The first time I remember seeing Angela Lansbury in anything was as Jessica Fletcher, in the tv series Murder, She Wrote. I was only a little kid, but I would watch these episodes with my mom who loved mysteries as much as I did.
I fell in love with the kind, bookish and sharp as a whip sleuth who had far too many murders to solve on her hands in that sleepy hamlet on the Maine coast, Cabot Cove. Fletcher was meant to be a combination of two of Agatha Christie’s most important characters: the elderly busybody, Miss Marple and the eccentric and ever curious mystery novelist, Ariadne Oliver.
Even though it was filmed several years before Murder, She Wrote, I would later see Lansbury in Christie’s blockbuster mystery, Death on the Nile. I was too young to see it in the theatres, of course. But I was glued to the screen when it came to television. Everyone shined in that movie, but her portrayal of the gin-soaked, washed up romance author, Salome Otterbourne, was perfection.
After that, I tried to watch all the older movies she had starred in whenever I had the opportunity. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and The Manchurian Candidate were my favourites, but there were so many others. Over her long acting career she starred in scores of films along side other legends, like Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor (who was also a lifelong friend), Orson Welles, Elvis Presley, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith (another lifelong friend).
Hollywood was never Lansbury’s scene. She said she felt like a stranger there and was often cast in roles far older than her actual age. Nevertheless, she made a stunning career on stage on Broadway and in notable plays and musical performances. Her role as the quirky socialite Mame was critically acclaimed and beloved by nearly everyone who saw it, especially the gay community.
I must admit that Lansbury’s death is hard for me. Partly because it is yet another reminder of the relentless march of time. But it is mostly because of that cruel thief of memories called dementia.
As a boy I loved watching each episode of Murder, She Wrote with my mother. We would pore over the clues until we came up with the killer just before the final 10 minutes. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my mom would let me believe I sleuthed it all by myself. Even though those memories have vanished for her, I cherish them for both of us, nonetheless.
A part of me would like to share the news of Lansbury’s death with her. My sister told my mother of the death of Queen Elizabeth and said she felt sad at the news. This is unsurprising since she grew up through World War II in Nova Scotia. And the imagery of the British monarch’s resolve in the face of Nazi barbarism had an enormous impact on a lot of Canadians during that period of history. Dementia hadn’t robbed her of this memory yet.
Still, I think I will hold this news back from her. Not because it would be hard for me. But, perhaps, more for her.
Angela Lansbury lived a life that was undoubtedly full. It spanned almost a century. In fact, she died just 5 days before her 97th birthday. Born in the UK, she came from a family of Labour socialists and never lost that leftwing ideological care for humanity after coming to North America. And she entertained us in a way that forever changed the usual, banal nastiness of the Hollywood industry for the better. There is nothing to grieve about in any of that, but there is a hell of a lot in that life to celebrate.
Kenn Orphan, October 2022
*Photo is Angela Lansbury, 16 October 1925 – 11 October 2022.