, Dorothy was appearing in plays by a producer named O’Hara–who she had a girlish crush on at the time:

In her final play for him, Dorothy had an entrance in the last act. On Christmas Eve Mr. O’Hara asked Mother to keep the door of their dressing room closed while he made a brief announcement to the audience: “We’re changing this scene tonight and actually making it Christmas Eve, as a surprise to the child in our company. We will have a lighted tree on stage that she knows nothing about. I hope you will enjoy with us whatever happens.”

Mother wrote me about it: “Dorothy went running onstage as usual, said her line, then saw the tree. She even stopped breathing, couldn’t move or speak for a long time–then, bless her, she went right on with her lines after kissing Mr. O’Hara on the cheek. The years of training pay highest dividends in an emergency.”

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The sisters and D.W. 

You’ll recall that much of Lillian’s autobiography revolves around her experience working with the legendary D.W. Griffith. Apparently, workaholic though he was, D.W. wasn’t immune to the Christmas spirit:

Christmas found us in an apartment on Hope Street, where we had four rooms and a good kitchen. Mother invited Mr. Griffith, Donald Crisp, Bobby Harron, and several others who were without families for Christmas dinner. It was a true holiday for Dorothy and me; just being with Mother was a cause for rejoicing. Our guests arrived, all but Mr. Griffith. As the rich smells of holiday food filled the apartment we grew impatient.

“He can’t be shopping,” Mother said. “Everything’s closed. He must still be working.”

Mr. Griffith arrived by taxi at three o’clock, just as we were fathering around the big turkey that Mother had cooked. He held a large blue and white Chinese umbrella stand in his arms, filled with gits for everyone–Oriental, naturally, as he’d been to Chinatown, the only place where shops were open. We were delighted with our earrings, fans, and all the other lovely things that he had brought.

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Lillian and Dorothy in later years.

Merry, merry Christmas to one and all–and many thanks for your continued readership!

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11 thoughts on “Christmas With The Gish Sisters

  1. That was lovely. It really was a different world back then – Christmas is so over the top nowadays it’s nice to be reminded of a time when it wasn’t so commercialised. Merry Christmas and thanks for your considered articles, I’ve had a ball wondering through your back pages!

  2. Amazing Christmas memories… Reading these kinds of anecdotes, you always get a sense of how much more kind and patient people seemed to be with each other in those times. Bringing more of that kindness and patience into today’s world wouldn’t be a bad move for us. 🙂 Merry Christmas!

  3. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:

    Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season to all my readers! I enjoyed writing this post a few years back and thought I’d send it around again. Somehow, the winsome Gish sisters go very well with Christmas, don’t they? Have a grand weekend!

  4. Thank you for this delightful account of Miss Gish. Isn’t it wonderful that we can read of a successful woman who loved her mother and didn’t resent her in her later life. I’m glad she rose to such prominence in Hollywood but never forgot her early poverty or the sacrifices her mother made for Dorothy and herself. Can you tell me if she ever connected with her father in later life?

    • Lillian and Dorothy were remarkable people, somehow I always get a sense of classiness and calm when I read about them. According to Lillian’s biography, the Gishes were able to keep in touch with their father James somewhat (he seemed to be a restless soul) and he died in the 1910s. Lillian said she traveled to see him after an uncle wrote that he’d become ill, but she never actually got to be in the same room with him. Her uncle may have been protecting her since her James was in pretty rough shape.

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