|Born:||23 March 1905|
|Location:||San Antonio, Texas, U.S.|
|Deathplace:||New York City, New York, U.S.|
|Birthname:||Lucille Fay LeSueur|
|Yearsactive:||1925 - 1972|
|Spouse:||Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (1929-1933)|
Franchot Tone (1935-1939)
Phillip Terry (1942-1946)
Alfred Steele (1955-1959)
1945 Mildred Pierce
|Goldenglobeawards:||Cecil B. DeMille Award|
1970 Lifetime Achievement
|Awards:||NBR Award for Best Actress|
1945 Mildred Pierce
Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur; (March 23, 1905 - May 10, 1977) was an American actress of film, television and theatre. Starting as a dancer in traveling theatrical companies before debuting on Broadway, Crawford was signed to a motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. Initially frustrated by the size and quality of her parts, Crawford began a campaign of self-publicity and became nationally known as a flapper by the end of the 1920s. In the 1930s, Crawford's fame rivaled MGM colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. Crawford often played hardworking young women who find romance and financial success. These "rags-to-riches" stories were well-received by Depression-era audiences and were popular with women. Crawford became one of Hollywood's most prominent movie stars and one of the highest paid women in the United States, but her films began losing money and by the end of the 1930s she was labeled "box office poison".
After an absence of nearly two years from the screen, Crawford staged a comeback by starring in Mildred Pierce (1945), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1955, she became involved with the Pepsi-Cola Company, through her marriage to company president Alfred Steele. After his death in 1959, Crawford was elected to fill his vacancy on the board of directors but was forcibly retired in 1973. She continued acting in film and television regularly through the 1960s, when her performances became fewer; after the release of the horror film Trog in 1970, Crawford retired from the screen. Following a public appearance in 1974, after which unflattering photographs were published, Crawford withdrew from public life. She became more and more reclusive until her death in 1977.
Crawford married four times. Her first three marriages ended in divorce; the last ended with the death of husband Al Steele. She adopted five children, one of whom was reclaimed by his birth mother. Crawford's relationships with her two older children, Christina and Christopher, were acrimonious. Crawford disinherited the two and, after Crawford's death, Christina wrote a "tell-all" memoir called Mommie Dearest in which she alleged a lifelong pattern of physical and emotional abuse perpetrated by Crawford.
Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, the third child of Tennessee-born Thomas E. LeSueur (1868 - 1938) and Anna Bell Johnson (1884 - 1958). Her older siblings were Daisy LeSueur, who died very young, and Hal LeSueur. Although Crawford was of mostly English descent, her surname originated from her great-great-great-great grandparents, David LeSueur and Elizabeth Chastain, French Huguenots who immigrated from London in the early 1700s to Virginia.
Thomas LeSueur abandoned the family a few months before Crawford's birth. Her mother later married Henry J. Cassin. The family lived in Lawton, Oklahoma, where Cassin ran a movie theater. Crawford was unaware that Cassin was not her birth father until her brother Hal told her. The 1910 federal census for Comanche County, Oklahoma, enumerated on April 20, showed Henry and Anna living at 910 "D" Street in Lawton. Crawford was listed as five years old, thus showing 1905 as her likely year of birth. However, the state of Texas did not require the filing of birth certificates until 1908, allowing Crawford to claim she was born in 1908.
Crawford preferred the nickname "Billie" as a child and she loved watching vaudeville acts perform on the stage of her stepfather's theater. Her ambition was to be a dancer. However, in an attempt to escape piano lessons to run and play with friends, she leapt from the front porch of her home and cut her foot deeply on a broken milk bottle. Crawford had three operations and was unable to attend elementary school for a year and a half. She eventually fully recovered and returned to dancing.
Around 1916, Crawford's family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Cassin was first listed in the City Directory in 1917, living at 403 East Ninth Street. While still in elementary school, Crawford was placed in St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic school in Kansas City. Later, after her mother and stepfather broke up, she stayed on at St. Agnes as a work student. She then went to Rockingham Academy as a work student. While attending Rockingham she began dating and had her first serious relationship, with a trumpet player named Ray Sterling. It was Sterling who inspired her to begin challenging herself academically, and in 1922, Crawford registered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. She gave her year of birth as 1906. Crawford attended Stephens for less than a year, as she recognized that she was not academically prepared for college.
Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was spotted dancing in Detroit by producer Jacob J. Shubert. Shubert put her in the chorus line for his 1924 show Innocent Eyes at the Winter Gardens on Broadway in New York City. While appearing in Innocent Eyes Crawford met a saxophone player named James Welton. The two were allegedly married in 1924 and the couple lived together for several months, although this supposed marriage was never mentioned in later life by Crawford. She wanted additional work and approached Loews Theaters publicist Nils Granlund. Granlund secured a position for her with producer Harry Richmond's act and arranged for her to do a screen test which he sent to producer Harry Rapf in Hollywood. Stories have persisted that Crawford further supplemented her income by appearing in one or more stag, or soft-core pornographic, films, although this has been disputed. Rapf notified Granlund on December 24, 1924 that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had offered Crawford a contract at $75 a week. Granlund immediately wired LeSueur – who had returned to her mother's home in Kansas City – with the news and $400 for travel expenses. The night after Christmas she left Kansas City and arrived in Culver City, California.
As Lucille LeSueur, her first film was Pretty Ladies in 1925, which starred ZaSu Pitts. Also in 1925 she appeared in a small role in The Only Thing and in Old Clothes opposite Jackie Coogan. MGM publicity head Pete Smith recognized her ability but felt that her name sounded fake; it also, he told studio head Louis B. Mayer, sounded like "Le Sewer". Smith organized a contest in conjunction with a fan magazine named Movie Weekly to allow readers to select her new name. Initially the name "Joan Arden" was selected but, when another actress was found to have prior claim to that name, the alternate name "Crawford" became the choice. Crawford initially wanted her new first name to be pronounced "Jo-anne". She hated the name Crawford, saying it sounded like "crawfish". Her friend, actor William Haines, quipped, "They might have called you 'Cranberry' and served you every Thanksgiving with the turkey!" Crawford continued to dislike the name throughout her life but, she said, "liked the security that went with it".
Growing increasingly frustrated over the size and quality of the parts she was given, Crawford embarked on a campaign of self-promotion. As MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas recalled, "No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star." She began attending dances in the afternoons and evenings at hotels around Hollywood, where she often won dance competitions with her performances of the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Her strategy worked, and MGM cast her in the film where she first made an impression on audiences, Edmund Goulding's Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). She played Irene, a struggling chorus girl. In the same year, Crawford worked on Lady of the Night, starring Norma Shearer. Crawford was made up and used as a double for Shearer and her face is briefly seen. Crawford coveted the roles that Shearer played but knew that Shearer's husband, producer Irving Thalberg, guaranteed Shearer first choice of roles in any MGM property. "How can I compete with Norma?" Crawford was quoted as saying. "She sleeps with the boss."
The following year, Crawford was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, along with Mary Astor, Mary Brian, Dolores Costello, Dolores Del Rio, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray. For the next two years, Crawford appeared in increasingly important films. In 1926, she made Paris, where she was able to show her sex appeal. She became the romantic interest for some of MGM's leading male stars, among them Ramon Novarro, William Haines, John Gilbert and Tim McCoy. Crawford appeared in The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. who played a carnival knife thrower with no arms. Crawford played his skimpily clad young carnival assistant whom he hopes to marry. She stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anything else in her career. "It was then," she said, "I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting."
In 1928, Crawford starred opposite Ramon Novarro in Across to Singapore, but it was her role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that catapulted her to stardom. The role established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity that rivaled the image of Clara Bow, who was then Hollywood's foremost flapper. A stream of hits followed Our Dancing Daughters, including two more flapper-themed movies, in which Crawford embodied for her legion of fans (many of whom were women) an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of her:
On June 3, 1929, Crawford married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at Saint Malachy's Roman Catholic Church in New York City. Fairbanks was the son of Douglas Fairbanks and the step-son of Mary Pickford, who were considered Hollywood royalty. Fairbanks Sr. and Pickford were opposed to the marriage and did not invite the couple to their home, Pickfair, for eight months after the marriage. The relationship between Crawford and Fairbanks, Sr. eventually warmed; she called him "Uncle Doug" and he called her "Billie". Following that first invitation, Crawford and Fairbanks, Jr. became more frequent guests, which was hard on Crawford. While the Fairbanks men played golf together, Crawford was left with Pickford or left alone.
Her first talkie was Untamed (1929), opposite Robert Montgomery, which was a box office success. Crawford made an effective transition to sound movies. One critic wrote, "Miss Crawford sings appealingly and dances thrillingly as usual; her voice is alluring and her dramatic efforts in the difficult role she portrays are at all times convincing."
Crawford starred opposite of Clark Gable in Possessed (1931). They began an affair during the production, resulting in an ultimatum from studio chief Louis B. Mayer to Gable that the affair end. Gable complied, although for many years their affair resumed sporadically and secretly. Upon release, Possessed was an enormous hit.
The studio then cast her in Grand Hotel, which starred the most famous actors of the 1930s and was MGM's most prestigious movie of 1932. Crawford later achieved continued success with Letty Lynton (1932). Soon after its release, a plagiarism suit forced MGM to withdraw it. It has never been shown on television or made available on home video, and is therefore considered the "lost" Crawford film. The film is mostly remembered because of the "Letty Lynton dress," designed by Adrian: a white cotton organdy gown with large ruffled sleeves, puffed at the shoulder. It was with this gown that Crawford's broad shoulders began to be accentuated by costume. Macy's copied the dress in 1932, and it sold over 500,000 replicas nationwide.
In May 1933, Crawford divorced Fairbanks. Crawford cited "grievous mental cruelty"; "a jealous and suspicious attitude" toward her friends and "loud arguments about the most trivial subjects" lasting "far into the night".
Following Possessed, Crawford starred opposite Gable in the hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which she received top billing. Crawford's next movies, Sadie McKee, Chained and Forsaking All Others (all 1934), were among the top money makers of the mid-1930s.
In 1935, Crawford married her second husband, stage and film actor Franchot Tone. Tone, a stage actor from New York who planned to use his film salary to finance his theatre group, and Crawford appeared together in Today We Live (1933) and were immediately drawn to each other, although Crawford was hesitant about entering into another romance so soon after her split from Fairbanks. The couple built a small theatre at Crawford's Brentwood home and put on productions of classic plays for select groups of friends. Before and during their marriage, Crawford worked to promote Tone's Hollywood career but Tone was ultimately not interested in being a movie star and Crawford eventually wearied of the effort. Tone began drinking and physically abusing Crawford and she filed for divorce, which was granted in 1939. Crawford and Tone eventually reconciled their friendship and Tone even proposed they remarry in 1964. When Tone died in 1968, Crawford arranged for him to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Muskoka Lakes, Canada.
The Motion Picture Herald placed Crawford on its list of the top-ten moneymaking stars from 1932, the first year of the poll, through 1936 and Life magazine proclaimed her "First Queen of the Movies" in 1937. Later in 1937 she dropped out of the top ten for the first time, and in 1938 the Independent Film Journal named her and several other stars as "box office poison" based on their supposed lack of popular appeal. However, Crawford made a small comeback with her role as home-wrecker Crystal Allen in director George Cukor's comedy The Women in 1939. She also broke from formula by taking the unglamorous role of Julie in Strange Cargo (1940), her eighth and final film with Clark Gable. Crawford then starred as a facially disfigured blackmailer in A Woman's Face (1941). While the film was only a moderate box office success, her performance was hailed by many critics.
Crawford adopted her first child, a daughter, in 1940. Because she was single, California law prevented her from adopting within the state so she arranged the adoption through an agency in Las Vegas. The child was temporarily called Joan until Crawford changed her name to Christina. She married actor Phillip Terry on July 21, 1942 after a six-month courtship. Together the couple adopted a son whom they named Christopher, but his birth mother reclaimed the child. They adopted another boy, whom they named Phillip Terry, Jr. After the marriage ended in 1946, Crawford changed the child's name to Christopher Crawford.
After 18 years, Crawford's contract was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943. In lieu of one more movie owed under her contract, MGM bought out her contract for $100,000. The same day, the studio cleared out her bungalow.
For five hundred thousand dollars for three movies, Crawford signed with Warner Bros. and was placed on the payroll on July 1, 1943. She made a cameo with many other stars in the G.I. morale-booster Hollywood Canteen (1944). Crawford said one of the main reasons she signed with Warner Bros. was because she wanted to play the character "Mattie" in a proposed 1944 film version of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome (1911). However, Bette Davis wanted to play Mattie and reportedly told Jack Warner, "Joan's far too old, and besides, she can't act."
Crawford wanted to play the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), but Davis was the studio's first choice. However, Davis did not want to play the mother of a seventeen year old daughter and she turned the role down. Director Michael Curtiz did not want Crawford and told Jack Warner, "She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads...why should I waste my time directing a has-been?" Curtiz demanded Crawford prove her suitability by taking a screen test. After the test, Curtiz agreed to Crawford's casting. Crawford starred opposite Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth and Butterfly McQueen. Mildred Pierce was a commercial success. It epitomized the lush visual style and the hard-boiled film noir sensibility that defined Warner Bros. movies of the later 1940s. Crawford earned the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
From 1945 to 1952, Crawford reigned as a top star and respected actress, appearing in such roles as Helen Wright in Humoresque (1946), Louise Howell Graham in Possessed (1947, for which she was nominated for a second Oscar for Best Actress) and the title role in Daisy Kenyon (also 1947). Crawford's other movie roles of the era include Lane Bellamy in Flamingo Road (1949), a dual role in the film noir The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and her performance in the title role of Harriet Craig (1950) at Columbia Pictures. After filming This Woman Is Dangerous (1952), Crawford asked to be released from her Warner Bros. contract. As she had done before, Crawford triumphed as Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear (1952) at RKO, which was the movie that introduced her co-star, Jack Palance, to the screen and earned Crawford a third and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Crawford adopted two more children in 1947, whom she named Cindy and Cathy. She referred to them as twins but the children were not related by blood.
Crawford worked in the radio series The Screen Guild Theater on January 8, 1939; Good News; Baby, broadcast March 2, 1940 on Arch Oboler's Lights Out; The Word on Everyman's Theater (1941); Chained on the Lux Radio Theater and Norman Corwin's Document A/777 (1948). She appeared in episodes of anthology TV shows in the 1950s and, in 1959, made a pilot for her series, The Joan Crawford Show, but the show was never picked up by a network.
Crawford married her final husband, Alfred Steele, at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas on May 10. 1955. Crawford and Steele met at a party in 1950 when Steele was an executive with Coca-Cola. They renewed their acquaintance at a New Year's Eve party in 1954. Steele by that time had become the president of Pepsi Cola. Crawford traveled extensively on behalf of Pepsi following the marriage. She estimated that she traveled over 100,000 miles for the company. Steele died of a heart attack in April 1959. Crawford was initially advised that her services were no longer required. After she told the story to Louella Parsons, Pepsi reversed its position and Crawford was elected to fill the vacant seat on the board of directors. Crawford, left near-penniless following Steele's death, accepted a supporting role in the film The Best of Everything (1959). It was her first non-starring role in her later career.
Crawford received the sixth annual "Pally Award", which was in the shape of a bronze Pepsi bottle. It was awarded to the employee making the most significant contribution to company sales. In 1973, Crawford retired from the company at the behest of company executive Don Kendall, whom Crawford had referred to for years as "Fang."
After her triumph in RKO's Sudden Fear, Crawford appeared in films ranging from the cult western film Johnny Guitar (1954) to the drama Autumn Leaves (1956), opposite a young Cliff Robertson. By the early 1960s, however, Crawford's status in motion pictures had diminished.
Crawford starred as Blanche Hudson, a physically disabled woman and former A-list movie star in conflict with her psychotic sister in the highly successful thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). Despite the actresses' earlier tensions, Crawford suggested Bette Davis for the role of Jane. The two stars maintained publicly that there was no feud between them. However, Crawford accused Davis of kicking her during the filming of a scene in which Jane attacks Blanche, and reportedly retaliated by wearing weights under her clothes in a scene in which Davis had to carry her. The film became a huge success, recouping its losses in 11 days of nationwide release and temporarily reviving Crawford's career. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Jane Hudson. Crawford secretly contacted all the other Oscar nominees to tell them if they were unable to attend the ceremony, she would be happy to accept the Oscar on their behalf. Both Davis and Crawford were backstage when the absent Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner and Crawford accepted the award on her behalf. Davis claimed for the rest of her life that Crawford campaigned against her, a charge Crawford denied. That same year, Crawford starred as Lucy Harbin in William Castle's horror mystery Strait-Jacket (1964).
Aldrich cast Crawford and Davis in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). After a campaign of intimidation by Davis while the film was on location in Louisiana, Crawford returned to Hollywood and entered a hospital. After a prolonged absence in which Crawford was accused of feigning illness, Aldrich was forced to replace her with Olivia de Havilland. Crawford was devastated. "I heard the news of my replacement over the radio, lying in my hospital bed," Crawford said. "I wept for 39 hours." Crawford nursed grudges against Davis and Aldrich for the rest of her life, saying of Aldrich, "He is a man who loves evil, horrendous, vile things." (to which Aldrich replied, "If the shoe fits, wear it, and I am very fond of Miss Crawford.")
Upon her release from the hospital Crawford played the role of Amy Nelson in I Saw What You Did (1965), another William Castle vehicle. She starred as Monica Rivers in Herman Cohen's horror thriller film Berserk! (1968). After the film's release, Crawford guest-starred as herself on The Lucy Show. The episode, "Lucy and the Lost Star", first aired on February 26, 1968. Although Crawford struggled during rehearsals and drank heavily on-set, leading Ball to suggest replacing her with Gloria Swanson, she was letter-perfect the day of the show and received two standing ovations from the studio audience.
In October 1968, Crawford's 29-year-old daughter, Christina (who was then acting in New York on the soap opera The Secret Storm), needed immediate medical attention for a ruptured ovarian tumor. Until Christina was well enough to return, Crawford offered to play her role, to which producer Gloria Monty readily agreed. Although Crawford did well in rehearsal, she lost her composure while taping and the director and producer were left to struggle to piece together the necessary footage.
Crawford's appearance in the 1969 TV film Night Gallery (which served as pilot to the series that followed), marked one of Steven Spielberg's earliest directing jobs. She starred on the big screen one final time, playing Dr. Brockton in Herman Cohen's science fiction horror film Trog (1970), rounding out a career spanning 45 years and over 80 motion pictures. Crawford made four more TV appearances, as Stephanie White in an episode of The Virginian (1970), entitled "The Nightmare"; as a board member in an episode of The Name of the Game (1971), entitled "Los Angeles"; as Allison Hayes in the made-for-TV movie Beyond the Water's Edge (1972); and as Joan Fairchild (her final screen performance) on an episode of the television series, The Sixth Sense, entitled, "Dear Joan: We're Going To Scare You To Death" (1972).
In 1970, Crawford was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by John Wayne at the Golden Globes, which was telecast from the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She also spoke at her alma mater, Stephens College, from which she never graduated.
Crawford published her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan, – written with Jane Kesner Ardmore – in 1962 through Doubleday. Crawford's next book, My Way of Life, was published in 1971 by Simon and Schuster. Those expecting a racy tell-all were disappointed, although Crawford's meticulous ways were revealed in her advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, and even food storage.
In September 1973, Crawford moved from apartment 22-G to the smaller apartment 22-H in the Imperial House. Her last public appearance was September 23, 1974, at a party honoring her old friend Rosalind Russell at New York's Rainbow Room. Russell was battling breast cancer at the time and died two years later in 1976. When Crawford saw the unflattering photos of both stars that appeared in the papers the next day, she said, "If that's how I look, then they won't see me anymore." Crawford cancelled all public appearances, began declining interviews and left her apartment less and less. In 1975, with a renewed embrace of her Christian Science faith, she gave up drinking.
On May 8, 1977, Crawford gave away her beloved Shih Tzu "Princess Lotus Blossom," which she was too weak to care for properly. Crawford died two days later at her New York apartment from a heart attack, while also ill with pancreatic cancer. A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, on May 10, 1977. All four of her adopted children attended, as did her niece, Joan Crawford LeSueur (aka Joan Lowe), who was the daughter of her late brother, Hal LeSueur (who had died in 1963). In her will, which was signed October 28, 1976, Crawford bequeathed to her two youngest children, Cindy and Cathy, $77,500 each from her $2,000,000 estate. She explicitly disinherited the two eldest, Christina and Christopher. In the last paragraph of the will, she wrote, "It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them."
A memorial service was held for Crawford at All Souls' Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue in New York on May 16, 1977, and was attended by, among others, her old Hollywood friend Myrna Loy. Another memorial service, organized by George Cukor, was held on June 24 in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. Crawford was cremated and her ashes placed in a crypt with her last husband, Alfred Steele, in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.
Crawford's hand and footprints are immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street. In 1999, Playboy listed Crawford as one of the "100 Sexiest Women of the 20th century," ranking her #84.
In November 1978, a year and a half after Crawford's death, Christina published an exposé entitled Mommie Dearest which contained allegations that Crawford was emotionally and physically abusive to her and her brother Christopher. Many of Crawford's friends and co-workers, including Van Johnson, Ann Blyth, Marlene Dietrich and others denounced the book, categorically denying any abuse. Crawford's rival Bette Davis, however, strongly supported the book, saying that Christina could not have made it up (Davis would ironically become the target of her own daughter, B. D. Hyman's, tell-all book in 1985, My Mother's Keeper). The book became a bestseller and was later made into the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford.
See main article: Joan Crawford filmography.