Attend this tale.
I regret that I never ran into her at a cocktail party, nor was I privileged to have shared the stage or screen with her. Except for a brief moment, my story is the story of millions. I was an audience member, a fan who was the happy beneficiary of the talent Angela Lansbury so generously gave away. I watched Murder She Wrote, and saw quite a few of her films before I turned 20: The Harvey Girls was the first, followed by The Manchurian Candidate. State of the Union (because I had a Tracy/Hepburn obsession). Death on the Nile and The Mirror Crack’d (so happy I haven’t seen them all—nice to have something to look forward to). Can’t say I ever chose to watch one based solely on her name but there was always a sense of relief to discover that she’d be part of the viewing experience. I can’t recall a single bad performance, which would be saying something about any actor, but it was more than that. Whenever she appeared, I sat up and took notice, eager to see how she’d pull it off as she did again and again. Like Queen Elizabeth, it felt as if she’d always been here. The news of her death laid me low because I was just so used to having her around.
My first Broadway show was Sweeney Todd. That production at the Uris was remarkable in every way, from the story (a genuine tragedy that left me in tears) and its Sondheim score, to the sight of Angela and Len Cariou giving a master class in the art I aspired to at the time. People hated, or loved that show, but for me, everything I saw subsequently had to measure up to that. I would see her on stage only once more, in a revival of Mame at the Palace. Having worn out the original cast album, I was excited and scared—hadn’t it been years since she created the role? You couldn’t tell. Not from the way she looked (stunning), or moved (the very definition of kinesthesia) or sang (hers remains one of my favorite female belt voices). The woman simply killed, and we went crazy.
Shortly after seeing her in Sweeney Todd, I got my first New York job selling sweaters in the basement at Bloomingdale’s. Those were the glamour years where famous people would actually come in to do their own shopping. The whispers signaled their arrival like brushfire, igniting so many ho-hum afternoons and evenings as we craned our necks to get a good look at So-and So as they swept through the aisles. I’d been warned not to fawn or gush, and to pass off any substantial sale to the commissioned clerks if I found myself at the register.
From a distance the sweep of blonde hair was vaguely familiar. The woman who wore it carried herself elegantly, but there was no show, no courting an audience. She brought to the counter a single men’s sweater in a somber shade of green. I’m sure I grinned like a fool as I rang it up, knowing I’d brand the moment as the highlight of my retail career. Those eyes like headlights—noting that she was in the presence of someone of verge of exploding, she smiled, said thank you and was gone. One of my co-workers passed by, exclaiming “Do you know who that was? Angela Lansbury!” Of course I knew. By then I was smiling so hard my face hurt. Just like I’m smiling now. RIP