Lee trained at the Royal Albert Hall, then made her début with a bit part in His Lordship (1932), when she was 19. She played a number of minor, often uncredited, roles in films during the early 1930s. She gradually began to get more prominent roles in quota quickies, particularly those made for Paramount British. She became known for her roles in films set amongst the wealthy particularly in Chelsea Life (1933), in which she starred with Louis Hayward. The film was set in the artistic community of Chelsea.
On the strength of her performances in quota films, in 1934 Lee signed a contract with Gainsborough Pictures, which was the biggest British production company of the era. She played leading lady roles in a variety of different genres at Gainsborough including a comedy-thriller The Camels Are Coming, a drama The Passing of the Third Floor Back, a horror film The Man Who Changed His Mind and a war film O.H.M.S.. She appeared in the 1935 Jessie Matthews musical First a Girl as the aristocratic other woman. In 1937 she starred in one of the studio's large-budget productions, King Solomon's Mines.
She had met her first husband, the director Robert Stevenson while shooting The Camels are Coming on location in Egypt. During 1938 she took time off from acting to give birth to her first child. In 1939 she and her husband switched to Ealing Studios which was now being run by Michael Balcon the former head of Gainsborough. She played a nineteenth century Irish music hall performer who falls in love with an aristocrat in the comedy Young Man's Fancy (1939) and a journalist who helps the heroes thwart a foreign enemy's plot against Britain in The Four Just Men (1939).
Her final film in Britain was Return to Yesterday about a young repertory theatre actress who falls in love with a Hollywood star she meets while touring in a small seaside town. With the Second World War imminent, she and Stevenson then went to the United States. She remained supportive of the British war effort and in 1943 appeared alongside other British actors in Forever and a Day, which was made to raise money for British charities.
When she and her husband moved to Hollywood she became associated with John Ford, appearing in several of his films, notably How Green Was My Valley, Two Rode Together and Fort Apache. She co-starred with John Wayne and John Carroll in Flying Tigers (1942).
She worked for producer Val Lewton in the horror/thriller Bedlam (1946) and had a lead role opposite Brian Donlevy and Walter Brennan in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943), a wartime thriller about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Lee made frequent appearances on television anthology series in the 1940s and 1950s, including Robert Montgomery Presents, The Ford Theatre Hour, Kraft Television Theatre, Armstrong Circle Theatre and Wagon Train. She made a guest appearance on Perry Mason as Crystal Durham in "The Case of the Unsuitable Uncle" (1962).
In 1958 she returned to Britain to appear in John Ford's Gideon's Day, in which she played the detective's wife. She had a small, but memorable, role as Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music, one of the two nuns who thwarted the Nazis by removing car engine parts, allowing the Von Trapps to escape. Lee appeared in the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in a small role as Mrs. Bates, a neighbour of the sisters played by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In 1994, Lee took the leading role in the feature film What Can I Do?, directed by Wheeler Winston Dixon.
In later years, she became known to a new generation as matriarch Lila Quartermaine on General Hospital and Port Charles until being removed from contract and dropped to recurring status in 2003 by Jill Farren-Phelps, which was widely protested in the soap world and among General Hospital actors. According to fellow GH actress Leslie Charleson, Lee had been promised a job for life by former GH executive producer Wendy Riche. Charleson said in 2007, "The woman was in her 90s. And then when the new powers-that-be took over they fired her, and it broke her heart. It was not necessary."
Anna Lee was born Joan Boniface Winnifrith in Ightham, Kent, the daughter of Bertram Thomas Winnifrith, a headmaster and Anglican rector who supported his daughter in her desire to become an actress, and his second wife, Edith Maude Digby-Roper. Her middle name "Boniface" derives from the saint from whom the Winnifrith family was descended. Her father came from a long line of clergy. As far back as A.D. 680, there was a Benedictine monk named Winifried or Winfrith from Devonshire who was consecrated Archbishop of Mainz in A.D. 711. Lee's grandfather, the Reverend Alfred Winnifrith, was Rector of Mariansleigh. During WWI he provided for Belgian refugees and was awarded the Medaille du Roi Albert. Lee's brother Sir John Winnifrith, was a senior British civil servant who became permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture. She was the goddaughter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and lifelong friend of his daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle.
She married her first husband, the director Robert Stevenson, in 1934 and moved to Hollywood in 1939. They had two daughters, Venetia and Caroline. Venetia Stevenson, an actress as well, was married to Don Everly of the Everly Brothers and has three children, Edan, Erin, and Stacy. Lee and Stevenson divorced in March 1944, with Venetia and Caroline electing to live with their father. She met her second husband, George Stafford, as the pilot of the plane on her USO tour during the Second World War. They married on 8 June 1944, and had three sons, John, Stephen and Tim Stafford.
Tim Stafford is an actor under the stage name of Jeffrey Byron. Lee and Stafford divorced in 1964. Her final marriage, to novelist Robert Nathan (The Bishop's Wife, Portrait of Jennie), on 5 April 1970, ended at his death in 1985. Lee became a naturalized US citizen under the name Joanna Boniface Stafford (#123624) on April 6, 1945; certificate issued June 8, 1945 (#6183889, Los Angeles, California).
In the 1930s, Lee occupied a house at 49 Bankside in London; she was later interviewed by writer Gillian Tindall for a book written about the address, The House by the Thames, released in 2006. Since first built in 1710, the house had served as a home for coal merchants, an office, a boarding house, a hangout for derelicts and finally once again a private residence in the 1900s. The house is listed in tour guides as a famous residence and has been variously claimed as possibly being home to Christopher Wren during the construction of St. Paul's Cathedral, and previously claimed residents included Catherine of Aragon and William Shakespeare.
On 21 May 2004, she was posthumously awarded a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award; she was scheduled for months to receive the award, but died from pneumonia at age 91 before she could receive it. Her son, Jeffrey Byron, accepted the award on her behalf. On 16 July 2004, General Hospital aired a tribute to Lee by holding a memorial service for Lila Quartermaine.
Things pick up in the 1930s, when the house was briefly occupied by Anna Lee, a starlet. The author tracked her down in 2003; she was living in Beverly Hills, having built a second career on the marathon American soap opera General Hospital. She remembered the house fondly; her sister recalled being escorted home by policemen, as the neighbourhood was thought to be dangerous.
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