Lee Lawrence Ansberry Reconquers the World and Reshapes Her Life
Lee Lawrence developed her talents and won a spot on the Today Show with Dave Garroway. Then she had a terrible accident and had to rebuild her entire life. Lee Lawrence Ansberry used her writing, editing, and people talents her entire life, even when her physical health failed. She left a legacy of courage, faith, and friends.
The only thing that Lee Lawrence Ansberry remembered about her accident is waking up in Roosevelt Hospital in New York City in excruciating pain. Her life from that moment in the hospital in New York in 1961 to Bethesda, Maryland in 2002 is a story of reinvention and courage and a life well lived. It is a story of a person making the transition from physically “abled” to disabled and dealing with the physical, emotional, and intellectual trauma involved. It is the story of examining and dealing with deeply ingrained societal attitudes about disabled people.
Before her accident, Lee had successfully shaped her life to realize her dream of being in show business. He was born on July 25, 1923 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was very young and she grew up there. She studied ballet for twelve years with the dream of going to New York and dancing on Broadway.
After high school, Lee attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then decided to move to New York to see if she could make her Broadway dream come true. She spent the World War II years supervising a theater program in a community settlement house and as program supervisor for the American Theater Hospital Wing.
Lee’s career continued to build from 1944 to 1951. As a technical production supervisor, manager of a theatrical costume company and light designer, she interacted with movie stars and celebrities like Billy Rose, Michael Todd, Cheryl Crawford, Jose Ferrer, Robert Ringling North and J.Walter Thompson.
Lee Lawrence Goes to Work for Dave Garroway on the Today Show
In 1954, Lee Lawrence took a giant step up the career ladder when she became Associate Producer for NBC’s broadcast of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. She recalled her next move. “Completing a season with Hallmark, I moved on to Wide Wide World, Dave Garroway’s Sunday show. When the show lost its sponsor, I continued my association with Dave Garroway in the position of News and Feature Editor of Today.”
It took a catastrophic accident in October 1961 to convince Lee that her life had purpose and that she possessed more courage than she had ever imagined. Several tumultuous events converged in Lee’s life at this point. She had endured a bitter divorce from her high school sweetheart and the weekends and holidays that her two sons spent with her ex-husband were bleak, lonely times for her.
She loved her job as news and features editor of the Today show that Dave Garroway presided over until May 1961. Ambitious and competitive from her start in show business, Lee thrived on the mayhem and fast pace of her job. She and Dave Garroway worked well together and they also developed a close personal friendship. He and her other friends teased her about her small stature, large smile, and cheery, chirping voice.
Then Dave Garroway left the Today show and the new producer turned out to be a man who had formerly worked for the show. Lee had discovered the error that had prompted Dave Garroway to fire the man and now he was her boss. Naturally he discounted her ideas and almost never gave her assignments. Worried about supporting her sons and an impending visit for her mother, she anxiously and unsuccessfully look for work.
Lee Lawrence Suffers a Life-Changing Accident
Then Lee’s accident happened. On Saturday, October 7, 1961, Lee and a friend attended a football game at Columbia University. Lee remembered the football game, but when she woke up six months later in Roosevelt Hospital, she couldn’t remember anything that happened after the football game.
The police told Lee that somehow she had tumbled over the balcony of her friend’s apartment to the ground three stories below. Lee’s physician, Dr. William Zahm, assessed the gravity of Lee’s injuries. Two vertebrae in the small of her back had not just snapped but had been crushed. Three of her ribs were broken and her pelvis shattered. The sole of her left foot was split and her right foot was a mass of shattered flesh and bone. Her most serious injury involved her left hip where her upper leg bone had been driven through the top of the hip socket.
The doctors thought that Lee would die from her injuries and shock. Her medical history stated that Lee remained in a coma for about six months, receiving intravenous feeding and around the clock blood transfusions. Moving her little finger contributed to her unremitting pain and her body weight plummeted to fifty one pounds. Before the accident she had always commanded her body to perform nimbly and gracefully. Now, it was a torture chamber, a prison. Her right leg had to be amputated below the knee and she had to be fitted for an artificial leg.
Lee Lawrence Decides to Live and Laugh Again
From October 8, 1961 through most of 1963, Lee’s life consisted of a routine of hospitals, operations, and physical therapy. Struggling with shock, pain, and depression, Lee remembered the day that she had decided that she had a life left to continue. Lying awake before dawn one morning thinking about some of the other patients in her therapy group, she said to herself, “You’re all right. You’ve got a head and a body, and your mind is whole.”
From that moment her attitude changed completely and she started reaching out to people again. Lee’s spirit began to heal. Lee’s physical, mental and spiritual healing continued. On October 8, 1962, one year to the day that the ambulance had taken her shattered body to Roosevelt Hospital, Lee’s friend and former boss Dave Garroway invited her out to dinner. Lee didn’t have any problems getting into the limousine that he hired especially for the occasion, but when they got to Garroway’s apartment house, she needed help getting out of the limousine.
Plagued with a bad back, Garroway reached inside and tried to help Lee out of the car. They both tumbled onto the sidewalk. “Now we’re both cripples,” Garroway blurted, and then covered his mouth in embarrassment. They looked at each other and both laughed uproariously at the ridiculous sight of the well-dressed couple sitting on the sidewalk on 63rd Street in New York City.
The next month, November 1962, featured Lee’s public reentry into the world at the bar mitzvah of her son. Although she vowed not to miss her son’s bar mitzvah, Lee wondered if she could attend as herself and not as a helpless cripple. Her body had drastically changed. She sometimes stumbled on her artificial leg and her face still reflected her months in the hospital and the ordeal that she had endured. She had to sit with dozens of people that she hadn’t seen in more than a year. Her ex-husband and his new wife, once her close friend, would be there. Lee would be sitting close to her former mother-in-law. She had to negotiate steps and a long aisle.
Lee Lawrence overcame all these obstacles and enjoyed herself as well. With no help, she negotiated the long, curving flight of stairs to the reception and danced with her sons. She drank champagne, talked to her friends, and danced with her doctor, William Zahm. She returned to the hospital flushed with victory and accomplishment.
Lee Lawrence Moves into Her Own Apartment
Lee Lawrence spent the years between 1961 and 1963 painfully convincing her shattered body to function again. At this point she knew that her most important activity was leaving the hospital and moving into an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. The apartment was compact and convenient, yet large enough for her two sons to live with her again. After her friends cleaned the apartment and moved in her furniture, they gave her a welcome home party her first evening in the apartment.
About mid evening, Dave Garroway appeared and asked to speak privately with Lee. They went into another room for a few minutes, and then Lee reappeared, her eyes shining. Garroway had asked her to be head of development and research in his television production firm, Once more, Inc., a meaningful name to both of them.
Garroway reiterated his opinion that Lee was the world’s best researcher. He recalled her slow, painful recuperation at Roosevelt Hospital. “Last fall, that first night, I started visiting her again at the hospital. I told her all my problems so she’d have something to think about besides her own. I even made some up. You know, after awhile, she convinced me those made-up problems were real. She even convinced me she’d solved them for me. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty close to the truth.”
During the next few years Lee worked for Dave Garroway and later as a free lance public relations consultant. In the early 1960s, Lee moved to Washington D.C. to continue her rehabilitation and to work for the United States government.
Lee Lawrence Ansberry Drives Her Convertible All Over Washington, D.C.
According to her papers in The University of Maryland Archives, friends recalled that “She drove her convertible all over the Capitol City with the top down, engaging strangers in smiling conversation, boosting the spirits of friends, waitresses and new acquaintances who were having bad days.”
Eventually Lee made a commercial, complete with convertible, for the same Maryland car dealers where she bought her convertible. Vibrant and smiling, she talked about her convertible like it was a beloved friend – and indeed, it was.
Lee’s move to Washington D.C. also brought T. Peter Ansberry into her life. A lawyer, Peter joined the Commerce Department in 1963 as counsel for the Area Redevelopment Administration. He and Lee married and bought a house in Bethesda, Maryland.
In 1964, Lee entered the federal service as a public information specialist in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Her duties included developing and implementing public awareness campaigns for various programs, arranging media interviews of key persons, and writing news releases, brochures, manuals, newsletters and speeches. She produced several series of public announcements for national television and radio distribution as well as documentary films and television specials.
Between 1965 and 1983, Lee designed and coordinated White House and Interdepartmental Conferences and Annual meetings, including the White House Conference on Aging, 1971 and 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, 1982, and the Conference on Air Pollution, Dental Health, Occupational Health, Gerontology, and Trauma.
With wry humor, Lee recalled the day she reported to her new assignment at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as a Public Awareness Specialist. The program was Accident Prevention “and there I was in a wheelchair, with one leg in a non-weight bearing cast and the other cut off at the knee. Truly I was an authoritative source if experience counts.”
After working with various federal agencies for several years, in 1976 Lee received the assignment to conduct the public awareness program for the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals. This assignment required all of her communication and writing skills, but she did communicate well because First Lady Rosalynn Carter accepted her finished report.
Lee also worked closely with Bernie Posner, Executive Director of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and she decided that this was the most stimulating of her jobs with the federal service because of her relationships with her fellow workers. She recalled a conversation with Helen, a co-worker of fifteen years. Lee told Helen about her amazement at finding that the new foot for her prosthesis had toes. Helen said, “Lee, I didn’t know you had an artificial leg!”
Lee Lawrence Ansberry Leaves a Legacy of Courage, Faith, Friends
October continued to be the fateful month in Lee Lawrence Ansberry’s life. In October 1982, she took a disability retirement from the federal service but continued to earn her living by doing freelance work from her home office. Through the years she had periods of frequent and increasing pain from arthritis and bursitis, and eventually commuting of an office and spending regular hours on the job became impractical for her.
After her disability retirement from the federal service, Lee continued her freelance work. Her list of honors and awards for over a quarter of a century of producing, editing, and writing includes The White House Press Award – first Place Public Affairs for TV; The Associated Press Award – first place for public affairs; The Albert and Mary Lasker Award – first place for National Network TV; The International Film Festival – Bronze Medal Documentary Film; TV Film Festival of New York –Bronze Medal Documentary Film’ The Atlanta Film Festival-First Place Documentary Film, and the Chicago Film Festival-Certificate of Merit; Public Affairs Programs.
Like many people, Lee discovered that she was busier than ever after she retired. From 1985-1987, she served as outreach coordinator for two television special programs. A documentary called “The Skin Horse” dealt with the issue of sexuality and people with disabilities and another documentary, “Drinking and Driving, The Toll, The Tears,” called attention to the lenient treatment of intoxicated drivers whose cause accidents. From her home office in Bethesda, Maryland, Lee operated an information program for the National Organization on Disability in Washington D.C. and wrote articles for disability publications, including Ability Magazine.
Lee Lawrence Ansberry Walks Upright for the First Time in Nearly Two Decades
In the 1980s, Lee Lawrence Ansberry telephoned a friend to tell him that she had a surprise for him when he came to the disability conference they were attending together in Washington D.C. When he met her in the conference room, she walked up to him to greet him. She no longer had to walk with a stoop. New surgery had replaced her hip with mesh, and for the first time since her accident in 1961, she could walk upright. Overwhelmed and speechless, her friend hugged her.
Another friend reminisced about her attitude toward life. “She loved being the center of attention. In truth, always had. Being surrounded by friends was important to her. Recalling glory days to an interested audience kept her going. But she never used her disability to generate attention, only her personality and endless stories of strange and funny happenings among the famous names in show business.”
Lee faced other physical challenges in the mid 1990s when surgery to ease constant pain in her lower spine left her unable to walk unaided or drive her car. Her convertible had been her mobility and freedom and she had parked it boldly in front of her favorite restaurants in Bethesda while their owners rushed out to greet her. Now she needed friends to drive her to church and grocery shopping.
Still indomitable, Lee worked on mastering the computer so she could continue to work at home where she operated a telephone answering service for the National Organization on Disability. Her physical challenges accumulated. She fell and broke her wrist and in the year 2,000 alone endured open heart surgery, surgery to remove cancer from her lung, and she had a morphine pump implanted to control chronic pain. Her blood circulation became a problem and she was often confused. She suffered frequent anxiety attacks.
Eventually Lee moved to Potomac Valley Nursing and Wellness Center. Lee enjoyed watching old movies in her new home. She regaled her fellow residents with stories of Dave Garroway and Billy Rose. Joe Ryan, a writer for the Garroway Show in the 1950s came to visit Lee. They pored over photo albums of The Today Show gang on location in Italy and Spain, and talked and laughed about Today Show people and production memories.
Lee Lawrence Ansberry died on August 26, 2002. Friends from all over the country remembered her with love and affection. Friends from The Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda talked about her courage. They said, “Despite her pain, Lee Lawrence Ansberry has given constant encouragement, comfort, and inspiration to her friends these many years.”
But Lee herself spoke her own legacy. In an interview with Dennis Wholey, she recalled the point during her two year convalescence after her accident when she decided to live. Lee said, “So one morning I woke up and I was watching the daylight come. Slowly I began to realize that I did know the beauty of it, and that my mind was functioning. I thought I did have something that was still me, and maybe this was going to be a way to move on in living.”
Lee Lawrence Ansberry moved on in living, lived and left a legacy of courage for others grappling with disabilities of all kinds in their own lives.
“The Strange Case of Lee Lawrence.” Saturday Evening Post, April 20, 1963.
Garrison, Kevin S. “It’s Just a Matter of Balance. Print Vintage, 2005.
Rosenberg, Jothy. Who Says I Can’t? Bascom Hill Book, 2010.
Lee Lawrence Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
Personal Correspondence, Lee Lawrence