The Best of Everything

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from Eve Arnold: In Retrospect (1995)

All through the fiftes in the United States, I continued with portraiture. It was usually part of a reportage done for magazine publications or as an assignment for a film production like The Misfits, which also included magazine assignments. One of the most intriguing of these was a pure publicity puffball done for The Woman's Home Companion. It was intended to publicize Autumn Leaves, a movie starring Joan Crawford.

A Hollywood publicist had dreamed up a scenario. Miss Crawford was to come to New York with sixteen-year-old Christina, her adopted daughter. She was faced with a dilemma: should Christina, who wanted to be an actress like Mommie, plan to go to college and take up drama there while going on with her education, or should she come to New York to try to take the direct path to an acting career?

Since Miss Crawford knew no one in New York who could help, I mapped out a plan of action. We would go to the theatre and supper afterward at Sardi's every night for a week. This would give Joan maximum coverage to be seen, and it would also (theoretically) give Christina a chance to see real theatre and give her a more concrete idea of her chosen metier. During the days there would be talking to people in the theatre would might be helpful: drama school heads, producers, directors and a young actress, Susan Strasberg, currently starring in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Let me describe our first day's outings. We met at Tina Leser, the dress designers, where Miss Crawford and her daughter were to buy clothes. Joan swept in, her square-shouldered suit and very-high-heeled clear plastic shoes making her appear tall (she was in reality only five feet four). On her wrists were the tiniest of dogs -- one pissing poodle as a cuff on each. If she put her hands together there was a muff. As she handed the dogs (Mommie's darlings) to her secretary, she kissed each on the mouth, then kissed me on the mouth (we had never met before). She then proceeded to the dressing room, where an entire wardrobe awaited her. She ignored the fact that Christina had not arrived and started to strip. When she was completely nude she imperiously told me to start photographing.

It was obvious that she had been drinking, and it was also obvious that there was something that impelled her to behave the way she did, something I only dimly began to understand years later when I had learned more about her.

At any rate, there she was nude -- but sadly, something happens to flesh after fifty. I knew she would not be happy with the pictures she kept insisting I take. I tried playing for time. Shouldn't we wait for Christina? No, we should not, emphatically not. So I picked up the camera and started to photograph. By the time I had finished a roll of thirty-six exposures, Christina arrived. I breathed more easily. Joan put on her undergarments. Christina took off her outer clothes, they both started to put on the lovely Leser clothes, and I began to take pictures.

Late in the afternoon I staggered out of the dressing room.

I had been a fool to let her terrorize me into taking the nudes, and -- bad news -- I had exposed them on color film; I had been too nervous to notice that I had color film in the camera in anticipation of the colorful frocks I expected her to pirouette in. I realized there was no one I could trust to process the film; the risk was too great that it would be copied and exploited. Then what? I would have to process it myself, and I had never processed a roll of color film. I raced to the nearest camera shop and bought a manual on basic color development and the necessary chemicals, and asked for a short course from the clerk who served me.

I hurried home, mixed up the chemicals, and dressed for the evening's revels. In our party at The Diary of Anne Frank were the Crawford ladies; Joan's husband, Al Steele, chairman of the board of Pepsi-Cola; two young actors whose names escape me; and a man built like a Quonset hut who was Steele's chauffeur and drinking buddy. It was his job to find out where the best bar nearest the theatre was located, and to set up the drinks so that at intermission, Mr. Steele and his guests could get straight to their tipples.

Of course, Joan made a last-minute entrance for the first act, but by the beginning of the second act she was fortified by her favorite 140-proof vodka (a good choice -- vodka has no odor). Just before the curtain was raised she made her slow entrance down the aisle, then paused, turned and stood at her seat blowing kisses at the audience. The curtain had to be held for ten minutes while she took her bows. I should have photographed this spectacle, but the play was so serious and disturbing that it would have been sacrilege to have raised the camera at that moment. At dinner at Sardi's later, Joan said she had done it for me and she hoped I appreciated it. I gulped and said nothing.

The entrance into Sardi's was a triumphal procession. People craned their necks, applauded, asked for autographs. Joan seated us all, ordered our meals without asking us what we wanted, and then, without apparent cause, started to berate Christina, accusing her of behaving like a harlot. I made a few token shots, excused myself and rushed home to process the roll of color film. Intuition told me that when my subject sobered up in the morning, she might demand the roll of film. Hallelujah, the chemicals brought forth images -- not great technically or photographically, but still passable; a weapon with which to placate my adversary.

Next morning, early, I called the Columbia Pictures publicist whose job it was to deal with Joan and the story we were involved in. I told her Miss Crawford might call her to say that during the dress session I might have taken some questionable pictures. Well, they were now processed by me, no one else had seen them -- and they were ready for her. All she needed to do was ask and they were hers.

Berenice, the publicist, was mystified but said okay when I told her it would be breaking trust to tell her more. Fifteen minutes later she was back on the phone. Yes, Miss Crawford had phoned -- how had I known she would call? Laughter from my end.

The saga continued for the rest of the week and Joan did not ask for the questionable transparencies that were ready in my camera bag. The day after the photography was finished, she phoned me herself. Command performance: lunch at "21". This time I made the late entrance. She was waiting for me, hand outstretched -- I put the little yellow box of transparencies into it. She held up the transparencies one by one to the light. She sighed, leaned across the table, kissed me, raised her vodka glass and said, "Love and eternal trust -- always."

I had reason to remind her of this toast five years later when at my suggestion Life magazine assigned me to a photo-essay on her. She was working on a film called The Best of Everything, she was recently widowed, she had four adopted children, she was still echt-Hollywood, and she was on the board of Pepsi-Cola, a mix that should yield interesting pictures.

I called her at Pepsi-Cola in New York, and within half an hour she was back on the phone to me from California. Yes, she would love to be in Life; yes she would love to be photographed by me; but there was one small favor -- she would like to go into the darkroom with me the way Marilyn Monroe had with Richard Avedon. Translated, this meant that she wanted editorial control, and this I felt neither the magazine nor I should permit. I said I would ask the magazine and that we would get back to her.

At eight o'clock the next morning, Ed Thompson, a harassed managing editor of Life, phoned. During the night his employer, Henry Luce, the publisher of Life, had had a wild call from Miss Crawford complaining that that Arnold woman was trying to withhold her (Crawford's) editorial right to say which pictures were to be used. The editor thought we should agree to her terms so Mr. Luce could get his sleep. I suggested we drop the story, then played a hunch that we wait until twelve o'clock New York time on the chance that in the sober light of day she might back down. At eight o'clock her time, she called me. I reminded her that she had trusted me once before; per she would again. "Yes," came her dulcet tones, "I agree," and still in that sweet voice, "but if I don't like what you do," and here Mrs. Steele's steely voice came through, "you'll never work in Hollywood again."

It was not the best way to staart and assignment, but when I arrived in Hollywood she was welcoming. We discussed the story line -- she wanted to show how dedicated she was to hang on to the top of the cliff of success for thirty years. We started with nothing off-limits and wound up after eight weeks the same way. In fact, so inventive was Joan (she would simply dream up situations and go ahead waiting for the camera to follow her) that we could have filled an encyclopedia instead of the twelve pages at our disposal.

The research about her was revealing. Joan had adopted her four children during the Hollywood days when it was easy to do so. She was between husbands, and the little blond heads beside her own in the current Screen Gems or other movie magazines made perfect copy for her. She is said to have stopped the show when she was attending the wedding of a former lover with all four of them being ushered into the church with her.

My notes about her early history were interesting too. She grew up as a prostitute in her mother's establishment [webmistress's note: this is completely fabricated; from all accounts, her mother ran a laundry] ; she started her film career doing pornographic films. She spent the next ten years of her professional life as an actress trying to buy back the ever-proliferating blue movies, but they eluded her. Where there was a positive someone would make a negative and from that negative a positive -- all in a never-ending chain. In Germany someone said they are still on sale, but I have never seen one. In California, a director said he was present when she and a brand-new husband had a dinner party. For entertainment the groom had ordered some blue films, and one of them turned out to star his bride. True or not I do not know. But she was the stuff legends are built around.

She was the last of the queen bees. She would arrive at the Twentieth Century-Fox studio lot in her limousine. Her chauffeur would follow her in carrying a large thermos box marked "Pepsi-Cola" (in which, packed in ice, was her 140-proof vodka) and a smaller elegant black alligator case in which were her jewels. She insisted upon wearing real gems in the film, the idea being that their authenticity gave her a great sense of authority (about authority: she kept repeating that she had "balls"). Her precious gems were in matched sets like costume jewelry: necklace, two clips, a pair of earrings, two bracelets and a ring of black pearls, emeralds, topazes, rubies, aquamarines, diamonds, or whatever precious gems. As clasps on a pair of diamond bracelets there were priceless baguette diamonds -- one from the engagement ring given to her by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the other given to her by Franchot Tone.

It was remarkable to see her on the set made up and ready for a scene, surrounded by her retinue of hairdresser, makeup artist, wardobe mistress, secretary, chauffeur and stand-in. They would line up beside the Pepsi-Cola dispenser Joan kept outside her dressing room. She would stand nervously, clutching her fingers and repeating her lines to herself. For big emotional moments the director would arrange for her to literally run into a scene. She would take off twenty feet from the lighted set, run, hit her mark perfectly and start to emote for the camera.

Every other day or so her twelve-year-old twins, Kathy [sic] and Cindy, would be brought to the set all dressed up -- ruffles, beribboned and awkward. They would sit, legs crossed at the ankles, in the shadows, drinking Pepsi-Cola and waiting for Mommie to summon them. When she did, all that could be heard from them was a litany of "Yes Mommie, yes Mommie."

Weekends we would spend at her house in Bel-Air photographing. Those would be her days for having her nails done, her hair colored, her legs waxed, her eyebrows dyed; all of which she wanted me to record on film, to show her devotion to her public.

In the mornings she would come down the stairs slowly, pause midway at the niche in the stairwell where the spotlighted Oscar she had won for Mildred Pierce was housed, genuflect and continue to the bottom. Only then could the day's work begin.

The more I saw of her, the more complex she seemed and the more perplexed I became. Hollywood is a parochial town where everyone knows everyone else's business. When word got around that I was doing a Life story on her, people got in touch with me to tell me Joan Crawford stories -- everybody from clapper boys to executives. Mainly they were stories that had to do with the children and her cruelty to them.

After six weeks the picture was finished and we returned to New York, where Joan wanted to be shown at work for Pepsi-Cola. (She had been made a member of the board after her husband's death.) She was hostess at a party in her triplex on Fifth Avenue for two members of the West Nigerian trade delegation who had contracted for ten Pepsi-Cola plants.

Normally guests in her house were asked to leave their shoes at the door and walk around on her white carpet in their stocking feet. Her cleanliness fetish also dictated that all her white upholstered furniture be covered in clear plastic, which looked like giant condoms. For the party she relented: the covers were removed from the furniture, the guests could keep their shoes on, but the waiters -- who came from "21," the restaurant which catered the party -- had to cover their shoes with the kind of socks provided by airlines for first class travel.

Midway through the evening, when the party was beginning to sag, Joan suddenly spilled something down her dress. People gathered round; napkins were produced to clean up the mess. Joan made her way up the dramatic staircase in the middle of the triplex, followed by me. She changed into the garment she had prepared for this emergency. When she made her entrance the party seemed to have a new lift.

Joan had invited me to spend the night, because the party ended quite late. When I woke at nine the next morning I was locked in my bedroom. She heard me calling and banging, and came and unlocked the door, protesting that she had no idea how it had happened. I could never decide whether she thought I was going to steal something!

That day while we were at breakfast, a lovely Picasso drawing of the Cubist period was delivered as a thank-you gift from one of the guests who had been at the party the evening before. The picture puzzled and bothered Joan. She told me that when she had gone to Paris with Al Steele she had brought back some French paintings -- she pointed to them on the wall. She had found an artist who for twenty-five dollars would copy "that guy Utrillo," and she, Joan, had improved on Utrillo. She had her man straighten up the streets. She looked at me for a moment seriously and said she didn't understand "modern art"; could I explain it to her?

I thought for a beat trying to figure out a way that would be right to her. Then I said that if you think of modern art like sex in all its forms -- heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, multipartnered, bestial, whatever, with absolutely no holds barred and with everything available and permissible -- that would be "modern art." I felt rotten after I'd said it: it was a cheap shot. But she was delighted with the analogy. She laughed and said that at last she understood what "modern art" was about.

Joan was fond of telling about her days -- her heydays -- when she was at Warners. She talked about Bette Davis at Warners but would end up by saying that she, Joan, had been the "baby of the lot," implying that Miss Davis was much older. Actually, Joan saw Miss Davis as her formidable rival. When the Life story appeared, she cabled me and again said, "Love and eternal trust always." It was a tough intimate story, but she had wanted it that way. When next I heard from her it was perhaps a year later and she wanted me to come and work on her next film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She said she would be starring with Miss Davis and that i should be able to do some wonderful things. They hadn't been together since Joan had been "the baby" on the Warners lot. I had to decline. I was living in England, my son was in school there, and I didn't want to leave him. About three months later, Joan called in the middle of the night. She was ecstatic. The film was finished. She said, "You would have been so proud of me. I was a lady, not like that cunt Bette Davis."