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Hollywood Legend Joan Crawford: Hard Case or Just Hard to Understand?

Updated on October 9, 2019
Beauty as well as determination were the hallmarks of actress Joan Crawford
Beauty as well as determination were the hallmarks of actress Joan Crawford

The High Price of Fame

“There's a funny thing about fame. The truth is you run as fast as you can towards it because it's everything you want. Not just the fame but what it represents, meaning work, meaning opportunity. And then you get there, and it's shocking how immediately you become enveloped in this world that is incredibly restricting.”

George Clooney

Only another actor who has been through the turbulence of trying to attain success can say it as well. Everybody, it seems wants fame and all the rewarding things that can come with it. However the harshest aspect of fame is that everything in your life suddenly becomes examined under a microscope. There’s a need to know everything and be judged for it. In fact the lack of privacy often increases with the level of fame one is trying to attain. And for many famous people, their inevitable ‘dirty laundry’ is hung out for all to see. The negative always makes for more interesting headlines than the positive.

I read the Donald Spoto 2010 biography of Joan Crawford several years ago. It is precise in its details of what facts are known about this controversial but very talented woman. At that time I remember coming away thinking that because of her adopted daughter’s scurrilous book and the resulting movie made from it, many people formed a distorted view of who Joan Crawford really was. I recently reread it again more carefully. It has long troubled me that her image was irrevocably tarnished by the oblique ‘memories’ of her oldest daughter for both spite and profit.

One thing that I always admired about Joan was her dedication and appreciation of her fans, many whom she kept in touch with personally over the years. In fact Mr. Spoto himself wrote a fan letter to Miss Crawford after seeing her film ‘Sudden Fear’ in 1952 when he was just twelve years old. Joan then sent him a personal thank you letter which he prints at the beginning of this book. Speaking from my own experiences I can tell you I never forgot a kindness shown to me by any famous individual I’d taken the time to write to. Of course the age of written reply’s and autographed pictures have all but vanished for many practical reasons. However, Mr. Spoto obviously was and still is a fan and he wrote this book from that fair and honest viewpoint.

Born Lucille Fay Le Sueur in 1904 in San Antonio, Texas (the year is still unclear) her birth father abandoned his young family (wife, son and now two girls) around the time she was born. Several years later her mother Anna met and married Henry Cassin, who proved to be the only adult figure in Lucille’s young life that showed her any real affection or interest. He was the first to encourage her fascination with dancing. He nicknamed her ‘Billie’, a name popular at that time for both boys and girls. Years later when she started dancing professionally she billed herself as ‘Billie Cassin’ for a while to honor this man who encouraged her interests and expressed his caring. Sadly, in only a few years Henry and Anna’s marriage fell apart. Lucille, who adored this man more than anyone else, came home one day to simply find him gone. Her world was shattered.

Her mother on the other hand was always harsh towards her. Anna played favorites among her children and for some reason Lucille fell to the bottom of her list. A difficult and unsympathetic woman with emotional troubles of her own, her mother never showed any true affection or tenderness towards Lucille. Her response to the child’s enthusiasm to become a professional dancer, “No daughter of mine is going to do that!”

The family had struggled financially and it was not long before Lucille was sent out to work, first in a laundry, then scrubbing floors and later at other odd jobs. Her education suffered. In her own words she later said, “I didn’t have much education and for years I had an inferiority complex about my background. Perhaps that was why I had such a need to accomplish something.”

When Anna took up with yet another man, she one day caught him acting inappropriately with Lucille. Her solution was to send the girl away to a place called Rockingham Academy, a boarding school where she had to work to earn her keep. Other setbacks and disappointments followed. By the fifth grade she had quit school entirely. But her curtailed childhood helped Lucille develop an independent will and early maturity. She soon became primarily on her own by choice. She also continued to develop her natural love and skills as a dancer. She often entered dancing contests and had the winning trophies to prove it. It took several more years of struggle and hardships but by 1924 she was spotted by a talent scout for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who noticed her in the chorus line of a Broadway show and with several others, she was invited to take a screen test.

In January, 1925 Lucille arrived by train in Los Angeles at MGM’s invitation. She was placed under contract for $75 dollars a week and never read the fine print of the studio’s rigorous expectations. So despite her love of dance she was inadvertently on her way to becoming a film actress.

She was only 5’3” but weighed 140 pounds when she arrived at the train station, a freckled faced redhead. She had always strongly criticized her own looks. But she was determined to change and the studio system quickly obliged by creating hair and makeup to complement her look. Not long after, through the MGM publicity department and ‘Movie Weekly’ magazine, a contest was developed to give her a stage name. Thus the name, Joan Crawford was born. And this Joan Crawford was determined to make the most of the new phase of her life. Always trying to leave her difficult past behind her she began appearing in what would be numerous silent pictures. By 1929 she had made her first ‘talkie’, ‘Untamed’. Many silent screen stars fell by the wayside at that time because their voices simply could not match their screen presence. But Joan Crawford was not just another pretty face. She had a lovely speaking voice that would complement her now reimagined image (weight loss, distinctive makeup and designer gowns soon became her trademark). And her abilities as a dancer helped developed her image. She became Fred Astaire’s first on screen dancing partner in 1933’s ‘Dancing Lady’. But she also had an interest and curiosity in other aspects of filmmaking. She began to inquire about just how things worked. She soon became interested in having more control over her own work and career. She had a rapport with film crew members and used the opportunity to observe and ask questions of them. Not content to simply follow direction, she wanted more knowledge and input into her new career. And she developed a reputation for brazenly speaking her mind.

One of her greatest positive influences was fellow actor and star Lon Chaney Sr. Working with him in 1927 on the silent film ‘The Unknown’ she later explained, taught her the difference between just standing in front of a camera and acting. She was so impressed by Chaney’s concentration, she began working much harder to become a better actress.

In 1928 she made a film called ‘Our Dancing Daughters’ which essentially made her a star. That star continued to rise throughout the thirties. However, good roles began to evade her by the start of the nineteen forties. She was passed over for roles in films she desperately wanted to make, and decided to leave MGM and sign with Warner Brothers. 1945 brought her the standout role of ‘Mildred Pierce’ in which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. And yet she was so nervous and self-consciousness about attending the ceremonies she feigned illness so as to not attend. By 1963 she was not nominated but had cleverly made previous arrangements with several Best Actress nominees who could not attend the ceremony that year. The result, when Bette Davis lost her Best Actress bid for ‘Baby Jane’ and Anne Bancroft won for ‘The Miracle Worker’, Joan quite happily accepted the award for her from presenter Maximillian Schell. In the You Tube video, Joan looks as happy as if she'd won herself. No longer uneasy she had managed to make a high profile appearance anyway and out do her rival and co-star Davis.

She continued to work in impressive films with formidable male stars. Her versatility and range as an actress had grown and were visible in films like ‘Daisy Kenyon’, ‘Humoresque’, ‘Possessed’ and ‘Sudden Fear’, the latter two for which she received Best Actress nominations.

But age and competition were becoming a factor and an influx of newer, younger actresses began taking its toll. By the early fifties, her wildly successful career began to fade. But her talent garnered her steady work in smaller roles in film and on television.

Her next important breakthrough came with Robert Aldrich’s 1962 dramatic horror/thriller ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ with co-star Bette Davis. The movie generated interest for more than the noteworthy performances of these two by then veteran actresses. They were both stepping outside of their own comfort zones. Bette Davis in particular, playing the younger, garish looking, mentally ill sister. Miss Crawford, as her helpless paralyzed sister, entrapped by her vindictive sibling. Davis once famously said it takes a good actor to allow themselves to look bad and she certainly demonstrated that in this movie.

Miss Davis was always very candid and she did praise Joan during interviews for the film for her hard work, dedication, ability and punctuality. They might have been adversaries but one highly professional actor could certainly recognize the efforts and dignity of the other.

Rumors flew because the two woman had much animosity for each other. But in fact their strong rivalry had intensified many fan’s interest in the film and consequently the sensationalism between them helped contribute to the movie’s success. The film was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Actress for Miss Davis. And personally they had several things in common. They both came from poverty; were abandoned by their birth fathers; both adopted children; were married four times and both unfortunately had daughters who wrote sensational and hurtful books about them.

Joan continued in film and television and also racked up credits for writing and producing. However, by 1964, now in her sixties, she did a film for director William Castle called ‘Straight Jacket’. The film and her role were a considerable step down from some of the earlier impressive dramatic films she had made. And unfortunately she followed through with several films of this type which did little to boost her waning career. She later publically regretted doing those pictures.

You could characterize Joan Crawford’s intimate life as either ‘ahead of her time’ or as much too indiscreet depending on your own sensibilities and upbringing. Unfettered and unrestrained sexually from adolescence, Joan was involved with many men. She loved the company of powerful and attractive men like co-stars Clark Gable, whom she worked with eight times. There was also Spencer Tracey, Kirk Douglas and director Vincent Sherman, whom she seduced in a screening room while they were watching some of her film work. Many felt her sexuality was often employed as a way of having more control. Her ‘Baby Jane’ costar Bette Davis once distastefully said she had slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie. Of course, even in those inhibited days, if any male counterpart conducted themselves similarly it barely raised an eyebrow.

Joan was married four times, first to actors Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Franchot Tone and Phillip Terry before her last husband Alfred Steele who became President and CEO of the Pepsi Cola Company for ten years. Joan as a film celebrity became very active in the promotion of his product. They lived quite comfortably in a huge Manhattan townhouse and Joan spent lavishly on just about everything to furnish it. She loved Steele although they did have their arguments. Unfortunately he died of a heart attack after only three and a half years of marriage. And Joan was bitterly alone without him after that.

Joan Crawford was meticulous to the point of obsession in many of her personal behaviors. As far as her appearance was concerned, she had the attitude that being a Hollywood star required one to look the part at all times. She was always, so to speak, overdressed for the occasion. That was until she became much older and ill. In her last year she began greeting family members at home wearing a simple housedress and without makeup. Unlike today’s actresses, you’d never have found her dressed in jeans or going anywhere without those famous eyes and lips strikingly enhanced from her glory days. She felt she owed it to her public to look the part of a Hollywood actress. Even if at times her ‘looks’ went over the top.

She was just as diligent when it came to cleanliness. It would not be exaggerating to say that she suffered from OCD, a condition not widely recognized at that time. In what was probably another intentional step away from her impoverished childhood, she was immaculate at home and had high expectations of her servants although she was often known to do much of her own house cleaning and chores. When MGM ungratefully gave her short shrift after she had made millions for the studio, she left them and moved out of her studio dressing room, leaving it in immaculate condition. She had reportedly cleaned it herself.

Always dissatisfied with her accomplishments; striving to do and be better; the inferiority complex she developed in childhood basically never left her. Her criticism of her own looks; the abhorrent treatment she often was subjected to as a child; her family’s lack of means and her subsequent lack of education turned into an adulthood of unrelenting aspirations and expectations not only for herself but for the five children she had adopted. (Painfully one baby was actually reclaimed by its birth mother after Joan had already brought the child into her home). And she had to employ less than legal means to adopt these children, using her considerable clout and finances to achieve motherhood.

Her many philanthropic efforts did not, unfortunately become as legendary as her supposed actions as a mother. The list is long and impressive of the positive things she did for many people in the film making industry she didn’t even personally know. Nor are the many lifelong loyal friendships she acquired. During the Depression when some film crew members were struggling, she often came forward without fanfare to offer financial aid. In 1937 and the year that followed she anonymously paid for over 390 major surgeries for individuals who had worked in any capacity in making movies. Upon her death the bulk of her two million dollar estate went to several of her favorite charities.

When Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash returning from a war bonds campaign, Joan was offered the role Lombard was just about to begin. The film was 1942’s ‘They All Kissed the Bride’. Since Lombard’s body was recovered by the American Red Cross, Joan donated her entire salary from that film to the organization. And when she found out that her agent had taken his usual 10% salary anyway, she fired him.

Working with young actress Diane Baker several times, Joan easily recognized her potential and they made three films together. Ms. Baker likewise always spoke highly of the seasoned actress. Her friendship and respect were gladly accepted and appreciated by Joan.

Joan Crawford was never a saint but she was unfairly characterized as a tyrant by the story her daughter told. In fact her life story reveals a critical self-consciousness brought on by hardships and mistreatment. Her entire life was shadowed by an impoverished and extremely difficult childhood. She was kind enough to open her heart to five adopted children when she experienced repeated miscarriages and came to the realization that she couldn’t have her own. However her strict views on parenting and discipline caused Joan to set the bar perhaps far too high, not unlike her own mother. That fostered a resentment in her oldest children that allowed her daughter Christina to embellish her own story with tales of abuse and mistreatment. Many who knew Joan felt her daughter, and her dishonest and philandering brother Christopher, who were both left out of her final will, embellished her story in a sensational way in order to gain attention and of course to make money. But Joan also had adopted younger twin girls who have always spoken lovingly of their mother. That glaring fact was nowhere to be found in Christina’s shocking book nor in the sensational movie based on it. In fact well before the book and film, Christina often publicly attested to Joan’s attention and generosity towards her and her brother as they were growing up. The twin girls were adopted last. But the two older children became extremely difficult in adolescence and were the cause of much of Miss Crawford’s later anguish. They both grew essentially into failures as adults. They were ingrates in light of what Joan had done for them.

Her severe makeup and her many tough minded female roles perhaps also contributed to people's misconception. She had herself developed what came to be known as ‘The Crawford Look’. Cartoonist Milton Caniff even used her caricature to create the Dragon Lady for the comic strip ‘Terry & the Pirates’. That character was described as a ruthless and calculating pirate queen. Really?

Joan Crawford eventually became a Christian Scientist. And according to many she was then able to conquer her lifelong struggles with alcohol and smoking. And she found strength in her beliefs which supported her as her career waned with poor quality films and her private life became lonelier.

I believe that Donald Spoto entitled his 2010 biography ‘Possessed’ because that is what Joan Crawford became. Desperate to erase the feelings of inadequacy, poverty, lack of formal education, and mistreatment that followed her throughout her life. Yet she developed courage, determination, and a tenacity that allowed her to live her life her own way.

She was always her own person. She never took the easy route. She worked hard and diligently to grow and to learn. The result made her one of the most legendry performers of the silver screen. But she was invariably labeled ‘difficult’ because she showed strength as did many of her male co-stars. And later judged harshly because her oldest daughter managed to drag her mother's legacy through the mud and many people easily believed it.

Judging a book by its cover can never reveal a truthful or accurate portrait of anyone.

Joan Crawford was once quoted as saying, “If I can’t be me, I don’t want to be anybody. I was born that way”. Actually her force of will brought her very far in her achievements from where she began. And reading, learning and trying to understand her as well as viewing her impressive body of work, I think more clearly paints an accurate picture of an intelligent, formidable and undeniably talented woman.

Donald Spoto's 2010 biography of the complex actress.
Donald Spoto's 2010 biography of the complex actress.
Take note of the revealing comment she makes to a fan when signing the photo.
Take note of the revealing comment she makes to a fan when signing the photo.
The young, ambitious and talented girl who was summoned to Hollywood for stardom.
The young, ambitious and talented girl who was summoned to Hollywood for stardom.
She won an Oscar for her riveting and heart breaking lead role as 'Mildred Pierce' in 1945. As a mother disrespected, this art actually imitated her real life.
She won an Oscar for her riveting and heart breaking lead role as 'Mildred Pierce' in 1945. As a mother disrespected, this art actually imitated her real life.
Cartoonist Milton Caniff used her caricature to create the Dragon Lady.
Cartoonist Milton Caniff used her caricature to create the Dragon Lady.
An older, more mature Joan worked in less than stellar projects however a better opportunity came with a television appearance directed by a young Steven Spielberg. She was thrilled by his later successes and often wrote him.
An older, more mature Joan worked in less than stellar projects however a better opportunity came with a television appearance directed by a young Steven Spielberg. She was thrilled by his later successes and often wrote him.

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