Interview with Author of Anna Lee’s Book, Part I
Anna Lee's other family - the Quartermaines. (ABC)
I spent the good part of August curled up on my porch swing visiting an old friend. Okay, so I never met the lovely Anna Lee, but I’ve certainly spent a fair share of time enjoying Lila Quartermaine during my 25+ years as a General Hospital fan. And, technically, I wasn’t really visiting with her, but reading her memoir, Anna Lee; Memoir of a Career on General Hospital and in Film, by Barbara Roisman Cooper, certainly felt like a visit with a dear, old friend. Why did it take me nearly a month to read a book, you ask? Because it was that good. As an ardent GH fan, I know that Anna Lee passed away in 2004 (as did Lila Quartermaine), so I pretty much knew how the book would end. What had me savoring the pages where the glorious details of her life in the 65 years prior to landing on my collegiate TV screen (that should have been turned OFF so I could study!). The book did not disappoint. She was born in a different country, with a different name and enjoyed more thrilling experiences (personal as well as professional) than I can go into here. She starred in movies, as well as on the stage and worked with Hollywood legends such as John Ford, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and John Wayne. In addition to all of this, she was a U.S.O. volunteer and traveled the globe during WWII to entertain the troops. Her compassion for the troops didn’t go unnoticed. General Patton himself asked her to visit field hospitals and gave her an honorary title as “Morale Builder” for the 7th Army. Although all GH fans would enjoy learning more about Ms. Lee’s life, fans of early Hollywood, England and even World War II will find the book well worth their time. Her love of the English countryside, men in uniform and her family oozes from every page and you’ll end up seeing even more when you are lucky enough to find footage of those wise and sparkling eyes of hers.
What I was really interested in learning about (and passing on to Soaps.com readers) was what Barbara Roisman Cooper’s experience was like working with Anna Lee. She graciously answered my questions recently – at length! – and I will be passing her stories on to you in three weekly installments. So without any further ado, get yourself some tea & scones and enjoy Part I:
SOAPS.COM: Barbara, first of all, I loved your book. I had a hard time remembering that Anna Lee has passed away, in fact – it was so alive! Tell me, how did this project come to you?
BARBARA ROISMAN COOPER: I was working with cinematographer/producer/director Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, etc.) on his autobiography. We had decided to interview as many of his colleagues as possible and include their comments in his book. One of the actresses whom he photographed while he lived in England was Anna Lee, who then lived very close by his Beverly Hills home. I made an appointment with Anna and drove to her lovely “cottage” on Doheny Drive. From the rose garden in the front drive to the Union Jack swaying in the breeze, there was no doubt that a lady of British extraction lived there. Our first interview began at 3 p.m. She greeted me in the living room of her home seated in her electric wheelchair, scrapbooks stacked high on her lap; her beloved Great Dane Hugo loped over to inspect me. After I asked questions and looked at her photos and clippings, her caregiver Zoraida came in with a proper English tea: scones, sandwiches, cakes, all the trimmings.
SOAPS.COM: Did you know who Anna Lee was before working on this book? Are you (or have you ever been) a soap watcher? If so, which soaps?
BRC: Yes, I knew who Anna was before I met her as her name had been an important one when discussing Ronald Neame’s career. I was, however, not a daytime drama watcher. But I did know about GH.
SOAPS.COM: The book read so much as if Anna Lee was speaking, tell me, what was your “process” like? For example, did she simply start at the beginning of her life and talk to you, or did she provide you with pages of text, etc.
BRC: Since Anna was working, our time was scheduled around her calls at the studio. When she wasn’t working, we worked about three days a week for an hour or so. On occasion, she would have typed up some notes which we would use as the day’s topic. Other times, we just talked. We also watched her films together, which was fun. She always had a cogent comment to make about her co-stars, her costumes, the director.
SOAPS.COM: I'm assuming that you worked at her home? Did you ever meet her on the GH set? What was her dressing room like?
BRC: Most of my working with Anna took place at her home, either in her living room which was highlighted by a framed luncheon menu from Clarence House with the late Queen Mother, engravings of Sherborne Castle, probably her ancestral home, and masses of books. But toward the end, I sat at the side of her bed, and we talked. Zoraida would bring in lunch on a tray for both of us, and we would chat as we ate. I did go with her to the GH set and spent time with her in her dressing room. Outside dressing room number one was a framed lobby card of Non-Stop New York, one of her favorite films. Interestingly, the interior also was also hung with her film memorabilia, but few family mementoes. Anna was greeted warmly by the makeup and hair staff. She had a little cloth bag attached to the right side of her wheelchair, and in it, she had a mirror which she used to check every detail of lipstick, eyelashes, and hair. Nothing escaped her. She always knew exactly what colors were best for her; there was no trying to convert her color palette to something new. When she rolled onto the set (and sometimes into it), John Ingle (Edward Quartermaine) would announce, “He-e-e-er she is: Miss Anna Lee.” And the cast and crew would applaud.
SOAPS.COM: You mentioned to me earlier that you worked on this book for a "loooooooong" time. When did you start?
BRC: When I first met her in the summer of 1999, I never dreamed that, in 2007. I would be answering interview questions about the book I would write with her. While I was completing the Ronald Neame story, I visited with Anna on a purely social basis. One day she said to me, “You know, dear, I’ve always wanted to write my autobiography. I would love if you would help me.” She had actually begun her story years before, but the manuscript and gone up in the blaze which destroyed her home. I never saw it so I have no idea how far along she was. We started from scratch.
SOAPS.COM: I'm assuming that you were nearly finished at the time of her death in May of 2004, or did you need to complete the ending after she was gone?
When did you see her for the very last time? Can you tell me what that visit was like?
BRC: When she passed away, we were coming to the end. But there was still a great deal to do. Completing the book took an additional year. My last visit with Anna was two days prior to her death. She was in pain, and I was only able to stay a short time. No matter how long or short the time was that I spent with her on each visit, she was always grateful for my coming and working with her. She never failed to say, “Thank you.”
SOAPS.COM: Did you see her around the time of her 90th birthday? From the tone of the book at this time, she seemed very happy and grateful for all that her life had provided her near the end of her life. She seemed to take her ailments in stride and see things in a positive light. Can you elaborate for us?
BRC: Anna Lee’s 90th birthday party was quite an event. ABC had lent her one of her famous caftans; this one was white. She’d had her hair and makeup done. She looked very regal. Her four surviving children were with her, along with grandchildren and even a great-grandchild. Of course, her colleagues from GH were there and many of her oldest friends, including Patricia Crowley. Patricia Barry, and Maureen O’Hara, among them Her youngest son, actor Jeffrey Byron, who organized the afternoon, had a cake created with the names of her films in icing. What she really enjoyed was everyone paying homage not only to someone who had reached the 90th year milestone but also paying their respects to an actress who had “survived.”
I'll leave you wanting more, dear Soaps.com readers. (Did I sound a tad like Lila there? I hope so, I was trying to.) In next week's segment of my interview with Barbara Roisman Cooper, you'll learn what the author has to say about Anna's three marriages, her ability to deal with whatever misfortunes life dealt her, as well as her attitude about ending up in a wheelchair for the last chapter of her career - General Hospital. See you then.
Julie Clark Robinson
GH Editor, Soaps.com