Introduction to the Book
I chose Angela Lansbury as the subject of a biography because she was a brilliant actor who could well represent the courage and vulnerability, the survivalism and grandeur, the total commitment of all actors. As a professional drama critic, I wanted to pay tribute to the players who had given me a lifetime of unexpected magic. I also chose Angela Lansbury because she had become an American icon, and so her life had a unique resonance. I chose her, too, because, having known her for some twenty years, I was aware that she was a fascinating and admirable woman - not just gifted but smart, articulate and adult. She was interested in collaborating on a book about her life as an actor, but the production schedule of her popular television series, Murder, She Wrote, was exhausting, and during its summer breaks, she wanted only to rest at her second home in Ireland. When the series finally came to an end in the spring of 1996, she wrote to say, "I think it's time for our book." An as-told-to autobiography was fleetingly considered, but I did not relish writing in her voice and she wanted no part of the exposure that such books require. This conservatism of character, I would soon learn, reflected her profound sense of privacy, which ran deeper than mere reserve. Nevetheless, she wanted to share her fifty years of thoughts about and experiences with acting, she wanted to reveal the legacy inherited from her grandfather, the British statesman George Lansbury, and she had a philosophy to express about the importance of balance in her life. In fact, the title "Balancing Act" came at her suggestion. It is not related to her birth sign of Libra. While she is mildly curious about astrology, her own balancing act, she feels, is a conscious commitment to maintaining values and perspective, "the balancing of the real life with the artificial aspects of fame and success." An "authorized biography" was the form we settled upon, and as our interviews began, her memory proved formidable. A single question could prompt a half hour reply that was all but formally composed in complete paragraphs. In addition, she encouraged her husband, famiily, friends and colleagues to speak with me freely and at length. She gave me access to her files, papers and correspondence. She not only assured me of freedom to disapprove of her work, she positively relished it. While there was no discussion of approval, I promised to show her the manuscript before publication. "If I say it," she anticipated, "you are going to write it. But if it is totally out of line and wrong, I'm going to tell you." A man who is writing the story of a woman's life must seek to understand and even explain the female sensibiity. It is a formidable task, not dissimilar from that confronting a novelist or playwright who is trying to create a character of the opposite sex. The proposition is to leap the gender gap, a subject in which Angela was particularly interested. On several occasions, she had expressed disappointment that Jessica Fletcher, her virtual alter-ego in Murder, She Wrote, thought "like a man." The male writers of the show, she felt, "just [didn't] get it." During one of our interviews, she glanced up, raised a quizzical eyebrow in my direction and added, "I'm not so sure that you get it either. I see that mystified look on your face." As a biographical subject, she posed others problems. Her public image was practically saintly while, in my experience, the best subjects were not only dead males but mean and nasty ones. Interesting men and women - powerful, successful or accomplished ones - usually develop aggressive egos. Smart people tend to be opinionated, or impatient, even downright unlikable - but they are fascinating, while nice people can be so bland. Lansbury gave the lie to that. She is intelligent and decent, as warm, honest and mature as she seems on television, but she is also tough, sharp witted and funny. And complicated. In short, she is a layered person who reveals herself carefully and only when she has fully prepared the entrance. It is small wonder that she is a character actress. Here then, is a woman who has not only kept her personal life from being overbalanced by a very public life; she has also kept a specific set of personal values in balance with a profound commitment to acting. That commitment is based on a shining talent which she believes was simply given to her by the gods, It is a talent she considers her emotional foundation, "a rock of stability at the center," and she feels the presence of this talent the same way we might know that we are right or left handed. She describes it matter-of-factly as "a repeating ability to produce a result which kept me always in the forefront artistically if I was doing something that was meaningful and had substance." And so she is neither falsely modest, which would insult the talent, nor does she take it for granted, which would abuse it. "Having that rock at the center," she told me, "has been my salvation, because even though, to outward appearances, mine has been a life filled with success and happiness and joy and laughter and attainment, what was going on behind the apparent joys and happiness was in turmoil in my private life. The only way I could deal with it was by having this rock which represented stability. The one thing I knew that was right and true and possible." As might be expected, she is a tough judge of her own work. Although she has had an immensely productive career, she frets that she might have done more, particularly on the stage, which is the medium she takes most seriously. And she plans to do still more there. She also continues to crave a great leading role in a major movie - something she feels she has never had. It is as if she is still hurting from those early years in Hollywood, when she was routinely relegated to playing secondary roles. As for the vast body of her movies and television films, I have dealt with only those which, from my point of view, were most relevant to her work or life.. This is a biography, not a resume. A full listing of her stage, film and television work is at the end of the book. Angela Lansbury has had a career of astonishing and perhaps unparalleled success in three media, each at a climactic time in its history. She was a movie actress for two decades in the glory days of the Hollywood studio system. She was a Broadway leading lady in the last decade of glamorous musical comedy. She was a television star in the final era of network dominance, when an audience of many millions could still be held in thrall in a nationwide living room. It was of course in the television series "Murder, She Wrote" that she became one of the best loved and most admired women in America - indeed, in the world, and yet she has remained her own person. She told me at the outset, "I want it to be believable, and not a whitewash. I've got my problems and I know that. I'm not the easiest person to live with." When she read the manuscript, she certainly did tell me where she thought it was "wrong" or simply too invasive of her family's privacy, but never, not once, did that relate to herself, personally or professionally, nor did she ever complain about how she was characterized. It was the privacy of her husband, her children and her grandchildren that concerned her. As for herself, she has a personal aversion to flattery. After one particularly draining back-and forth, I half-joked that I'd send her two dozen roses in the morning. "Don't give me that bullshit," she snapped, "You're dealing with a 74 year old battle-ax." If she and I had to do battle at times, we did battle, but when the dust cleared, we were all the closer for it, and closer, I believe, to the truth as well. When she first agreed to participate in the book, she said, "It's a journey, you know. It should make an interesting read." I hope so. Martin Gottfried, New York City, August, 1998.