On this day in 1904, Lucille Fay LeSueur (later known as Joan Crawford) was born in San Antonio, Texas. Some sources list the year of her birth as 1904, 1905, or even 1908, but a quick search of the San Antonio census records reveals the truth. By any measure, Crawford was one of the greats in the history of Hollywood.

I recently watched the 1981 film Mommie Dearest for the first time in decades. While Faye Dunaway’s depiction of Crawford over the course of almost 40 years is dead on, it sometimes seems as if she’s using Carol Burnett’s parodies of Joan Crawford as her source material rather than the actress herself. The way Dunaway transforms herself through makeup, hair, costumes and her exquisite acting chops is one degree short of channeling, but her performance is so over-the-top that you have to wonder what the filmmakers were going for. What could have been a truly incisive look at the stresses and psychological issues of a well known figure is instead an exercise in High Camp even though I don’t think that was anyone’s intention at the time, least of all Faye Dunaway’s (who refuses to discuss this film today). I’m not sure director Frank Perry was the right man for the job, and yet he did direct two films that I thought were outstanding depictions of mental disorders: David and Lisa in 1962 and the classic Diary of a Mad Housewife in 1970.

joan-mommiedearestWhen Christina Crawford’s tell-all book came out a year after her mother’s death, Old Hollywood divided into two camps: those who thought the book represented the slanderous ravings of a spoiled brat bent on revenge for being written out of her mother’s will; and those who said they had witnessed Crawford’s unstable behavior with her children and were convinced that the book’s shocking claims were true. At the top of the list of Joan’s defenders was her old friend Myrna Loy who had known Crawford since she first arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s and had appeared with daughter Christina in a stage production of Barefoot in the Park. Loy thought Christina was an obnoxious child and that she had behaved horribly during the run of their play. She said that while she never saw Joan hit her daughter, if anyone needed a good slap it was Christina. Yikes.

Helen Hayes, however, another great actress whom Joan had befriended in the 1930s, did not exactly elect Joan Mother of the Year in her autobiography:

Joan was not quite rational in her raising of children. You might say she was strict or stern. But cruel is probably the right word.

When my young son Jim came to stay with me, we would go out to lunch with Joan and her son Christopher. Joan would snap, “Christopher!” whenever he tried to speak. He would bow his little head, completely cowed, and then he’d say, “Mommie dearest, may I speak?” Joan’s children had to say [that] before she allowed them to utter another word. It would have been futile for me or anyone else to protest. Joan would only get angry and probably vent her rage on the kids.

I have read that people who are abused as children often become abusive parents. Maybe it was Joan’s tough childhood that made her exert her power like that over her own children. But understanding the reason did not make their suffering any easier to watch.

joan-christina1Pretty damning stuff, and yet there’s also evidence that Christina Crawford exaggerated some of the childhood episodes for dramatic purposes. With the passing of time, certain scenes that so appalled me when I first saw the film in the 1980s don’t seem that bad today. At Christmas time and on birthdays, Joan’s fans would send Christina mountains of presents. Crawford would let her keep one or two and have her give the rest to needy children. This is presented in the film as monstrous but it seems pretty reasonable to me today. Still, it’s clear that there were times when Crawford’s highly disciplined and controlling nature devolved into episodes of severe mental and physical abuse. The last thing I would ever do is accuse Christina Crawford of lying about her own childhood. I would think that the only thing worse than experiencing such abuse is finally telling people about it and not being believed. Only she knows what happened between her and her mother and it certainly seems like Joan had plenty of undiagnosed disorders that made her a nightmare to live with. On the other hand, the filmmakers should have avoided the temptation to create completely fictional scenes of terror like the one in which Joan almost kills Christina in front of a magazine reporter.

joan-christina4As far as Joan’s friends defending her, isn’t it true that you never really know what goes on behind other people’s closed doors? Statistics would say that we all know or have come in contact with abusers even if we’ve never seen that side of them. Still, Christina Crawford hasn’t helped her “case,” in my opinion, by encouraging the camp-fest that has developed around the book and movie of Mommie Dearest. She has appeared at screenings with drag queens playing her mother and at which the crowd interacts with the film à la Rocky Horror using props. The last time I saw the film in a theater, an AFI-sponsored screening for its 25th anniversary in 2006, I was a little uncomfortable at the uproarious laughter that greeted so many scenes. If the story is true, we are laughing at horrific child abuse. If it is an exaggerated tale of a troubled childhood, we are participating in a major defamation of character of a woman who is not here to defend herself and whose public image (the one thing everyone who knew Joan Crawford said she cared about more than anything) has been utterly trashed.

fayedunaway2Not that I can truly blame the audience for laughing or claim that I took the high road and didn’t join in from time to time. How can you not laugh at lines that are so out there they have become indelible parts of our pop culture such as “Christina, bring me the ax!” or the iconic “NO WIRE HANGERS…EVER!!” My personal favorite is a scene that I think shows Joan in a positive light even though she’s clearly being a Class A bitch. After her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola honcho Al Steele dies, the top brass at Pepsi try to kiss her off. Never one to meekly slither away, Joan Crawford lays into the Board and threatens to use her fame to turn her fans against Pepsi if they continue their campaign to get rid of her. After years of dealing with the sleazeballs of Hollywood, Joan was not about to let this group give her the heave-ho. “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” she spews with an evil smile on her face. “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” I hope she really said that, it’s such a great line.

Did you know that Anne Bancroft had originally signed to play Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest but backed out when she read the script? Joan had accepted Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for her when she won for The Miracle Worker but also said once that if a movie were ever made of her life, she’d like Faye Dunaway to play her. Good news, except I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the movie Crawford was hoping for.

joan-early3Watching the film, and imagining how horrified Joan Crawford would be about the state of her reputation today, I was curious how the actress was treated by the press at the very beginning of her career, before this town helped turn her into the caricature she became. The first article I could find that mentions Joan Crawford was about her name change. (I was fascinated by the title of this September 5, 1925 piece: “Cognomen of Actress Discarded.” When was the last time you heard the word “cognomen” being used? Why do some of these great words disappear from common usage?)

“The metamorphosis of Lucille LeSueur, motion-picture actress, into Joan Crawford, motion-picture actress, was announced yesterday by Harry Rapf at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Miss Le Sueur’s new screen name was selected by a conference of studio officials. The old name, it was said, was considered too difficult. Very few knew how to spell it and even fewer how to pronounce it, and it was felt it was an obstacle to her success.” For once I agreed with “studio officials.” As Louis B. Mayer said, who wants a name that sounds like “sewer?”

From that day on, Joan was all over the paper. She was constantly being carted out to one charity event or another, even making a splash at a huge benefit at the Shrine Auditorium for the Hebrew Sheltering Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, at which the Notre Dame football squad, headed by Coach Knute Rockne, were guests of honor. Joan was frequently lauded back then as a “star-of-the-future.” She was the subject of endless puff pieces including one on November 20, 1925 about her dog Pedro, said to be the smallest Chihuahua in the world. Joan carried him around in a small makeup case. “A tiny window enables this minute canine to view the sights.”

joan-article1Joan’s first bit of bad press occurred in 1926 when she was dating 19-year-old Michael Cudahy, the handsome heir to a huge meat-packing fortune. Cudahy’s mother was horrified that her son was dating the motion picture actress. In some snobby circles back then, actresses were still seen as just a few steps up from prostitutes. I couldn’t resist doing more research on this guy. Although his brothers and uncles lived very productive and successful lives (included in these ranks were the former ambassador to Poland and Belgium and the inventor of the electrocardiogram), young Michael was a spoiled rich kid who never did an honest day’s work. Shortly after his dalliance with Joan, he married another actress, probably to spite his mother who actually had him arrested and jailed because of it. “He’s only a child, just 19,” Mrs. Cudahy explained. “Cudahy was claimed last fall by Lucille LeSueur, now known as Joan Crawford, for a fiancée, and it was reported widely that they were married. Mrs. Cudahy objected emphatically to that affair, also, and warned that if a marriage resulted she would have it annulled.” He ended up marrying three actresses but his alcoholism and wild ways led all his wives to divorce him on the grounds of severe mental cruelty and abuse. He died at the age of 38 from liver failure due to his constant drinking. Joan was wise to steer clear of him.

Another mini-scandal Joan was involved in that year focused on the sanity hearing of Yale football star Robert Savage who was in love with actress Clara Bow. Apparently the two got as far as the marriage license bureau when Bow turned him down, saying it was all a big joke. Distraught, Savage slashed his wrists. Joan, who had once dated Savage, was called as a witness to the Psychopathic Ward of General Hospital. His hearing, which later found him to be sane, was conducted by the Los Angeles Lunacy Commission. (Don’t you wish such a commission still existed?)

joan-early1An interesting article from 1927 revealed for the first time Joan’s dark side that would get worse as her fame increased. Titled “Joan Crawford Isn’t Happy But Always the Gayest of Gay,” the article calls her a “restless flame of a girl, flaring high one moment and dying down to a flicker the next.” Her latest film, The Taxi Driver, had just opened at the State Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and poor Joan had to appear there nightly to do her wild “jazz dance” for the assembled crowd. Back in 1927, 23-year-old Joan was considered “one of the interesting enigmas in pictures. A girl who is expected to be gay and hilarious, coveted for parties because she can be depended upon to add to the occasion with a whirlwind dance or smart line, and yet who sometimes breaks under the strain of trying to be ‘the life of the party.’” Poor Joan, already trying to be everything to everyone. “People think her happy-go-lucky, yet she is so sensitive that a blunt opinion often sends her into a dark, moody spell which she has to fight for hours.” Although constantly linked to men, she admitted at this young age that “she never intends to marry—too many moods. She can’t picture any man she knows being happy with a wife whose thoughts sometimes drive her out in the car alone to ride furiously all night, turning up in the morning a little uncertain of where she has been.”

joan-early2Looking at these early articles about Joan Crawford, she seemed surprisingly self-aware. Following her divorce from first husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan told the Los Angeles Times, “An actress should not marry, I am convinced of that. It is better to say no, and cause a small hurt now, than to say yes, and cause a great hurt later on.” Joan insisted that she would never marry actor Franchot Tone, despite all the rumors that the two were engaged. She wished her former husband well. “I think that Douglas will marry Gertrude Lawrence,” she said. “I am hoping for his happiness. I am not mourning the past. I tried to make that marriage a success, tried perhaps too hard. It doesn’t pay to force romance. That I have really been in love, I doubt. That I can ever be here in Hollywood, I question. Hollywood itself stands in the way of any great-true love. If two people are in the profession they both should leave it if they want to marry, and then they could, perhaps, be happy. I am no diplomatist about my feelings. I cannot conceal my moods. That’s too difficult in married life. I don’t want to go through life causing unhappiness. Hence a refusal of marriage now is better than consent followed by heartbreak and divorce. It doesn’t pay to take the risk.”

A year later, Crawford did marry Franchot Tone, against her own better judgment. She married two times after that, each of her marriages lasting no more than four years. Her children started arriving in 1939. Because no one at that time would allow a divorced woman to adopt, she “bought” her kids on the black market. When she mentioned in a magazine when and where she adopted her first son Christopher, his birth mother appeared and demanded the child back. Joan complied but the woman harassed her for another year before selling her son to another couple for $250.

joan-christopher1Joan adopted another boy two years later when she was married to actor Phillip Terry. She named her son after her husband but when that marriage ended she changed his name to Christopher Crawford. Christopher says his upbringing was as traumatic as his older sister’s even though in Mommie Dearest the worst thing we see happening to him is that he is strapped into his bed each night, a bizarre practice Joan continued with all of her children. An actress friend of ours told me that she was once dining at Joan Crawford’s house in the 1950s and was asked if she wanted to help put the children to bed. To her utter shock, she was expected to help fasten the kids into their nightly restraints.

Poor Christopher was constantly running away from home. At the age of 9, he supposedly fled because he was not allowed any chocolate syrup on his ice cream. After he is brought back home, his mother’s return from the studio is detailed by a reporter writing about the incident.

“Hello, son,” Joan smiled sweetly. She patted the sofa beside her, and Christopher came over to sit down.

“Hello, mummy,” came the response. All charm.

But Joan, who herself has won an acting honor or two, refused to be so easily disarmed. Joan began smoothly.

“Do you realize what you’ve done? How many people you’ve upset and hurt? And over what? Chocolate syrup, indeed! You’re lucky to have the ice cream!”

Tears brimmed in Christopher’s eyes as the lecture continued.

“Just go upstairs, son,” Joan directed. “I’ll be up shortly,” she added, “with the hairbrush. I’m going to tan your hide and you’ll take it like a guy.”

So—like a guy—Christopher turned to go up the stairs.

Less than six months later, the boy ran away again, this time to Santa Monica Pier where he tried to con people out of money and was picked up at midnight by police. “The last time Christopher ran away, his mother promised a hairbrush. The spanking apparently was not hard enough, police commented.”

At 12, Christopher ran away for a third time, during his mother’s honeymoon to the Pepsi-Cola chief. He was located when he tried to change a $100 bill in a Palos Verdes liquor store. Can you say “cry for help?” Joan promptly put Christopher into a residential military academy in the valley. Christopher ran away several more times, and later got arrested when he and some other boys went on an air rifle shooting spree, breaking windows and street lights and injuring a 14-year-old girl. Christopher got married at 18 and had several kids he later lost touch with. In 1978 he talked to the press for the first time about his troubled childhood.

“I want to tell this once, so people will get off my back and leave my family alone,” says the 6-foot-4 man whose hard life shows in his face. He needs dental work. There are small scars on his face and larger ones on his back from a mortar explosion in Vietnam.

Crawford recalled his mother’s “sleep safe,” the harnesslike device used to keep infants securely in their beds. Chris was strapped into bed until the age of 12. Once caught playing with matches, his mother made him hold his hand in the fireplace. “I had blisters all over my hand. That day I ran away for the first time. I was 7.”

Though Chris attended his mother’s funeral, his last encounter with J.C. was five years ago. His youngest child was born in Brooklyn, on welfare. “When Bonnie was born, she had a lot of trouble. She was just a tiny little mass of bones with some skin stretched over them. So I called J.C. and said, ‘I need your help. Your granddaughter needs blood and she needs it now. She might die.’ J.C. said, ‘She’s not my granddaughter. You were adopted.’ I lost my temper and slammed down the phone so hard I broke the receiver. That was it between J.C. and me.”

Oy, that’s as bad as anything in Mommie Dearest. Joan Crawford died on May 10, 1977. Christopher Crawford died of cancer on September 22, 2006. Christina and Christopher’s younger sisters, twin girls born in 1947, seemed to have had an entirely different experience. They’ve said that yes, their mother was strict, but also very loving and they miss her dearly. Poor Joan. Poor kids. I just wish another filmmaker (how about Ang Lee, Jane Campion, or Angelina Jolie?) would take a fresh look at Joan Crawford and make a film that doesn’t treat her amazing and often tragic life as a big joke.