Massillon History: Lillian Gish
written by archives intern Amanda Wismer
Lillian Gish was born on October 14, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. Although she was never a permanent resident of Massillon, she spent time in Massillon visiting family between filming. She was born into a broken family; her father was an alcoholic and left her mother and his two daughters. Her mother entered into acting to make money for the family.
Lillian got her start in entertainment in the theater, in 1899 she debut in a play called “In Convict’s Stripes” in Rising Sun, Ohio. Her family often spent summers in New York City with Gladys Smith, and one year when visiting they found Gladys performing in a nickelodeon production. This was considered a “vulgar” business at the time, but the Gish sisters followed her into it and became icons in the movie world early on.
Lillian’s screen debut was in 1912 in the film “The Unseen Enemy,” directed by D.W. Griffith. Her sister Dorothy was also an actress and often co-starred with Lillian in films. Dorothy was more often in comedic roles, while Lillian’s roles were more serious.
Lillian acted in many silent films, including “Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Orphans of the Storm.” Around 1912 she moved out to Hollywood to make films with Griffith’s Biography Company. In 1920 she had her directing debut when she directed her sister in “Remodeling Her Husband.” In 1924 she joined Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and acted in her first “talkie” in 1930, “One Romantic Night.”
In the 1930s Lillian worked in radio, she debuted on television in 1948, and in 1964 she began giving a film lecture: “Lillian Gish and the Movies: The Art of Film, 1900-1928.”
Lillian had received many awards from the entertainment industry. She was awarded Kennedy Center honors, an honorary Academy award, and the American Film Institute awarded her the Life Achievement Award and the D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement. Her career spanned 75 years; she was making movies into her 90s. In her life she never married or had children. The time she spent in Massillon affected the people of the city, and they adopted her and consider her one of their own. When the flood control and viaduct project was completed in 1951 she was part of the opening ceremony, and tossed flowers into the river.
On 4th Street, in Massillon, there is a Lillian Gish house that can be visited. The Massillon Museum houses clipping files regarding the life of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, a large collection of photographs by Lillian’s friend Nell Becker, an oral history, movie press materials, and several ephemeral items such as a fur coat. For more information contact Archivist Mandy Pond over the phone: 330-833-4061, or via email.
Lillian Gish visited the Massillon Museum in the 1960s, posing in our exhibit space and in the collections storage room.
Other Gish Resources
Lillian Gish Speech at Massillon St. Timothy Church
October 25, 1981
Recorded by Dr. Robert Immel
Virtual Exhibit of Lillian & Dorothy Gish photographs
From the permanent collection of the Massillon Museum
Virtual Exhibit of Viaduct Flood Control Project
Lillian Gish threw flowers over the Cherry Road Viaduct upon completion of the 12-year project.
Visit the "Gish House" in Massillon, Ohio
Lillian and Dorothy Gish purchased a home for their Aunt in Massillon on Historic 4th Street:
315 4th Street Northeast, Massillon, OH- view on Google Maps
Please note that this is a private residence, and is not open for tours.
View the Lillian Gish Murals in Massillon, Ohio
Objects in the Collection: Dress and coat
The Massillon Museum has only two objects related to Lillian Gish in the permanent collection, seen below. These objects are not regularly on-view. Researchers must make an appointment and should be aware of fees. Click here for more information on how to view these garments.
This dress was worn by Lillian Gish in "The Star Wagon," 1937.
This coat was worn by Lillian Gish and later sold at a charity auction and donated to the Massillon Museum.