Anna Lee, Longtime Film Actor and Soap Opera Matriarch, Dies
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page B06
Anna Lee, 91, the charming, blond British actress who died of pneumonia May 14, had a career as a leading lady in dramas of the 1930s and 1940s. She may best be remembered for her 25-year stretch as Lila Quartermaine on the ABC soap opera "General Hospital." She left the show last year, having mostly played the part of a kindhearted matriarch from a wheelchair after a car accident two decades ago.
After stage and movie roles in her native England, Ms. Lee accompanied her director husband to Hollywood in 1939 during an active period of picturemaking with British settings. She later said her career suffered after World War II as part of "that terrible trend to realism."
She made a striking appearance as a Welsh coal miner's widow in John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" (1941). She said she had to be inventive to get the role in the Academy Award-winning film.
"I suspected [Ford] did not like the English, so I invented a fake Irish grandfather," she told an interviewer. "But Ford warmed to me, and he was a great director."
Ms. Lee became part of Ford's repertory group and appeared in small roles in eight Ford films, including the Westerns "Fort Apache" (1948), "The Horse Soldiers" (1959) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962).
During World War II, she made goodwill tours to military bases and had a string of patriotic roles in such anti-Axis films as "Flying Tigers" with John Wayne, "The Commandos Strike at Dawn" with Paul Muni and Fritz Lang's "Hangmen Also Die."
She recalled working with Lang as a low point in her career.
"He had a scene set up where I had to smash my hand through a pane of glass," she told the Toronto Star in 1996. "He insisted on real glass, not the gelatin substitute. And I did it once but it was not to his liking -- he wanted the blood to flow. He ordered a retake and this time I was really bleeding. And he ran over and sucked off the blood. Oh, he was very mean."
With some exceptions, notably the insane asylum thriller "Bedlam" (1946) with Boris Karloff, she began a series of secondary parts in prestige productions. She had a supporting role in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947) with Rex Harrison. She also was a singing nun in one of the most popular films ever made, Robert Wise's "The Sound of Music" (1965).
She found a stable income through television and was hired for "General Hospital" just as she was contemplating retirement.
Ms. Lee, a clergyman's daughter, was born Joan Boniface Winnifrith in Ightham, England. She said she changed her name in 1932, taking Anna from the book "Anna Karenina" and the beautiful Chinese American actress Anna May Wong. An American history enthusiast, she chose the surname from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
She was an outgoing child and said her father encouraged her to pursue performing. She attended the prestigious Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Alumni of the school included the stage stars Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, which might have been the reason an instructor showed some prejudice when Ms. Lee took film roles to earn extra money.
She told an interviewer: "One day as I took my seat in class, the drama mistress announced, 'Miss Winnifrith has been a naughty girl. She was seen acting in photoplays. That is all.' I was allowed to finish the term but was not called back."
By the late 1930s, she was the fetching heroine in such British adventure films as "O.H.M.S." with John Mills, "King Solomon's Mines" with Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson, and "Non-Stop New York" with John Loder.
She settled in Hollywood soon after her first husband, the director Robert Stevenson, was hired by producer David O. Selznick. The marriage ended in divorce, as did her marriage to George Stafford.
From 1970 until his death in 1985, she was married to Robert Nathan, who wrote the novels "Bishop's Wife" and "Portrait of Jennie."
Survivors include two daughters from her first marriage; two sons from her second marriage, including soap opera actor Jeffrey Byron; a sister; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
As her Hollywood career waned, Ms. Lee began working in such 1950s television anthology programs as "Studio One" and "Robert Montgomery Presents." She also was a panelist on the quiz show "It's News to Me."
Ms. Lee died a week before she was scheduled to receive a Daytime Emmy Awards lifetime achievement honor.
She died at her home near Beverly Hills, an English-style cottage where she ran the Union Jack up a flagpole every morning and served high tea.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company