CRAWFORD, JOAN (Lucille Fay LeSueur) (1904–1977) Actress
One of the most successful products of the Hollywood star system, Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, on March 23, 1904. Her working-class family was rocked by the desertions of first her father and later her stepfather. Once a celebrity, she remembered her early years with bitterness. As Crawford told a reporter, “We can skip my childhood. I didn’t have any. Everything I have in life, Hollywood gave me.” After finishing high school, Lucille LeSueur left home to attend Stephens College in Missouri but dropped out after only a few months. She then worked as a telephone operator and a salesclerk before landing a job as a chorus girl. Performances in Detroit and Chicago led to a stint on Broadway
and a Hollywood screen test.
In 1925 LeSueur arrived in Los Angeles with a contract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Studio head Louis Mayer declared that the starlet’s surname sounded uncomfortably close to “sewer” and, as a publicity stunt, announced a nationwide contest to find her a new name. Soon, Lucille Fay LeSueur was appearing in bit parts as Joan Crawford. A diligent on-the-job student of the filmmaking process, she had her breakthrough role as a flapper in the silent feature Our Darling Daughters (1928).
The following year, Crawford eloped with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. the son of film great Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Although she was already a rising star, the elder Fairbanks and his wife, screen legend MARY PICKFORD, viewed her as an upstart. With characteristic determination, Crawford launched a campaign to win them over, presenting herself as a homebody and replacing her flapper costumes with chic, sophisticated fashions. Her inability to gain their acceptance helped bring on her divorce from Fairbanks in 1933. Crawford found more success in her career as, unlike many film personalities, she easily made the transition from silents to talkies. Although she sang and danced in some of her early movies, she became well-known for playing upwardly mobile young women in rags-to-riches stories such as Possessed (1931) and Mannequin (1937). Crawford also delivered standout performances in small parts in Grand Hotel (1932) and The Women (1939).
While at MGM, Crawford embraced the studio’s legendary star treatment like no other actress. She welcomed MGM’s efforts to transform her from a scrappy young woman to a glamorous screen goddess. Her new image came to dominate her personal as well as her professional life. Crawford once said that whenever she appeared in public, she was “ready and well-dressed as I possibly can be. When somebody says, ‘There’s Joan Crawford,’ I say, ‘It sure the hell is.’” To ensure her continued popularity, she was active in her fan clubs, readily signed autographs, and often answered fan mail herself.
Also a staple of fan and gossip magazines were stories of Crawford’s personal life. During the course of two more failed marriages (Franchot Tone, 1935–39; Philip Terry, 1942–46), she adopted four children and set about creating a domestic haven to stand as a testament to her success at home as well as on screen. However, according to her eldest daughter, Christine, in her savage tell-all biography Mommie Dearest (1978), her children’s home life was scarred by Crawford’s capricious physical and emotional abuse. By the early 1940s, Crawford was facing professional turmoil as well. After 18 years at MGM, the studio began to regard her as a has-been and made little effort to find films to suit her. Crawford asked to be released from her contract and subsequently signed on to work for Warner Brothers. There, her career was revived as she was cast as powerful, determined, and sometimes ruthless women in a string of successful melodramas and film noir features. Her best-known and arguably her greatest role was in Mildred Pierce (1945), in which she played a woman willing to make any sacrifice to give her daughter the finer things in life. For her performance, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was later nominated for Best Actress Oscars for Possessed (1947) and Sudden Fear (1952). In 1955 Crawford married for a fourth time to Alfred N. Steele, an executive of Pepsi-Cola.
She and Steele made their home in a Manhattan townhouse, which Crawford spared no expense in decorating. The couple’ s highly public, lavish lifestyle came to an end with Steele’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1959. For a time, Crawford took over his spot on Pepsi-Cola’s board of directors, making her the first woman to hold such a position within the company. Having spent much of former husband’s fortune, Crawford returned to Hollywood but had difculty finding roles. She was finally teamed with BETTE DAVIS in the unlikely success What Ever Happened to Baby Janefi (1962). A ghoulish thriller about a deadly rivalry between two elderly sisters, the film earned Davis an Oscar nomination, but Crawford, much to her chagrin, was overlooked—a situation that did nothing to soothe the widely reported animosity between the two stars. On Oscar night, when Davis lost to newcomer Anne Bancroft, Crawford could barely contain her delight as she bounded onstage to accept the award on the absent Bancroft’s behalf.
Although her acting ability was never as celebrated as those of her contemporaries such as Bette Davis and KATHARINE HEPBURN, Crawford enjoyed astounding longevity in a business that often seemed all too ready to cast her aside. She remained a star not because of her unquestionable talent but because of her sheer, unfiagging determination to stay on top. Crawford’s journey from working girl to glamour girl informed her best roles and earned her the affection of millions of fans who loved to cheer her on.
Crawford, Christina. Mommie Dearest. New York: William Morrow, 1978.
Crawford, Joan, with Jane Kesner Ardmore. A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.
Guiles, Fred Lawrence. Joan Crawford: The Last Word. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.
Walker, Alexander. Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Mildred Pierce (1945). Warner Home Video, VHS, 2000.
Possessed (1947). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1991.
Rain (1932). VCI Home Video, VHS, 2000.
What Ever Happened to Baby Janefi (1962). Warner Home Video, VHS, 2000.