Nationality: American. Born: Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, 23 March 1908; adopted name of stepfather, Cassin, as a child. Education: Attended St. Agnes School and Rockingham; Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, for about three months. Family: Married 1) the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 1929 (divorced 1933); 2) the actor Franchot Tone, 1935 (divorced 1939); 3) Phillip Terry, 1942 (divorced 1946), adopted children: Christina, Christopher, Cynthia, and Cathy; 4) Alfred N. Steele, 1955 (died 1959). Career: Took dancing lessons as a child, and became a dancer; 1923—dancer at Oriole Terrace Club, Detroit; 1924—in chorus of Broadway revue Innocent Eyes and The Passing Show of 1924; spotted by MGM talent scout; 1925—contract with MGM, and given name "Joan Crawford," prize-winning name in movie magazine contest; 1928—dancer in film Our Dancing Daughters; 1929—first talkie, Untamed; 1943—left MGM, signed with Warner Brothers; occasional TV appearances from 1953; 1955—after marriage to Alfred Steele, chairman of Pepsi-Cola Company, began making promotional appearances for company; 1959—following death of Steele, became first woman member of company's board of directors, and later became company's official hostess and vice president; 1964—suffered pneumonia while working on Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Awards: Best Actress Academy Award, for Mildred Pierce, 1945. Died: In New York City, 13 May 1977.
Films as Actress:
(as Lucille LeSueur)
Lady of the Night (Bell) (as double for Norma Shearer); Proud Flesh (King Vidor) (as party guest); Pretty Ladies (Bell) (as Bobby)
(as Joan Crawford)
The Circle (Borzage) (as young Lady Catharine); Old Clothes (Cline) (as Mary Riley); Sally, Irene, and Mary (Goulding) (as Irene)
The Boob (Wellman) (as Jane); Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Edwards and Capra) (as Betty Burton); Paris (Goulding) (as the Girl)
The Taxi Dancer (Millarde) (as Joslyn Poe); Winners of the Wilderness (Van Dyke) (as Renee Contrecoeur); The Understanding Heart (Conway) (as Monica Dale); The Unknown (Browning) (as Estrellita); Twelve Miles Out (Conway) (as Jane); Spring Fever (Sedgwick) (as Allie Monte)
West Point (Sedgwick) (as Betty Channing); Rose-Marie (Hubbard) (title role); Across to Singapore (Nigh) (as Priscilla Crowninshield); The Law of the Range (Nigh) (as Betty Dallas); Four Walls (Nigh) (as Frieda); Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont) (as Diana Medford); Dream of Love (Niblo) (as Adrienne)
The Duke Steps Out (Cruze) (as Susie); Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Riesner); Our Modern Maidens (Conway) (as Billie Brown); Untamed (Conway) (as Bingo)
Montana Moon (St. Clair) (as Joan); Our Blushing Brides (Beaumont) (as Jerry Marsh); Paid (Wood) (as Mary Turner)
Dance, Fools, Dance (Beaumont) (as Bonnie Jordan); Laughing Sinners (Beaumont) (as Ivy Stevens); This Modern Age (Grinde) (as Valentine Winters); Possessed (Brown) (as Marian Martin)
Grand Hotel (Goulding) (as Flaemmchen); Letty Lynton (Browning) (title role); Rain (Milestone) (as Sadie Thompson)
Today We Live (Hawks) (as Diana Boyce-Smith); Dancing Lady (Leonard) (as Janie Barlow)
Sadie McKee (Brown) (title role); Chained (Brown) (as Diane Lovering)
Forsaking All Others (Van Dyke) (as Mary Clay); No More Ladies (Edward H. Griffith and Cukor) (as Marcia Townsend); I Live My Life (Van Dyke) (as Kay)
The Gorgeous Hussy (Brown) (as Peggy O'Neal Eaton); Love on the Run (Van Dyke) (as Sally Parker)
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Boleslawski) (as Fay Cheyney); The Bride Wore Red (Arzner) (as Annie Palowitz/Signorina Vivaldi); Mannequin (Borzage) (as Jessie Cassidy)
The Shining Hour (Borzage) (as Olivia Riley)
Ice Follies of 1939 (Schunzel) (as Mary McKay); The Women (Cukor) (as Crystal Allen)
Strange Cargo (Borzage) (as Julie); Susan and God (Cukor) (as Susan Trexel)
A Woman's Face (Cukor) (as Anna Holm); When Ladies Meet (Leonard) (as Mary Howard)
They All Kissed the Bride (Hall) (as Margaret J. Drew); Reunion in France (Dassin) (as Michele de la Becque)
Above Suspicion (Thorpe) (as Frances Myles)
Hollywood Canteen (Daves)
Mildred Pierce (Curtiz) (title role)
Humoresque (Negulesco) (as Helen Wright)
Possessed (Bernhardt) (as Louise Howell); Daisy Kenyon (Preminger) (title role)
Flamingo Road (Curtiz) (as Lane Bellamy); It's a Great Feeling (David Butler) (as guest)
The Damned Don't Cry (Sherman) (as Ethel Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes); Harriet Craig (Sherman) (title role)
Goodbye, My Fancy (Sherman) (as Agatha Reed)
This Man Is Dangerous (Feist) (as Beth Austin); Sudden Fear (Miller) (as Myra Hudson)
Torch Song (Walters) (as Jenny Stewart)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray) (as Vienna)
Female on the Beach (Pevney) (as Lynn Markham); Queen Bee (MacDougall) (as Eva Phillips)
Autumn Leaves (Aldrich) (as Milly)
The Golden Virgin (Miller); The Story of Esther Costello (Miller) (as Margaret Landi)
The Best of Everything (Negulesco) (as Amanda Farrow)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich) (as Blanche Hudson)
The Caretakers (Bartlett) (as Lucretia Terry)
Strait-Jacket (Castle) (as Lucy Harbin)
I Saw What You Did (Castle) (as Amy Nelson); Della (Gist) (title role)
The Karate Killers (Shear—compilation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. eps.) (as Amanda True)
Berserk! (O'Connolly) (as Monica Rivers)
"Eyes" segment of Night Gallery (Spielberg—for TV) (as Miss Menlo)
Trog (Francis) (as Dr. Brockton)
By CRAWFORD: books—
A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford, with Jane Kesner, New York, 1962.
My Way of Life, New York, 1971.
Conversations with Joan Crawford, by Roy Newquist, New York, 1981.
By CRAWFORD: article—
"The Job of Keeping at the Top," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 17 June 1933.
On CRAWFORD: books—
Quirk, Lawrence J., The Films of Joan Crawford, New York, 1968.
Carr, Larry, Four Fabulous Faces, New Rochelle, New York, 1971.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Harvey, Stephen, Joan Crawford, New York, 1974.
Crawford, Christina, Mommie Dearest, New York, 1978.
Thomas, Bob, Joan Crawford: A Biography, New York, 1978.
Walker, Alexander, Joan Crawford, The Ultimate Star, New York, 1983.
Kobal, John, editor, Joan Crawford: Legend, London, 1985.
Crawford, Christina, Survivor, New York, 1988.
Wayne, Jane Ellen, Crawford's Men, New York, 1988.
Considine, Shaun, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, New York, 1989.
Guiles, Fred Lawrence, Joan Crawford: The Last Word, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1995.
On CRAWFORD: articles—
St. Johns, Ivan, "She Doesn't Use Lipstick in Public," in Photoplay (New York), May 1927.
Biery, Ruth, "The Story of the Dancing Girl," in Photoplay (New York), September-November 1928.
"Adela Rogers St. Johns Presents Joan Crawford Starring in the Dramatic Rise of a Self-Made Star," in Photoplay (New York), October-December 1937.
"Joan Crawford," in Sight and Sound (London), April-June 1952.
Card, J., "The Film Career of Joan Crawford," in Image (Rochester, New York), January 1956.
Braun, E., "Forty Years a Queen," in Films and Filming (London), May 1965.
Quirk, Lawrence J., "Joan Crawford," in Films in Review (New York), December 1965.
Current Biography 1966, New York, 1966.
Bowers, Ronald, "Joan Crawford: Latest Decade," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1966 (see also August-September issue).
Bowers, Ronald, "Joan Crawford's Fiftieth Anniversary," in Films in Review (New York), January 1975.
Obituary in New York Times, 14 May 1977.
Bowers, Ronald, "Hors d'oeuvre," in Films in Review (New York), April 1977; see also August-September 1977 issue.
Harvey, S., "In Memoriam: Joan Crawford," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1977.
Passek, J.-L., "Joan Crawford," in Cinéma (Paris), August-Septem-ber 1977.
Bourget, J.-L., "Faces of the American Melodrama: Joan Crawford," and "Afterword Note to Jean-Louis Bourget's Article," by B. Horrigan, in Film Reader 3, 1978.
Bagh, P., "Visages de Joan Crawford," in Ecran (Paris), Janu-ary 1978.
Harvey, Stephen, "Joan Crawford," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Thomson, D., "All Our Joan Crawfords," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1981–82.
Herzog, C. C., and J. M. Gaines, "Puffed Sleeves before Teatime: Joan Crawford, Adrian and Women Audiences," in Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 6, no. 4, 1985.
Clark, John, filmography in Premiere (New York), November 1989.
Sorel, Edward, "Joan Crawfod and Bette Davis," in Atlantic (New York), September 1991.
Carroll, Kathleen, "Hostess Dearest," in Premiere (New York), Winter 1994.
Robertson, P. "Camping under Western Skies: Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar," Journal of Film and Video (Los Angeles), no. 1/3, 1995.
* * *
Dismissed by Bette Davis as a Star (rather than an Actress like Bette), taken for granted by MGM, ignored as an aging legend, and trashed in a tell-all bio by her daughter (who claims Joan was an Actress rather than a Mother), Joan Crawford survives the contumely of others. This controversial patron saint of fan magazines, who has been labeled everything from a porn-star to child-beater to spitefully jealous co-star to closet alcoholic, is undisputably one thing, a great film star. Whatever Crawford was offscreen, she is our most representative American film icon because she wanted it more than all the others.
Free-spiriting her way through the silent era in true flapper fashion, Crawford thought nothing of altering her look or jumping on a promising trend whenever she needed to pump plasma into an anemic career. Directors are on record as stating she needed careful reining because she lacked the technique to control her emotions; critics point to her forties performances as evidence of the musty staleness of the studio system. But the woman who never let a fan letter go unanswered always respected her public and tried to give them what they wanted. When they tired of Joan, the Blue-Collar Goddess, she gave them Joan, the Domestic Martyr, and when that image ran out of vim, Crawford restyled herself as the Untamable Shrew. What the many faces of Crawford had in common is glamour; it is a quality that is missing in modern films which kow-tow to naturalism and have little to do with theatrical notions of acting but a lot to do with great screen acting in which the star must communicate her intense belief in her own make-believe image to the movie public. In big hits such as Possessed (1931) and Mannequin (1937), she offered the shop girl's fantasy of herself, with upward mobility in a good man's arms—the ultimate prize. Later in her career, while still exuding that movie star je ne sais quoi, she became a menopausal everywoman living out the worst fears of an audience that had aged with her. Naturally, the gloved hand choking back Crawford's tears was encircled in a haul from Harry Winston's.
Yet, the number one Hurrell-photographed drone in the Tinseltown film factory could step out of her Joan-ness with stunning results (a fiery Sadie Thompson in Rain, a performance which the passage of time has vindicated). Even her acting triumphs in offbeat roles capitalized on her trademark stoic chic—a poised demeanor whose formidableness is softened by those mascara-lashed eyes widening in apprehension about what emotional dark woods attractive scoundrels might lead her into. In the forties especially, the Crawford visage was a study in face-saving willfulness—expansive lips for quivering, lighthouse eyes for staring unfathomably, luxurious eyebrows for arching disdainfully; these features seldom acted in concert but were often immobile as if her face was on strike against appearing vulnerable. When emotions finally galvanized that paralyzed pan, all histrionic hell broke loose. More than any other screen icon, Crawford made suffering attractive. Comfortable with being the Queen of masochism, versatile Joan could also be spikily funny as the other woman in The Women, convincingly hard-as-nails as a symbolic mouthpiece in Strange Cargo, hypnotically ambivalent in A Woman's Face as a scarred con woman, alluringly vexatious in Humoresque as a social pillar whose cigarette roomfuls of swains rush to light, deservedly Oscared for completing her ten-step program in how to bake pies and spoil a child while wearing a halo of face powder and pastry flour in Mildred Pierce, sufficiently unhinged as a schizophrenic in Possessed (1947) to impress the intransigent James Agee, taken for granted in her seething-with-suppressed-rage tour de force in Baby Jane and chillingly brittle as a Night Gallery control-freak who treats everyone as potential toadies.
Admittedly, the long arm of camp was reaching out for Crawford long before Night Gallery or William Castle got mileage out of her waning stardom. From Flamingo Road onward, Crawford was not only prepared to do battle with sexist roadblocks but with her own feminity. What that cockeyed wonder of a film version of Mommie Dearest suggests is that the price of succeeding in a world dominated by men is to end up a quasi man oneself. In what emerged not as a hatchet job but as an empathetic analysis by interpreter Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest portrays Crawford's life as a series of great moments from films such as Torch Song, Queen Bee, etc. When Dunaway's Crawford tells Pepsi executives that she fought bigger monsters than them in Hollywood and won, cinephiles laugh and then they cry, at the sacrifices this warrior-star made in a fool's quest to stay a star at the top.
Throughout the fifties in her mannish period, Crawford became a bitch-on-wheels forever at the mercy of a gigolo (Female on the Beach) or disturbed younger man (Autumn Leaves) or even a repressed lesbian (Johnny Guitar) but the constant in all these films is the ongoing punishment of Joan Crawford who seemed to be a female Christ-figure paying for the sins of every love-starved fan in the audience. Glamorous to the end, Crawford still had those massive shoulders for bearing such a burden.
What shines through all these bizarre melodramas is Crawford's unchecked fever for adulation; what the teary-eyed spectators accepted as Joan's desire for fade-out surrender to a man was actually Joan's love affair with her own career. Those who still respond to Crawford's icy soap operas regard Harriet Craig as her most characteristic role. Substitute a movie career for the symbolic dream house and you can appreciate the essence of The Joan Crawford Story. Although lovers were fickle and friends had the effrontery to snag better roles, only a legendary film career could bring the joy few mortals know, or so Joan thought. Rejected by the industry in the last years of her life, Crawford had too much spare time to contemplate the drawbacks of the choice she had made.
Joan Crawford (1906-1977) was one of the most active and glamorous stars in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. Her entire filmography spans a 45-year period from 1925 to 1970 and includes over 70 films, from silent pictures to talkies. Best known for her portrayals of ruthless women, Crawford counted Hollywood's most memorable actors among her co-stars.
Joan Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur, on March 23, 1906 in San Antonio, Texas. Her parents, Thomas and Anna Bell Johnson LeSueur, had three children. The eldest of the three died in infancy. Their father, a laborer, deserted the family when Crawford was very young. She was raised along with her older brother, Hal LeSueur, in Lawton, Oklahoma and Kansas City. Her biological father appeared once, in 1934, when Crawford was 28. She spent a few days with him while making a film. Father and daughter were both intensely emotional over the reunion, but never saw each other again after that time.
After Thomas LeSueur left the family, Anna LeSueur moved with her two children to Lawton, Oklahoma where she married Henry Cassin. Cassin was the owner of a local opera house and an open-air theater. He gave his name to his new daughter, and from her earliest memories Crawford was known as Billie Cassin. As a young child, living as Henry Cassin's daughter, Crawford attended a tiny country school in rural Lawton. She was enamored by life at her stepfather's theater, and yearned to become a dancer and an entertainer. Her aspiration was seriously threatened at age six, when she jumped from a porch, onto a jagged piece of glass and seriously injured her foot. That same year, Crawford learned of her true identity when Henry Cassin, rumored to have connections with the underworld, was taken to trial for embezzlement. Cassin was not convicted, but he moved the family to Kansas City, to start a new life. Crawford attended Scarritt Elementary School, until her parents sent her to St. Agnes Convent School because they were unable to care for her. Henry Cassin became frustrated with the challenges of starting a new life and left the family when Crawford was ten. Rather than return to the public school, Crawford worked at the convent school in order to pay her own tuition and board.
After elementary school, her mother sent her to Rock-ingham Academy where she continued to support herself by working at the school. Crawford was dismayed to learn, first at St. Agnes and later at Rockingham, that she was not treated as an equal by the other girls at the school, because she worked for her own upkeep. She became depressed and tried to run away, but eventually returned to the school. After completing high school, she attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, at the urging of Harvey Walter, her early grade school principal and secretary at Stephen's College. Crawford lasted only a few months at Stephen's College, before her desire to join the theater pulled her away. She joined a traveling dance troupe under her given name of Lucille LeSueur, but returned to Kansas City when the troupe disbanded. She worked as an operator for Bell Telephone Company, and then for various clothiers, before she succumbed once again to the lure of the chorus line. Crawford returned to Kansas City one final time before she embarked on her show business career once and for all.
Crawford left for Chicago where she met the renowned producer J. J. Shubert. He sent her to work in Detroit where she was discovered by talent agents. She took a screen test and signed a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in Hollywood. Within the year, Lucille Le Sueur became Joan Crawford. She played minor roles in movies with Jackie Coogan, Lon Chaney, ZaSu Pitts, and others. In 1928, she starred as a flapper in Our Dancing Daughters, the vehicle that brought the name of Joan Crawford to prominence. She emerged from the silent film era in 1929 when she starred in Untamed, her first "talkie" with co-star Robert Montgomery.
On June 3, 1929, Crawford eloped to New York with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., son of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and stepson to Mary Pickford. Despite a concerted effort by Crawford, she never earned the acceptance of her in-laws. The rejection devastated Crawford and contributed in part to her divorce from Fairbanks Jr. Before and after the divorce, Crawford was enveloped by her stardom. Between 1930 and 1935 she made 17 movies, including Grand Hotel in 1932, in which she starred with Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, and John and Lionel Barrymore. From 1930 to 1940 Crawford starred in eight pictures with Clark Gable including Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners, and Possessed. Her relationship with Gable eventually overflowed beyond the movie set and erupted into a love affair that climaxed just prior to her divorce from Fairbanks in 1933.
After her breakup with Gable, Crawford embarked on what was perhaps her most brazen and scandalous love tryst. An affair with Franchot Tone, led to their marriage on October 11, 1935 in New Jersey. Initially, Crawford's involvement with Tone was fueled by a love triangle with screen legend, Bette Davis. Both Crawford and Davis each fancied herself as the sole object of Tone's affections, yet it was Crawford who emerged victorious and married Franchot Tone. The marriage lasted four years. During that time Crawford suffered two miscarriages and repeated beatings by her husband. The couple divorced in 1939, after Crawford discovered Tone in his dressing room with a young starlet, under compromising circumstances. After her divorce from Franchot Tone, Crawford adopted a ten-dayold infant and named the girl Christina Crawford.
On July 21, 1942 Crawford married her third husband, Phil Terry. The couple adopted a boy whom they named Phillip Jr., but who was ultimately called Christopher. Their lives were impacted by World War II, and Terry, a would-be movie star, worked in a war plant. Crawford herself worked at a service canteen, where she served food to enlisted military personnel and assisted them in writing letters home. She also worked with the American Women's Voluntary Services, in providing day care to women who worked in the war effort.
In 1943, after 18 years with MGM studios, Crawford signed a contract with Warner Brothers. Two years later the war subsided and Crawford's career soared. In 1945, she completed her Oscar-winning performance in the film Mildred Pierce. At Christmastime that year, she received the Golden Apple from the Hollywood Women's Press Club. The following year, in the midst of mounting success in her career, she obtained her third divorce. Crawford testified during the divorce proceedings that Phil Terry was over-bearing and inhibited her status as a movie star.
It was Mildred Pierce, co-starring Ann Blyth and Eve Arden, that brought Joan Crawford the recognition as a great talent. She won an Academy Award as best actress for her role in the movie. Due to a fear of live audiences Crawford developed a psychosomatically induced fever of 104 degrees and was bedridden on the day of the awards ceremony.
Crawford went on to make Humoresque with John Garfield and Oscar Levant in 1946, and Possessedin 1947. In 1949, she starred with Zachary Scott in Robert and Sally Wilder's Flamingo Road. Her career extended into the 1950s, with twelve new movies, including Johnny Guitar in 1954 and Autumn Leaves in 1956. She made five more movies during the 1960s, including the classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 with Bette Davis, and Strait-Jacket in 1964, with Diane Baker and Leif Erickson. Crawford's last film, in 1970, was Warner Brother's Trog with Michael Gough and Joe Cornelius.
A Family and a New Husband
In 1947, after her divorce from Phil Terry, Joan Crawford adopted two baby girls, born one month apart. She called them her twins, although they were not related in any way. Crawford remained single until May 10, 1955, when she eloped with Pepsi-Cola executive, Alfred Steele. The couple lived an extremely lavish lifestyle in New York, where they spent an estimated $400,000, mostly in borrowed money, to renovate a townhouse. When Steele died unexpectedly of a heart attack on April 19, 1959, Crawford was left to pay the bills and to raise her four children. After Steele's death, Crawford inherited his spot on the Pepsi-Cola board of directors. She remained in that capacity, as the first woman ever to serve on that board, and went on to sign a publicity contract as a spokesperson for Pepsi-Cola.
In addition to her film career, Crawford made 13 television appearances during the last 25 years of her life. These included three appearances on GE Theater and one on Zane Grey Theater between 1954 and 1959. In 1961, she made a second appearance on Zane Grey Theater, and in 1968 she starred with comedienne Lucille Ball on the Lucy Show. In October 1969, Crawford substituted in four episodes of Secret Storm, in place of her eldest daughter, who was a regular member of that cast but who was ill.
With the help of Jane Kesner Ardmore, Crawford penned an autobiography in 1962, A Portrait of Joan. In 1971 she wrote a memoir called My Way of Life. Although conflicting reports surfaced over the years, Crawford professed devotion to her children repeatedly during her lifetime. She used her prominence and popularity to politicize in behalf of adoptive parents. She died of a heart attack at her home in New York on May 18, 1977. Sixteen years later, in 1993, her Oscar trophy sold at auction for $68,500.
Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford, a Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Atlantic, September 1991, p. 75.
Ladies Home Journal, April 1984, p. 60(7); October 1989, p. 142(5). □
Joan Crawford, 1908–77, American movie star, b. San Antonio, Tex., as Lucille Le Sueur. After working as a Broadway chorus dancer, Crawford began making films in 1926, eventually moving from musicals to drama. She made more than 80 movies, excelling at the dramatic role of the strong but troubled woman. In 1945 she won an Academy Award for her performance in Mildred Pierce. Her best-known films include Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), and Johnny Guitar (1954). Her later films, many in the horror genre, include a memorable teaming with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). When her fourth husband died (1959), she succeeded him as a director of the Pepsi-Cola Co.
See her autobiographies (1962 and 1972); biography by D. Spoto (2010); study by L. J. Quirk (1970).