The Best of Everything

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Excerpt from My Life in Three Acts (1990)

by Helen Hayes 

The value attached to objects left behind by deceased celebrities defies understanding. When Joan Crawford’s personal effects were auctioned after her death a few years ago, people vied avidly for everything, no matter how trivial. When I read about it, I thought Joan’s ghost might be pleased that her name was still good box office and that her things drew such high bids. And I was reminded of the time when Joan showed off her possessions to a friend and me. 

In the mid-fifties, we played the Hartford Theatre in Hollywood during a tour with Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows. The cast included Bethel Leslie, a young protégée of mine who had been a friend of my [deceased] daughter Mary. Bethel was trying to make her way in the theatre and was also planning to do a screen test for Sam Goldwyn. She thought it would be fun to meet Joan Crawford, so I called Joan and she asked us to lunch. 

After the meal was over, Joan offered to show us around her house. After touring the elaborate ground-floor rooms, we went upstairs to her bedroom suite. She opened a door to reveal a walk-in closet about half a block long, with dozens of short dresses arranged along one side and lots of long dresses on the other. There were rows and rows of suits and cloth coats, and dozens of fur coats, too. A second closet contained several hundred pairs of shoes. 

“Bill Haines did this house for me. He knows every woman’s needs,” Joan said as she closed the doors. 

“Every woman’s needs, eh?” Bethel remarked when we left. “I’ve got two pairs of shoes, one for daytime and one for evening.” 

The contrast was striking. Though I earned good money, it was nowhere near a movie star’s income. I didn’t have to count pennies, but I didn’t spend wildly either. Bethel and I both lived rather austerely, she out of need, I out of habit. 

When Joan Crawford adopted me as her best friend back in the ‘30s, I couldn’t understand why. We were such different types. Perhaps this glamorous fashion plate didn’t feel threatened by me at MGM, and maybe she wanted a confidante. Joan was an extraordinary figure in the movie world, and I was fascinated by her. 

Most people thought she was hard as nails, like the characters she portrayed in pictures. But some of us sensed there was a vulnerable, insecure woman behind the tough mask. She had fought hard to escape impoverished beginnings, and I supposed she never stopped struggling to stay on top. 

Joan had married and divorced several men. Her early husbands had “class,” like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Franchot Tone, who came from a very wealthy family. Living with a dominating woman like Joan couldn’t have been easy. She wanted children but couldn’t have any, so she adopted several. Joan was not quite rational in her raising of children. You might say she was strict or stern. But cruel is probably the right word. 

I got to know her children, Christopher and Christina, who wound up in an institution. One day Joan brought them to a matinee of What Every Woman Knows. I always tried to give Joan’s youngsters a lift, and it happened to be Christopher’s birthday, so I’d had my dressing room festooned with Balloons and a big sign saying HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTOPHER. 

Christopher got very excited when they came in, but Joan was furious. She resented my turning his birthday into a celebration. She always resented anything anyone did for those kids. 

When my young son Jim came to stay with me, we would go out to lunch with them. Joan would snap, “Christopher!” whenever he tried to speak. He would bow his little head, completely cowed, and then he’d say, “Mommie dearest, may I speak?” Joan’s children had to say [that] before she allowed them to utter another word. It would have been futile for me or anyone else to protest. Joan would only get angry and probably vent her rage on the kids. 

On one of my Hollywood trips about this time, I ran into Dinah Shore in the hairdressing department of MGM. She beckoned me to come over, and then began talking in a whisper. “Helen, everybody knows that you’re Joan Crawford’s close friend. Can you do something about her treatment of those children? We’re all worried to death.” 

I said, “Look, you people out here see her all the time. Why can’t you say something?” and Dinah said, “That’s the problem, we’re around her all the time, and I don’t think we could get away with it, but you come and go, Helen, so you could talk to her and then leave.” 

Well, I was frightened to do it. We were all afraid of Joan – which is the biggest problem in this kind of situation, as we’ve seen with fatal results. No one would speak up. 

I have read that people who are abused as children often become abusive parents. Maybe it was Joan’s tough childhood that made her exert her power like that over her own children. But understanding the reason did not make their suffering any easier to watch. 

I happened to be in L.A. on Christina’s sixteenth birthday. At sixteen a girl starts going to parties, so I wanted to send her an evening bag as a gift. When I phoned Joan’s house, her secretary answered. “Can you tell me how to get a gift to Christina?” I asked. “Is she still away at school or at home on vacation?” 

“She’s still at school,” said the secretary. “It’s closed for the summer, but her mother wanted her to stay there so she’d realize how much better off she was at home.” 

I was shocked. How could Joan condemn the girl to stay in school all alone, perhaps with just a few caretakers around? It must have felt like a prison to Christina. When I insisted on getting the gift to her, the secretary said, “Miss Crawford would rather not have the child receive any gifts. " At that point, I didn’t care if Joan got mad. I managed to worm the school’s address out of the factotum and sent the present there, but I never did find out whether Christina received it. 

Joan married yet again and settled in New York. One night she gave a party for Ingrid Bergman. She had asked Ingrid for a list of friends to invite, and I was on it. Joan’s husband, Alfred Steele, was the head of Pepsi-Cola, and his fellow Pepsi executives were invited, too. 

Joan’s apartment was decorated all in white, even the carpets. You had to change into slippers at the door. It was like entering a mosque, but this was a temple to Mammon, not to Allah. I arrived at about eight o’clock, an hour after the cocktail party was to begin. The place was jammed with Pepsi men and their wives, but no Ingrid, and nobody else I knew either. 

Now and then a serving cart sailed through like a comet, moving too fast for anyone to dip into the huge bowl of Beluga caviar – those delicious big gray eggs, with all the trimmings – nestled in a big swan of carved ice. 

I was dying of boredom, annoyed that I’d come all the way down from Nyack for this nonsense. When I was about to leave, the guest of honor finally showed up. I said hello and good-bye to Ingrid and headed for the door. 

On the way out, I ran into Stanley Marcus and his wife. We chatted while waiting for the elevator. Apparently we’d missed each other among the crowd, which had spread through several rooms. From the hallway we looked through the open door and saw the serving cart being pushed around. “Did you have any of the caviar?” I asked. “No,” Stanley said. “What do you say we go back in and get a big spoonful right now?” 

We stopped the cart in mid-flight. The caviar looked pristine, not an egg out of place. We dug in, spread some on crackers, and munched, then beat a hasty retreat. In the elevator, on the way down, we decided that the cart must have been rented for the evening just for show and that no one was supposed to touch the caviar. 

I didn’t see much of Joan after that. I was occupied in the theatre, and she was preoccupied with Pepsi-Cola. She became a member of the board after her husband died. Her fame and flair for promotion must have proved useful.