I've always had a fascination with the golden age of Hollywood, when movie stars were movie stars and, as Archie Bunker would tell you, “girls were girls and men were men”. March 22nd marks the (official) 110th birthday of one of my favorite movie stars from that era, the incomparable Joan Crawford.
Now I'm woman enough to admit that I might just have a slight girl crush on Joan--and to be completely honest--I find her life utterly fascinating. If you are only aware of Joan through the eyes of her daughter Christina's p̶i̶e̶c̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶s̶h̶i̶t̶ tell-all autobiography, Mommie Dearest, or the campy cult-classic movie of the same name, then you might be surprised to learn there is MUCH more to Joan Crawford than what you think you might know.
To celebrate the extraordinary life of Joan Crawford, I've compiled a list of 10 rather surprising facts you may not know about her.
10 Interesting Facts (you may not know) About Joan Crawford
1. The name game.
Joan was actually born Lucille Fay LeSueur in 1904...or was it ‘05...maybe ‘06? (She was always a little sketchy on her actual year of birth, although it's on record as 1908.) For a while, Joan went by the name Billie Cassin, using a childhood nickname and taking the last name of her stepfather (her mom and real dad were never married). When her stepfather split, she went back to the last name LeSueur and began her dancing (and acting career) under that surname. While under new contract with MGM, publicity head Pete Smith was certain he had a star on his hands but he hated her name--he thought it sounded too much like sewer. Smith arranged a contest called "Name the Star" in Movie Weekly magazine, which allowed its readers to choose Joan’s, er, Lucille’s, new stage name. The initial winning name was "Joan Arden" but another actress was found to have that name. The alternate surname "Crawford" was chosen, and the winner awarded $500 for her effort. Crawford hated the name because it sounded like "crawfish", but she did say she "liked the security" that came with the name.
Fun fact: Joan’s bestie, William Haines, told her it was better than “cranberry”...a nickname he wound up calling her throughout their 50-year friendship.
2. Joan was married 4 times--or was it 5?
Joan’s first (official) marriage was to the devilishly handsome actor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in 1929. Her second marriage was to actor Franchot Tone in 1935, whom some say was pined over by Bette Davis (WTF Joan, no girl code???) Her third marriage was to actor Phillip Terry, in 1942. Her last marriage, in 1955, was to then-CEO of Pepsi Cola, Al Steele. Poor Al died of a heart attack just four years into their marriage, and Joan continued on the board of directors for Pepsi-Cola until 1973, when she was “forcibly retired”.
But there is a rumored fifth marriage--and would be first marriage--for Joan. According to Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine, Crawford married saxophone player James Welton in 1925. Allegedly, the pair met in New York, where she was dancing in a Broadway production called “Innocent Eyes”, while he played in the orchestra. If true, the marriage was brief--Joan never discussed it (at least not publicly).
Not-so-fun fact: Christina has recently been alleging that Joan killed Al Steele, possibly by pushing him down the staircase. This broad just never gives up!
3. A family affair.
It is widely known that Joan had an adopted daughter named Christina (obvs), but did you know she actually adopted five--count ‘em, five--kids? Christina was the oldest and first to be adopted, born in 1939. A son, Christopher, came next in 1942. Unfortunately for Joan, Christopher’s biological mother had a change of heart and came back for Christopher several weeks later. Joan then adopted another boy in 1943 and named him Phillip, after then-husband, Phillip Terry. After her divorce from Terry, she renamed that child Christopher. Joan then adopted a set of fraternal twins, Cathy and Cindy, in 1947. Christopher and Cindy have since passed on, leaving Christina and Cathy as the only two children still living (but definitely not speaking). Although Cathy and Cindy were legally adopted, Christina and Christopher were “black market babies”.
Not-so-fun-fact: After the baby mama came back for little Christopher #1, she wound up selling him, again!
4. The kids are alright.
While Joan has a posthumous reputation as a wire hanger wielding, child abusing alcoholic compliments of the movie Mommie Dearest, even Christina, author of the book Mommie Dearest, states a lot of what’s depicted in the movie was inaccurate, including the infamous wire hanger scene. Twins Cathy and Cindy vehemently denied any abuse whatsoever, stating on record that Joan was firm, but not abusive. Casey LaLonde, Cathy's son, told Elizabeth Day in 2008 that his mother still remembers 'a very loving household. She [Joan] was a very affectionate, supportive, doting mother, a wonderful person. I have always been very careful not to call Christina a liar but clearly she had a completely different experience from my mother and my Aunt Cindy.'
In a 2008 Vanity Fair article, Joan is quoted as saying,“She [Christina] is her own person, and that person brought me a lot of pain. I said this about Christopher and now I say it about Christina. The problem was I adopted her, but she didn’t adopt me.”
Fun fact: Casey LaLonde didn’t call his grandmother Grandma, Nana, or no, not even “Grammie Dearest”. He simply called her “JoJo”.
5. Joan played for both teams?
While there was no question Joan was quite the maneater, allegedly having affairs with Clark Gable, Vincent Sherman and Spencer Tracy, rumors of alleged affairs with famous women also made the rounds. Dorothy Arzner, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo and even Marilyn Monroe have been named as sexual conquests of Joan’s. Monroe described her encounter with Joan in conversations taped by her psychiatrist (recordings which were obtained by the LA Times from a former prosecutor who helped investigate her death, clearly before HIPAA laws): "We went to Joan's bedroom...Crawford had a gigantic orgasm and shrieked like a maniac. Next time I saw Crawford she wanted another round. I told her straight I didn't much enjoy doing it with a woman." Me-ow!
In her book Mommie Dearest, Christina also discussed her mother's "lesbian proclivities". She writes about how Joan would get shitfaced drunk and want to sleep in the maid's bed...with the maid.
6. Joan adored her fans.
Joan truly enjoyed responding to her own fan mail, and she spent much of her spare time and weekends typing personal letters to fans, always being sure to include an autograph. She once said, "Oh, the thank you notes and the best wishes are no big deal. People deserve to be remembered on special occasions, and appreciate being remembered." It’s been estimated that from the start of her career in the 1920s until her death in Spring, 1977 Joan wrote damn near three million fan letters. In fact, because Joan did that so much throughout her lifetime, her signature today is only worth about twenty bucks.
7. Joan pays it forward.
When asked about her charitable contributions, Joan would feign ignorance and keet mum. But here are just a handful of examples in which we know Joan gave back:
Fun fact: $300,000 in 1942 had the same buying power as $4,672,877.42 in 2017.
8. With friends like Bette, who needs enemies?
Thanks to the widely popular and very successful Ryan Murphy miniseries, Feud: Bette and Joan, everyone is familiar with the frenemies that were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. But feud aside, Bette and Joan truly respected each other's work and had great admiration for each other as actors. Bette fashioned herself an actress and, well, Joan was the movie star. However...most of what you heard about on-set shenanigans during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is actually true; Bette really did kick Joan in the head during one scene and Joan, knowing Bette had a bad back, actually did fill her pockets with hand weights for the scene in which Bette drags Joan across the floor...ooo Joan, you crafty bitch!
Bette and Joan were to star together again in the movie Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte; however, Joan backed out only a few weeks into production, citing a vague illness and required hospitalization (the role was ultimately turned over to Olivia de Havilland). While the authenticity of Joan's illness was up for debate, it was clear Joan was sick of one thing--working with Bette. The two never worked together again.
9. Cleanliness is next to Joanliness.
Joan’s penchant for keeping tidy would no doubt be labeled as OCD today. She's been quoted as saying, "I used to wash my hands every ten minutes. I couldn’t step out of the house unless I had gloves on. I wouldn’t smoke a cigarette unless I opened the pack myself, and I would never use another cigarette out of that pack if someone else had touched it.". In an article with Motion Picture magazine, the author says of Joan, "although she's all that's lush and plush about Hollywood, she's not afraid of getting dishpan hands. She can, and has done, her own housework—sweeping, dusting, stacking firewood, cooking and mopping." According to the article, Joan claims she showers at least four times a day, unless she's got nothing to do—then it’s five.
In Conversations with Joan Crawford, interviewer Roy Newquist asked Joan about the plastic slipcovers on the furniture in her NYC apartment. Joan replied:
"Look, [plastic slipcovers] keep the upholstery clean, and I so seldom have guests these days, that I might as well be as orderly as possible. With all this crap in the air--nothing stays clean that isn't covered. We do not live in a hygienic age."
10. Joan died from a ̶h̶e̶a̶r̶t̶ ̶a̶t̶t̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶s̶u̶i̶c̶i̶d̶e̶ cancer.
In retirement, Joan became a Christian Scientist (and a recluse). When she learned she had stomach cancer, she quit smoking and cooled it with the drinking, but she kept the illness to herself. Her death certificate lists her cause of death as 'acute coronary occlusion,' (i.e., heart attack), with no reference at all to cancer. No autopsy was performed, but it was confirmed by her daughter Cindy that her cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
Shortly after Joan’s death several people came forward to suggest that she’d committed suicide, including a close friend and neighbor--as well as Cindy--asserting she OD’d on sleeping pills after learning about her terminal illness. Because Joan had given away some of her personal belongings, including her beloved dog (who she sent to live with friends), and the date of her death also occurred on what would have been her 22nd wedding anniversary to Al Steele, the idea didn't seem all that far-fetched.
Joan Crawford March 23, 1908 - May 10, 1977
In some ways Joan’s life and times were so complex and in another's, she's just like you and I. She had her strengths and her weaknesses, her good days and her bad, her lovers and her haters, but at the end of the day she was, is, and always will be Joan Crawford, the movie star. RIP, sweet Billie Cranberry.
Do you have a favorite celebrity that you can't get enough of? Tell me all about it in the comments.
I'd like to give a shout out to The Joan Crawford Exchange on Facebook as well as The Concluding Chapter of Crawford; the folks there are amazing and a wealth of knowledge on all things JC!