Anderson, Judith (1898–1992)

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Anderson, Judith (1898–1992)

Australian-born actress who was considered one of the greatest of her day, though the popular acclaim enjoyed by many of her contemporaries eluded her. Name variations: first performed as Frances Anderson and finally as Judith Anderson in 1923; Dame Judith Anderson as of 1960. Born Frances Margaret Anderson-Anderson in Adelaide, Australia, on February 10, 1898; died in Santa Barbara, California, on January 3, 1992; daughter of James Anderson-Anderson and Jessie Margaret Saltmarsh; attended Rose Park School (1908–12) and Norwood School (1913–16); married Benjamin Harrison Lehman (a professor of English at the University of California), on May 18, 1937 (divorced, August 23, 1939); married Luther Greene (a producer-director), on July 11, 1946 (divorced, June 36, 1951); no children.


The Donaldson Award for acting, the New York Critics' Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Award for the best diction—all three for her performance as Medea (1948); honorary doctorates from Northwestern University (1953) and Fairfield University in Connecticut (1964); Emmy awards for her two television performances as Lady Macbeth (1954, 1961); made Dame Commander of the British Empire (1960); the Dickinson College Art Award (1960).

Made stage debut in Australia (1915); arrived in America (1918); appeared in New York as Elise Van Zile in The Cobra (1924); as Dolores Romero in The Dove (1925–26); as Antoinette Lyle in George Kelly's Behold the Bridegroom (1927); as Anna Plumer in Anna (1928); replaced Lynn Fontanne as Nina Leeds in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1928–29), and with tour (1930–31); as Lavinia Mannon in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and with tour (1932); as the Unknown One in Pirandello's As You Desire Me (1932); as Helen Nolte in Conquest (1933); as Valerie Latour in The Drums Begin (1933); made first film Blood Money (1933); as Mimeas Sheller in The Female of the Species, as Savina Grazia in The Mask and the Face, as The Woman in Clemence Dane's Come of Age and as Lila in Divided by Three (all 1934); as Delia Lovell in Zoe Akins ' The Old Maid (1935); as Gertrude opposite John Gielgud in Hamlet (1936); first appearance on radio as Mary in Maxwell Anderson's "Mary of Scotland" (1937); made her London debut at the Old Vic as Lady Macbeth opposite Laurence Olivier (1937); as the Virgin Mary in Family Portrait (1939); as Gertrude opposite Maurice Evans in Macbeth; as Clytemnestra in Robinson Jeffers' The Tower Beyond Tragedy and as Olga in Chekhov's The Three Sisters (all 1942); toured with USO entertaining troops in Hawaii, New Guinea, and the Caribbean (1942–45); starred in Medea (1947), and with tour (1948–49); as Clytemnestra in The Tower Beyond Tragedy at American National Theater and Academy (ANTA, 1950); in Berlin with Medea (1951); in a revival of Come of Age at the N.Y. City Center (1952); toured with Raymond Massey and Tyrone Power in a dramatic reading of John Brown's Body, and appeared as Gertrude Eastman-Cuevas in Jane Bowles ' In the Summer House (both 1953); second radio debut (April 1954); appeared in Medea in Paris in the Salute to France Festival (June 14, 1955); toured as Miss Madrigal in The Chalk Garden (1956–57); as Isabel Lawton in Comes a Day (1958); performed in Medea at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris and at the Old Vic in London (1960); toured in scenes from Macbeth, The Tower Beyond Tragedy, and Medea (1961–63); as Alice Christie in Black Chiffon at the Sombrero Playhouse, Phoenix, Arizona (1964); toured Australia in excerpts from Medea and Macbeth (1966); as Clytemnestra in the Oresteia at the Greek Theater, Ypsilanti, Michigan (summer, 1966); as Elizabeth the Queen at the New York City Center (1970); played Hamlet at Carnegie Hall (January 1971).


Blood Money (1933); Rebecca (United Artists, 1940); Forty Little Mothers (MGM, 1941); Lady Scarface (RKO, 1941); Free and Easy (MGM, 1941); Kings Row (Warner Bros., 1941); All Through the Night (WB, 1941); Edge of Darkness (WB, 1943); Stage Door Canteen (United Artists, 1943); Jane Eyre (20th Century-Fox, 1944); Laura (20th Century-Fox, 1944); And Then There Were None (Fox, 1945); The Diary of a Chambermaid (UA, 1946); Specter of the Rose (Republic, 1946); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Paramount, 1946); The Red House (UA, 1947); Pursued (WB, 1947); Tycoon (RKO, 1950); The Furies (Par., 1950); Don't Bother to Knock (Fox, 1952); (as Queen Herodias) Salome (Columbia, 1953); The Ten Commandments (Par., 1956); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (MGM, 1958); Cinderfella (Par., 1960); A Man Called Horse (1970); Inn of the Damned (Australian 1974); Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).


"Black Chiffon" (ABC, April 1954); "Macbeth" ("Hallmark Hall of Fame," NBC, Nov. 28, 1954); "Yesterday's Magic," ("Elgin Hour," NBC, Dec. 14, 1954); "Caesar and Cleopatra" ("NBC Showcase," Mar. 4, 1956); "The Cradle Song" ("Hallmark Hall of Fame," NBC, May 6, 1956); "The Circular Staircase" ("Climax," CBS, June 21, 1956); "The Clouded Image" ("Playhouse 90," CBS, Nov. 7, 1957); "Abby, Julia and the Seven Pet Cows" ("Telephone Time," CBS, Jan. 7, 1958); "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" ("Dupont Show of the Month," CBS, Jan. 21, 1958); "Medea" ("Play of the Week," WNTA, Oct., 12, 1959); "The Moon and Sixpence" (NBC, Oct. 30, 1959); "Macbeth" ("Hallmark Hall of Fame," NBC, Nov. 20, 1960); "The Chinese Prime Minister" (1974); and as a regular on the soap opera "Santa Barbara" (1984).

One of the greatest actresses of the 20th century and arguably the greatest tragedienne of the American theater, Judith Anderson was born Frances Margaret Anderson-Anderson in Adelaide, Australia, on February 10, 1898. The youngest of four children, she was the daughter of an English mother, Jessie Margaret Saltmarsh, and a Scottish father, James Anderson-Anderson. Her father had made a fortune in silver mining but, after gambling most of it away, he deserted the family when Frances was five; her mother was forced to open a grocery store to support her children. Nevertheless, Jessie was able to finance a good private-school education for her daughter, who attended both the Rose Park and Norwood schools (1908–12, 1913–16). Anderson, who had a good voice, decided to become a singer after attending a performance of the great Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba , but when she failed at this (as well as at her attempt to master the piano) she turned to elocution, receiving Australia's highest award for recitation. She made her stage debut in Julius Knight's production of A Royal Divorce at the Theatre Royal, Sidney, 1915. Thereafter, she toured Australia in Knight's company in such plays as Monsieur Beaucaire, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Three Musketeers, and David Garrick, and later in Australia and New Zealand with E.J. Tait in Turn to the Right.

In 1917, carrying a letter of introduction to Cecil B. DeMille, Anderson and her mother set out for Hollywood. After four months of seeking work in films without success, they moved on to a shabby, furnished room in New York, where Jessie made a meager living as a seamstress. Both skipped meals so that Anderson could seek work. As a result of malnutrition, she fell victim to the influenza epidemic of 1918 but recovered sufficiently to resume job hunting. Still weak, Anderson was discovered when she paused to rest in an agency waiting room by the manager of the Emma Bunting Fourteenth Street Stock Company, where she was immediately engaged to play supporting roles at $40 a week. Following a year of successful performances, she was promoted to major roles at $50 per week and afterwards went on tour with the famed actor William Gillette in Dear Brutus (1920), later playing leading roles with stock companies in Boston and Albany, New York (1921). She made her Broadway debut under the name Frances Anderson as Mrs. Bellmore with Arnold Daly in On the Stairs (Sept. 25, 1922).

Dissatisfied with her stage name and still an unknown, Frances Anderson became Judith Anderson, first appearing under this name in Crooked Square, Peter Weston, and Patches (1923). Acclaim first came to her as Judith Anderson with her performance as Elise Van Zile in Martin Brown's The Cobra (1924), a poor play that she turned into an unforgettable evening in the theater. Following this critical success, Anderson returned to Australia, where she toured in The Cobra, Tea for Three, and as Iris March in Michael Arlen's The Green Hat, one of the most popular plays of her day.

Returning to New York, Anderson appeared in several plays, including The Dove (1926), which cemented her reputation as a young actress to be watched. She replaced Lynn Fontanne as Nina Leeds in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1928–29), and then starred as Lavinia Mannon in his Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a long and solemn reworking of the

Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus, in which she toured for much of 1932. Both of these appearances in O' Neill productions confirmed her as a major actress on the New York stage. By 1935, she was considered by many drama critics to be the finest actress of the day.

In 1933, Judith Anderson made her motion-picture debut in the unlikely role of a gangster's moll in the film Blood Money. Though she admitted that she hated making movies, unlike many Broadway performers she made no pretense of despising either Hollywood or her work in motion pictures and, after a gap of seven years, she continued to make films for the rest of her career. Of all her film roles, there is no question that her meatiest, the one for which she is best remembered, was that of Mrs. Danvers, the villainous housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier 's Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a performance that earned her a seven-year contract at MGM and enabled her to purchase her first real home in 1940, a house with three acres in Pacific Palisades, after 30 years of living out of a trunk. In her more than two dozen films, no matter how small the part, Judith Anderson never gave a bad or even poor performance except, perhaps, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (in which, some say, she was unbelievably miscast). She is remembered well as the malevolent aunt in the opening scene of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), as the disfigured and discarded older woman in The Furies (1950), as Queen Herodias in the otherwise undistinguished Rita Hayworth vehicle Salome (1953), and as the nurse in Cecil B. De-Mille's remake of The Ten Commandments (1956), in which she finally got to perform under the director to whom she had first applied for a job as a film actress in 1917.

[She is] perhaps the greatest tragedienne of our time.

—John Mason Brown

One of Anderson's greatest assets as an actress was her voice—a deep, throaty instrument of great power; another was her striking appearance. Anything but beautiful, with her hard rugged face, and large, irregular nose, she was nonetheless a striking woman, with blue eyes and light brown hair, her face punctuated by an interesting mole high on the right side of her chin just below the corner of her mouth. Although only 5'4", she could command magnificence of stature and appearance whenever the part called for them. She remarked in 1924: "I wish I had a beautiful face. An unattractive woman has to work doubly hard. Some tell me I have a mobile, interesting face which would never grow monotonous."

Something of a clothes horse on the stage (on the order of Gloria Swanson , another diminutive actress who could get away with clothes no other woman could wear), Judith Anderson was very attentive to her appearance as a part of the creation of the characters that she played; she changed her hair style for every role and, in the film Salome, she positively luxuriates in the trappings of an oriental half-barbarous queen. At the end of a performance, Anderson, not for an instant stepping out of character, was remarkable for her long, deep, solemn bows.

In 1934, Anderson appeared as The Woman in Clemence Dane 's Come of Age, which she later revived more than once and which she always considered her favorite role. Then in 1936, still only 38, she played Gertrude to the Hamlet of John Gielgud, himself but six years her junior. Although the production (with Lillian Gish , also 38, as a rather overaged Ophelia) was criticized for its overblown sets and excessively elaborate costumes, and Anderson did not get the best reviews of her career in her first Shakespearean role, the production helped clinch Gielgud's reputation. Anderson and Gielgud would appear together again and remain good friends throughout their lives.

The following year, she made her London debut playing Lady Macbeth to critical acclaim opposite Laurence Olivier in his production of Macbeth, thereby establishing herself as a performer on the English stage in a role that she repeated opposite Maurice Evans in New York in 1941. (Writing of her television performance of the same role in 1960, New York Times critic James Gould called it "nothing short of a masterpiece … alternatingly vibrant, calculating, cruel, regal and pitiful.")

Between the two Shakespearean productions, Anderson appeared in New York in the extremely difficult role of the Virgin Mary in Family Portrait (1939), for which she received considerable acclaim. The New York Macbeth was followed by the role of Clytemnestra in Robinson Jeffers' reworking of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, a verse play that he titled The Tower Beyond Tragedy. She also played Olga in Katharine Cornell 's revival of Chekhov's The Three Sisters (1942). As a result of her work up to this time, Anderson was cited by George Jean Nathan—the acerbic and most difficult-to-please New York drama critic—as second only to Helen Hayes as the greatest actress in the American theater (second place being accorded to her only because of her inability to excel in comedy). By now, the Second World War was raging, and, though hardly an actress known to young soldiers, Anderson toured with the USO, entertaining troops in Hawaii, New Guinea, and the Caribbean.

As a person, Anderson was remarkably different from the roles she played. Anything but solemn in her daily life, she was lively, vivacious, and humorous. Speaking of herself and her home in 1941, she said: "I'm a sleepy, lazy girl, and I love the earth. I love the space. I love the sunshine. I love the trees. Eucalyptus, mimosa, pepper trees, daphne, vegetables—marvelous!"

Judith Anderson was the favorite actress of the American poet Robinson Jeffers. Beyond question, her greatest triumph occurred in his adaptation of Euripides' great tragedy Medea, which he wrote expressly for her to perform. Directed by John Gielgud (who, at Anderson's urging, played Jason to less than critical acclaim), Medea opened to rave reviews at the National Theater in New York on October 20, 1947. The play, never performed on the modern stage since Fanny Janauschek had toured with a German troupe a century before, ran for an astonishing six months (214 performances) and toured the United States from coast to coast for the next eight months, winning extraordinary praise. Anderson's performance electrified Broadway, and she was heaped with honors for her acting, with the General Federation of Women's Clubs calling her "the First Lady of the Theater." Of this play, a critic for Theater Arts said, "It seems to cry out with the anguish of the world in torment," and, a month later, Rosamond Gilder , after classing Judith Anderson with Edmund Kean, Rachel , Tommaso Salvini, and Sarah Bernhardt , said of her performance in the same magazine, "Her interpretation evokes more terror than pity." The New Republic called it, "a full cavalry charge across an open plain."

Speaking of her interpretation of this, her greatest, role, Anderson remarked:

I see her as a great barbarian, purely animal, all her reactions fiercely primitive in contrast to the smooth and cultured Greeks…. I love the part because it is such a challenge. Lady Macbeth with her few telling scenes is simple compared to Medea.

After Medea's New York triumph, Judith Anderson took the play to Paris and Berlin, and then to Australia with the Elizabethan Theater Trust, afterwards performing the role at the famed Old Vic in London (1960) as well as that of Madame Arkadina in Chekhov's The Seagull with the Old Vic at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. Never having renounced her Australian citizenship, that same year she was eligible for and received the order of Dame Commander of the British Empire, the feminine equivalent of a knighthood, from Elizabeth II as a part of the queen's annual Birthday Honors (July 12, 1960). Thereafter, she was referred to as Dame Judith Anderson.

Meanwhile, she appeared on tour in scenes from her great plays (Macbeth, Medea, and The Tower Beyond Tragedy) in 1961–63, and then as Alice Christie in Black Chiffon at the well-known Sombrero Playhouse in Phoenix, Arizona. Returning to her native Australia, Anderson did dramatic readings at Elder Hall in her hometown of Adelaide (March 1966); she then starred as Clytemnestra in a revival of Euripides' Oresteia trilogy at the Ypsilanti Greek Theater in Michigan; and played Elizabeth I in Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen in New York at the City Center, both performances in 1966. Finally, as her theatrical career drew to a close, she ventured a comparison with Sarah Bernhardt by becoming the second woman ever to attempt the role of Hamlet (Santa Barbara, 1968; Chicago, 1970; Carnegie Hall in New York, 1971). She regretted that she had not been the first.

Judith Anderson made her radio debut as early as 1937, when she performed in "Mary of Scotland" on the prestigious "Lux Radio Theater" and first appeared on television in "Black Chiffon" on ABC in April 1954. She received an Emmy Award for her performance as Lady Macbeth on ABC in November of the same year, and a second one for a repeat of the performance in 1961. All of these, as well as her many other brief television appearances, serve as a better record of Anderson's greatness than her film roles, in which she was always a supporting actress, often in undistinguished roles. Besides her Emmys and other awards, in 1985, 70 years after her debut in Australia, the Lion Theater on West 42nd Street was renamed The Judith Anderson Theater in her honor.

In 1974, at age 76, Anderson appeared again in Medea, reviving the play in 1982 for a final time with Zoe Caldwell in the title role and Anderson, now 84, performing the less demanding role of the nurse but nevertheless achieving great acclaim; The New York Times called her performance "harrowing." This was her last Broadway appearance. In 1984, she appeared regularly on the TV series "Santa Barbara." Though Anderson never formally retired, these performances in her mid-80s would be her last.

As an actress, there is no question that Judith Anderson excelled in tragic roles and performed least successfully in light plays and comedies. As time went on, she ceased to appear in anything but serious drama and played, in films, one sinister or malevolent role after another. As early as 1924, she remarked: "I love emotional roles because they permit unleashing of one's feelings. A character can be complex and difficult but she must be plausible." That she never achieved the public fame of Helen Hayes or Katharine Cornell was largely due to her less outgoing nature but also partly because she never drew around herself the cloak of glamour that was expected of a Broadway star in her time. Although she tackled the roles of Gertrude, Medea, and Lady Macbeth, she never essayed many of the other great female roles.

As to Anderson's attitudes towards her art, she commented during an interview at the end of her career in 1984: "We live, we breathe, we experience, we die; we love, we hate, we experience beauty and tragedy, and we find it in the parts we play…. [W]hatever I do I am passion ate about."

Up at dawn when making a film, she was at the studio by 6:45 and stayed as late as 7:00 in the evening. Her recreations were riding, reading, music, and gardening. Highly intelligent (all the men in her life were highly educated intellectuals), she never got around to writing her memoirs. In her later years, she lived in Santa Barbara when she was not on tour or working on location. Rose Hadleigh devoted an entire chapter to her in the book Hollywood Lesbians, but Anderson was twice married, first to Benjamin Harrison Lehman, a professor of English at the University of California, on May 18, 1937 (they divorced on August 23, 1939), and, second, to the producer-director Luther Greene on July 11, 1946 (whom she divorced on June 36, 1951). Apart from her two husbands, she maintained a long-term relationship with John Broadus Watson, founder of the behaviorist school of psychology, who was 20 years her senior.

Judith Anderson fell ill in the autumn of 1991, lingered a few weeks, and finally died in her home in Santa Barbara, on January 3, 1992. Ninety-three at the time of her death, she had been an actress for just under 70 years. Judith Anderson will be remembered as one of the great ladies of the American theater.


"Judith Anderson," in Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1941.

Hadleigh, Rose. Hollywood Lesbians. NY: Barricade Books, 1994.

"Portrait as Mary in Family Portrait," in Theater Arts Monthly. May 1939.

"They Stand Out from the Crowd," in Literary Digest. March 2, 1935.

Wallsten, R. "Shakespeare on the Jungle Circuit," in Collier's. December 9, 1944.

suggested reading:

Brown, John Mason. Dramatis Personae. NY: Viking, 1963.

Young, William C. Famous Actors and Actresses on the American Stage. Vol. I, 1975.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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Anderson, Judith (1898–1992)

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