Joan Crawford (1906-1977) was one of the most active and glamorous stars in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. Her entire filmography spans a 45-year period from 1925 to 1970 and includes over 70 films, from silent pictures to talkies. Best known for her portrayals of ruthless women, Crawford counted Hollywood's most memorable actors among her co-stars.
Joan Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur, on March 23, 1906 in San Antonio, Texas. Her parents, Thomas and Anna Bell Johnson LeSueur, had three children. The eldest of the three died in infancy. Their father, a laborer, deserted the family when Crawford was very young. She was raised along with her older brother, Hal LeSueur, in Lawton, Oklahoma and Kansas City. Her biological father appeared once, in 1934, when Crawford was 28. She spent a few days with him while making a film. Father and daughter were both intensely emotional over the reunion, but never saw each other again after that time.
After Thomas LeSueur left the family, Anna LeSueur moved with her two children to Lawton, Oklahoma where she married Henry Cassin. Cassin was the owner of a local opera house and an open-air theater. He gave his name to his new daughter, and from her earliest memories Crawford was known as Billie Cassin. As a young child, living as Henry Cassin's daughter, Crawford attended a tiny country school in rural Lawton. She was enamored by life at her stepfather's theater, and yearned to become a dancer and an entertainer. Her aspiration was seriously threatened at age six, when she jumped from a porch, onto a jagged piece of glass and seriously injured her foot. That same year, Crawford learned of her true identity when Henry Cassin, rumored to have connections with the underworld, was taken to trial for embezzlement. Cassin was not convicted, but he moved the family to Kansas City, to start a new life. Crawford attended Scarritt Elementary School, until her parents sent her to St. Agnes Convent School because they were unable to care for her. Henry Cassin became frustrated with the challenges of starting a new life and left the family when Crawford was ten. Rather than return to the public school, Crawford worked at the convent school in order to pay her own tuition and board.
After elementary school, her mother sent her to Rock-ingham Academy where she continued to support herself by working at the school. Crawford was dismayed to learn, first at St. Agnes and later at Rockingham, that she was not treated as an equal by the other girls at the school, because she worked for her own upkeep. She became depressed and tried to run away, but eventually returned to the school. After completing high school, she attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, at the urging of Harvey Walter, her early grade school principal and secretary at Stephen's College. Crawford lasted only a few months at Stephen's College, before her desire to join the theater pulled her away. She joined a traveling dance troupe under her given name of Lucille LeSueur, but returned to Kansas City when the troupe disbanded. She worked as an operator for Bell Telephone Company, and then for various clothiers, before she succumbed once again to the lure of the chorus line. Crawford returned to Kansas City one final time before she embarked on her show business career once and for all.
Crawford left for Chicago where she met the renowned producer J. J. Shubert. He sent her to work in Detroit where she was discovered by talent agents. She took a screen test and signed a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in Hollywood. Within the year, Lucille Le Sueur became Joan Crawford. She played minor roles in movies with Jackie Coogan, Lon Chaney, ZaSu Pitts, and others. In 1928, she starred as a flapper in Our Dancing Daughters, the vehicle that brought the name of Joan Crawford to prominence. She emerged from the silent film era in 1929 when she starred in Untamed, her first "talkie" with co-star Robert Montgomery.
On June 3, 1929, Crawford eloped to New York with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., son of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and stepson to Mary Pickford. Despite a concerted effort by Crawford, she never earned the acceptance of her in-laws. The rejection devastated Crawford and contributed in part to her divorce from Fairbanks Jr. Before and after the divorce, Crawford was enveloped by her stardom. Between 1930 and 1935 she made 17 movies, including Grand Hotel in 1932, in which she starred with Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, and John and Lionel Barrymore. From 1930 to 1940 Crawford starred in eight pictures with Clark Gable including Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners, and Possessed. Her relationship with Gable eventually overflowed beyond the movie set and erupted into a love affair that climaxed just prior to her divorce from Fairbanks in 1933.
After her breakup with Gable, Crawford embarked on what was perhaps her most brazen and scandalous love tryst. An affair with Franchot Tone, led to their marriage on October 11, 1935 in New Jersey. Initially, Crawford's involvement with Tone was fueled by a love triangle with screen legend, Bette Davis. Both Crawford and Davis each fancied herself as the sole object of Tone's affections, yet it was Crawford who emerged victorious and married Franchot Tone. The marriage lasted four years. During that time Crawford suffered two miscarriages and repeated beatings by her husband. The couple divorced in 1939, after Crawford discovered Tone in his dressing room with a young starlet, under compromising circumstances. After her divorce from Franchot Tone, Crawford adopted a ten-dayold infant and named the girl Christina Crawford.
In 1940, Crawford starred with Clark Gable in Strange Cargo, and with Fredric March in Susan and God. In 1942, she made Reunion in France with John Wayne.
On July 21, 1942 Crawford married her third husband, Phil Terry. The couple adopted a boy whom they named Phillip Jr., but who was ultimately called Christopher. Their lives were impacted by World War II, and Terry, a would-be movie star, worked in a war plant. Crawford herself worked at a service canteen, where she served food to enlisted military personnel and assisted them in writing letters home. She also worked with the American Women's Voluntary Services, in providing day care to women who worked in the war effort.
In 1943, after 18 years with MGM studios, Crawford signed a contract with Warner Brothers. Two years later the war subsided and Crawford's career soared. In 1945, she completed her Oscar-winning performance in the film Mildred Pierce. At Christmastime that year, she received the Golden Apple from the Hollywood Women's Press Club. The following year, in the midst of mounting success in her career, she obtained her third divorce. Crawford testified during the divorce proceedings that Phil Terry was over-bearing and inhibited her status as a movie star.
It was Mildred Pierce, co-starring Ann Blyth and Eve Arden, that brought Joan Crawford the recognition as a great talent. She won an Academy Award as best actress for her role in the movie. Due to a fear of live audiences Crawford developed a psychosomatically induced fever of 104 degrees and was bedridden on the day of the awards ceremony.
Crawford went on to make Humoresque with John Garfield and Oscar Levant in 1946, and Possessedin 1947. In 1949, she starred with Zachary Scott in Robert and Sally Wilder's Flamingo Road. Her career extended into the 1950s, with twelve new movies, including Johnny Guitar in 1954 and Autumn Leaves in 1956. She made five more movies during the 1960s, including the classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 with Bette Davis, and Strait-Jacket in 1964, with Diane Baker and Leif Erickson. Crawford's last film, in 1970, was Warner Brother's Trog with Michael Gough and Joe Cornelius.
A Family and a New Husband
In 1947, after her divorce from Phil Terry, Joan Crawford adopted two baby girls, born one month apart. She called them her twins, although they were not related in any way. Crawford remained single until May 10, 1955, when she eloped with Pepsi-Cola executive, Alfred Steele. The couple lived an extremely lavish lifestyle in New York, where they spent an estimated $400,000, mostly in borrowed money, to renovate a townhouse. When Steele died unexpectedly of a heart attack on April 19, 1959, Crawford was left to pay the bills and to raise her four children. After Steele's death, Crawford inherited his spot on the Pepsi-Cola board of directors. She remained in that capacity, as the first woman ever to serve on that board, and went on to sign a publicity contract as a spokesperson for Pepsi-Cola.
In addition to her film career, Crawford made 13 television appearances during the last 25 years of her life. These included three appearances on GE Theater and one on Zane Grey Theater between 1954 and 1959. In 1961, she made a second appearance on Zane Grey Theater, and in 1968 she starred with comedienne Lucille Ball on the Lucy Show. In October 1969, Crawford substituted in four episodes of Secret Storm, in place of her eldest daughter, who was a regular member of that cast but who was ill.
With the help of Jane Kesner Ardmore, Crawford penned an autobiography in 1962, A Portrait of Joan. In 1971 she wrote a memoir called My Way of Life. Although conflicting reports surfaced over the years, Crawford professed devotion to her children repeatedly during her lifetime. She used her prominence and popularity to politicize in behalf of adoptive parents. She died of a heart attack at her home in New York on May 18, 1977. Sixteen years later, in 1993, her Oscar trophy sold at auction for $68,500.
Further Reading on Joan Crawford
Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford, a Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Atlantic, September 1991, p. 75.
Ladies Home Journal, April 1984, p. 60(7); October 1989, p. 142(5).