Crawford, Joan (1906–1977)

views updated

Crawford, Joan (1906–1977)

Hollywood actress and icon, who appeared in 80 films and received an Academy Award for Mildred Pierce, and whose humble beginnings, haughty manner, and impeccable grooming inspired a generation of young women. Name variations: Billie Cassin. Born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1906, in San Antonio, Texas; died on May 10, 1977, in New York City; daughter of Thomas LeSueur (a laborer) and Anna Bell (Johnson) LeSueur; married Douglas Fairbanks Jr., on June 3, 1929 (divorced 1933); married Franchot Tone, on October 11, 1935 (divorced 1939); married Phillip Terry, on September 20, 1942 (divorced 1946); married Alfred Steele, on May 10, 1955 (died, April 1959); children: Christina Crawford (adopted, June 1940); Christopher (adopted, 1942); Cathy (adopted, 1947); Cynthia (adopted, 1947).


Lady of the Night (1925); Proud Flesh (1925); Pretty Ladies (1925); Old Clothes (1925); The Only Thing (1925); Sally lrene and Mary (1925); The Boob (1926); Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926); Parts (1926); The Taxi Dancer (1927); Winners of the Wilderness (1927); The Understanding Heart (1927); The Unknown (1927); Twelve Miles Out (1927); Spring Fever (1927); West Point (1928); Rose Marie (1928); Across to Singapore (1928); The Law of the Range (1928); Four Walls (1928); Our Dancing Daughters (1928); Dream of Love (1928); The Duke Steps Out (1929); The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929); Our Modern Maidens (1929); Untamed (1929); Montana Moon (1930); Our Blushing Brides (1930); Paid (1930); Dance Fools Dance (1931); Laughing Sinners (1931); This Modern Age (1931); Possessed (1931); Grand Hotel (1932); Letty Lynton (1932); Rain (1932); Today We Live (1933); Dancing Lady (1933); Sadie McKee (1934); Chained (1934); Forsaking All Others (1934); No More Ladies (1935); I Live My Life (1935); The Gorgeous Hussy (1936); Love on the Run (1936); The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937); The Bride Wore Red (1937); Mannequin (1938); The Shining Hour (1938); Ice Follies of 1939 (1939); The Women (1939); Strange Cargo (1940); Susan and God (1940); A Woman's Face (1941); When Ladies Meet (1941); They All Kissed the Bride (1942); Reunion in France (1942); Above Suspicion (1943); Hollywood Canteen (1944); Mildred Pierce (1945); Humoresque (1946); Possessed (1947); Daisy Kenyon (1947); Flamingo Road (1949); (cameo) It's a Great Feeling (1949); The Damned Don't Cry (1950); Harriet Craig (1950); Goodbye My Fancy (1951); This Woman Is Dangerous (1952); Sudden Fear (1952); Torch Song (1953); Johnny Guitar (1954); Female on the Beach (1955); Queen Bee (1955); Autumn Leaves (1956); The Story of Esther Costello (1957); The Best of Everything (1959); What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); The Caretakers (1963); Straight Jacket (1964); I Saw What You Did (1965); Berserk (UK, 1967); Trog (1970).

Joan Crawford lived a Cinderella story. Abandoned early in life by her father, she was abandoned again, at age 11, by her stepfather, after which she began to scrub and sweep her way through life. She never quite found her prince, but her good looks and vivacious personality attracted many men who helped her find her way to fame. By age 22, she was a star, and through tenacity and hard work she remained a star for half a century.

Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, not on March 23, 1908, as she had said, but in 1906, to Tom LeSueur, a French Canadian laborer from whom she inherited her large brown eyes, and Anna Johnson LeSueur , a local woman of Irish and Scandinavian descent. The LeSueurs had three children—Daisy (who died in infancy), Hal Hayes LeSueur (born in 1904), and Lucille—before the pressures of family proved too much for Tom LeSueur, and he left.

George Cukor">

She was the perfect image of the movie star, and, as such, largely the creation of her own indomitable will.

George Cukor

It is not certain how long Anna LeSueur kept her family in San Antonio. At different times, Crawford gave the figure as three months, six months, and one year, but she did remember "a woman in a checkered apron who gave her round cookies with fat currants in them." At any rate, Anna LeSueur moved her two children to the tiny town of Lawton, Oklahoma, when Crawford was a small child.

Anna soon married Henry Cassin, "a small man who dressed with flamboyance and wore glittering rings on his stubby fingers," according to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas. Cassin was a show man, owner of the Lawton Opera House. Lucille, whose stepfather called her "Billie" because of her roughneck ways, adored him and adored the opera house. As the boss' daughter, she was allowed to stand backstage, and the performers smeared her face with greasepaint and taught her how to dance the cakewalk and the buck-and-wing. "She listened wide-eyed to their tales," writes Thomas, "and she didn't realize that her heroes were the dregs of vaudeville, rejected misfits with scant talent who were reduced to touring Oklahoma for little more than subsistence."

When she was six, however, a series of events shook her small world, and Crawford was never quite an innocent again. While jumping off her porch, she cut her foot on a jagged piece of glass and was told she would not be able to walk without a limp. With Henry's encouragement, she refused to believe it and, a few months later, could dance for 30 minutes before collapsing in pain.

During her confinement, while Crawford was prowling around the basement, she came upon a large burlap bag filled with gold coins. But when she showed them to her mother, Anna was more upset than excited. Crawford and her brother Hal were sent to their grandparents the following day; when they returned, Henry Cassin had been charged as an accomplice to a gold embezzler. Though he was acquitted, the residents of Lawton, already suspicious of the showman, were never convinced of his innocence. Anna soon persuaded her husband to move his family to Kansas City.

It was the beginning of the end of the Cassin family. During the gold incident, Crawford's brother had broken the news that Henry was not her real father. She was crushed. In Kansas City, the Cassins leased a third-rate hotel and worked such long hours that they enrolled Crawford in a convent school. One weekend when she went home, Henry Cassin was gone. Her mother told her she could not afford to keep her at Saint Agnes, but when Crawford protested, Anna worked out an agreement with the Mother Superior: Crawford could stay at school and wait on tables in exchange for room and board.

So at age 11, she began to support herself. After Crawford graduated from grammar-school, Anna found another school willing to educate her daughter in exchange for light housekeeping. Crawford's three years at Rock ingham Academy were anything but light. She was up at dawn every day, bathing, dressing, and cooking for 30 children. She also cleaned the 14-room mansion that housed the school. If she failed, she was beaten with a broom. Crawford would fall in bed at midnight, exhausted.

In her last year at Rockingham, she began to blossom. Crawford was turning into a beautiful young woman; she was also turning heads. Boys began asking her to dances, and as much as she enjoyed the boys, she enjoyed dancing even more. One of her dates, an ambitious, intelligent fellow named Ray Sterling, convinced her to aspire

to more than the job at a local department store that she had taken after graduating from Rockingham. She would go to college.

At Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, Crawford settled into the same arrangement she had at Saint Agnes and Rockingham Academy: education in exchange for chores. But she had worked so hard at both institutions that she had learned next to nothing and lacked adequate preparation for college classes. Even worse, she did not fit in with the more sophisticated girls. Three months after her arrival, on the day she discovered that as a working girl she could not join a sorority, she decided to return home.

But Kansas City could not hold her. Crawford left her training as a telephone operator, then left three successive department-store jobs. She was offered work as a "chorus girl" in Springfield, Missouri, and did not hesitate. When she told the manager her name was Lucille LeSueur, he said, "Well, honey, you sure picked a fancy one!"

The show folded after two weeks, but Crawford used her connections to find similar work in Chicago, Oklahoma City, and Detroit. At only 5′4″, she was small for the chorus, a bit overweight and not the most beautiful girl on the line, but her energy and engaging manner made her a favorite. One night in Detroit, J.J. Shubert, the theatrical tycoon, was in the audience; recognizing her appeal, he offered her a spot in the chorus of Innocent Eyes, a musical set to open on Broadway ten days later, on March 20, 1924, three days before her 18th birthday.

Crawford spent ten months in New York City, dancing in Innocent Eyes and, after it went on the road, a Shubert musical called The Passing Show of 1924. She shared a room at a respectable boarding house with another chorus girl and hoped to become a famous dancer. In December, just as Crawford was planning to return to Kansas City for Christmas, an executive from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio created eight months earlier from the merger of three film companies, spotted her on stage. She declined his offer for a screen test. But a kind stage manager intervened, insisting that a screen test was an important opportunity, and she relented, took the test and left for Kansas City. On Christmas Day, she received a telegram: "YOU ARE PUT UNDER A FIVE-YEAR CONTRACT STARTING AT SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLARS A WEEK. LEAVE IMMEDIATELY FOR CULVER CITY, CALIFORNIA. CONTACT MGM KANSAS CITY FOR TRAVEL EXPENSES." On New Year's Day, 1925, Lucille LeSueur boarded the Sunset Limited for California.

Nothing prepared her for Los Angeles, with its pastel bungalows, tall palm trees and balmy weather. She had only seen eight movies in her entire life and had never heard of most of the movie stars at the MGM studio. Because of the merger, there were many young beauties around the studio lot who, like Crawford, were collecting substantial paychecks for doing little more than posing for publicity photographs and hoping for occasional roles on the silent screen. Crawford instinctively knew that most would never make it in the movies and resolved to avoid that fate.

As always, she took matters into her own hands. She became a constant visitor on MGM sets, arriving early each morning even though she had nothing to do. She studied the scenes, and at night, back in her hotel room, she would replay them in the mirror. She pressed the producer who had seen her on Broadway, and he used his influence to get Crawford her first screen role. Pretty Ladies was the story of the Ziegfeld Follies, and Crawford was in the chorus. She quickly got a second, tiny role in The Only Thing, followed by Old Clothes, which would prove to be a big step. Crawford shared some scenes with Jackie Coogan, who was, as Bob Thomas notes, "Metro's most important contribution to the merger with Mayer and Goldwyn."

As Crawford was making something of a name for herself at MGM, the publicity chief decided that she needed a new one. He thought Lucille LeSueur too "stagy," even if authentic. A fan magazine, Movie Weekly, agreed to sponsor a contest and ran photographs of her with entry blanks for submission of new names. The winner: "Joan Arden," until someone else claimed it as her own. So after three days as Joan Arden, Lucille LeSueur became, by studio decree, Joan Crawford. She hated it.

The young starlet had made the first cut, but there was much work to be done. She did most of it on the dance floor. Hollywood had lunch dances at the Montmarte and tea dances at the Coconut Grove. The Pom Pom Club and the Garden Court Hotel had evening orchestras. There were plenty of willing escorts, and Joan Crawford became something of an expert in the Charleston, dancing all day long.

Her energy did not go unnoticed, and the attention led to more roles. In 1927, she made six movies and learned much along the way. She lost weight, which allowed her fine facial bones to emerge, with improved dramatic effect. She allowed her co-stars to teach her what they knew about acting, and some of them, like actor Lon Chaney, knew quite a bit. She accepted gifts of designer dresses from admirers eager to impart their good tastes.

The most important man who took notice of Joan Crawford, budding starlet, was MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who ordered up a new contract for $250 a week. Joan felt rich, and for the times she was rich. She already had moved from her hotel to a tiny bungalow, and her brother Hal had come to stay. Now she rented a three-bedroom bungalow and sent for her mother.

Any lingering illusions about her family were quickly dispelled. Hal wanted to be a star, too, and had the same good looks as his sister, but he was lazy. He spent his days dating, drinking, and wrecking his sister's car. Her mother, who could at least, Joan thought, take over as housekeeper, continued to side with Hal in any argument. Hal and Anna began to run up high department-store bills in Crawford's name and hide them from her. The house was so often filled with dinner guests that Joan could not get to sleep early enough to be rested for her early calls at the studio. She realized she needed a house of her own and bought one in Beverly Hills for $18,000. She supported her mother and brother for the rest of their lives, but the mutual animosity remained. They hardly ever saw one another.

Crawford became well established as one of the dozen or so best-known actresses on the MGM lot but continued to look for the roles

that would make her a true star. She had no intention of fading when her youthful beauty faded, as she knew it would. Her breakthrough came in 1928. Our Dancing Daughters was a huge success and catapulted Crawford from "sweetheart to the stars" to "the star." Mayer doubled her salary. Letters from adoring young women began to pour into the studio, and she answered each one herself.

With her career in order, Joan Crawford was ready to perfect her personal life. Since coming to California, she had enjoyed many romances but longed for something more stable. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was the son of one of the film industry's most famous actors. Though only a fledgling actor himself, his family was Hollywood royalty. He was also considerate and cultivated, and he and Joan were very much in love. They married in 1929, when Crawford was 23 (although she was already claiming to be two years younger). She was intimidated by Doug's family, especially his stepmother, actress Mary Pickford , but, characteristically, rose to the occasion. She began to read voraciously and to dress in a more demure, sophisticated style. During the early years of their marriage, the Fairbanks were a handsome, captivating couple, and captivated by each other.

Crawford was changing, and so was her industry. The stock-market crash of 1929 altered the national mood and suddenly the "jazz baby" silent films were no longer much in demand. Americans were lining up to see "talkies," and soon the stars were taking diction lessons. Crawford was luckier than some: her husky voice was a perfect complement to her looks. Her career continued its climb; when rival Norma Shearer became pregnant, Crawford won the dramatic lead in Paid, a film about a woman wrongly imprisoned, which won her high marks from critics and audiences alike. That triumph was followed by another, Grand Hotel, in 1932, with the great Greta Garbo . There were inevitable ups and downs in the roles that followed, but Crawford always worked. At MGM, in Hollywood and all across the country, Joan Crawford was a star.

As such, she was able to arrange her private life as she pleased. When, after four years, her marriage became somewhat stale, she announced her intention to divorce in a Louella Parsons gossip column. Crawford had numerous affairs, most notably with actor Clark Gable. She began to practice Christian Science; its dogma perfectly fit her impatience with minor illnesses. She became known among colleagues and film crews as a generous giver of gifts. She continued her tradition of answering every fan letter, and was always the most accessible of stars. Her insistence on cleanliness, which no doubt had its roots in her childhood, became an obsession. At home or on the set, she was always scrubbing, knitting, working with her hands.

In 1935, she married for the second time, to Franchot Tone, a sophisticated, if little known, New York actor and member of the Group Theater. Tone introduced her to plays, poetry and literature; she opened the doors of Hollywood for him. They also were in love, and in 1937, when Life proclaimed Joan Crawford the first Queen of the Movies, her life must have seemed complete.

But a string of uninspired films left her on somewhat shaky ground. Mannequin, in 1938, promised an end to her slump: it was a return to the working-girl roles that had served her well, and Crawford was co-starring with veteran actor Spencer Tracy, with whom she began an illicit romance. The film was not met with much interest, however, and later that year a film journal listed her in an article entitled "Box Office Poison." Louis Mayer, taking advantage of her slipping status, cut her salary from $125,000 to $100,000 per film in her new, five-year contract.

Four years after her marriage to Tone, she announced a divorce, once again in a Parsons gossip column. But she longed for children and, after several miscarriages, decided to adopt. Christina arrived in 1940; brother Christopher followed two years later. Joan seemed, on the surface, to be a devoted and delighted mother; at home, however, she was a strict disciplinarian, apparently unable to avoid inflicting her own unfortunate childhood on her children.

There were only a few bright spots in what were otherwise disappointing years: working on the film version of Clare Boothe Luce 's play, The Women; appearing in her first comedic role in Susan and God, and portraying a disfigured woman in A Woman's Face. In 1941, Joan Crawford was 35, and the stars who had been on the silent screen were being replaced with fresher faces: Judy Garland, Greer Garson , and Lana Turner . Mayer rid MGM of its older stars by offering them bad pictures, and Crawford had some terrible ones: When Ladies Meet, They All Kissed the Bride, Reunion in France. In 1943, she asked to be released from her contract, walking away from the studio that had been her home for 18 years. She had been in 56 pictures.

Crawford accepted a three-picture contract with Warner Bros., where Jack Warner was looking for someone to threaten his difficult star, Bette Davis . But two years later, Crawford had appeared in only one film, Hollywood Canteen, in which she briefly played herself helping in the war effort. Mildred Pierce, the film version of a popular James M. Cain novel, was her comeback. The drama opened in 1945 to good reviews and earned Crawford her only Academy Award for Best Actress.

In 1942, she had married for the third time, to actor Phillip Terry, and, as with her first two marriages, its demise after four years was announced by Parsons. For the next nine years, until her fourth and final marriage, Crawford was never without escorts and enjoyed her share of romances. But her friends could not help notice that her behavior had become erratic. Despite her continued belief in Christian Science, she began to smoke and drink for the first time. Alcohol probably contributed to the odd behavior: she was known to greet dates at her door wearing nothing but a slip and to leave dinner parties between courses.

In 1947, she adopted two more children, Cathy and Cynthia, and although she was more lenient with them than with her first two, much of her strange behavior was directed at her children. She beat them for minor transgressions and humiliated them in front of company. Joan Crawford was very generous in many other respects, giving graciously of her time and money to others, but not to her children. Actress Helen Hayes once said, "Joan tried to be all things to all people. I just wish she hadn't tried to be a mother."

While other actresses of her age and accomplishments were willing to retire, Crawford was not. She was not vain about roles, and her career showed surprising strength after the success of Mildred Pierce. That triumph was followed by steady work through the late 1940s. She continued to play an excellent publicity game, staying on good terms with reporters, photographers, and her devoted fan club. She was still quite attractive, trim, and looking taller, as always, than her 5′4″. She had another major success in 1952 with Sudden Fear, a thriller that earned her a third Academy Award nomination (the second

was for Possessed in 1947). The following year, she made her first film for MGM in ten years. Torch Song was essentially a one-woman show, full of song and dance, and shot in Technicolor. One critic said, "Here is Joan Crawford, all over the screen, in command … a real movie star."

In 1955, she married Alfred Steele, head of Pepsi-Cola. He was strong and secure, and although she continued to make movies she began to enjoy a life apart from Hollywood. They bought a huge apartment in New York City, and Crawford began a second career as a Pepsi ambassador. Steele arrived too late to be of much help with Crawford's two elder children, who by that time were troublesome teenagers, but provided her with much needed companionship. When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1959, after four years of marriage, he left her lonely and also broke. The man who had guided Pepsi through its growth years had not handled his own finances as well. Two days after his death, his widow was elected to fill his vacancy on the Pepsi board of directors. She also accepted a small role in The Best of Everything. She knew she had to work.

It was her idea to make a movie with archrival Bette Davis. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? grossed nine million dollars in 1962 and became a cult classic that introduced the aging stars to a new generation. Crawford's four final movies were all in same horror genre.

Her last work was in television; she was once directed by a 21-year-old Steven Spielberg for an episode of "Night Gallery." In 1973, at age 65, she was asked to leave her post at Pepsi because of a bitter rivalry with the new boss. The last five years of her life were spent alone in New York, in a smaller and then even smaller apartment. She was close to her two younger children but not her elder ones (the eldest, Christina, wrote a devastating book, Mommie Dearest, which was made into a hit movie.) Crawford enjoyed an active social life until 1974, when an unflattering newspaper photo caused her to decline all further public appearances. On the morning of May 10, 1977, with her weight down to 85 pounds, she rose and prepared breakfast for her maid. Returning to bed to watch soap operas, she called to make sure the breakfast had been eaten, and then she died, most likely of liver cancer, although she had never sought treatment.


Considine, Shaun. Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1989.

Crawford, Christina. Mommie Dearest. NY: William Morrow, 1978.

Crawford, Joan, with Jane Kesner Ardmore. A Portrait of Joan. NY: Doubleday, 1962.

Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. NY: Harper and Row, 1986.

Quirk, Lawrence J. The Films of Joan Crawford. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1968.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1946. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1946.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Elizabeth L. Bland , reporter, Time magazine

About this article

Crawford, Joan (1906–1977)

Updated About content Print Article