by Paula Gail Benson
On October 11, 2022, just five days before what would have been her 97th birthday, Angela Lansbury passed away at her home in Los Angeles. She did not appear at the 75th annual Tony Awards ceremony on June 12 to receive a lifetime achievement recognition; but, according to Wikipedia, over her career, she won 5 Tonys for acting and, in the 1960s, the New York Times referred to her as “the First Lady of Musical Theater.” My first appreciation of her work came from listening to her voice on the cast albums for Anyone Can Whistle, Mame, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd. I also delighted to hear her interpretation of Madame Armfeldt in the 2009 Broadway revival of A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree and Ramona Mallory (daughter of Victoria Mallory and Mark Lambert, who played Anne and Henrik in the 1973 production) playing the role her mother had originated.
Some will remember Lansbury’s work from Hollywood’s Golden Age, when with her mother and twin brothers, she came to America to escape the Blitz, and was signed by MGM to play the maid in Gaslight, Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet, and a tavern singer and early love of Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the 1960s, she played the mothers of men only a few years her junior, Elvis Pressley in Blue Hawaii and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. She received three Oscar nominations for supporting actress and was given an Honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement.
For American audiences, she may be most recognizable for voicing and singing the role of Mrs. Potts in the animated Beauty and the Beast and for her performance as retired teacher and mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote. I actually learned about her passing from a retired friend who regularly watched Murder, She Wrote reruns each day. He sent me a message that the station had interrupted the program with the breaking news.
The remarkable thing about Murder, She Wrote and Lansbury’s portrayal of Jessica Fletcher was that it started about the same time as Sisters in Crime organized and began focusing attention on women mystery writers, who often had been overlooked by reviewers. Jessica Fletcher became a symbol for several causes: (1) that middle-aged and older women could be protagonists; (2) that women could thrive in second careers; and (3) that women wrote excellent mysteries.
I contacted my friend Terrie Farley Moran, who now co-writes (with Jessica) the Murder, She Wrote novels (a task previously taken on by Donald Bain, his wife Renee Paley-Bain, and Jon Land). So far, there are 56 books in the series. Terrie began with Book 53, which takes place in Columbia, S.C., where Terrie came to participate in the Mystery in the Midlands conference.
Terrie was a wonderful choice to continue the series due to her devotion to and familiarity with the television program. I hope she will continue for many more years and I’m sure fans do, too.
When I contacted her to offer sympathy, Terrie told me that “the torch had been passed” to a new generation to enjoy mysteries from the Fletcher family. Just this month, Scholastic Press published Stephanie Kuehn’s By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Gone, the first of a new Murder, She Wrote series featuring Beatrice Fletcher, who like her great-aunt Jessica, lives in Cabot Cove and is drawn into solving mysteries. Hopefully, this young adult series will introduce a new group of readers to the Jessica Fletcher legend.
Personally, I’m grateful to Angela Lansbury for crafting such a memorable character in Jessica Fletcher, who continues to be an inspiration to mystery writers.