Angela Lansbury’s role as Jessica Fletcher in the series Murder, She Wrote was so career-defining that it’s the role most people associate her with.
But before she spent 12 seasons as an amateur sleuth, Lansbury had made her mark on both stage and screen. She has received Oscar nominations as well as Golden Globe awards and Tony awards. In fact, she’s received so many Tonys that she actually set a record.
Her personal life got off to a rocky start with a short-lived marriage to a man who turned out to be gay, but when she found the love of her life, they were married for over five decades.
A tragedy brings out her talent
Born in Central London, England, in October 1925, Lansbury had an older half-sister, Isolde, from her mother’s previous marriage, and younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar. They spent their weekdays at a house in Mill Hill, London, and weekends at a farm in Oxfordshire. Her mother, Moyna, was an actress who’d appeared in films and the West End, and her father was a timber merchant and politician.
However, her father tragically died of stomach cancer when Lansbury was just nine years old. To cope with her grief, she became a “complete movie maniac.” She also began to imagine herself as certain characters, and a love of acting grew within her.
Angela supports the family
Around 1934, Moyna decided to marry Leckie Forbes, a Scottish colonel, and the family moved to Hampstead. However, in 1940, the Blitz began and the family decided to move to New York. Moyna was financially sponsored by a Wall Street businessman and Lansbury secured a scholarship that enabled her to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio.
When Moyna moved the family to Canada because she had a part in a touring production of Noel Coward plays, Lansbury got a job at the Samovar Club in Montreal singing Noel Coward songs for $60 a week. She lied about her age to get the job, claiming she was 19 when she was only 16 years old.
Moyna next took the family to Los Angeles to try and resurrect her cinema career. While she worked on that, both Moyna and Lansbury worked at the Bullocks Wilshire department store. However, Moyna was sacked for incompetence, meaning that Lansbury’s $28 a week was the family’s sole financial support.
Her first film earned her an Oscar nomination
During a party hosted by her mother, Lansbury met John van Druten, who thought she’d be great for the role of a cockney housemaid in his mystery-thriller film Gaslight (1944). Although the film received mixed reviews, everyone loved Lansbury in it; she even got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
At only 17 years old, Lansbury signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She got another Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and became best friends with Elizabeth Taylor when they both starred in National Velvet (1944).
In an interview with The Express in 2014, Lansbury commented that after being in “two other lovely films” after Gaslight, “they were followed by a string of the most awful films ever.”
She goes on to describe how her career was sometimes at the mercy of Louis B. Mayer, a studio mogul at MGM: “I visited Mayer in his office on a number of occasions, and that was quite an experience because you had to go down this long corridor which was rather intimidating, to say the least. And you had to go cap in hand, as I often did, saying, ‘Please Mr Mayer, don’t make me play the queen of France.’ He’d say, ‘Yes dear, but I personally think this is a great role for you,’ so I’d be sent back to the wardrobe department and I’d end up playing the queen of France [in 1948’s The Three Musketeers] when I’d rather have been playing Lady de Winter, which was a far more interesting part. But that went to Lana Turner, who was the great glamourpuss at that time. I just had to mind my own business and get on with it.”
A bad choice for a husband but a great choice for a friend
In 1945, Lansbury eloped with fellow actor Richard Cromwell, and they got married in Independence, California, on September 27, 1945. At the time, Lansbury was 19 and Cromwell was 16 years her senior. However, the marriage only lasted nine months and Lansbury filed for divorce in September 1946.
According to the three biographies written about Lansbury, Cromwell was gay and married her in the mistaken belief that it might help him to become heterosexual.
Although the marriage wasn’t a success, Lansbury and Cromwell remained friends until his death in 1960. One of her biographies, Angela Lansbury: A Life on Stage and Screen, revealed that in a 1966 interview, Lansbury said about her marriage: “I would not have not done it.”
Cromwell allegedly only spoke once about his short marriage. In an article for The American Weekly, he explained how one of Angela’s habits really irritated him: “All over the house, tea bags. In the middle of the night she’d get up and start drinking tea. It nearly drove me crazy.”
Lansbury herself became a gay icon after her Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway musical Mame (1966). Speaking to The Daily Mirror in 2014, she commented: “Everything about Mame coincided with every young man’s idea of beauty and glory and it was lovely.” However, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017, Ronnie Polaneczky suggested that queer Americans also loved her in Murder, She Wrote. “They saw in the Fletcher character a feminine/masculine duality that they themselves could relate to. Plus, Fletcher’s ability, week after week, to save the day against impossible odds was a fizzy counterpoint to the AIDS crisis, which was decimating the gay community with terrifying speed.”
True loves comes a-calling
But while her first marriage was not a success, Lansbury’s second wedding would be the start of over five decades of companionship. Like Lansbury, Peter Shaw was an English ex-pat. He’d been in the British Army during the war but had moved to the US to work for MGM.
They were married in 1949 and went on to have two children together, Anthony and Deidre. This was in addition to David, who was Shaw’s son from his first marriage.
While Lansbury and Shaw might have been an inspiring couple, family life with their children could be rocky, especially when Anthony and Deirdre became addicted to drugs. Speaking to The Express in 2014, Lansbury said that while it could be hard at times, “all those things contribute to building the person you become and the person they become. It’s a [simple] question of facing up to certain aspects of family life that have to be dealt with.” After giving up drugs in 1971, Anthony became a television director and even directed 68 episodes of Murder, She Wrote.
Lansbury and Shaw were married for 54 years until they were finally separated by Shaw’s death due to heart failure in 2003.
So many awards, and even her character is a record-holder
During her career, Lansbury has amassed an impressive collection of awards and nominations, and even a few world records along the way.
She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, and won an Academy Honorary Award in 2013.
She has won five Tony Awards for her work in theatre, meaning that she’s the person with the second-highest number of Tony Awards (Audra McDonald was awarded six).
A more dubious record also held by Lansbury is that she’s had the most Emmy losses. Over the course of 33 years, she’s received 18 nominations and not won a single Emmy. Still, as one website points out: “12 of those 18 noms come for her portrayal of the beloved Jessica Fletcher … a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for every single year the show aired.”
Not only does Angela Lansbury hold a record, but her onscreen persona of Jessica Fletcher also holds a Guinness World Record. After investigating crimes spanning 265 episodes and four movies, Jessica Fletcher has the title of “Most Prolific Amateur Sleuth.” Even Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple hasn’t solved as many crimes during TV episodes!
Lansbury is a citizen of three different countries and a Dame of England
Lansbury’s career and personal life have resulted in her becoming a citizen of three different places. She’s a citizen of England because she was born there, but she’s also a citizen of Ireland because her mother Moyna was Irish. After spending an increasing amount of time in the United States, both Lansbury and her husband became naturalized US citizens in 1951.
After already receiving a CBE in the 1994 Birthday Honours list, in 2014, Angela was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to drama, charitable work, and philanthropy. She is now referred to as Dame Angela Lansbury.
Speaking to the BBC after the honor was bestowed, Lansbury said: “I’m joining a marvelous group of women I greatly admire like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It’s a lovely thing to be given that nod of approval by your own country and I really cherish it.”