Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage

Everyone knows Mrs Danvers as a byword for menace in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and as a poster girl for lesbians in the movies. But only dedicated fans know her brilliant creator.

This book tells Judith Anderson’s life story for the first time. It recovers her career as one of the great stars of stage and television and an important character actress in film. Born in Adelaide, Australia, in 1897, brought up by a determined single mother, she parlayed her rich, velvety voice and ability to give reality to strong emotional roles into stardom on Broadway in the 1920s. Not a conventional beauty, she was alluring, with her beautiful body, perfect dress sense, and striking, volatile personality. After playing glamorous roles, she was recognised as a Leading Lady of the American Stage under the direction of Guthrie McClintic in Hamlet and co-starring with Laurence Olivier and Maurice Evans in Macbeth. Her reputation as a great actress was confirmed by her landmark performance in 1947 in the ancient Greek Medea, adapted for her by her friend, poet Robinson Jeffers. In a long career, she appeared in Medea again in 1982 at the age of 85, playing the Nurse to fellow-Australian Zoe Caldwell’s Medea.

Ambitious and driven, Anderson toured extensively, made numerous highly praised appearances on television, and, after her unforgettable role as Mrs Danvers, was a sought-after character actress in film, playing her last role as Vulcan High Priestess in Star Trek III at the age of 87. She won many awards and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1960 and Companion of the Order of Australia just before her death in 1992. She had a stormy private life and two short marriages, which, she remarked, were ‘much too long.’

DESLEY DEACON is an Emeritus Professor of History at the Australian National University. She recently published Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage. She now lives in Sydney and writes occasional reviews and pieces in the Australian Book Review and Inside Story, usually about biography and culture.