EXCLUSIVE: Angela Lansbury's saved her two children from addiction

EXCLUSIVE: Angela Lansbury’s proudest role – rescuing her daughter from Charles Manson’s evil clutches: Star’s stepson reveals how fans of Murder, She Wrote knew nothing of her private battle to save her two children from drug addiction

  • The 1960s Broadway star Dame Angela Lansbury died this week, aged 96
  • The most comforting of presences was confronted with terrible horrors at home 
  • Her son, Anthony, had severe drug abuse which left him on a ‘razor’s edge’
  • Meanwhile her daughter, ‘Didi’, had fallen under the spell of Charles Manson
  • Her stepson revealed that she paused her career, moving to Ireland to save them 

Her eyes seemed to be permanently twinkling, while her voice radiated a fireside cosiness. If any Hollywood star projected maternal warmth, it was Dame Angela Lansbury, who died this week aged 96.

It’s almost unimaginable then to learn that in real life Dame Angela, that most comforting of presences, was forced to confront the most terrible horrors at home.

Because despite her devotion to her children, they were to become embroiled in the kind of off-stage drama every parent dreads.

Just as Lansbury became a huge Broadway star in the 1960s, her son, Anthony, was hurtling down a terrifying path of drug abuse — cannabis, heroin, LSD — that would claim the lives of more than one of his teenage friends and leave him on a ‘razor’s edge’, as his family would later put it.

Worse, her daughter Deirdre — known as Didi — was not only hopelessly hooked on drugs, but had also fallen under the spell of notorious cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, who would go on to carry out a series of horrific murders.

Indeed, celebrity was a lure for Manson, who got his kicks from targeting young people like Didi, exploiting their money and naivety.

Living in the drug-soaked hippy haze of California, Lansbury’s children were heading into an abyss. As she put it: ‘Some of my greatest triumphs . . . were accompanied by the most horrendous things going on at home.’

Angela Lansbury’s stepson has revealed how fans of Murder, She Wrote knew nothing of her private battle to save her two children from drug addiction. Pictured: Lansbury with her daughter Deidre

So far, so familiar, perhaps. Hollywood celebrity has troubled, dysfunctional children. However, what happened next is entirely singular. As her stepson David, 78, told me this week, Lansbury acted swiftly, pausing her career, uprooting the family from LA and moving to rural Ireland to save them — potentially risking her career to do so.

Anthony and Didi were Lansbury’s children from her second marriage to actor, agent and producer, Peter Shaw. David was the product of Peter’s first marriage and lived with his father, who had custody.

Speaking emotionally — clearly still reeling from the loss of the woman who opened her arms to him as a mother — David said: ‘We are a very close family. [Family] was what it was all about for her. Family came first.’

Lansbury, best-known for her role as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, made no secret of the importance of her family. ‘I value my marriage, my home as much as anything,’ she said. ‘My family, of course, they make my happiness and therefore I cultivate that and I work at that just as I work at my career.’

Yet there’s no denying that, for all her focus on her children, the reality of having two busy working parents — even attentive ones who ensured one was always at home when the other was away working — meant the children were often left with a tutor or governess or, dangerously, free to amuse themselves.

Lansbury, a screen star from the age of 18 — she was nominated for an Oscar while still in her teens for her role as a Cockney maid in 1944’s Gaslight — was 41 when she won her first Best Actress Tony Award for her title role in the Broadway musical Mame in 1966.

Stepson David, 78 said on the back of troubles at home including drug addiction, Lansbury acted swiftly, pausing her career, uprooting the family from LA and moving to rural Ireland to save them — potentially risking her career to do so

But as their mother’s career took off, her teenage children were being drawn to the illicit attractions of Malibu. David, who was eight years older than Anthony, tells me: ‘We grew up in a funny time in Malibu. Drugs were just rampant. It was a terrible era for the Malibu kids, they started with pot and then it very quickly moved to more serious things.’

However, drugs were perhaps the least worrying danger faced by the young Didi.

Aged only 16, with an unfettered, hedonistic lifestyle, she was a prime target for Manson, who gathered around him an impressionable crowd of young followers. Many were captivated and sexually controlled by him, or, at the very least, financially exploited.

Didi, now 69, has always maintained a public silence about her time with Manson.

Author Tom O’Neill spoke to her when researching his book Chaos: Charles Manson, The CIA And The Secret History Of The Sixties.

He says: ‘I called Didi in 1999, to discuss her time with the Manson Family in the late 1960s. She wasn’t pleased to have been tracked down. ‘While admitting she’d spent time with Manson and the others, she refused to discuss details of her experience with them.’

But there are intriguing references to Didi in the 2018 memoirs of Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, the Manson Family member who in 1975 made an attempt on the life of U.S. President Gerald Ford, earning her a dubious place in history as the first woman to try to kill a sitting U.S. president. She pulled out her gun, but didn’t manage to squeeze off a shot.

Lansbury’s teenage daughter ‘Didi’ fell under the spell of cult leader Charles Manson (pictured)

After serving 34 years of a life sentence, she was released on parole in August 2009.

‘Nancy [another Manson follower, Nancy Pitman] and Deirdre came from Malibu, bringing food from their parents’ cupboards,’ she wrote in her book, Reflexion. “They’ll never miss it,” Didi assured us. “They don’t even know it’s there.”

‘The girls also presented us with high-quality cannabis and LSD. They knew all the best dealers at the high school.

‘Deirdre was of strong English-Irish stock, resilient, and good-natured. She wore jeans and soft blouses — too adventurous for dresses — and she looked like a child when she grinned.

‘On a warm afternoon, she sat on our roof strumming a guitar and singing to herself, while below, Charlie [Manson] and I listened, and he said tenderly, “Look at her. She’s ten times the actress her mother is without even trying.” ’ According to Manson biographer Jeff Guinn, Deirdre used her mother’s credit card to go shopping for Manson and his cohort.

‘[She] was one of a number of impressionable young people who had her parents’ credit cards, and what they would do is they would pick up these kids after school and then they would head off [to shop].’

Pictured: Lansbury and her stepson, David, talk to guests at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church where a memorial service was held for her husband, Peter Shaw, on February 9, 2003

When the credit cards were cut off — presumably by her concerned parents — the Manson connection ended.

And not a moment too soon. Because in the summer of 1969 Manson and his brainwashed disciples committed a series of murders that would shock the world, slaughtering nine people, including actress Sharon Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski and eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their child.

Angela Lansbury rarely spoke about the agony this near-miss must have spawned.

In an interview with the Mail in 2005, she would only say: ‘He [Manson] was a nutcase, obviously, but he must have had a way with young people because they were mesmerised by him.

‘That time was a terrible page in the history of both Sharon Tate’s family and ours, so it’s not something we really talk about.’

But while Lansbury never detailed the agony of those Manson years, she did speak more openly about her son Anthony’s terrifying battle with addiction, admitting that both her youngest children were hooked on hard drugs at a frighteningly young age — just 12 in the case of Anthony.

Despite Lansbury’s devotion to her children, they were to become embroiled in the kind of off-stage drama every parent dreads. Pictured:  Lansbury kissed by her two children

She spoke of the ordeal to the Mail in 2014, shuddering when she was asked about what might have been. ‘It fills me with dread. Peter and I had no idea what had been going on. But then we had no experience of drugs. We didn’t know the significance of finding a pipe in a drawer. Why would we?

‘And when we did, we didn’t know how to help them. Nor were there any experts back then who could offer advice to the parents of kids from good families who were using, and sometimes overdosing on, drugs. It was like an epidemic.’

Anthony later admitted that what had begun with smoking marijuana at 12 had led to LSD and then heroin.

Such was the addiction he would plead with his mother to give him his ‘pocket money’ early to get his next ‘fix’.

‘Their friends were dying of overdoses,’ said Lansbury in one moving interview. ‘I asked my children and they admitted they were taking the same drug that was killing their friends. I have never been so frightened in all my life.’

Desperate to help, but at a loss to know what to do, another traumatic event led her to find a solution.

The family home, a beautiful three-acre estate in Malibu, was destroyed in a brush fire in 1970.

Contemplating all that was lost, Lansbury gravitated to the ancestral home of her mother’s family in Ireland and vowed to start afresh.

The Broadway star pictured with Deidre and Andrew in 1957. Her children would go on to lead problematic lives

She went first to a restful corner of rural Cork where she found a house (she would later build a second home) before her husband and children joined her.

So addicted was Anthony — then 18 — to drugs that he needed a stretcher when he got off the plane. Didi was still just 17.

There were ups and downs in Ireland. The teenagers briefly grew cannabis in the attic. But their mother refused all work for a year, determined to help them detox. She ‘kept house’, as she put it. And there, the children eventually recovered. Moving to Ireland literally saved their lives.

As Lansbury later put it: ‘Certainly, I have no doubt we would have lost one or both of our two if they hadn’t been removed to a completely different milieu, the simplicity of life in Ireland.

‘In the end we found a doctor who prescribed methadone, a heroin substitute, which helped with the withdrawal symptoms as Anthony and Deirdre were weaned off hard drugs. We were so very, very lucky we spotted what was happening just in time.’

Celebrity Irish chef Darina Allen is part of the family who welcomed Lansbury into their country hotel, Ballymaloe, and home in the 1970s.

Didi (pictured with her late mother), now 69, has always maintained a public silence about her time with Manson

‘She so loved Ireland, she really felt at home and we enormously admired her for taking a year out of her career at that time, for lots of women [that] would be the end of it,’ says Darina.

‘[But she did it] to support her children through a very difficult time. She had the support of everyone around here, too.’

As Angela’s brother Edgar wrote in his memoir — The Magic Of Believing: A Lansbury Family Memoir — there was a magic to the isolated Irish idyll, surrounded by rolling hills, and with gardens where the family grew their own produce: ‘The environment proved to be an extraordinarily healing one for Angie and Peter’s kids.’

Both children worked in the renowned hotel, Deirdre as a waitress, Anthony behind the bar.

By the time his mother was walking the red carpet for the Bedknobs And Broomsticks premiere in 1971, Anthony was recovered enough to be in London plotting his own career in front of and behind the camera. He eventually directed no less than 68 episodes of her series Murder, She Wrote.

Indeed, as well as Anthony, now 70, stepson David, her husband and Lansbury’s younger brother Edgar, not to mention other members of the wider family, all worked on Murder, She Wrote.

Niece Felicia Lansbury, also an actress, was among them. She told the Mail this week: ‘Angela was a wonderful and protective mother.

‘She was very close to her children and to all of her family. She was as smart and kind-hearted in real life as the character she played.’

Back in California, David tells me: ‘She was an actress, she loved what she did, but there was a real conflict for her.

‘Should she just get out and be with the kids or continue on? She tried to mix the two together and I think she did an incredible job, both her and my father together.

‘She was an amazing lady, she bought me into her new marriage and was just an incredible person.

‘The family, the family business, the family gatherings in Ireland that was what it was all about.

‘I would visit, I would fly in for a week and there would be wonderful family meals, we would sit around the Aga, fiddle with the guitars, it was a great time.’

Didi, meanwhile, became an artist and married an Italian chef named Enzo Battarra. Lansbury was delighted when the couple left Italy for California and opened a restaurant there.

David says his mum had not dwelled on how differently family life could have unfolded.

But, devoted as she was, Lansbury must surely have experienced moments of profound relief that her children made a success of their lives.

As David reflects this week: ‘She was the one that drove everybody. She had the energy. She was a very strong lady in a very good way, a very centred way. Family first.’

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