Joan Crawford Won't Go Away
Fifteen years after her death, a friend
of the late star
ponders Crawford's continuing stronghold on a curious
by Carl Johnes
Originally appeared in Hollywood Then
& Now, August 1992
and September 1992
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
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,
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
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
"TINA AND I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY TO
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
"WE'LL SELL A MILLION
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
In short, it was
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.
"A LOVABLE, SENTIMENTAL CREATURE. . .
VERY THOUGHTFUL – DEAR JOAN CRAWFORD"
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.
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
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…"
FALL FROM GRACE
And then came "Mommie
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
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.
GOOD WITCH, BAD
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
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."
HER MOVIES ARE HER
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
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
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
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
It was the last comeback she could pull
off while she lived.
"I'M SORRY…FOR EVERYBODY IN THE
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
"I'm sorry…for everybody in the whole
world, I guess."
"THE PERFECT IMAGE OF THE MOVIE
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
See you at the video