Joan Crawford

Remarkable. Beautiful. Interesting

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If you cover Old Hollywood, you need to cover Joan Crawford – one of the most remarkable actresses of the time, a truly beautiful woman and an interesting character. 


Joan Crawford’s beginnings

Joan Crawford was actually born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23 between 1904 and 1908. She had the nickname Billie as a kid, which was later only used by very close friends of her. Her biological dad left the family when she was only 10 months old and Crawford’s mother managed to get by with her three kids on a sales’s assistant wage. She apparently was physically abused and emotionally neglected by her mother. The family was very poor. In 1909, her mother remarried Henry Cassin, who Crawford believed to be her father for the longest time. As an 11 year old, Joan Crawford was sexually abused by him for a period of time. When asked about it, she would later cover over it and say that she led him into it and that he was a gentle and nice man. This is one of the heartbreaking aspects of her life that makes some of her actions more understandable in later life. Her childhood life was full of poverty, hurt, neglect and punishment and then there was this one man granting her attention and affection. This is truly heartbreaking. Henry Cassin was managing the Ramsay Opera House in Lawton, Oklahoma and this is where Joan Crawford learned about theatre, ballet and Vaudeville and loved to watch the acts. This is also when her ambition to become a dancer was born and, as a kid, she took dancing lessons. 

When her stepfather was accused of embezzlement, the family moved to Kansas City and Crawford was placed at St. Agnes Academy. She remained there as a working student after her parents separated – and actually worked more than anything else. She changed to Rockingham Academy later on, also as a working student. She actually did enroll at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, but dropped out soon after, realizing that she is not prepared for college. She actually never surpassed primary level of schooling. 

So, instead she started dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was spotted by none other than Jacob J Shubert. Shubert was the head of the Shubert family that operated the largest theatre empire of the 20th Century including Broadway’s Winter Garden. That was her start on Broadway. As she was eager to earn more money, she approached among others the publicist of Loews Theatre, Nil Granlund, who arranged a screen test for her. Interesting fact: Nil Granlund can be credited to invent the art of trailers as a promotional tool for upcoming movies. Based on the screening material, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) offered Crawford a contract for 75$ a week, which is nowadays roughly $1334/week. 

When it comes to the allure of Crawford, film historian Molly Haskell is quoted: „She grew up in and was formed by the Depression, and that experience permeated the films she made and explains the intensity of her appeal to millions who were living through hard times.“ 

Joan Crawford and her start in Hollywood

Crawford had her first role in the movie „Lady of the Night“ as the body double for Norma Shearer and some other minor roles. She was credited as Lucille LeSueur in these early movies. Her potential was realized by the publicity head of MGM, Pete Smith, but the name LeSueur reminded him of „sewer“ and he wanted her name changed. It was made into a big PR campaign when Smith placed a contest called „Name the Star“ in Movie Weekly to allow readers to pick a name for MGM’s new star. Actually, it was Joan Arden that was picked, but there actually was already an actress with that name, so it was Joan Crawford. Crawford actually detested the name, but kept it. 

Frederica Sagor Mass, a screenwriter at MGM said the following about Crawford: “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.“ Which is just so revealing about the character and the qualities that Crawford possessed. She wanted to be seen, she wanted to be an actress, and probably she wanted to be a star. So, as she was a trained and very good dancer, she started to attend all the afternoon and evening dances at the hotels in and around Hollywood. She performed the Charleston and the Black Bottom Stamp and even won contests. She became visible to everyone. And this strategy worked. MGM cast her in bigger roles and she was named one of 1926’s WAMPAS Baby Stars. Within a few short years she became the leading lady in many MGM romantic movies. 

It was the 1928 movie „Our Dancing Daughters“ that finally catapulted Crawford to stardom. Crawford’s character Diana Medford is the ultimate flapper and it established Crawford as a new icon of the 1920’s style, fashion and femininity – rivaling Clara Bow’s IT girl status. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about Crawford: Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

Hollywood Success and Box Office Poison

If there is one thing for sure, it’s that Joan Crawford worked hard for her success. When the talkies, so the movies with sound, became all the range, Crawford practiced diction and elocution to get rid of her SouthWestern and took singing lessons with Estelle Liebling, one of the more famous singing teachers in Hollywood back in the 1930s and 1940s. Her transition to sound was a successful one and MGM started to cast her less as a flapper and more in sophisticated roles. Crawford actually became one of MGM’s leading ladies next to Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow.

She did Grand Hotel with an all-star cast including Lionel and John Barrymore and Greta Garbo. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year 1932 and received the Academy Award for Best Picture. Crawford had a streak of successful movies until 1937 and was even proclaimed „Queen of the Movies“ by Life magazine that year. But, after that, her career took a slump, her movies were not as big hits as they used to be and MGM also lost money on some of them. In 1938, Crawford was one of the actresses called out in the Box Office Poison ad by Harry Brandt. 

One year, in 1939, later she starred as Crystal Allen in „The Women“ and took risks with some more demanding roles that were cast against her usual type of a woman from humble beginnings that has dreams, works hard and gets the man. But, in 1943, her contract with MGM was terminated and Crawford bought out of the contract for roughly 2 million Dollars when adjusted to inflation since then. 

Afterwards, Crawford signed a 10 million dollar-three movie deal with Warner Bros. Her first leading role was in “Mildred Pierce“ in 1945 and with the help of Louella Parsons, Crawford did win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Famously, she accepted the Oscar in bed – apparently bedridden by Influenza – later she admitted that she feared that Ingrid Bergman would win and thus decided to simply not go. This movie put her back on the list of successful leading ladies and she had a string of successful movies during her time at Warner Bros. She worked for RKO and returned to MGM in 1953. She starred in several movies that received good critical feedback but weren’t overly successful.

Until 1962, when „Whatever happened to Baby Jane?“ was released with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis the two starring roles. This movie was an immense success – critically and financially. Davis was even nominated for an Academy Award, while Crawford wasn’t. She was replaced in the sequel by Olivia de Havilland.  She had some minor movies, was the first professional actor that Stephen Spielberg directed in 1969’s Night Galley, and stepped in to replace her daughter in the Secret Storm (although the role was a 28 year old and Crawford was already over 60 years old). She also appeared in TV shows during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Joan Crawford’s Love and Family Life

When it comes to her love and family life, Joan Crawford is no less interesting than when it comes to her screen career. I already stated that she was sexually abused as a kid by her stepfather and this certainly informed some of her love and family life. 

She was married four or five times and had numerous affairs. Four or five times, because, allegedly, Crawford got married to a Saxophone player in 1924, but this marriage was never mentioned by Crawford nor is there any information about an annulment. So, I just do not count it. The other four are the following

Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone, Phillip Terry and Alfred Steele. All of these marriages lasted only for four years each

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

They married in 1929, when Crawford was 22 – 24 years old. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was Old Hollywood Royalty – his father Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was one of the most successful Old Hollywood actors and Mary Pickford was his stepmother. The two founded United Artists. Both opposed the marriage and while Fairbanks Sr. warmed towards Crawford, Pickford never did and hardly ever spoke to her. 

Franchot Tone

Joan Crawford’s marriage to Franchot Tone is a tricky one. Bette Davis accuses Crawford to have seduced and married the New York stage actor just to spite Bette Davis. Nevertheless, they tried for kids but miscarried. Apparently the marriage got abusive and Crawford filed for divorce. 

After her divorce, Crawford adopted a child, a girl and named her Joan.

Phillip Terry

When Crawford married actor Phillip Terry two years later, she changed Joan’s name to Christina and adopted another child a son, which was sadly reclaimed by his mother. Another boy was adopted, initially called Phillip Terry jr and later renamed to Christopher. I don’t actually know much about this marriage apart from that it ended. 

After the marriage, Crawford adopted a pair of twins called Cindy and Cathy through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which actually was a child-trafficking unit. But the adoption was legal and the kids were given to the home when the mother was dying.

Alfred Steele

In 1955, Crawford married Alfred Steele, who was the president of Pepsi-Cola. He made Crawford travel and promote extensively for the company. Steele died of a heart attack after four years of marriage. And Crawford was elected to the board of directors, representing the company. She received the Pally Award in 1963 which are given to the employees with the biggest contribution to the company and was retired upon reaching the age of 65. 

Actually, her daughter Christina penned a memoir called „Mommy Dearest“ that was published in 1978. It’s basically the first tell-all book of Hollywood and painted Crawford in a bad light as a physically and emotionally abusive mother and also containing allegations that Crawford might have murdered Steele. 

Mommy Dearest

Mommy Dearest is very controversial – some back up Christina, others denounce the allegations and side with Crawford. The truth? I don’t know. Two of her kids, Christina and Christopher, back the accusations and were written out of Crawford’s will, while her other two kids, Cindy and Cathy claim that there is no truth whatsoever and that Christina has made up her own bubbly, her own story, which is now true at all. These two were gifted in the will with some money, but the lion share of her estate went to the huge number of charities that she supported, like the USO of New York, the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She actually was very supportive of those less fortunate and even paid hospital stays for those out of luck and never mentioned it once anywhere. She did good and did not talk about it. And that is a woman who was professionally a star. 

Joan Crawford's affairs

Apart from her husbands, Joan Crawford had numerous affairs, the longest and most intense with the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable. Crawford was paired eight times with him on the screen. They started an affair in the early 1930s, which MGM wanted to break up, but actually did not succeed with. Their affair spanned almost 30 years. She never considered him marriage material until he wed Carole Lombard who was the love of his life. When Lombard died in 1942, Joan came to Gable’s emotional rescue and he spent many a night at her home, drinking and talking. 

Other affairs included a  short fling with Spencer Tracy, Jeff Chandler and John Ireland.

Outrageous was her affair with Jackie Cooper – he was merely 17 years old, she was 34. And apparently, she seduced him. 

Kirk Douglas was another one of her men – and he actually said about their encounter that it was all very clinical, very not emotional, very weird. And Vincent Sherman, who directed her in a movie in 1950 told that she invited him to a screening of her earlier work in her home and then just took off all her clothes and seduced him. 

There are many accounts that Crawford used her body and seduction as a means to get better shots and screen time in movies and manipulate directors, co-star and producers to her favor. As Sherman puts it, in her mind s$x and her body was a way to control the movie or the movies and her career. 

“She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie,” Bette Davis once said. 

Joan Crawford and Her Nemeses

Norma Shearer

The first nemesis that Crawford had picked out from all the actresses was Norma Shearer. She was married to Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM and got first picks at all the good roles. One quip that is known about Crawford is: „”How can I compete with Norma? She sleeps with the boss!“ Playing Christel Allen opposite Shearer in „The Women“ (1938) was a real delight for Crawford. 

But apart from this, there was no actual battle, feud. 

Bette Davis

Quite the opposite when it comes to Bette Davis. This feud lasted well over 30 years. 

When and how did it start? 

It all began in 1933, when Crawford had been in Hollywood already for a couple of years as an actress and was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr, thus being Hollywood royalty. Bette Davis had managed for the first time to be billed at first position – BUT at the very same time, Crawford announced that she was to divorce Fairbanks. All movie and gossip papers covered this scandal – no one gave Davis a second thought and the movie flopped.

Apparently, Davis had been jealous of Crawford’s affair with Gable, who Davis had a crush on. 

But, the battle really took off, when Davis was paired with Franchot Tone for the movie dangerous. Davis fell for him, but Crawford seduced and finally married him. Some say just to spite Davis. Davis never really forgave for this. In a 1987 interview Davis said: “She took him from me. She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness.“

In the 1940s, they were both engaged by Warner Bros. and Crawford apparently wanted to get the feud behind them. She requested the dressing room next to Davis and started sending her flowers and gifts, each of which refused by Davis.

Warner actually wanted these two high-profile actresses for a movie. Caged about women in prison which Bette declines calling it a „dyke“ movie – which also led to the assumption that Crawford might have some erotic interest in Bette Davis. She is quotes saying to friend Jerry Asher: “Franchot isn’t interested in Bette, but I wouldn’t mind giving her a poke if I was in the right mood.“ But, this is also to take with a grain of salt. You will find many online articles about Crawford being a bisexual, but there actually no proves – the first time this was mentioned was in Mommy Dearest with a line added by the publisher – not by Christina Crawford herself and with unchecked sources. All biographies following 1978 just build their case on that very book and that very line that is not even by Christina herself. There are other sources claimed which are more than weak and as she so frequently used her body to seduce the men in her life and did so publicly, one has to doubt the sincerity of the claim that Crawford was a bisexual. 

In 1952, a long-time friend of Joan Crawford, Katherine Albert, wrote a drama after falling out with the actress. The play is actually about Crawford with little intention of hiding it painting a rather unflattering picture of her. It didn’t take much to convince Davis to play her nemesis. 

And then, in 1962, the fight was on, when „Whatever happened to Baby Jane?“ was filmed. The two were in need of a new success, both stars slowly fading. And it actually was Crawford that convinced Bette Davis to sign on. The set of that movie was also the main stage for their feud. Davis, for example, got a Coca Cola dispenser installed in her dressing room to spite Crawford, who was on the board of directors of Pepsi during this time. At another time, Jane aka Davis has to hit Blanche aka Crawford really hard in the head. Crawford didn’t trust Davis and required a body double, but a close up scene demanded the real Crawford to film the scene. Davis apparently struck her so hard that she needed stitches. Crawford on the other hand retaliated by making herself really heavy when the character of Davis needed to drag her through a room. Some claim she wore a weightlifters belt or stone to make herself even heavier and sabotaging the scene to have it filmed multiple times. David, who suffered from backache was screaming by the end of the filming. 

Eventually, filming was wrapped, it was a huge success – and Davis got an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Crawford didn’t. BUT … she took the stage nevertheless. Because – Crawford had phoned all the other nominees asking whether she could collect the award if they were not able to attend. Incidentally, Anne Bancroft actually won, but couldn’t accept – so Joan Crawford marched on stage and get the golden statue, right in front of Bette and posed in all the photographs. 

Upon the death of Crawford Davis is quoted saying “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.“ But, there is actually no source attached to it and it is questionable whether this is truly from Bette Davis or if the feud has taken someone’s imagination too far. 

But, to be fair, Bette Davis jumped on to Crawford’s defense, when Christina Crawford published Mommy Dearest saying: „I was not Miss Crawford’s biggest fan,” Davis acknowledged, “but, wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do respect her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written by her daughter…“ 

Incidentally, Bette Davis daughter penned a similar book a mere seven years later, in 1985, in which Davis is described as a selfish and abusive alcoholic. 

Joan Crawford and Fashion

When it comes to fashion, you cannot overlook Joan Crawford’s influence on 1930s silhouettes and fashions. She collaborated closely with costume designer Gilbert Adrian at MGM, who emphasized her trademark shoulders instead of concealing them. 

Her white ruffled dress in Letty Lynton, which had to be taken out of cinemas by MGM because of plagiarism shortly after its release was copied widely, about 50.000 knock-offs were sold. Also the slim silhouette of the 1930s with broad shoulders and a rather thin pelvis became the beauty standard of the era. She set the trend for padded shoulders. 

She was very much invested in her costumes and collaborated with  Adrian on her style, because, as film historian Molly Haskell points out:“(Crawford) came of age when being a star—developing a star persona, connecting with audiences—was a full-time business.” She was never not perfect to the public.

Crawford was also a shoe fanatic. Her collection boasted more than 500 pairs, which were captured in publicity shots and she was brand ambassador for at least two shoe brands – Arch Preserver in 1928 and A.S. Beck in 1934.

With all my love!




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Joan Crawford Giclee Print
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