Lillian Gish

updated 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Lillian Gish was in a dither. In honor of the expected guest, who was invited by PEOPLE, she had put on her best opal necklace and a sumptuous velvet skirt. "And you say the young lady's name is Molly Ringwald?" she asked excitedly as she set out cookies. "And we are to talk about the difference between actresses then and actresses now? Oh, dear, I hope I won't bore her." She didn't get the chance—La Ringwald never arrived. The carrot-topped teen, who achieved quickie celebrity in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, stood up the 86-year-old grande dame of the movies, the superstar of Hollywood's first masterpieces; D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The appointment was for noon. Miss Gish waited patiently until almost 3 p.m. Then she said sadly, "I guess she doesn't care because I'm old." Some hours later Ringwald sent a dozen roses, along with an excuse that to a lady of Miss Gish's generation sounded like another insult: "Just as I was leaving, I smashed my hand in the door, and I had to put some ice on it to keep it from swelling. Then...I couldn't find a taxi, and when I finally did, I didn't have the right address." Meanwhile, to pass the time, Miss Gish regaled her company with lively memories of movieland:

Hollywood? Just a village in 1914. Little old ladies sitting on white porches. My sister Dorothy was 13; I was 15. We'd been on the stage for 10 years, but Mother wouldn't let us tell anybody. In those days, boardinghouses put up signs: "No dogs or actors allowed." One day we went to the Biograph Studio in New York to visit Gladys Smith, a teenage actress who had changed her name to Mary Pickford. A man pulled out a gun and chased us all over. We were terrified—until we found out he was D.W. and that was his way of giving us a screen test. He was very demanding. In Way Down East I had to lie for hours on the ice with my hand and hair in freezing water. Two fingers on my right hand were permanently damaged. He came to trust me later. People said we were lovers, but we weren't. If he was in love with anybody, it was with my mother.

D.W. made me famous. By the '20s I was getting 5,000 letters a day. I also got offers to work with other directors for huge sums, $8,000 a week, and he forced me to accept. When sound came in, I was at MGM. L.B. Mayer told me he wanted to stir up the public by inventing a scandal involving me and an actor. When I refused, he said: "I can ruin you!" And he did. He had me blackballed at every other studio in town. So I left Hollywood. I've made only a few movies since 1930—Night of the Hunterior Charles Laughton, A Wedding for Robert Altman and Sweet Liberty for Alan Alda.

People ask me about my love affairs. I've loved many men, but I've never been in love. I've had no time for romance. I've always been working. Besides, my idea of heaven was to be with my mother and my sister. We always slept together—with me in the middle because I had nightmares that trees were chasing me. Dorothy got married, but she never lived with her husband. She said men and women just weren't meant to live together. I'm so glad I didn't ruin a man's life by marrying him.

People also ask me why I never go to movies now. There are so many degrading movies. When actors kiss, they try to swallow each others' tonsils. Audiences seem to laugh only at bad language; in my time, a man would be knocked down for saying such things in the presence of a lady. On top of that, movies nowadays are all alike, as if they were made on an assembly line. Hollywood has turned into an emotional Detroit.

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