'Dear Miss Gish': a friendship in letters

When I learned from her autobiography that actress Lillian Gish cherished and answered all her fan mail, I saw that as an invitation.

I saw my first Lillian Gish movie in 1970 when I was in high school. The 1920 film "Way Down East" was screened at our community theater in Fairfax, Ala., a small town on the banks of the mighty Chattahoochee River. I became interested in Miss Gish, and I wanted to learn more about her.

Shortly after seeing that movie, I read Miss Gish's autobiography, "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me." She was born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1893. Lillian and her sister Dorothy began stage acting as young children. The Gish sisters began making silent movies in 1912. They each earned $5 a day for 12-hour days.

Miss Gish's life as a movie star was exciting. She met presidents, business leaders, and such American characters as cowboy Al Jennings of Oklahoma. I learned from her book that she cherished fans and made sure that all her fan mail was answered. I was a budding writer at the time, and I saw that as an invitation.

She was the first author I ever wrote to. And write the great lady I did - we corresponded for nearly 25 years.

I suppose our relationship was something akin to the film "Harold and Maude," except neither of us was suicidal. Miss Gish was like a real Maude, as she was certainly a fun-loving and adventuresome lady her whole life.

My first letters were simply fan mail. Still, I received a reply from her. In later years, we wrote about family, books, poems, religion, travel, and famous people she knew. My letters were always answered, no matter how busy she seemed to be. She would often tell me that she was at a film festival or on location shooting a film. I received a lovely note from her when she was on location in Maine in 1986 for "The Whales of August," which was her last film (she passed on peacefully in 1993). She answered fan mail when she received tons of it in the 1920s, and she continued to answer it late in her life. She was a true Hollywood star.

Miss Gish's career spanned the decades. She worked in films, stage, and television from the 1910s through the 1980s. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her an honorary Oscar in 1970. Over her lifetime, she starred in more than 100 films, including the groundbreaking (and still controversial) epic "Birth of a Nation" (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith.

Miss Gish's happiness was always evident in her letters when she was working on a project. Her projects included articles, children's books, films, documentaries, television programs, and personal appearances.

One of her favorite sayings was: "It is more fun to work than play." She certainly had a healthy work ethic. She worked for nearly 100 years!

Before I proposed to the woman I later married, I told her there was another woman in my life: Miss Gish. My wife didn't know much about Miss Gish so I promised to educate her. She became Miss Gish's second-biggest fan. I was still first.

My family always remembered Miss Gish on the holidays and on her birthday with cards and letters. In 1986 I sent her an announcement when my son was born. She sent back a charming note welcoming him into the world. It was the first piece of mail my son received.

A few years later, she sent my son a copy of her children's book, "An Actor's Life For Me!" In her inscription, she wished him a love for life as well as curiosity so that he'd learn many things.

I also sent poor Miss Gish some of my son's early artwork. He was drawing dozens of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the time. I mailed them to friends and relatives. The only response came from Miss Gish: "Dear Master Jamie," she wrote, "Thank you for your fine drawing of Leonardo Ninja Turtle, which I have on my bulletin board." (Now it can be told: Lillian Gish, silent movie superstar, was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan.)

We wrote Miss Gish about every week, and we've kept all of her reply letters in our family files.

Once we asked Miss Gish for an autographed photo. What would she send in response, we wondered. Her current photograph? A studio photograph from the 1950s? She sent us an autographed 8-by-10 black-and-white photo from her 1920 period. It's a sweet picture of a lady who was forever young at heart.

In the late 1980s, we had a flag flown over the United States Capitol in remembrance of her sister Dorothy Gish. We mailed it to Lillian, and it prompted a phone call. She said that she was most grateful for it, and the flag would be placed in an important location.

The Gish legacy continues at the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Among the many items on display is the flag we had flown over the US Capitol.

We cherish Miss Gish's friendship and think of her often.

As she was fond of saying, "Death ends a life, not a relationship." We are grateful for her friendship, kind thoughts, and gifts. The legendary Lillian Gish inspires us still.

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