Anna Lee, 91; ‘General Hospital’ Matriarch
Anna Lee, the beautiful British actress who burst into the Hollywood limelight with the 1941 epic “How Green Was My Valley” and capped her seven-decade career as matriarch Lila Quartermaine on daytime television’s “General Hospital,” has died. She was 91.
Lee died Friday at her Hollywood home of pneumonia.
The classically trained actress, who was a staple in what became known informally as director John Ford’s stock company of the 1940s and 1950s, was better remembered by younger audiences for her work in the soap opera.
She will be honored with a lifetime achievement award Friday at the annual Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony for her quarter-century run on “General Hospital.” Lee portrayed the elegant but scatterbrained Quartermaine from 1978 until last year, playing the role from a wheelchair after she injured her spine in an automobile accident in 1982.
“I want to die with my boots on,” daytime television’s oldest working actress told The Times a few years ago. “English actors have a great reputation for longevity.”
Born Joan Boniface Winnifrith in Ightham, England, she trained at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art at Royal Albert Hall and toured with the London Repertory Theatre in such plays as “Jane Eyre” before turning to film. In 1982, she was designated a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
An invitation to Lee’s English cottage in Hollywood, where she ran up the Union Jack every morning, usually meant high tea. And when Los Angeles celebrated its bicentennial a couple of decades ago, Lee rented Ingrid Bergman’s breastplate from “St. Joan” and Charlton Heston’s helmet from “Ben-Hur” to appear in the city’s parade as the symbolic Britannia.
Lee made her film debut in 1932 in “Ebb Tide” and was quickly dubbed “the British Bombshell” for her striking good looks. She appeared in a dozen or so British movies including “King Solomon’s Mines” before moving to Hollywood in 1939 with her director husband Robert Stevenson. Her first American film was “My Life With Caroline” opposite Ronald Colman.
But she got far more attention with her second U.S. film and first of eight for Ford, “How Green Was My Valley.” The epic about Welsh coal miners won five Academy Awards, including best picture, and secured Lee’s place in Ford’s coterie. Lee and Ford biographer Joseph McBride provided the commentary on the Fox Studio Classics DVD of the film in 2002.
Ford contributed to the actress’ lengthy career and in the 1950s helped her get off the blacklist. A political conservative, Lee told The Times in 2001 she had been mistakenly blacklisted because she was confused with someone of a similar name. She returned to film in Ford’s British “Gideon’s Day” in 1958 and “The Last Hurrah,” which he made in Hollywood the same year.
One of Lee’s costars in “How Green Was My Valley,” Maureen O’Hara, became a lifetime friend and even named her only child after Lee’s character in the film, Bronwyn.
“Anna Lee was one of the gentlest and most charming people I had met working in the picture business, a lady in every sense of the word. What made her performance as Bronwyn Morgan so powerful was that it was so very delicate,” O’Hara wrote in her recently published autobiography “ ‘Tis Herself.”
O’Hara led toasts at Lee’s 90th birthday a year ago and, after her death Friday, said: “She was beautiful. She came to the United States and immediately everybody fell in love with her.”
Lee’s more than 60 motion pictures also included several with another of director Ford’s favorites, John Wayne, including “Fort Apache,” “The Horse Soldiers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” She is also remembered for her roles in “Bedlam” opposite Boris Karloff in 1946, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” in 1947 and as a nun in the “The Sound of Music” in 1965.
In the 1950s, Lee acted in several live television dramas on series such as “Kraft Theatre,” “Studio One” and “Robert Montgomery Presents” -- excellent training, she said years later, for the quick pace of daytime soap opera. She also had guest roles on popular television series over the years, including “Dr. Kildare,” “The F.B.I.,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Family Affair.”
During World War II, Lee performed with Jack Benny and others in USO tours entertaining troops in North Africa and Europe. Gen. George Patton awarded her a special medal for her efforts.
After divorcing Stevenson in 1944, Lee subsequently was married to rancher George Stafford for two decades, and from 1970 until his death in 1985 to author Robert Nathan.
She is survived by four children, Venetia Stevenson, Caroline Stevenson, Stephen Stafford and Jeffrey Byron; a sister, Ruth; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, John Stafford, died in 1986.
A memorial service in Los Angeles is being planned. The family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the Disabled American Veterans or to the Royal Oak Foundation, a fundraising organization Lee started to aid the National Trust of Great Britain.