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Anderson, Dame Frances Margaret (Judith) (1897–1992)

by Desley Deacon

This article was published online in 2016

Dame Frances Margaret (Judith) Anderson (1897–1992), actress, was born on 10 February 1897 at Kent Town, Adelaide, youngest of four children of Scottish-born James Anderson Anderson, sharebroker and pioneering prospector, and his wife Jessie Margaret, née Saltmarsh, a former nurse. Her father, increasingly in financial difficulties, left the family when Frances was about five years old and she never saw him again. Her mother, who then ran a grocery store, encouraged her to take elocution lessons, for which she won prizes. Abandoning her education at Norwood High School, she moved with her mother to Sydney in 1913 to train with elocution teacher Lawrence Campbell. In 1915, as Francee Anderson, she made her stage debut with the touring company of the distinguished actor Julius Knight. She remained with Knight, attracting favourable reviews, until he retired at the end of 1916. While touring with an American company the following year, she decided to follow other talented Australians to Hollywood.

With her mother, Anderson arrived in Los Angeles in January 1918 with a letter of introduction to Cecil B. DeMille. She did not fit the current Mary Pickford style, and, disappointed, they moved to New York, where she worked mainly in stock companies for the next five years. In 1923 she changed her name to ‘Judith’ for her appearance on Broadway in Peter Weston. Her breakthrough came in 1924 when she appeared on Broadway as a sexually predatory sophisticate in Cobra. Described as ‘sure in her technique, clear of diction, entirely without self-consciousness’ she was ‘surely designed for stardom’ (The Billboard, 1924, 23). She had a ‘certain strangeness,' according to one critic, that made her ‘irresistible’ (New York Herald Tribune, 11 May 1924). Signed by the leading producer David Belasco, she appeared to huge acclaim from 1924 to 1926 in The Dove, for which she was given star status. In 1927 she returned to Australia to tour in Cobra, Tea for Three, and The Green Hat, but their subject matter proved too strong for Australian audiences and, despite glowing personal notices, she considered the tour a failure.

Tiny, with small eyes and mouth and a Roman nose, Anderson was not conventionally pretty, but she had an elegance and perfect figure that made her a vivid presence. With a keen sense of fashion, she became a regular in Vogue, and her angular profile made her a favourite with caricaturists. Her sophisticated style, velvety voice, and ability to give the most melodramatic role brought her a series of glamorous Broadway parts from 1928 to 1934 that made her a style icon, most notably in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Pirandello’s As You Desire Me, Chiarelli’s Mask and the Face (with Humphrey Bogart), and her favourite role as ‘the Woman’ in Clemence Dane’s avant-garde Come of Age.

Anderson’s reputation as one of America’s greatest actresses began in 1934 when the producer-director Guthrie McClintic invited her to star in Divided by Three. From that time some of her best roles were played under his management, including Delia in the Pulitzer prize-winning Old Maid in 1935; Gertrude in Hamlet in 1936, with (Sir) John Gielgud; and the Medea tour of 1948–49. Another collaboration was with the actor-manager Maurice Evans, with whom she played in Macbeth in 1941 (as Lady Macbeth), in a version designed to entertain the troops in Hawaii in 1943, and in two award-winning television productions in 1954 and 1960. Her most important collaboration, however, was with the poet Robinson Jeffers, who wrote for her the version of Euripides’s Medea that she played on Broadway in 1947 and which is always associated with her name. The play was produced by the then-unknown Richard Whitehead and Oliver Rea in 1947–48 before touring under McClintic’s direction. Medea was chosen to represent the United States in Germany in 1951 and in Paris in 1955, and for the inaugural tour of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1955, in which a young Zoe Caldwell appeared. In 1982, at Anderson’s suggestion, Whitehead produced Medea with Caldwell—now his wife—as Medea, and Anderson, aged eighty-five, as the nurse.

In 1933 Anderson began her movie career with the pre-code classic Blood Money. She is best remembered, however, as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940), produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. As a sought-after character actress, she appeared most memorably in Laura (1945), Pursued (1947), and Star Trek III (1984); but she regarded movies as a means of financing her theatrical career and the home outside Santa Barbara, California, that she established in 1950.

Anderson’s other great career was in television, where she was associated principally with the director-producer George Schaefer and the prestigious Hallmark Hall of Fame. She twice won an Emmy for Macbeth, in 1955 and 1961, and was acclaimed in The Cradle Song (1956 and 1960), Elizabeth the Queen (1968), and Bridge of San Luis Rey (Dupont Show of the Month 1958). In her late eighties she played in the soap opera Santa Barbara. She also appeared regularly on radio and made many recordings.

Although she was grateful for the way the United States welcomed her and her talents, Anderson always identified as an Australian and a British subject. She appeared twice at London’s Old Vic, in 1937 as Lady Macbeth opposite Laurence (Baron) Olivier, and in 1960 as Madame Arkadina in The Seagull. In 1960 she was appointed DBE for services to the performing arts. An off-Broadway theatre was named in her honour in 1984, and in 1991, a few months before her death, she was appointed AC.

Anderson admitted that she did not have a serene temperament. Although she could, at her best, be enchanting—companionable, witty and full of fun—she was implacable when crossed. Flirtatious and married to her career, Anderson’s ‘baby love,' Oliver Hogue, the journalist-soldier who wrote as ‘Trooper Bluegum’ from Gallipoli and the Middle East, died of influenza early in 1919. She had two brief marriages, to the Berkeley University professor of English, Benjamin Lehman, from 1937 to 1939, and to the producer, Luther Greene, from 1946 to 1951. She was deeply attached to her family and had a gift for friendship, maintaining ties from her earliest days in the theatre. With a love of music and of ‘beauty’ of any kind, her lifelong friends included the leading musicians, photographers and art collectors of the day.

On 3 January 1992 at Santa Barbara, Anderson died a month before her ninety-fifth birthday. Her ashes were placed in the outside wall of the Festival Theatre, Adelaide, marked by a memorial plaque. A 1962 portrait by Don Bachardy is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Deacon, Desley. ‘Becoming Cosmopolitan: Judith Anderson in Sydney, 1913 to 1918.’ In Transnational Lives: biographies of global modernity, 1700-present, edited by Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott, 238–52. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
  • Deacon, Desley. ‘Celebrity Sexuality: Judith Anderson, Mrs Danvers, Sexuality and “Truthfulness” in Biography.’ Australian Historical Studies (April 2012): 45–60
  • Deacon, Desley. ‘Outlaw Fan: Judith Anderson, international star, grows up in Adelaide.’ Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia 40 (2012): 66–80
  • Gregory, Fiona. ‘High-Cultural Histrionics: Judith Anderson’s 1955 tour of Australia’. Australasian Drama Studies (April 2006): 91–114
  • New York Herald Tribune. 11 May 1924
  • The Billboard (New York). 10 May 1924, 23
  • University of California, Santa Barbara. Dame Judith Anderson Collection

Additional Resources

Citation details

Desley Deacon, 'Anderson, Dame Frances Margaret (Judith) (1897–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anderson-dame-frances-margaret-judith-17007/text28876, published online 2016, accessed online 19 November 2017.

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