Madeline Lederman was born on May 23, 1923 in the Bronx. Her Jewish parents had immigrated from Poland. Her father was a trade unionist and her mother was a “Socialist-Pacifist-Atheist-Feminist.” At the age of 14, Lee became a member of the American Student Union, an anti-Fascist peace group. She began performing in radio and on stage at the age of three and continued to work as a radio and theatre actor while a high school student, gravitating toward the political theatre scene in Manhattan.
She starred with Ethel Barrymore in the 1944 play Embezzled Heaven and assisted lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg during productions, including the film Jamaica, starring Lena Horne.1
The blacklist all but ended Lee’s career and for decades afterwards, work was scarce. She later produced two Broadway shows (The World of Sholom Alecheim and the musical Rags). She had small parts in numerous movies and television series, including Save the Tiger, Cocoon: The Return, The Savages, and Law & Order.
- 1. Robert Simonson, “Madeline Lee Gilford, Actress, Producer and Widow of Jack Gilford, is Dead,” Playbill, April 15, 2008.
In 1978, Gilford co-authored a memoir with her friend Kate Mostel, entitled 170 Years in Show Business.
Lee remained politically active throughout her life. In addition to her work in industry trade unions, she helped organize civil rights demonstrations and was close to the dais during Martin Luther King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1999, she was arrested during a civil disobedience protest over the police shooting of Amadou Diallo.
In 1940, she was married to an industrial engineer named Mitchell Fein. She met actor Jack Gilford at a political meeting in 1947. Lee divorced Fein in 1948. She married Gilford in 1949 and the two remained married until Jack’s death in 1990.
Lee died on April 14, 2008 in Greenwich Village.