Angela Lansbury: five things you might not know about Murder, She Wrote star

The film, TV, and theatre star has died aged 96 after an 80-year career

Angela Lansbury stars as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote in 1990
Angela Lansbury stars as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote in 1990
(Image credit: CBS via Getty Images)

Dame Angela Lansbury, star of film, TV, and theatre for 80 years, has died at the age of 96.

The Irish-British-American actor was best known for her leading role in the long-running US TV show Murder, She Wrote, in which she played Jessica Fletcher, a crime writer turned amateur detective. Lansbury was also a prominent star in films in Hollywood’s Golden Age, though her career was later defined by success on Broadway, including roles in Mame and Sweeney Todd.

Lansbury was “one of the biggest women of American theatre and screen” said Mark Lawson at The Guardian, and part of the “acting aristocracy” in Britain, Ireland and the US.

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While her stage and screen presence is well known to multiple generations, here are a few things you may not have known about the late star.

Her grandfather was leader of the Labour Party

Lansbury was born in the Regent’s Park area of London in 1925, her mother an Irish actress and her father a former mayor of Poplar, east London, and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Her grandfather, George, had also been mayor of Poplar and led councillors in the Poplar rates rebellion in 1921 which saw him and 29 councillors sent to prison. A lifelong socialist, pacifist, and advocate of women’s rights, he led the Labour Party between 1932 and 1935 after its crushing election defeat in 1931.

He was “at the vanguard of a new generation of Labour leaders in London”, said The Guardian, and he “paved the way” in positioning Labour as the “radical representatives of the working class”.

Angela Lansbury was “inordinately proud of her family’s political stance” said The Times, and politics would have been her “second choice of career” if it weren’t for acting.

She was Oscar nominated for her first film

As the Blitz began to ravage London in 1940, Angela’s mother decided to move her family to the United States “aboard the last passenger ship to leave England until 1945” said The Times. After studying at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York she moved to Hollywood with her mother in 1942 and was quickly cast in the movie Gaslight, released in 1944.

Lansbury was an “instant success” said the BBC, earning a Best Supporting Actress Nomination at the Oscars for her role as a maid in the film. Despite her early success, “her looks did not fit the MGM mould for glamorous stars” wrote The Telegraph, and she was often cast as characters older than her. She acquired two more Academy Award nominations for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

She was married twice

Lansbury was married to actor and producer Peter Shaw for more than 50 years, from 1949 until his death in 2003.

Before that she was married to actor Richard Cromwell in 1945. A “matinee idol”, wrote the BBC, he was 16 years older than 19-year-old Lansbury when they eloped, but the marriage ended later that year when he abruptly left, subsequently revealing he was gay.

“I had no idea that I was marrying a gay man,” Lansbury told Radio Times. “He simply couldn’t continue – he just left. It was just a terrible error I made as a very young woman. But I don’t regret it.”

Her daughter knew cult leader Charles Manson

Lansbury had two children with second husband Shaw, son Anthony and daughter Deidre, both of whom suffered with drug addiction while they lived in Los Angeles.

In the 1960s her daughter Deidre “was in with a crowd” led by Charles Manson, the cult leader later convicted of multiple murders. “She was one of many youngsters who knew him – and they were fascinated,” Lansbury told the Daily Mail.

She then told her husband that the family needed to leave, relocating to County Cork in Ireland, where she said the “simplicity of life” helped with her children’s recovery. “I have no doubt we would have lost one or both of our two if they hadn’t been removed to a completely different milieu”, she said.

She holds two Guinness World Records

Lansbury’s most notable character, Jessica Fletcher, the protagonist of the long-running Murder, She Wrote, holds an official Guinness World Record as the world’s ‘most prolific amateur sleuth’. The “high point” in her acting career, said the BBC, Lansbury’s character in the 12-year series solved crimes for a record 265 episodes and four feature films.

Lansbury also holds a world record in her own right, winning the most Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical over her glittering career.

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