The apartment that saved Angela Lansbury’s life, or at least vastly improved it, is remarkably nondescript. Attractive tables and chairs, recently acquired after expanding her two-bedroom into a neighboring studio, sit politely in hues of dark wood and beige. The vines over her balcony, prettifying a constricted Rear Window view, are made of convincing plastic. But this isn’t Lansbury’s L.A. home. This is the pied-à-terre of a very busy “artist of the theater.”
That’s how Lansbury, 86, describes herself, wryly, while serving tea with milk and recounting her life-changing 2006 purchase of this condo, one block south of Central Park. Her husband had died three years earlier, and she was spending much of her time puttering in her Brentwood garden. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get moving again,’ ” she says, her back still ramrod straight and her diction mildly British. “ ‘So I’ll go to New York, find a little apartment.’ ” Before getting herself “stuck” out West for the twelve-year run of CBS’s Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury lived in the city for a decade. “I’d been happy here. I love the theater and music.”
She returned with the idea of enjoying those things as a spectator. But later that year, Terrence McNally offered her a role on Broadway in Deuce, and he can thank her condo that she took it. “I thought, I’ve got the apartment—why not?” she says. “I would not stay in a hotel and do a play—just wouldn’t do it.” Six years later, she’s stealing the show in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man—along with her contemporary, James Earl Jones—in her fourth Broadway outing since the move. “If I hadn’t had theater to go back into, I would have sort of fizzled out, ignominiously,” she says.
For Lansbury, New York is both a late-life mistress and a very old flame. Her family moved here in 1940 to escape the impending London Blitz, and she stayed with a family on the Upper East Side while in drama school. “Having lived on a dime—hocking a coat to go to the movies—if you come up through those ranks, become a successful movie star, stage actress, television star, and you’re living in New York—wow.”
Lansbury expanded the apartment to encourage visits from extended family on both coasts. “Now I’ve got a king-size bed for them,” she says. “There’s no excuse!” Still, it remains the pied-à-terre of an occupant forever on the move. Next winter she and Jones will likely perform Driving Miss Daisy on tour in Australia. Before that, though, she’ll take it easy, during her favorite season in her favorite city: autumn in New York.
“I’m a worker, basically somebody who really needs to be doing something,” says Lansbury, who has starred in four Broadway plays since buying an apartment in New York six years ago. “It raises my spirits and gives me a sense of belonging.” Photo: Francois Dischinger
Barbara Bordnick’s 1979 portrait of Lansbury in Sweeney Todd. Photo: Francois Dischinger
Lansbury’s brother Edgar painted this Irish landscape. Photo: Francois Dischinger
Lansbury’s “morning room.” Her 2007 Edwin Booth Lifetime Achievement Award is on the left windowsill. Photo: Francois Dischinger