When I was alive the worst they called me was a bitch and a drunk. Now, heathens with websites can, without attribution or fear of legal retribution, accuse me of dancing naked at age eighteen for a film clip to be used in mechanical peep shows and being arrested for prostitution in Detroit. That’s ridiculous. When I got to Detroit I’d already graduated to the chorus line after appearing at various gentlemen’s clubs some called strip joints in Chicago and Oklahoma City. I’d been wise to drop those intolerable college classes and continue dancing because my grace afoot and glamorous face earned me a contract with MGM in 1924 and the following January I was heading to Hollywood and still only nineteen.
I craved to be a star, and knew I would be. By 1926 I was being embraced in onscreen silence by major leading men John Gilbert and Ramon Navarro. And in 1929, intensely studying diction and elocution, I flowed into talking movies with Robert Montgomery in Untamed. Clark Gable and I soon became a romantic pair day and night, and studio dictator Louis B. Mayer was a prig to demand Gable drop me since I was already married to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Mayer couldn’t keep us apart permanently. In 1933 we starred in Dancing Lady. Naturally, I got top billing for wooing Clark’s character, dance producer Patch Gallagher, as I try to break in. Franchot Tone wants me all along and secretly buys the show I eventually qualify for then closes it so he can have me at home. That decides it. I commit to Patch’s new show and fall for him. A couple of year’s later, after divorcing Douglas, Franchot and I were married off-screen.
By then I had become box-office magic adorned with the most creative hairstyles and elegant clothes; a half million dresses like mine in Letty Lynton were sold despite the film not being out long because of a plagiarism suit. In public my husbands and boyfriends opened doors for me and walked several feet behind my dramatic entrances then placed napkins on my lap, lit cigarettes, and poured my drinks. This should have lasted forever but MGM gave me weak scripts three straight years and by 1938 I was publicly called box-office poison. I recovered doing three films with George Cukor, who understood and directed women in ways heterosexual men could not. But MGM was grooming younger actresses Judy Garland, Greer Garson, and Lana Turner, and the studio didn’t think it needed me. I knew I didn’t need them. In 1943 I cleared out my dressing room, paid them a hundred grand to get lost, and moved to Warner Brothers.
In 1945, at age thirty-nine, I was both major star and compelling actress as Mildred Pierce. My first husband is bitter about his financial incompetence, and divorcing him leaves me with two daughters and no means of support. I humble myself asking doubters for work as a waitress then learn the business so rapidly I open a restaurant that booms before quickly starting two more. That doesn’t forestall tragedy: my youngest daughter dies and my oldest remains a wealth-obsessed demon who deserts me I respond by marrying a former boyfriend, now the penniless scion of an old Pasadena family. He demands a third of my business interests. I agree, and also buy his old mansion and appoint it lavishly, inducing my daughter to abandon her misguided life as a nightclub dancer. I’m so happy she’s back, until I catch her with my husband and she proclaims they’re getting married. I drop the gun and leave. Instead of gaining love and luxury, my daughter is told she’s disgusting and she picks up the gun. Afterward, police arrest me for murder. I earned my first Academy Award nomination, won the Oscar, and knew that gnawed Warner’s other queen, Bette Davis.
In 1939, the year I divorced Franchot Tone, I had adopted my first child, Christina, and after marrying Phillip Terry in 1942 we acquired a son, Christopher, who was all mine after my 1946 divorce. The following year I became the mother of four, adopting twins Cindy and Cathy. Imagine the pressure of single-handedly raising a large family and being a movie star. These struggles gave me emotional depth. So did my many affairs, hangovers, and cigarettes.
The public didn’t realize how much of myself I offered as Helen Wright in Humoresque. I’m a wealthy married woman who smokes and drinks incessantly as younger men encircle me in front of my weak husband. Any man I want is mine. I pray that’s true when struggling violinist Paul Boray, played by John Garfield, comes to one of our parties. Later, I send him a beautiful cigarette case, and we meet for drinks. I ask if he goes to concerts and he says not much because if they’re good, he’s jealous, and if not, he’s bored. He needs the break I give him, paying for a recital at Manhattan Hall. His reviews are great but he accuses me of adding a violin player to my collection.
That’s not it at all. I tell him I love him. I’m worried and drink more. His former girlfriend, much younger than I, is after him and his mother warns him about older married women. Then he leaves on a tour he wouldn’t have had without me but doesn’t call. I urge him to keep me in his life. It’s all so possible. My husband offers to divorce me. Why does Paul Boray say I’m a “hangman’s noose” to him? He surely doesn’t mean it. He says he loves me and wants to marry. I go to my beach house before a major concert. Paul calls and I tell him “it’s so quiet here, rest and quiet are doing me a world of good.” But I’m really quite nervous inhaling smoke and booze as I think about Paul. Now the music’s getting louder at his concert and in my head, and I need to walk on the beach. It’s dark and cool and the waves are rough yet alluring.
I was proud that despite my beauty the studios trusted me in challenging and often unflattering roles. Surely my age wasn’t a factor. In 1947 I was only forty-two when I appeared in Possessed as a disheveled and incontinent woman wandering streets far from home, asking for David. Doctors place me on my back in a hospital bed and stare into a strange and silent face. A flashback shows me yearning to marry David, Van Heflin’s character, who says he can’t love me the way I love him and that I know it and accuses me of choking and smothering him and insists we not see each other for awhile. I moan and cry and offer to do anything he says. All I can do is marry a man I don’t love, Raymond Massey, husband of the crippled woman I cared for until she committed suicide. Now her daughter, Carol, resents me. I try to tolerate this since Carol’s lonely father is David’s employer and my lifeline to him.
It destroys me when I learn my stepdaughter is having an affair with David. I can’t cope because I have schizophrenia. I believe I’d already pounded Carol’s wretched little face and knocked her dead down the stairs. I also think I’d taken her mother to water’s edge and failed to help when she rolled herself into the water. My husband assures me I’d been off that day and he’d taken her down there and left only briefly. I know I’m not hallucinating at the nightclub with my husband and David and his slutty girlfriend. I’m energized as I speak with evermore intensity and everything is wonderful and nightmarish.
Later I tell Carol that David doesn’t love her. He loves me. The hussy doesn’t believe me. I confront David and he says he’s going to marry Carol. I can’t permit that. I shoot him in the stomach and escape into psychosis. As I lie unconscious in a hospital bed, my loving husband vows to help me. For this performance I received my second Academy Award nomination.
In Hollywood men still loved me. My boyfriend was Greg Bautzer, an attorney several-years younger who dated many of Hollywood’s fairest but always wanted to come back to me. One night I locked him out and he was crazy, screaming let me in. No, I countered, go away. He punched the window and reached his hand through to force his way, and I told him you’re cut, and he grabbed me as I said stop, you’re bleeding, Greg, don’t, wait, Greg, god, this is the best sex I’ve ever had.
Nineteen fifty was not a stellar year. As menopause enveloped me I learned my dear eleven-year old daughter Christina had been screwed for the first time. I punished her in an entirely appropriate way that is my business. I had to decisively resolve family problems to be ready for The Damned Don’t Cry. I wasn’t threatened by the title. I was blessed not damned. My character isn’t as fortunate, having a blue collar husband who yells at our son to bring back that bicycle I’d bought him, against his father’s orders. The child at that moment is run over by a truck. Escaping, I work in a shop where I also model dresses and get extra money entertaining gentlemen. I meet a nice certified public accountant and urge him to be ambitious and he responds and is hired by a mob boss. The CPA proposes but I dump him to become the boss’ lady, the now much publicized heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes. The old man thinks he can use me, sending me to get information on a rival gangster, who I fall for. He’s killed and the old man is gunning for me.
It’s shameful how men try to take advantage of mature women. That’s what Jack Palance’s character does in 1952 in Sudden Fear. I’m a talented and wealthy playwright who rejects him for a role, despite his dramatic ability, because he isn’t romantic enough to be a leading man. Off stage he charms me into marriage and happiness I never expected. He doesn’t want me, though. He wants my money, and he and a reunited girlfriend are trying to kill me. I plot to stop them. Moviegoers were riveted, and I earned my third Oscar nomination.
I also exercised exceptional discipline at home. When my battalion of domestic helpers didn’t get things clean enough, I grabbed the mop and made things civilized. I had to be careful, even at Hollywood parties. One would expect hosts to properly clean their mansions but very often they didn’t, and I had to scrub with wet toilet paper before I dared sit down. I expected my four children to be clean and orderly as their mother. If they didn’t measure up, I swatted them. They needed discipline.
Christina’s frequent misbehavior at school aggrieved me and threatened to become public. Christopher was equally difficult. He ran away from home at age nine after I refused to let him put chocolate syrup on his ice cream. He was lucky to have ice cream, and I tanned his rear with a brush. When he and some other fourteen-year olds broke windows and injured a girl with air rifles, police brought him home and told me I should’ve spanked him harder. They were right. At age sixteen Christopher was arrested for car theft.
Even as a young woman Christina bedeviled me, frequently pressuring me to help her break into show business. I felt she should do it like I did, but I arranged a screen test. She got some work but was unpleasant on the set. You can be that way when you’re Joan Crawford but not Christina Crawford. She was jealous and threatening. That’s why I’d slapped her face when she kissed Alfred Steele, my fourth husband and the one who made me happiest. He was Pepsi-Cola’s president and spent 400,000 mid-50’s dollars to connect and remodel two opulent penthouses overlooking Central Park. I know Alfred and I would’ve lasted forever. I thought about him every day but wanted to stop seeing him heart-attack dead on the floor of our apartment in 1959.
You can’t forget that. I wanted to lose myself by working but there were no appropriate offers. I was alone and bored at night, too, since men weren’t asking me out nearly as often as they used to. I poured another drink and hoped there would be something for me soon. I needed money. Despite his position, Alfred had left me only $600,000, and after paying former wives and other debts everything was gone.
In 1962 at age fifty-seven I knew I no longer looked like a star but at least I looked like I used to be one. Director Robert Aldrich agreed, hiring me to play Blanche in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I didn’t argue with his decision to cast Bette Davis as my sister, Jane, even though I knew there would be difficulties. Bette had been angry and jealous since 1935 when she fell in love with Franchot Tone, who cold-shouldered her and married me. She knew who had glamour, and in an interview shortly before filming she fired a shot, calling herself an “actress” and me merely a “star.” She was so proud of her extensive stage training, which I lacked, and her “little gestures with the cigarette, the clipped speech, the big eyes, the deadpan… I was just as much an actress as she was, even though I wasn’t trained for the stage, but we were both competing in the same medium, so weren’t we both actresses? Film Stars? Former film stars, whatever? That kind of snobbery is beside the point. She had almost as many failed marriages and troubled children and financial problems as I had.”
I respected her as an actress and was too depressed to worry much that she was going to have all the best scenes. “I was the cripple, physically, and she was demented… and the mental always wins out on the screen.” Look at her face plastered white like a clown. Sure, she could ham it up and steal every scene, hoarding my fan mail, serving me my cooked pet bird and howling at her act, disconnecting the phone, locking me in my upstairs bedroom, telling me I was never going to sell our house and was never going to leave it, serving me a cooked rat from the cellar, forging my signature on checks, kicking me on the floor until I was unconscious, killing our maid (who liked me) with a hammer, always misbehaving to attract attention. As a result many people said look how Bette Davis trounced Joan Crawford. Nonsense. I played my part with dignity and restraint. Near the end of an otherwise fine script, I believably delivered the unlikely revelation that years ago Baby Jane, the former child star, hadn’t jealously run over her adult star sister, but that I’d paralyzed myself by trying to crush Jane and instead hitting a gate, and Jane hadn’t realized this because she’d been incontinent and run away.
I couldn’t let that ham win the Academy Award she was nominated for, and “secretly campaigned” against her, promising all the other nominees I’d be delighted to serve as proxy if they were unable to attend the ceremony. On that night I was enormously gratified to shoulder past Bette and say, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept.” Anne Bancroft certainly deserved it.
Understandably, I was determined not to work again with Miss Bette Davis and she was doubtless just as determined to avoid me. After we’d signed to make Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964, she harassed me in so many ways I had to be hospitalized because of stress and exhaustion, and Olivia DeHavilland took my place in purgatory. I suppose that’s where all older women are, especially in show business. My last four movies were Straight-Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk, and Trog. I was willing to forsake glamour – it had forsaken me – but unwilling to continue as the focus of an eternal horror show.
I did a little television work, appearing on The Lucy Show and having to answer if it was true, as loudmouth Lucy repeatedly asserted, that I was frequently drunk on the set and unable to remember my lines. I will respond simply by saying that Lucy was a bigger bitch than I. So was Christina, who was offering the media material and interviews about my private life. She couldn’t accept she alone was responsible for losing her job on the TV show The Secret Storm in 1969. It wasn’t my fault. When she’d been ill and hospitalized the year before, I generously offered to fill in and, at age sixty-three, play my twenty-eight-year old daughter’s part. So what if I’d been tipsy? That wasn’t why they let Christina go. She was a complainer. And Christopher was just as malignant. At an elegant Miami hotel I agreed to receive him and the illegitimate young daughter he’d fathered a few years earlier at age nineteen. He claimed I glanced at the child and said, “It doesn’t look like you. It’s probably a bastard,” and that he’d walked away forever. I remember making no such statement.
I knew I needed goals but couldn’t think of any. After years of serving on the board of directors of Pepsi-Cola, which Alfred Steele had led to record profits, I was forced out by an executive I’d always privately referred to as Fang. I continued to play backgammon, a passion for decades, with anyone who wanted to sit with a distinguished but cantankerous old woman, and died alone in 1977 from a heart attack aggravated by pancreatic cancer. All four of my children attended the funeral and afterward they were read my will. My delightful young twins, then age thirty, received $77,500 each, and several friends and employees got bequests from a few thousand to $35,000. For my two eldest children, I had simply dictated this: “It is my intention to make no provisions herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them.” My ashes were then interred next to those of beloved final husband.
Cowardly Christina wouldn’t have written Mommie Dearest while I breathed but within a year had torn my image apart and thrown it the wolves, portraying me as a child abuser and an alcoholic. I did have a drinking problem but, other than traditional slaps and spankings, never physically abused either Christina or Christopher. I’m sure the financial abuse of being disinherited was her true complaint. Most outrageous is her cry that I once beat her with a wire hanger. The falsity of that is best presented by the impartial website “The Joan Crawford Fan Club.” As the chairman of the club points out, in Perry Mason fashion, I “insisted on keeping expensive clothes on padded hangers so they wouldn’t ruin the cut of the garment. It is possible that wire hangers were present when garments returned from the dry cleaners but these would have been changed by the housekeeper for padded ones when she returned the garments to the walk-in-wardrobe Christina had. (Twins) Cindy and Cathy Crawford are adamant that Joan never used a wire hanger to beat any of the children.”
Rather than refute each of Christina’s serious allegations, I will briefly play a cross-examining defense attorney using information from my fan club’s website.
“You still claim that I beat you with a wire hanger?”
“I certainly do. The physical wounds have healed but the psychological pain never will.”
“Since this was supposedly such a traumatic episode, isn’t it bizarre that you would trivialize it by making public appearances with a bad actress waving a wire hanger while you sold autographs for five bucks apiece?”
“I needed the money. I had a stroke and my second husband left me.”
“That happened in 1981. Your assassination of me was published in 1978.”
“You know how difficult you were.”
“Difficult, yes. And you were a distressing child. But your portrayal of me as clinically cruel is dishonest.”
“It’s honest and helpful to millions of others who were abused in dysfunctional families.”
“Our family was sublime compared to the disaster I escaped from. My stepfather molested me. Right now, however, I’m more concerned with your inconsistencies. On Larry King’s show he asked what happened to the wire hangers, and you said, ‘Well, the basis of that is true.’ Something so devastating is either absolutely true or it isn’t. You also implied that I was involved in the death of Alfred Steele, spewing that he “somehow fell down the stairs.” I’ll edify you by noting our apartment had no stairs. Furthermore, doctors certified the cause of death as a heart attack.
“Whatever you really think I did, I must congratulate you on thoroughly successful revenge. You made a lot of money and ensured that forevermore most people will believe my most famous movie is Mommie Dearest.”