The Best of Everything
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I Meet Miss Crawford
originally appeared in Photoplay, February 1934
I came away feeling, as Chic Sale would say, "Jes' good -- jes' good all over."
In this mad, swirling world of today I had found a person utterly happy. Her name is Joan Crawford.
It was a strange and exciting interview. For almost twenty years it's been my business to talk to people, big and little -- to try to find out what's behind their fronts, what they're really thinking. I've interviewed kings and presidents, generals and revolutionary leaders, bandits and bankers -- but never before had I interviewed a motion picture star.
As a matter of fact, I felt just a little bewildered when I pushed the bell of her New York suite. But a half-minute after she'd stepped into the sitting-room in a chic black and white street costume, I saw how unnecessary my fears had been; we both spoke the same language.
It was a language that had to do with people and their hearts -- their dreams and their longings. It had to do with mutual friends and the hidden qualities that made them lovable and remembered. And it had much to do with happiness and tomorrow's work.
At the very first I wasn't sure we were going to get along. During those initial thirty seconds she was very much the grand screen star. She had just faced a crowd of admirers on Fifth Avenue who had surrounded her, and there had been a little shoving and pressure. With her great, wide-set blue eyes flashing, she told me that she suffered terribly from claustrophobia. I believe that was the word. I know I thought to myself that it was a very big word for such a little person to use.
"I've had it ever since my brother locked in a dark closet when I was a child," she explained. "And it always frightens me now to be hemmed in -- whether by walls or by a crowd."
She settled back in the corner of the great divan and pulled her skirt well down over a pair of very lovely ankles. "Hope you don't mind my wearing mules," she said with a quick smile. "My poor feet are worn out from shopping."
"I don't mind at all," I hurriedly answered.
I wanted to tell her the story about Mark Twain -- but I passed up the chance. Remember it? Someone was complaining to the great Missourian that Lillian Russell was appearing in a current show in tights. "My dear friend," the incomparable Mark answered, "I'd rather see Lillian Russell without any clothes on at all than General Grant in full uniform."
I wish now that I had told it to her. I know that she would have chuckled over it. But instead I meade some inane remark about how hard it was to get around in New York these days. And then out of the blue sky -- or rather down from the golden ceiling -- dropped the name of Odd McIntyre. We both pounced on it at the same time.
"There may be greater O. O. McIntyre admirers than I am, but if there are I've never met them," Joan said eagerly. "For four years I've saved every single column of Mr. McIntyre's 'New York Day by Day.' I've had a special scrap-book made for them and I paste every one of them in myself. And let me tell you that until I get my coffee in the morning I'm a fit companion only for a sore-toothed tiger, but I have to read O. O.'s kindly philosophies even before I touch my coffee."
Then I told one. This past summer out in Great Falls, Montana, a little priest rushed up to me and pumped my hand. "I never thought I'd really meet you," he exclaimed breathlessly.
I could feel my chest swelling. Here at last was my loyal reader-admirer I'd been looking for all these years. Then he popped me over the head: "Of course," he explained, "I've never actually read any of your pieces or heard you on the radio, but for years I've followed you in O. O. McIntyre's column."
Joan was sympathetic. "How lucky you are to know him so well," she said rather wistfully. "It's strange, but I've only met him once, and then at a large party. But to me he's a very fine writer and a great soul."
"Wonder what it is that gives him his tremendous following?" I queried.
She hesitated, then answered, "I think it's because he is always so gentle about everything."
That second I knew I was going to like her immensely. She had said a wise and beautiful thing about a friend.
"Tell me about your pictures," I pleaded. "Honestly, I don't know the first thing about them. For instance, what do you want to do?"
"I want to go on and on with this wonderful art. Then some day I want to go on the stage. I want really to be a very great actress. I'm willing to work hard to do it. I'm ready to give years of my life."
"But the stage is old-fashioned," I insisted.
"Yes, but it will always be a great magnet that will keep pulling us all. I want to feel the thrill of a real audience. I work for weeks and weeks on a picture with only hard-boiled directors and cameramen to look on. Then the picture goes out into the world -- and I am left behind, never to hear a single round of any warm, cheering applause it may bring. It is as if we could never get closer to these we love than through letters. But, of course, the stage is small and limited, while the whole world -- all of life and history -- is within the range of the pictures."
I asked her how far they could go -- what heights they could reach.
She threw back her lovely head and her voice was charged with the passion of a prophetic vision. "Oh, we've just started! We've only now stumbled on the road that finally will lead to perfection. There is constant improvement in the mechanics of camera and sound equipment. Our screen plays are becoming finer and vastly more beautiful. Men of great imagination and talent, such as Thalberg, are more and more approaching pictures as a very great art. It is no longer only a place and way to make fabulous, fantastic sums of money -- it is a way to create beauty and express the secrets of the heart. I believe that Irving Thalberg alone will carry far ahead the torch that will light the trail to a whole new conception of the vast possibilities of the motion picture. It is unlimited, inconceivable in its promises."
These cold, black words on white paper fail completely to paint the fire of sincerity and enthusiasm that flamed in her eyes and voice. "I want to be part of this great development," she said slowly. "I repeat, pictures are only beginning to show their potential greatness."
I wanted to cheer. I believed thoroughly in what she was saying and I told her so. Then I asked her about her own future pictures.
"My next picture is to be 'Pretty Sadie McKee' -- and I'm ready for my big chance. I'd like to do 'The Merry Widow' with Maurice Chevalier, with Irving Thalberg to supervise it."
"But I had no idea you could sing."
She smiled. "Neither did anyone else. You see, I've been taking vocal lessons, just for some such chance."
That, I imagine, is what many people would call a "break." But I don't call it that at all. I call it fishing for, rather than waiting for, an opportunity. This slender, talented young person was not content to be merely a very successful motion picture star who could play glamorous parts: she insisted on preparing herself so that she could do immortal parts.
It is a restless, boundless ambition that fairly consumes her.
She is eager and determined to plumb the depths of knowledge -- to learn anything and everything.
"Oh, I'd like to have time to read all the dictionaries and encyclopedias in the world," she went on breathlessly. "I'm never so happy as when I'm sitting on the floor with a dozen big volumes piled around me. You see, I start to look up one thing and before I finish a paragraph I find a reference to something else I don't understand, and then I have to look that up -- and so it goes until I'm buried alive in books. And I love it."
Then it was that she spoke of young Doug and their shattered romance. I don't know this attractive lad, but I wish that he might have heard just what she said about him. I fancy that I'm fairly casehardened, but it was brave and beautiful.
"You see, he was wonderfully educated," she explained, "and he'd use big words, and I'd embarrass him terribly when I'd stop him even when there were a lot of people around and ask him what so-and-so meant. I wouldn't know how to spell it even if I could have remembered it, so I couldn't just wait and look it up in the dictionary when I got home. So I'd just ask him straight out. Poor Doug! He is a fine person, and we had many happy hours together.
"But, you see, he could never quite get over his two heroes -- his distinguished father and Jack Barrymore. He thought he was himself, but for a long time he really was the shadow of those two great actors.
"I suppose it just wasn't in the cards for us to make it go. At first I could not help but be bitter and resentful, but I'm not any more. We learn a lot from the blows that life gives us. In a way, they're infinitely more important to use than the gestures of success that may fall our way."
It was strange hear such ripe words of philosophy from this extraordinary young woman.
They made me want to know more about her, so I asked her quite bluntly to tell of herself, what she wanted, how she viewed life.
"I want to read a great deal," she began. "You see, I had such a pitifully little education and now I have to work hard to make up for it. Why, do you know I had never read 'Alice in Wonderland' until the other day on the train coming East.
"And there are thousands of books that I want to catch up with.
"What a sweet and wonderful thing life is," she said excitedly. "I remember a line I saw in a newspaper the other day -- 'Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live.'
"And I want to live -- I want to know everything and see everything. I want to travel and be happy all my life. I want to touch the stars."
A telephone rang. I had overstayed my time. I rose to go.
"I'd like to talk hours with you," she was kind enough to say. "Won't you come back before I start for the West?"
But I was on my way to Washington. I would not be back until after she had left. I said goodbye -- and it was like saying goodbye and bon voyage to an old friend.
And as I walked down the hall toward the elevator, and in fact the whole evening through, I felt as I said at the beginning of this little piece, "jes' good." I had been with a completely happy person. Life to her was full and beautiful. She had risen out of the ashes and dust; she had found a new world that was fair and lovely.
I don't know much about motion pictures, but I know a little about human beings -- and Joan Crawford is a swell human being.