Living legend Angela Lansbury plans to spend her upcoming birthday at home. “I feel fortunate, indeed, to be able to celebrate with my dearest family here in California,” she shared.
As she turns 96, the still vivacious star can’t help but count her blessings. At gatherings with her children, grandchildren and their partners, she feels overwhelmed with pride at the family she helped create — and save. “As she’s getting older, she wants to be with her kids and grandkids,” Angela’s stepson David Shaw tells Closer. “She’s a great lady. She always put family first.”
Like every good Irish raconteur — though born in London, Angela is half-Irish through her Belfast born mother — the Murder, She Wrote star can cast a spell with a story told around the dining table. However, in her case, her tales of heartbreak and hope, tragedy and triumph, are all completely true. “She coped with a lot and made the best of it,” says a family friend. “And on the whole, she is a happy person today.”
Angela, her younger twin brothers and their widowed mother, actress Moyna Macgill, escaped the London blitz and arrived in New York in 1940. She began studying drama soon after, while her mother worked nights in the theater. “I had no adolescence. I was too busy preparing to become an actress,” recalls Angela, who lied about her age to find work after the family relocated to Los Angeles.
Driven to succeed but naive about life, Angela celebrated her 18th birthday on the set of Gaslight, in which she played a conniving Cockney maid. “I was a young virgin, for God’s sake. But instinctively, I recognized the sort of girl she was. Being an actor, you can often do things that you wouldn’t dream of doing in your own life,” says Angela, who received her first Oscar nomination for the role.
A year later, Angela took a chance herself by eloping with American actor Richard Cromwell, who was worldly and 15 years her senior. “I found him such an attractive individual, a very glamorous person — he knew everybody, he was a friend of Joan Crawford’s, these people who I was fascinated by as a young actress. [But] I had no idea that I was marrying a gay man!” Angela confides. “I was absolutely shattered when he left, although we found a way to remain friendly right up until his death from liver cancer in 1960.”
It would take another four years for her to find lasting love with talent agent Peter Shaw, who would become the father of her two children, Anthony, 69, and Deidre, 68. “Early on, her relationship with Peter almost seemed too good to be true,” says the friend, who notes that for 53 years, they made an excellent team. “Peter not only doted on his wife, but he was also the caretaker of her career throughout their marriage, serving as her manager. It was the two of them against the world.”
By the late 1960s, Angela had racked up another Oscar nod for 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and won a Tony on Broadway for 1966’s Mame, but at home in Malibu, her children had begun running with a wild crowd. It took Angela and Peter a long time to recognize the trouble. “We had no experience of drugs. We didn’t know the significance of finding a pipe in a drawer. Why would we? And when we did, we didn’t know how to help them,” she says.
In addition to drug use, Deidre, known then as Didi, made friends among mass murderer Charles Manson’s cult. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who would spend over 30 years in prison for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford, wrote of Didi supplying the ranch with drugs and food stolen from her parents’ kitchen. “On a warm afternoon, she sat on our roof strumming a guitar and singing to herself, while below, Charlie and I listened,” wrote Fromme.
Angela believes that she and Peter would have lost one or both of their children had they not taken drastic action. After a fire gutted their Malibu home and Anthony nearly overdosed on heroin, the family picked up and moved to rural Cork County, Ireland, in 1970. “I was drawn to Ireland because it was the birthplace of my mother and it was also somewhere my children wouldn’t be exposed to any more bad influences,” said Angela, who found a doctor to prescribe methadone. “Anthony pulled right out of his bad habits quite quickly. It took Deidre a little longer,” she remembers.
By the dawn of the 1980s, Angela and Peter were back in the United States and looking for a new project. Her 12-season stint as Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher began in 1983 and became the biggest role of her career. “When this came on the horizon, I thought, ‘That’s interesting … I think I can make something of this,’” Angela recalls. The series also became something of a family affair, with Anthony and stepson David both involved in the production.
Today, Angela, who lost Peter in 2003, continues to split her time between Brentwood, Calif., New York and Ireland — three places where she still loves to entertain her family and friends with her remarkable true stories. “I’m interested in every part of life. In other words, not just acting,” Angela says. “[But] I’ll probably pass away with one hand on my script.”