Books April 2008

‘I Am Joan Crawford’

Through sheer force of will, Hollywood’s most infamous single mother constructed a persona seductive, repellent, and almost impossible not to watch.

Crawford craved appreciation of her talents, but she was less an actress than a kind of performance artist, an obsessive 24/7 movie star who took the job to an ethereal extreme where narcissism shades into something like humility. She was famous for answering every piece of fan mail, sometimes in one of the special “dresses I wear for doing my correspondence.” She would identify herself to telephone operators (“Hello, dear. This is Joan Crawford. What is the number for the Hollywood Roosevelt?”) and had to explain to Franchot Tone, her second husband, that fans and photographers were always present wherever the couple went because she tipped them off herself. Late in life, living at the Imperial House in Manhattan, she dressed up “even to throw out the garbage,” because she thought she owed it to the doorman to look like Joan Crawford. When at the end she began to photograph badly, she stopped going out.

Her long feud with Bette Davis, cherished by drag performers, was certainly camp (“Bette is a survivor,” said Crawford. “She survived herself”), but it was rooted in something more fundamental than their rumored competition for Tone back in the mid-1930s. The far less glamorous Davis, despite her own egomania and madness for recognition, found stardom essentially ridiculous. She preferred bouquets from critics to ones tossed by fans, and thought the whole offscreen Crawford persona humorless and phony. Crawford was sufficiently shrewd about box office to approach Davis with the idea of their doing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—but only if she herself could play Blanche, the lovely forbearing invalid. Davis, happy to let go of vanity and take the more monstrous and much meatier part, wound up mocking her co-star in interviews: “I would never have accepted anything but Baby Jane … Miss Crawford was more concerned with the positioning of her falsies.”

Crawford’s relations with men were avidly physical but for the most part non-tempestuous, love being a small thing compared to career and image. Her move in 1943 from MGM to Warner Brothers was far more personally mo-mentous than any transition from one husband to another. The union with Fairbanks would collapse politely once her self-improvement efforts really took off (“He married a chorus girl, and I think that’s what he liked”). Their delayed European honeymoon had been paid for by MGM, but she couldn’t relax away from the studio. Back home, Crawford saw in Betty Barker, a teenage girl badly smitten with Fairbanks, not a threat but the prospect of hired help; she set Barker to work addressing envelopes. Her second divorce was as friendly as the first, and decades after it, when Franchot Tone was in a wheelchair and living nearby in New York, Crawford would help with his bills and sometimes cook him dinner.

During their marriage, Crawford had experienced a number of miscarriages, and when it was over, she felt a stronger desire for children than for husbands. So she had a lawyer make the arrangements that would eventually establish her as the most infamous single mother in history. There was a certain Neverland Ranch quality to the elaborate birthday parties she threw for little Christina and Christopher, whose good fortune was displayed to Crawford’s public in magazines and on the radio, but it’s impossible to know how hard and how often, if ever, the star’s wire hanger rained blows upon the children once the guests had gone home. Crawford didn’t live to see the publication—and, worse, the filming— of Mommie Dearest, but she has had numerous defenders in the years since, and her new biographer is firmly in the pro-Joan, anti-Christina camp. Chandler offers testimony from friends and family that the daughter had always been impossible, and her brother even worse. Myrna Loy, speaking of Christina, once told Lawrence J. Quirk: “Believe me, there were many times I wanted to smack her myself.”

Chandler’s idea of retributive justice is to overaccentuate anything positive about her subject. She creates a fanzine Saint Joan (“She felt it was selfish to have household help during World War II, when there was a labor shortage”), but that’s the least of this book’s flaws. Quotations are flung upon the page with no hint of a source or date, and long, inane plot summaries of Crawford’s films pad the text more outrageously than Adrian ever filled out the star’s shoulders. Almost everything else is underdeveloped, devoid of context, and badly located, as if the biographer were some incompetent prop mistress, misplacing all the glamorous clutter from the life of her subject, who, it’s fair to say, would have hated this book for its sloppiness.

In The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Crawford’s fierce character sets straight a timid accountant in the backseat of a cab: “Don’t talk to me about self-respect,” she orders. “That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.” In fact, Crawford had plenty of it herself, but that was no reason not to go after all the other things available. She got most of what she wanted and attained a kind of cheesy greatness through unrelenting effort and a whole lot of worry. She supposedly overcame the latter when, late in life, she embraced Christian Science. If she were arriving in Hollywood today, she’d probably be checking out Scientology’s Celebrity Centre as soon as she got off the plane, shedding all the negative energy and Suppressive Persons in the manner of TomKat and Travolta.

Movie-magazine readers chose her screen name in a 1925 contest; thus was she market-researched into existence. She disliked “Joan Crawford” at first, but as she grew herself into it changed her mind: “My fans write to ‘Dear Miss Crawford’ or ‘Dear Joan.’ These are wonderful words … I am Joan Crawford.” Rarely was she more affecting than in the Baby Jane scene requiring wheelchair-bound Blanche, a faded film star, to watch one of her old movies on television. The picture chosen for Crawford to look at was Sadie McKee, which she’d filmed in 1934; her rapt appreciation, 30 years later, made for the easiest take of the day.

Presented by

Thomas Mallon’s most recent novel, Fellow Travelers, will be published in paperback by Vintage in May.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In