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Cousin Dearest

Here is another relative who got bit by the acting bug. She was considered one of the most electric actresses of her generation, but that came at a price. From her bitter feuds with co-stars and a variety of scandals, her life was complex and tragic; a cautionary tale that beauty and power come with advantages, but also at a price.

The actress known as Joan Crawford, started her life in San Antonio, Texas as Lucille Fay LeSueur. The year of her birth is uncertain but is often listed as 1906. She was the youngest child of Thomas and Anna (nee Johnson) LeSeuer. Her older siblings were sister Daisy, who died before Lucille was born, and brother Hal.

She was raised in an impoverished and chaotic home. When she was 10 months old, her father Thomas abandoned her family, leaving her mother scrambling to make ends meet. Anna worked as a laundry maid and eventually married opera house manager, Henry J. Cassin and they lived in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Lucille in 1911

Since Cassin ran the Ramsey Opera House, Lucille was exposed to show business and a world of diverse and noted performers. She was especially fond of the vaudeville acts that were performed there. However, her life took a darker turn. Even though she believed Cassin to be her biological father and referred to him as "daddy", it was her brother Hal who told her the truth. In addition, Cassin allegedly began to sexually abuse Lucille when she was 11 years old.

In June 1917, the family had to move to Kansas City, Missouri when Cassin was accused of embezzling $4,000 in a land deal in which he was involved . He was eventually acquitted of the crime, but was blacklisted in Lawton and relocated to avoid publicity. Shortly thereafter, Lucille was sent to St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic girls school in Kansas City. Her mother and stepfather separated after that and Lucille remained at school as a work student. She spent far more time cooking and cleaning than studying. She later attended Rockingham Academy. In 1922 she registered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri where she stayed for only a few months before leaving to pursue a career as a dancer.

She began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues. It was during an appearance as a chorus girl on Broadway that she was noticed by an agent for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios and received a contract for $75 a week. She started with small, bit parts in 1925 and was credited as "Lucille LeSeuer". The problem was that producers detested the name. Pete Smith, MGM's publicity executive, who felt she had the makings to be a star, said that her last name reminded him of a sewer. To change that, he came up with a plan and organized a $1,000 "Name The Star" contest in the paper where readers chose the up and coming starlet's name.

The first choice was not "Joan Crawford", but in fact "Joan Arden". However, there was an actress who already had that name so they went with the alternate surname of "Crawford." Lucille hated the name. She wanted her new first name to be pronounced "Jo-Anne" and she said the last name sounded too much like "crawfish." She did acknowledge that she "liked the security" that went along with the name. Thus, Joan Crawford was reluctantly born.

Joan was very competitive. When she became unhappy with how MGM was representing her, she went on a self-promotion tour, attending dance competitions all around Hollywood. As one screenwriter put it, “Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.”

In 1928 she starred as a flapper in the silent movie Our Dancing Daughters. Her performance catapulted her to fame and stardom. To her legions of fans, she became an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of her, saying: "Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living."

Joan simply summed up her glamorous onscreen persona by saying: "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door."

The "It" couple

In 1929 she met and married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the son of Hollywood power couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. He was only 19 at the time and she was about 4 years older. Joan's in-laws despised her and did not invite the newlyweds to their sprawling estate, "Pickfair" until 8 months after the wedding. Joan eventually got along with her father-in-law, but Mary continued to dislike her.

At this time, movies were transitioning from silent films to "talkies." This caused a panic for many actors and actresses because of undesirable voices, hard-to-understand accents or mere refusal to change.

Joan was mindful of her southwestern accent. She had worked hard for her stardom and was not about to let it slip away. She tirelessly practiced diction and elocution, reading books and magazines aloud to herself until she got the pronunciation right. That training paid off and by 1932 she was the third most profitable star in Hollywood and had a series of "talkie" hits.

She divorced Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1933. In 1935 she married Franchot Tone, one of her co-stars from the 1933 film Dancing Lady. She did not fare any better with her second husband. During the marriage, she suffered two tragic miscarriages that left her exhausted and grieving. Her husband took up drinking and began taking his anger out on Joan, physically harming her and bringing back memories of the abuse she had suffered as a child. She divorced him in 1939.

During her marriage to Tone, her popularity had been waning and in May 1938 an article came out dubbing her, and other performers, such as Greta Garbo, Katherine Heburn, and Fred Astaire, as "box office poison." The article stated that their hefty salaries were not supported by big box office earnings. That must have been a huge blow to someone like Joan who spent her whole life seeking adoration and working hard to achieve it.

In 1940 Joan adopted a daughter from a Las Vegas agency. Since she was single, California law prohibited her from in-state adoption. The girl was initially named Joan, but was later named Christina. In 1942 Joan had another quickie marriage to actor Phillip Terry and they adopted a son Christopher. When he was reclaimed by his birth mother, they adopted another son and named him Phillip Terry, Jr. Joan changed his name to Christopher Crawford after she divorced Terry in 1946.

In 1942 when Clark Gable's wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plan crash, Joan took over for her in They All Kissed the Bride. She even donated her entire salary to the American Red Cross.

Joan in Mildred Pierce

Joan's contract with MGM was mutually ended after 18 years. She then signed with Warner Brothers. In 1945 she lobbied hard for the lead role in Mildred Pierce. However, director Michael Curtiz's first choice was Bette Davis and when she turned down the role, he wanted Barbara Stanwyck. Warner Brothers cast Crawford, despite Curtiz's objections. He told the

studio heads: “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads. Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?” As a result, he demanded that she take a screen test to prove she was worthy of the role. She agreed and it was enough for Curtiz to relent on her casting. It proved to be a huge commercial and critical success and earned Joan an Academy Award for Best Actress. She had become convinced that she was going to lose out to Ingrid Bergman and was not in attendance at the ceremony but instead at home in bed. When she found out that she had in fact won, she called her makeup people and had a photoshoot of her accepting the award in bed.

She would adopt twin girls in 1947 from Tennessee Children's Home Society, an orphanage that was patronized by many childless Hollywood stars. It was later revealed to be little more than a human trafficking ring, engaging in kidnapping children and their illegal adoptions.

Joan received additional Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for Possessed (1947) and Sudden Fear (1954). She would marry her fourth and final husband, Alfred Steele in May 1955. He was the president of Pepsi-Cola and later became chairman of the board and CEO. After the marriage, she became heavily involved in the company and even had vending machines installed on her sets. When Steele died of a heart attack in April 1959, she was advised by the company that her services were no longer required. That was not something that sat well with Joan. After she told her story to the famous gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, Pepsi-Cola reversed its decision and she was elected to fill the vacant seat on the board of directors. She would fill that role until being dumped from the board in 1973.

Joan and Bette in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

As she got older, her competitive tendencies and unhealthy obsessions only got worse. In 1962 she starred in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, opposite Bette Davis. The two had always had a chilly relationship, but after filming stopped, it went frigid. When Joan did not help to promote the film, Bette claimed it was because Joan did not want to share the stage with anyone. She also said that Joan "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie." Joan responded by attacking Bette's acting ability: "Bette and I work differently. Bette screams and I knit. While she screamed, I knitted a scarf that stretched clear to Malibu."

When the Academy Awards nominated Bette and not Joan, Joan contacted the other Best Actress nominees and offered to accept the award on their behalf. Since they were all located on the East Coast, they agreed. When Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker, Joan went on stage to accept "her" award. For the rest of her life, Bette claimed that Joan had campaigned against her. According to Bette, the root of their feud was over one thing: love. Both women had pursued Francot Tone and, while Bette was head over heels in love with him, she lost him to Joan. Two years before she passed, Bette said that Joan "took him from me. She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will."

Joan in Night Gallery

Joan tried to ride high on the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but eventually her career started to slip. In 1968, she was scheduled to appear as herself on The Lucy Show. She had trouble with rehearsals and drank so heavily she kept forgetting her lines. Lucille Ball was so frustrated with her that she suggested replacing Joan with Gloria Swanson. However, on the day of the show Joan gave a flawless performance, danced the Charleston and received two standing ovations from the audience. In 1969, she appeared in the television film, Night Gallery, the pilot for the series, and was directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

By 1970, her career that spanned 45 years and 80 films was essentially over. On 23 September 1974 she co-hosted a book party with friend Rosalind Russell who was suffering breast cancer and arthritis. The next day, when Joan saw unflattering photos of herself in the paper, she said: "If that's how I look, then they won't see me anymore." That was her last public appearance and from that time on she was a recluse for the next three years. She died on 10 May 1977.

Joan was known around Hollywood for always responding to fan letters. She would respond to every single one, typing up her replies on blue paper and then autographing them. Besides her devotion to her fans, to whom she attributed her fame and stardom, Joan also took the time to learn the name of every crew member on her sets. She once said: "It’s important to remember people. I pride myself on doing that."

She also had her demons with which she struggled throughout her life. Joan had an obsession with cleanliness and may have had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She was accused by her adopted daughter Christina of being mentally and physically abusive, choosing her career over parenthood. While the allegations have refuted by her two younger daughters, people remember them and from the book and movie Mommie Dearest. After looking at her life in retrospect, maybe we can understand the woman she was a little better as a person and appreciate her humanity, professionalism and remarkable performances rather than just remembering her for "No wire hangers!"

In my opinion, she can be described the way her character Mildred Pierce was in the movie trailer as "...a woman who refused to live by the Rules."


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