The first time I met Angela Lansbury, she shook my hand and then held her arm out expectantly in the doorway to her hotel room. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Hug her? Her husband, Peter Shaw, had opened the door, welcomed me, and was in the kitchenette seeing to tea. I finally figured out what she was waiting for: me to give her my coat and scarf.
It was winter 1977 in Hartford, where she was appearing in two short Edward Albee plays called “Counting the Ways” and “Listening,” and I had written a letter offering advice on possible sights to see in my hometown. She had responded by inviting me to tea. She had no reason to reply, let alone invite me: I was a nobody, with no names to drop. But she remembered what it was like to be young and on the outside.
Whether or not it was winter break from college (I can’t remember), I immediately said yes. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted, with long pauses, through lockdown.
The next year, when I was studying in London, she took me to various events, including the Olivier Awards, where we were seated at a table with a notably dour Alec Guinness, and lent me her Lancaster Terrace apartment for weeks at a time while she was at her house in County Cork. As with everywhere she lived that I visited, it was comfortable, practical, and utterly unshowy, with the kitchen of someone who actually cooked. She gave me tips on bread-making and would share her brown bread, country loaves, and scones with the cast of whichever play she was acting in.
One night in 1980, after a performance of Sweeney Todd in New York, she invited me and Merle Louise, who played the mysterious Beggar Woman, to her small rental apartment in Lincoln Plaza, where she reheated a baked pasta dish she’d made ahead. Louise and I helped make the salad. When I later took up food writing, we were delighted to find we shared a close friend in Darina Allen, the Julia Child of Ireland, in whose family house the Lansbury-Shaws had first camped in the early 1970s, when she took several years off to remove her teenage children from the drug-laced culture of Los Angeles. (She later took time away from acting to tend to her husband—“the best-looking man you ever laid eyes on,” she would describe him, proudly adding “and a very good businessman, too”—during his final illness.)
Under Allen’s tutelage, Lansbury got serious about cooking and, as she described it, self-sufficiency. This was an extension of her childhood. Following the death of her father, when she was nine, Lansbury navigated the blackened streets of London during the Blitz to find her way home. As a teenager, she took the train to and from Montreal to appear in a nightclub after lying about her age, and drove alone to and from MGM studio parties. She couldn’t believe Louis B. Mayer would be so careless with a studio asset: “I was a young girl, alone, and he had no idea if I could take care of myself.”
An Extended Family
Certainly she could take care of herself. And she took care of others. The story of her taking the playwright Terrence McNally aside at a party to tell him to get sober is well known, as he always attributed that to starting his career. When we went to the theater, she would always side with the actors, saying of one disappointing star vehicle that the cast hadn’t been well served by their director.
On another occasion when, by chance, we were attending the same play, she kept her date waiting by insisting on going backstage to wait in line to compliment the young leading actress on her performance. The actress smiled briefly and turned to the next visitor, apparently oblivious to the identity of her newest fan. This bothered Lansbury not at all. Actors and writers were part of her extended family.
And family, for Lansbury, was everything. She would usually greet me by mentioning which call she’d made or letter she’d written to help the children or grandchildren of her twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, and most conversations began with a recitation of their most recent accomplishments. They constantly looked in on her in New York, just as her son, Anthony, and daughter, Deirdre, did in Los Angeles. Both lived near her typically modest house, whose dining room (dining area, really; everything was compact) was dominated by a strikingly beautiful life-size oil portrait of her that one of her sisters-in-law had painted in Ireland, a picture that captured its subject’s candid, knowing, intelligent gaze—and character.
The last time I saw her was a few months before lockdown, when she showed me and my spouse, John, around the house, whose kitchen had fewer cooking tools in evidence—she wasn’t cooking much for herself—though it did have a wall of teapots based on her character Mrs. Potts, in Beauty and the Beast, which friends and fans had sent her.
At dinner at Enzo & Angela, the Italian restaurant that Lansbury’s daughter ran with her husband in a modest mini-mall nearby, I proudly recounted the series of notable jobs John had had as a public-health commissioner. Her huge eyes widened as she reached across the table and asked, “May I touch you?” The spotlight, as usual, was on whomever she was with.
Lansbury spoke of the magic and glamour of Europe in the 30s, a light coming into her eyes. They darkened only when the subject turned to a mutual friend, whose last years were clouded by dementia. “I hope I never end up that way,” she said, shaking her head.
She didn’t. Alarmed by reports from a family member that she’d taken a fall at home after lockdown and wasn’t even up to a call, John and I dialed her number one Saturday in November 2020 to leave a get-well message. To our surprise, she answered, sounded delighted to hear from us, and happily and lucidly chatted about several subjects, particularly the loyal and constant care she’d received from her son and daughter.
A few weeks later, I sent a text wishing her restored mobility, not expecting to hear back. Then, after several months, just three words: “Spryer every day!”
Corby Kummer is the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Food & Society program. A senior editor at The Atlantic, he is also the author of several books, including The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes