PART TWO: Visiting the Great Lady's Home
By Russell Adams
As luck would have it, I had already scheduled a trip to NYC to visit friends and see some shows. In light of my recent mail from Lillian Gish, I decided to move my trip up! I had to have a meeting with the great lady herself. First I needed to find her phone number. While I had the address, even I ruled out stalking as a possibility. (Remember this was the days before Google searches.) I put out the word to my friends, many of whom work in the entertainment biz in New York.
On my last day in the Big Apple, I scored. With all the nervousness of a teen asking for a date to prom, I called. A man answered, and I went breathlessly into my spiel – about the letter and the picture, blah, blah, blah. The man, who turned out to be Ms. Gish’s manager, Jim Frasher, listened patiently (like he’s never heard all this before) and suggested that we meet that afternoon.
I went to the midtown address Mr. Frasher gave me. The place turned out to be a classy establishment that was heavy on atmosphere, with a bartender in a tux, and very woody. It was the perfect choice for an Irishman to enjoy some afternoon refreshment. As I waited, it occurred to me that meeting like this might be a subtle ruse to pre-clear those wishing access to Ms. Gish. Jim finally arrived and greeted me warmly. We chatted amiably from the start. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Jim Frasher had come from a long theatrical background. He had been hired by Lillian Gish temporarily for five months to manage a speaking tour she was starting. That was twenty-five years ago, and Jim had been working for her since. After much laughter (and a few scotches), Jim finally said the magic words to me, “Let’s go see Lillian.”
A short cab ride later, we arrived at a Sutton Place address. It was one of those early twentieth-century apartment buildings common to the Eastside. Getting off the elevator at Ms. Gish’s floor, we were greeted with a fair amount of smoke pouring from her open apartment door.
As I looked nervously around for the nearest fire exit, Jim entered the unit and began fanning the smoke around. I soon learned that this had become something of a ritual, as the cook, a sweet young Scandinavian woman, was prone to kitchen errors, and Ms. Gish was too kind-hearted to let her go!
After the smoke had cleared, literally, I got my first view of the living room. One doesn’t get to use the word elegant often, but it came at once to my mind. Every furnishing was antique and appeared to be carefully selected and positioned. Very prominent in the room were two beautiful watercolor portraits of Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy. In the center of the room, before the fireplace, was the sitting area where Ms. Gish often entertained (there and the full dining room). I was told that every afternoon for years, her best friend Helen Hayes (also a neighbor) would stop there for tea.
As Jim gave me the grand tour, I was aware of just how large the whole place was. Apartments that size in NYC, when they’re available, go for zillions of dollars. Off the main hallway was a small, crowded room that Jim told me Ms. Gish called her ‘junk room.’ Among the many treasures collected from her world tours found there, I spotted her Oscar! At one door, Jim peered in and quietly closed it back, holding one finger to his lips saying, “She’s napping.” Damn.
We returned to the living room to continue our talk. I felt a little awkward, as the furniture all seemed so small. Little chairs for petite, if giant, stars. All the while, my mind was on that room up the hall and the sweet lady dreaming there. Jim explained that for a person her age (94 at the time), Ms. Gish was in amazingly good health, her only chronic complaints being a bad back. She usually declined invitations to plays where she might be forced to leave early and risk offending her host.
Also, she still suffered arthritic pain stemming from that iconic scene in Way Down East that required her to work on an ice floe for days. At last I felt that I was in danger of overstaying my welcome. Sensing my disappointment, Jim made a picture of me in the foyer holding Ms. Gish’s Oscar, and regretfully I departed. Perhaps there would be another time.
PART THREE NEXT WEEK
This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.