Lillian Gish was one of the staunchest defenders of silent films in general and D.W. Griffith in particular. Her interviews and recollections are woven into almost every book and documentary that covers the early American motion picture industry. However, she was a fiercely private person who carefully curated her public image. Charles Affron proposes to go where no biographer has gone before: to find the woman behind the legend.
At least that was the idea. For me, mixed results.
What is it? An attempt to get under the skin of Lillian Gish. Affron uses Gish’s personal papers, as well as autobiographies of fellow actors, contemporary interviews, fan magazines, scholarly works and Gish’s films.
What works: There is no doubt that the book is well-researched. Affron is able to bring out nuances of Gish’s personality from forgotten information, redacted sections of letters and long-buried interviews.
For example, Lillian Gish was stuck playing a wire-flying fairy in a Belasco stage production in New York. Her sister, Dorothy, was in California making films. A stage accident resulting in Gish being dropped six feet and scaring her out of her wits. Considering what happened to the cast of Spiderman, I think that is understandable. Meanwhile, she had been offered a handsome salary to make motion pictures in California.
Let’s see, stay in New York to be lifted around on dangerous rigging for a bit part or go to California for more money and be able to join her beloved mother and sister… Hmm…
Gish wrote to her best friend with a description of the events:
“But as I am offered more money with the Biograph and the three of us can be together I think it is better for me to play sick here and go out there, now don’t you think so?”
Gish later redacted this part of the letter when it was published in a biographical series. I enjoyed this glimpse at a young Lillian Gish, more than a little sheepish at her subterfuge.
What doesn’t work: This is where things get a little sticky for me. I understand the desire to debunk the legends and self-aggrandization that, frankly, crop up around most major stars. However, Affron takes this to extremes. Every tiny misremebered detail, every exaggeration, every small inconstancy is dragged out and paraded. Should biographies be honest? Of course. Should biographers try their best to get to the truth? Naturally. Was Lillian Gish perfect? No, not at all. However, I felt that Affron’s approach was ham-fisted. Let me give you an example of what I mean:
At the start of chapter 8, Affron describes a car accident in which Dorothy Gish was struck by a car, dragged 40 feet and had to have one of her toes amputated. He then goes on (in the same paragraph) to debunk Lillian Gish’s claim that this accident prevented Dorothy from being in Birth of a Nation. And I was still thinking “Dorothy was dragged 40 feet and lost her toe? Dorothy was dragged 40 feet and lost her toe?!” What was Lillian’s reaction to her little sister’s accident? What did their mother say? Who nursed her? No information? None at all? Just more debunking? Sheesh.
Let me be clear, I am all for setting the record straight in historical matters but this just seems a little mean.
I also noticed Affron’s tendency to accentuate negative comments about Gish and bury more positive words. For example, he quotes liberally from Miriam Cooper’s bitter autobiography, Dark Lady of the Silents, which I had recently read. All of Cooper’s negative words about Gish are quoted verbatim. Her positive recollections, on the other hand, are paraphrased and placed at the very end of the chapter. Is this the truth? Technically. Is it really very honest to the reader? I don’t think so.
Tanner Colby, biographer of the late John Belushi, had an interesting observation about Bob Woodward’s book on Belushi, Wired.
“I say it’s like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at playing basketball.”
I think that applies very well in this case.
Is this a bad book? Not really. Is it a fair book? Again, not really. I read it. It had some enjoyable passages. And Gish’s blind defense of D.W. Griffith’s obvious racism needed a bit of debunking. However, there is a mean-spiritedness to this biography that prevents it from being an entirely pleasant reading experience.