Greenwich Village’s Own Angela Lansbury
On October 11, 2022, film, theater and television actress Angela Lansbury passed away, just shy of her 97th birthday. While the loss of the entertainment icon, called “one of the last surviving stars of the golden age of Hollywood cinema,” was felt around the world, it has some special resonance in Greenwich Village, one of several locations she called home during her life. And living here was only one of her noteworthy connections to the neighborhood.
Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury was born on October 16, 1925. She was part of an upper-middle-class, politically engaged and artistically inclined family that lived in Central London. Lansbury’s mother was Irish actress Moyna Macgill, and her father was English politician Edgar Lansbury. To escape the London Blitz during World War II, she and her family moved to New York in 1940, where she studied acting.
The Lansburys moved to 55 Morton Street in Greenwich Village. That somewhat unusual building consisted of three tenements built in 1900-01, when there was a huge burst of such construction in New York City to beat the deadline for construction which would be exempt from the requirements of the “New” Tenement House Act of 1901, requiring more light and air and other basic amenities for apartments. However, by the time the Lansburys moved in in the early 1940s, these were no longer three “Old Law” tenements with their dumbbell shafts and minimal conveniences. Like many older buildings in Greenwich Village in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, it had been modernized and updated, with the three buildings combined and given a new streamlined Art Deco facade (at least on the lower floors; the older turn-of-the-century tenement architecture can still be seen on the top floors), with upgraded apartments and communal rear yard spaces.
Not long after her time at 55 Morton Street, Lansbury moved to Hollywood, where she signed with movie studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and had her first film roles, in the classics Gaslight (1944), National Velvet (1944), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). These earned her two Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. She appeared in eleven more MGM films, mostly in minor roles, and after her contract ended in 1952, she began to supplement her film work with theater roles.
One of her most memorable movie roles, however, came in 1962 in The Manchurian Candidate, for which she received widespread acclaim, and which is frequently cited as one of her best performances of her career. Her role as the chillingly manipulative Eleanor Shaw earned her a third Academy Award nomination, and another Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.
But the 1960s was the golden era of Lansbury’s career in musical theater, in which she gained stardom for playing the leading role in the Broadway musical Mame (1966) — a play about an eccentric and unconventional Greenwich Village bohemian, written from the perspective of her nephew (both the author and inspiration of the book from which the play is drawn were in fact Greenwich Villagers). That role won Lansbury her first Tony Award, and cemented her status as a leading lady of theater, and unofficial icon to a certain generation and type of gay man. She would have a long career in theater, film, and of course television, starring in the long-running and popular American series Murder, She Wrote.
Over the course of her life, Lansbury would earn six Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), six Golden Globe Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, and the Academy Honorary Award, among other accolades. She was also the recipient of three Academy Awards nominations, eighteen Primetime Emmy Award nominations, and a Grammy Award nomination. Known for her support of liberal and charitable causes, Lansbury was particularly generous to charities offering aid for Abused Wives in Crisis and combatting domestic abuse, as well as those which helped rehabilitating those with substance abuse issues (an affliction which affected her children). In the 1980s, she became known as a supporter of a number of charities engaged in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Lansbury was a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party in the United States, and of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom (her father was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and former mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar, while his father George Lansbury was the Labour Party leader during the 1930s and a crusader for Women’s rights and disarmament).
Dame Lansbury wasn’t the only notable Greenwich Villager to call 55 Morton Street home. Among others, Jane Jacobs lived here in the late 1930s and 40s, seemingly overlapping with Lansbury’s residency here, and ‘Ridiculous Theater Company’ playwright, actor, and producer Charles Ludlam lived here until his death in 1987.