Lillian Gish and Massillon, Ohio

It is a common misperception that Lillian and Dorothy Gish were born in the small Ohio town of Massillon. According to her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, Lillian herself was born in Springfield (not far from Massillon), and Dorothy in Dayton. Nonetheless, despite a very peripatetic childhood, Massillon became a sort of 'touchstone' for Lillian, a place that she so identified with happiness and stability that it became her surrogate home.

Downtown Massillon, Ohio
"Despite our high hopes for financial stability, it was impossible for us to save enough from our combined salaries of $35 a week to stay in New York during summer until fall casting began. We had enough, however, to pay our fare to Massillon, Ohio, where we could live with Mother's sister, Aunt Emily, and Uncle Frank Cleaver. Uncle Frank was the window dresser at The Beehive, a big department store in Massillon. Aunt Emily, like Mother, was attractive, well groomed, and a meticulous housekeeper. The Cleavers accepted us warmly, with one suggestion from Aunt Emily: 'Remember, if you tell anyone you're in the theatre, the children won't be allowed to play with you.'
To recall Massillon now is comforting. I see Dorothy, plump, merry, playing wildly with our cousins, who called her "Doatsie." I remember hauling grass to the chickens in a little red wagon and discovering the wonders of growing things, flowers to smell, and cherries to pick. And Sundays after church we met everyone we knew. By the end of the summer I could walk down the street and say, "How do you do," and people knew me.

Mother would not think of asking help from Aunt Emily and Uncle Frank. They were poor, but they lived the same life as did everyone around them. Mother paid our way by contributing staples to the family larder: barrels of flour, sugar, apples. She used the sewing machine to make our clothes for the coming winter, the little coats, hats, and dresses that aroused such admiration when we wore them.

Just before autumn, Mother, Dorothy, and I said goodbye to our relatives and friends and returned to New York to find jobs for the upcoming season."

It was a place the Gish family would return to many times.

The Gish home in Massillon
"At about that time I began to feel unusually tired. My fatigue was thought to be growing pains. But the day I collapsed in my room and could not even undress, my aunt called the doctor. My indisposition was more serious than growing pains: I had typhoid fever. The pattern of the sickness – recovery and relapse – took its toll on my constitution. My convalescence was slow. I was content to sit up, wrapped in shawls and with a glass of orange albumin at my side, and to look out the window. One thing troubled me, however; Mother was spending so much time with me. What about the shop? [According to Lillian, their mother owned an ice cream parlor in East St. Louis.]
They had withheld the shattering news from me: The nickelodeon had caught fire, and in the conflagration Mother's shop had been destroyed. There was no insurance. We were penniless again. It was back to Massillon for us, while Mother went to work in Springfield as a replacement for the manager of the confectionery and catering firm of Long's."

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