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Why Joan Crawford Won't Go Away

[Parts One and Two

Fifteen years after her death, a friend of the late star

ponders Crawford's continuing stronghold on a curious public. 

by Carl Johnes 

Originally appeared in Hollywood Then & Now, August 1992 and September 1992

Part One (August 1992)

In the spring of 1977, Joan Crawford died in her co-op apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. In the summer of 1978, she had a career comeback even Crawford, who in her heyday was the Madonna and Cher of media manipulation, could never have dreamed up. Through the miracle of literary recognition, she became the dragon lady you loved to loathe. 

Not that the portrayal of monsters was entirely outside her range. During one of her last personal appearances before an audience at Town Hall in 1973, she said, "I love playing bitches. There's a lot of bitch in every woman. And a lot of bitch in every man too!" But now, a year after her death, we were told that the real-life bitch was far more grotesque than any movie character imaginable. The vehicle for all this delicious dirt was "Mommie Dearest," the over-wrought autobiography and publishing gold mine written by her eldest adopted daughter, Christina. 

I'd met Joan Crawford in 1972 through my job at Columbia Pictures – where I worked as a story editor for several years – and we became fast friends, shared meals, played backgammon and had long, late-night phone conversations. After she died, I wanted to capture on paper what it was like to know such a person, realizing that I might never again be that close to a certified legend. So I started work on a slim, affectionate, yet warts-and-all memoir which would be published in 1979 called "Crawford: The Last Years." 

But just before I completed my first draft, I began hearing that a long, convoluted manuscript about Hollywood called "The Hype" was being circulated among publishers. The writers, editors and agents who wheel, deal and gossip over lunch at the Four Seasons or The Russian Tea Room in New York are a shrewd, even cavalier bunch, and so another tell-all expose about the underbelly of show business is as likely to cause yawns as anticipation. But this one, we heard, was different. 


Most of my peers knew little about the author, except that she was Joan Crawford's daughter, the only one of her children to attempt an acting career, so far without much success. I knew somewhat more. 


There were two younger adopted girls: Cindy, who lived in the Midwest, and Cathy, whom I'd met several times when she and her husband Jerome and their two children visited New York. In 1974, I'd had the temerity to ask Joan why she never discussed either Christina or Christopher, the two older kids, and when her face stiffened, I wished I'd kept my mouth shut. 

"Tina and I have nothing to say to each other anymore; I hear she's found another man, and I hope she's happy," she said in a steely voice. "Anyway, Tina and Christopher are just waiting for me to die. That's all they want." That seemed pretty harsh, even for Joan, who I'd learned could be a pretty tough cookie. Couldn't she at least try for some sort of reconciliation? She thought for a split second, and I glimpsed a hurt look in those famous eyes and felt contrite. But she recovered. "No. . .no. It's too late for that." And then briskly, "But I can cut them out of my will." I changed the subject. 


So in early 1978, I was perhaps even more curious about this new book by Christina Crawford than my colleagues. I heard that most of those who'd clapped their eager little hands on the manuscript of "The Hype" agreed that the girl's prose style wouldn't win any writing awards, but so what? There was sensational stuff in it. About her mother. Juicy things. Raging alcoholism, child abuse, torture behind closed doors, blatant promiscuity, hints of lesbianism. Although it would probably have to be rewritten by a hired gun, there were these really frightening revelations, shocking, awful, damning things, the dirtiest underwear flung right in your face.  

In short, it was wonderful. 

The editor who finally bought it engaged an anonymous writer to slice out huge chunks of its over seven hundred pages, eliminate most of the generic Hollywood socio-drama and concentrate on the Wicked Witch parts, framing her gothic tale around two key scenes: one, where a vodka-soaked Joan Crawford awakens her entire household and, drunkenly wielding an axe, forces them to help her chop up and rip out the rose garden on the grounds of her Brentwood house, and another, which would become the most notorious, in which Crawford, again drunk, yanks the little girl out of bed in the middle of the night, accuses her of hanging her pretty frocks on ugly wire hangers, and beats her into submission.  


"I haven't got a clue whether any of this is true or not, but as long as we've got those two scenes," the editor said, "we'll sell a million copies." 

Retitled "Mommie Dearest," after the enforced term of endearment that Crawford apparently demanded from her children, the book was published in late 1978. The editor's sales predictions turned out to be conservative. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for forty-two weeks, racking up sales of a half-million hardcovers, a million book club copies and nearly four million paperbacks, followed by a movie deal with Paramount. Christina got her legacy after all. 

The title entered into the language instantly, and the book became the grandmother of every subsequent "movie baby" confessional – by Bette Davis' daughter (Mommy was sadistic, insane and drunk); Bing Crosby's son (Daddy was sadistic, insane but not drunk); Lana Turner's daughter (Mom liked her booze and had rotten taste in men, but all in all was a pretty good egg). The fallout would spawn a slew of lesser clones (Mommy or Daddy were – well, not famous enough for us to care), book and TV parodies, endless fodder for stand-up comics, dubious tributes such as Blue Oyster Cult's 1981 song, "Joan Crawford Has Risen From the Grave," and at least one Halloween sighting of a heavily-made-up, shoulder-padded drag queen in Greenwich Village hurling a little blonde doll under the wheels of passing trucks, screaming, "Shame on you, Christina! Bad, bad girl!" 

In reporting the above spectacle, the late Arthur Bell wrote in The Village Voice: "You become an Academy Award winning actress, adopt four children, lead an exemplary life – you die, and THIS is what you get?" 

More than one celebrity began to suspect, as a result of all this, that there were only two ways to save your reputation: 1) Don't have children, or 2) Don't die. 


We know for sure that Joan Crawford died on the morning of May 10, 1977, in apartment 22-H, her co-op on the twenty-second floor of The Imperial House on Manhattan's East 69th Street. But questions will always remain whether Lucille Fay LeSueur was born as early as 1903 or 1908, although we're pretty certain the day was March 23rd. Birth records weren't kept in San Antonio, Texas before 1908; Lucille picked the latest possible year long before she became Joan Crawford – illusion being always part of her repertoire. 


Within those seven decades (more or less), Crawford's life generated a staggering accumulation of media hyperbole. From flapper to quintessential movie star to legend, her indelible image danced, romanced, menaced, laughed and sobbed through enough reels of celluloid to stretch more than once from San Antonio to Hollywood. And if by some miracle you managed to miss all of her eighty-plus films, she simultaneously shouldered her way in print across enough pages to level a forest. Fact, fiction or mythology, the Crawford saga kept her public fascinated, awed, and sometimes appalled for half a century. 

Part Two (Sept. 1992)

So, not surprisingly, on that spring Tuesday afternoon and evening, her death was the lead story on many radio and television news programs. The New York Times obituary was on the front page the next morning, and the tabloids emblazoned the event in banner headlines and with centerfold spreads chronicling the metamorphosis of Lucille LeSeuer into Billie Cassin into Joan Crawford, whose astonishing career as movie star, Pepsi Cola executive, humanitarian and American icon had rarely been equaled and never surpassed. 

Within a day, Crawford's people began making telephone calls inviting a select list to come to the funeral. The message on my answering machine from Betty Barker, her longtime West Coast secretary, said, "We'd like you to attend. It's just for the family." Although I assumed that Joan no longer had any blood relatives left, I was still flattered to be considered family. 

On the following Friday at Campbell's Funeral Home on Madison Avenue, seventy-five of us – people from the film industry and Pepsi, a smattering of journalists and writers, trusted friends from her professional and private circle – were joined by all four children and a surprise: Joan Crawford Lowe Fuller, her late brother Hal's daughter, her one remaining relative. Facing a softly-lit urn containing her ashes, a single-stemmed rose at its base, we listened as her Christian Science practitioner spoke of "our beloved Joan Crawford," saying that it was "at the request of her children that a Christian Science service be read for her," and so it was, simple and moving. Several of those present sobbed quietly. A week later, more than a thousand showed up at All Souls Unitarian Church a few blocks east to listen to a warm and affectionate memorial led by Cliff Robertson, Pearl Bailey, Geraldine Brooks and Anita Loos. And on a sweltering June evening in Beverly Hills, California, a final farewell packed them in at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in the Academy Building, arranged by George Cukor, one of her best directors, who was visibly moved as he read his eulogy: "…in private life, she was a lovable, sentimental creature. A loyal and generous friend, very thoughtful – dear Joan Crawford…" 


And then came "Mommie Dearest." 

If Crawford had become legendary while she lived, that legend now took on quite a different connotation. The trashing of celebrities is not new, and not exclusively American, either. But in the United States, the process has been perfected to a fine art. Traditionally, Americans are a generous race, and take relish in the creation and nurturing of heroes, but when those heroes become vulnerable, the glee in tearing them apart becomes positively maniacal. This phenomenon, combined with a freakish twist on necrophilia that canonizes the dead, resulting in posthumous careers that are much more successful and lucrative than ever (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean), achieved a kind of antithetical apotheosis in Joan Crawford. Her star burned brighter than it had since her peak, not so much because she was missed, but because her fall from grace at the hands of her daughter was irresistible to a national consciousness obsessed by a love/hate relationship with fame. 

Of course it helped that Joan Crawford was never really "beloved" by her public, although she may have been revered. She eventually became too glacial and seemingly unapproachable for that (a presumption belied totally by her off-screen personality, which, although as manufactured as her "actress" persona, was nevertheless accessible, jocular and relaxed; when appropriate, she kicked off her ankle straps and became your best pal – but this, too, was performance art). 


If Marilyn was an alcoholic, pill-popping, slightly dim-witted slut, we forgave her because she was so soft, so tremulous with gossamer vulnerability, so much the victim. And if Elvis became a drug-addicted, bloated monster, never mind. He was a good old boy who loved his mother and was The King. And if suspicions arose that Dean was slightly unbalanced and engaged in kinky, sexually ambiguous sadomasochism, we looked the other way. He defined a generation of rebels and died young, which is always the romantic thing to do. 


If Joan Crawford had died young, after "Our Dancing Daughters," she would be remembered as "the personification of youth and beauty, of joy and happiness!" which was how Conrad Nagel introduced her in "Hollywood Revue of 1929." But soon after her jazz baby youth, she rang subtle changes in order to stay one step ahead of a fickle public, and as the cliché goes, you're only as good as your last picture. Or your last death. And unfortunately, the last picture many people had of Joan Crawford wasn't of the thirties shop girl turned clothes horse, or the forties matron suffering in expensive stonemartin coats, or the fifties masochist in film noir soap operas, or even her final, if slightly tarnished image, the aging star of horror flicks whose day job happened to be the queen of Pepsi Cola. No, our lingering view of Joan Crawford since 1978 has been a sad, and ultimately unfair one: an often crazed, always domineering phony – a monster mother who terrorized at least two of her children, was a control freak of epic proportions, and abused every man, woman or child who came into her personal orbit. 

Any visitor to a supermarket line knows that Natalie Wood is alive and living happily in Mexico with a matador. James Dean pumps gas in Nevada, and Marilyn is behind the counter in a truck stop in Idaho. Elvis, of course, never really did die. But nobody's spotted Joan working, say, as a madam in some gothic bordello up in Nova Scotia. Because we wanted her dead. We didn't want to forgive her. Her final image wouldn't allow it. And she died too old.  


When my own "Crawford: The Last Years" came out in 1979, it was sold by the publishers as an "answer" to Christina's book, which of course it wasn't, because I'd known nothing about "Mommie Dearest" while writing it. Back then, it was only the third volume to appear after Crawford's death. DeWitt Bodeen wrote in "Films in Review" that it was "what may be the last word out of the truest memory of Joan Crawford." Nice, but it wasn't the last word by a long shot. 

The New York Public Library lists nine different postmortem bios published in the fifteen years since she died; clearly notoriety alone isn't enough to keep the legend alive and well, or even sick. My memoir has been out of print for years, but I still get letters from people who have found a battered copy somewhere and want to communicate with somebody who actually knew Joan Crawford. They write from all over the country, but the majority of them have one unexpected thing in common: they are all in their early twenties! They weren't even teenagers in 1977, and barely adolescent when "Mommie Dearest" began eroding Crawford's carefully-built grandeur, so their discovery of her is fresh and unfettered by hype. 


Michelle, a young woman from Michigan who originally asked me for help with a college paper, wrote again several weeks ago to tell me about a pilgrimage to Crawford's old house in Brentwood; the new owner let her take snapshots. "About a half hour later, I walked out toward the gates. It started to rain – a misty rain – and it hit me that this was where she got her Oscar, where she threw her lavish dinner parties, where she lived in her film heyday…I walked through the hills on Sunset Boulevard, six miles back to a bus stop on Rodeo Drive. I was floating on a wave of nostalgia and admiration…" 

Dan from the East Village wrote: "I'm 22, and I guess I'm a product of the video age, having fully discovered Joan via the VCR (as well as revival houses). I've known who she was, however, for years. When she died in '77, I was eight, and in the third grade…" 

Most of these young fans don't seem to care much about Joan as Mommie Dearest. Michelle is more interested in the Crawford iconography; for example, she's well aware that the radical shoulder pads she and her female classmates affect are a direct result of Adrian's solution for draping the wide Crawford frame. And Dan confessed he'd heard of Christina's book only because he unwittingly gave it to his mother as a Mother's Day gift when he was ten! "I remember thinking what a wacko J.C. must have been. It wasn't until three years ago, after seeing 'Mildred Pierce', that I realized what Crawford was all about." 


A new generation is responding to the Crawford mystique again. Video cassettes of Crawford movies continue to be released every few months. Ted Turner's TNT network mounts "Joan Nights," anomalous triple bills coupling Faye Dunaway's bizarre impersonation of "Mommie Dearest" along with "Trog" (1970), Crawford's last feature, and the 1929 "Untamed," an early talkie. Colorized versions of "Mildred Pierce" and "Possessed" show up regularly, as does Rod Serling's tripartite TV film, "Night Gallery," in which the Crawford segment (Steven Spielberg's directorial debut) is the undisputed jewel. Just this past winter, Dixie Carter of television's "Designing Women" spent virtually an entire episode all done up as an uncanny, and humorously sympathetic, replica of Blanche Hudson in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" 

Recently, Dan the East Villager lent me a video tape he'd made, a breathtaking mélange of clips. Even for one who has seen many of these films, watching fifty years of Crawford in two hours is a revelation. If you remember only the mature, mannered, grimly imperious woman of the sixties and seventies, you'd barely recognize the spirited, energetic "Dangerous Diana" kicking up her heels in the never-ending party of "Our Dancing Daughters," or the anxious, tough yet tender stenographer in "Grand Hotel," Metro's all-star 1932 Oscar winner which today plays like a dusty old museum piece – except when Crawford spins onto the screen, like a shot of speed, so vital and arresting that the sixty intervening years disappear. Her connection to the viewer has such immediacy that she easily steals the entire picture, and not even Great Garbo can touch her. 

The expected highlights don't disappoint, either: the uncompromising bitch of "The Women," a terrorized playwright in "Sudden Fear," the gambling house queen of "Johnny Guitar," filmdom's weirdest western, an aging, lonely career girl in "Autumn Leaves" with its final, heart-breaking one-take monologue. But her less celebrated performances can be as astonishing. In "Strange Cargo" (1940), the last of the eight Gable/Crawford vehicles, she's a familiar, world-weary, wise-cracking adventuress, but watch her transformation in the end, sans makeup, ethereal in her belief that she's been touched by a sort of latter-day Christ (which may also explain the film's box office failure). 

Her face defines film acting: the way the light plays on it, the huge, luminous eyes that even the black and white camera seemed to know were the palest blue. As Spielberg put it: "In a two shot with anyone, even Gable, your eyes fix on her…" She's as effective in Lewis Milestone's 1932 version of "Rain" – also a flop in its day because it veered so far off the proven Crawford rags-to-riches recipe. Stripped of Sadie Thompson's whorish paint, she becomes Reverend Davidson's "radiant, beautiful daughter of the King," revealing not only the woman beneath the tarty exterior, but a shining countenance that is, at the very least, a monument to bone structure. 

Nothing written about Crawford can ever be as vivid a biography as the parade of her movie roles. In the 1931 "Possessed," rejecting Clark Gable: "All the schooling you've hammered into me, all the clothes and perfume you've put on me and all the jewelry you've hung one me didn't change me – inside I'm exactly what I was when you found me: a factory girl, smelling of sweat and glue. Common! That's what I am, common! And I like it!" In 1945 Mildred Pierce took it on the chin from her evil daughter, Veda: "You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady, but you can't! Because you'll never be anything but a common frump…" 

Later, her reinvention began to overstate what Katharine Hepburn calls a prerequisite of star quality, "the talent to irritate." In the entirely different 1947 "Possessed," about a schizophrenic suffering from what we now call erotomania, Van Heflin pretty much summed it up: "I seldom hit a woman, but if you don't leave me alone, I'll wind up kicking babies." Whereupon she immediately pulled out a pistol and shot him dead. 

By the 1950's, a lofty, Great-Lady-of-the-Cinema pretension crept right into the act itself. In "Torch Song," Michael Wilding calls her a "Gypsy Madonna," and as Gig Young watches her basking in her own magnificence, he says, "There's no one like you on earth. You're the distilled essence of effectiveness." 

But by 1962, she used self-parody to her advantage. Bette Davis as Baby Jane may have screeched (with a gusto far beyond mere acting), "Miss big fat movie star! Miss rotten stinkin' actress!" but this time Crawford underplayed to the hilt and gave the film's outstanding performance. 

It was the last comeback she could pull off while she lived. 


It's either coincidence or a cosmic joke that Joan Crawford made two movies called "Possessed," but the word is fiendishly appropriate because it takes being possessed to drive a career so demanding, so evanescent and fraught with the spectre of failure. Inevitably friends, family and lovers had better get used to sitting in the rumble seat. If her daughters Cathy and Cindy understood this, it's even sadder that Christina and Christopher did not. I'm sorry to hear that Christina still struggles with the aftershock. Whatever her financial success from her first book, it can't possibly make up for the hurt of two failed marriages, the trauma of a brain tumor, and a painful recovery from alcoholism. I'm sorrier to report that her second and third books still wrestle to a great degree with unresolved mother hate. I can only hope that she will one day free herself and discover why Emerson's definition of a "heart as great as the world" is one with "no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong." Maybe her mother never knew that either. But Sadie Thompson did. It's what she meant at the fadeout of "Rain": 

"I'm sorry…for everybody in the whole world, I guess." 


The most memorable evening I ever spent with Joan Crawford was in her Manhattan apartment. Usually, even when guests were present, she rarely dressed up. Her freckled face was always scrubbed, with perhaps a hint of pale lipstick, and her hair was inevitably tied back with a rubber band. But one night she greeted me in a Halston caftan, a luxuriant wig, eye shadow and mascara, and the trademark slash of crimson lipstick. I looked around and saw that we were alone. When we sat down I said, "You know what? Tonight you look just like Joan Crawford," kidding her a little bit. She smiled and replied, "Well, darling, I thought it was time you saw who I really am." And she wasn't kidding at all. 

It was the only self she thought she could trust. It's the price she paid. Her screen image was always where her reality lay, even to the end, and after we're all gone, that will remain. Cukor said, "She was the perfect image of the movie star…" and that "The nearer the camera, the more tender and yielding she became – her eyes glistening, her lips avid in ecstatic acceptance. The camera saw, I suspect, a side of her that no flesh-and-blood lover ever saw." We are the camera. We are her lovers, whether we like her or not.  

"I thought Joan Crawford would never die," Cukor said at the end of his eulogy. "Come to think of it, as long as celluloid holds together and the world Hollywood means anything to anyone, she never will."  

See you at the video store.

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