Stars Gish and Keeler die in old age

March 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

Lillian Gish, whose portrayals of fragile innocence graced the golden age of silent films and eventually extended into an eight-decade screen career, a testament to perpetuity that could last forever, is dead at 99.

Her longtime personal manager, James Frasher, said yesterday the internationally recognized star died in her sleep in her stylish apartment on Manhattan's Sutton Place Saturday night.

"She often said she wished if at all possible that she be allowed to die in her own bed, and the Lord granted her request," Mr. Frasher said.

Her final film was "Whales of August" in 1987, said Mike Kaplan, a producer of that tribute to sisterly forbearance. "And she said afterward 'I will never top this.' "

A performer raised in the dawn of filmmaking, Miss Gish portrayed forever-menaced heroines in D.W. Griffith silent movies. A wistful "child-woman" with big eyes and a rosebud mouth, she became one of Hollywood's first stars to become famous in other countries.

Hollywood lost another grand star when Ruby Keeler, the cherub-faced starlet who tap-danced her way to fame in the '20s, died yesterday.

She died of cancer at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said her son, John Lowe.

The centerpiece of Busby Berkeley's kaleidoscope of motion picture chorines was 83.

In 1971, producer Harry Rigby persuaded her to dust off her tap shoes for a stage revival of the 1925 hit, "No, No, Nanette!"

Miss Gish appeared in 105 films between 1912 and 1987, from a one-reel movie made for Mr. Griffith, "The Unseen Enemy," to "The Whales of August" with Bette Davis.

One of the last and best known survivors of the early days of film, Miss Gish over the last several years gave scores of lectures, played host on a television series and wrote two books about her experiences between 1912 and 1922, when she made "Birth of a Nation," "Broken Blossoms" "Way Down East," "Orphans of the Storm" and other films for the legendary Mr. Griffith.

Miss Gish was, according to many historians, the silent screen's greatest dramatic actress, and starred in more Griffith films than any other performer. Her work for him produced some of the silent era's most famous moments: the "closet scene" from "Broken Blossoms," in which she played a 12-year-old reacting in abject terror to a brutal father's pounding on the other side of the door; or the "smile," from the same film, in which, to form the only smile her character was capable of, she pushed up the corners of her mouth with her fingers.

Though she did not at first successfully survive Hollywood's transition from silent to talking films -- by her personal choice, she always asserted -- she later pursued a stage career and held supporting roles in about 12 "talking films," including "Duel in the Sun" (1947), "The Comedians" (1967), "A Wedding" (1978) and a co-starring role opposite Bette Davis in "Whales of August."

In 1971, Miss Gish received an honorary Oscar "for superlative artistry and distinguished contribution" to the motion picture industry. In 1984 she was presented the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

And in 1986, while she was on location on Maine's rugged coast for "The Whales of August," a reporter seemed incredulous that she would put herself through such a rigorous schedule, at age 93.

"I started working so young [at age 5] that I don't know how to play," she said.

"Work was always the most important thing in my life," she noted during a 1982 Los Angeles Times interview in her apartment. She never felt a sense of destiny, she added, only the childhood poverty making work a necessity and an end in itself.

Lillian Diana Gish was born in Springfield, Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1893. Her ancestors included colonial settlers and President Zachary Taylor.

Her father was an unsuccessful candy merchant who left the family after moving them to New York City. Her mother rented out her bedroom to two actresses, and slept on a mattress in her daughters' room. Mrs. Gish took a job acting with a stock company.

Both Lillian, age 5, and sister Dorothy, two years younger, were soon traveling and performing themselves. Lillian Gish was largely self-educated. She remained a voracious reader all her life.

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