Angela Lansbury Showed Me How I Want to Age
When I got word on Tuesday afternoon that Dame Angela Lansbury, 96, had died in her sleep just days before her 97th birthday (and two days before my 30th), I took the opportunity to do what I always do when I feel a little sad or in need of comfort: I put on Murder, She Wrote.
For the uninitiated, Murder, She Wrote is a cozy mystery show that follows Jessica Fletcher, an author who writes crime novels about murder, as she solves real murder mysteries in her actual life. It premiered in 1984, ran for 12 seasons, broadcast 264 episodes and starred a then-59-year-old Angela Lansbury as our heroine.
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Unlike the Law and Orders of the world that veer into horror, copaganda and “ripped from the headlines” drama, this was a show that didn’t really spend time trying to scare you or prey on the anxieties of living in our world. It’s more about the puzzles that needed solving, the motivations of all the players and the opportunity to watch someone who is really, really good at understanding those things (our girl, Jess) save the day and outwit just about anyone she comes across. It’s Sherlock Holmes with less cocaine, more chowder and Coastal Grandmother Sweater Looks. It’s the TV version of the Sleepy Time Tea bear box. I rewatch it several times a year and encourage everyone to do the same.
But my love for this show, along with it being a comfort thing (knowing it was one my grandma and I both loved) does really come down to Jessica Fletcher and everything Lansbury put in her. At the start of the show, she is a widowed substitute English teacher living in Maine who started to write novels for fun after her husband died. She is not an ingénue or a wunderkind — she’s lived a full life and is still living a full life, she has hobbies and a pretty solid fitness routine (watch the opening credits, I’ll wait), has a gaggle of nieces, nephews and family friends who adore her and need her help. And as the show follows her starting (accidentally, really) her successful career as a mystery writer, there’s no question she is the main character. In the TikTok-y, damn there is just something about this person that makes them impossible to look away from.
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Jessica Fletcher fully embodies that kind of main character energy. People want to meet her, make small talk with her at little dinner parties or on train rides; they love her books and love seeing the look on her face as she investigates various crimes and questions each week’s cast of characters. Murderers and non-murderers alike want to romance her, yet she always pulls a cool “it’s not our time” swerve and keeps moving. After all, there’s mysteries to solve and to write and she’s got to get back to Cabot Cove (her hometown with a strangely high murder rate for its size, but that’s not a thing we acknowledge).
The pilot remains a solid representation of what you’re going to get from the show: Jessica being too sensible and cool for pretty much everyone else on earth, bumbling Grady Fletcher (Jessica’s nephew) sleepwalking into murder accusations, Broadway and Golden age greats hamming it up with quippy expository dialogue, exchanges that feel so human and kind and generous between characters that don’t necessarily need or want anything from one another (in the pilot, Jessica takes the time to catch up with a peripheral train conductor she’s run into in a repeated “getting on/getting off the train gag” to ask about his son’s college plans), distinguished and lonely silver foxes with mid-Atlantic accents (and hefty IMDB pages) vying for Jessica’s attention and affection, and murder. Lots of murder.
And at the center of it all is a woman who was decidedly not young, who was still beautiful and smart and strong and successful (and those attributes were never called into question) and deeply kind. In a culture that so deeply fetishizes youth as synonymous with the all of those things, knowing that Lansbury, throughout her 60s, could be anchor and heart of a successful show that was nominated for double-digit Golden Globes and Emmys (with a number of wins under her belt) felt like a release to the pressures of a culture that obsesses over 30 Under 30 Lists, prodigies and sparkly debuts.
For me, Lansbury’s career is a reminder that you have time to do the things you want and to be who you want. You’ll have the time. There is life after you’re done being young.
That’s not to say Lansbury didn’t have an exciting career prior to her Murder, She Wrote days (or after for that matter). She had tastes of success at a young age, with her first Oscar nomination coming around for Gaslight in 1945 when she was just 19, but as she grew and reflected she also concluded that she “wasn’t very good at being a starlet” and her skills as an actress were too good for her to simply be someone who was young and pretty. And, conveniently, those aren’t things you get to be forever.
Lansbury shared with the Times back in 1985 what it was about my beloved Jessica that made her want to take the role: “What appealed to me about Jessica Fletcher is that I could do what I do best and have little chance to play — a sincere, down-to-earth woman. Mostly, I’ve played very spectacular bitches. Jessica has extreme sincerity, compassion, extraordinary intuition. I’m not like her. My imagination runs riot. I’m not a pragmatist. Jessica is.”
In Murder, She Wrote and throughout her career, Lansbury gave me a clear look at what aging can be, outside the reductive filter our entertainment/media environment gave us where you’re a child — you’re 25, suddenly too old to date Leonardo DiCaprio, and women younger than you are playing the mothers of actors your age. She’s a stark reminder that you’re not benched by no longer being the youngest person in the room and you can still do something amazing, transformative and memorable and new at 59, at 84 and beyond.
I couldn’t help but think of that today as I sat down to write about Lansbury while also considering the last 24 hours of my 20s. I have no delusions about that being old, of course. 29 and 364 days is just the oldest I’ve been so far. But I can acknowledge that my generation especially — so thoroughly branded as the Young, Tech Savvy, Millennials from the get-go — might have a bit of a problem accepting aging as a thing that’s happening to us without grieving the chance to be young and impressive again. It can be easy to spiral out about everything we didn’t manage to do in three decades (give or take the first leg of the first one where mastery of the toilet was a big deal) or cling to the things we did. But hitting another milestone where you think about what it takes to create a life that is thoroughly lived, it helps to be able to look out and see how much tenderness, joy, art and adventure could fit in the stories Lansbury helped tell later in her life.
We don’t get to choose whether we age. That’s just a fundamental truth. But if we get a say in how we do it, I want to do it like Angela Lansbury.
Before you go, click here to see the best photos of Angela Lansbury through the years:
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