Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur; (March 23, 1905 - May 10, 1977) was an Academy Award-winning American actress, named the tenth Greatest Female Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.
Starting as a dancer on Broadway, Crawford was signed to a motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1925 and initially played small parts. She became a famous flapper by the end of the '20s. Beginning in the 1930s, Crawford's fame rivaled fellow MGM colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. She often played hardworking young women who find romance and financial success. These "rags-to-riches" stories were well-received by Depression-era audiences and were popular with women. By the end of the decade, Crawford remained one of Hollywood's most prominent movie stars, and one of the highest paid women in the United States.
For her performance in Mildred Pierce Crawford won an Academy Award and in the following years, achieved some of her best reviews. In 1955, she became involved with PepsiCo, the company run by her last husband, Alfred Steele. After his death in 1959, Crawford was elected to fill his vacancy on the board of directors but was forcibly retired in 1973. She continued acting regularly into the 1960s, when her performances became fewer, and after the release of the horror film Trog in 1970, retired from the screen.
Crawford later said when she was a few months old her father abandoned the family. Her mother later married Henry J. Cassin. The family lived where Cassin ran a movie theater in Lawton, Oklahoma. The 1910 Comanche County, Oklahoma, Federal Census, enumerated on April 20, showed Henry and Anna living at 910 "D" Street in Lawton. Crawford was listed as five years old, thus showing 1905 as her likely year of birth. However, the state of Texas did not require the filing of birth certificates until 1908, allowing Crawford to later claim she was born in 1908.
Growing up, Crawford preferred the nickname "Billie," and she loved watching vaudeville acts perform on the stage of her stepfather's theater. Her ambition was to be a dancer. However, in an attempt to escape piano lessons to run and play with friends, she leapt from the front porch of her home and cut her foot deeply on a broken milk bottle. Crawford had three operations and was unable to attend elementary school for a year and a half. She eventually fully recovered and returned to dancing.
Around 1916, Crawford's family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Cassin was first listed in the City Directory in 1917, living at 403 East Ninth Street. While still in elementary school, Crawford was placed in St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic school in Kansas City. Later, after her mother and stepfather broke up, she stayed on at St. Agnes as a work student. She then went to Rockingham Academy as a work student. In 1922, Crawford registered at the posh Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and gave her year of birth as 1906. She attended Stephens for less than a year, however, as she recognized that she was not academically prepared for college.
Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford began dancing in the chorus line at the Winter Gardens on Broadway in New York City. She wanted additional work and approached Loews Theaters publicist Nils Granlund. Granlund secured LeSueur a position with producer Harry Richmond's act and arranged for her to do a screen test which he sent to producer Harry Rapf in Hollywood. Rapf notified Granlund on December 24, 1924 that a contract would be offered by MGM, and Granlund immediately wired LeSueur - who had returned to her mother's home in Kansas City - with the news and $400 for travel expenses. The night after Christmas she left Kansas City and arrived in Culver City, California.
As Lucille LeSueur, her first film was in the silent film Pretty Ladies in 1925, which starred ZaSu Pitts. Pretty Ladies was the only time she professionally used her birth name. (Crawford is also billed as LeSueur in a 30-minute MGM Studio Tour from 1925 which is shown on Turner Classic Movies.) Crawford is quoted saying it was Sam De Grasse who said her name LeSueur sounded too much like 'sewer.' A female contestant in a fan magazine named Movie Weekly entered the name Joan Crawford. Though Crawford reportedly said the name sounded like "crawfish" - and also requested that Joan be pronounced the same as "Joanne" - she eventually chose it as her stage name. Her friend, actor William Haines, quipped, "You're lucky. They could have called you Cranberry and served you up with a Turkey!"
Crawford first made an impression on audiences in Edmund Goulding's Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), in which she played Irene, a struggling chorus girl. In the same year, Crawford worked on Lady of the Night, starring Norma Shearer. As Crawford was made up and used as a double for Shearer, her face is briefly seen. Because of how well Shearer was treated compared to herself, Crawford resented Shearer. The following year, Crawford was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, along with Mary Astor, Mary Brian, Dolores Costello, Dolores Del Rio, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray. For the next two years, Crawford appeared in increasingly important movies. In 1926, she made Paris, where she was able to show her sex appeal. She became the romantic interest for some of MGM's leading male stars, among them Ramon Novarro, William Haines, John Gilbert and Tim McCoy.
Crawford's appeared in The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. who played a carnival knife thrower with no arms. Crawford played his skimpily clad young carnival assistant whom he hopes to marry. She stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work in this movie than from anything else in her long career.
In 1928, Crawford starred opposite Ramon Novarro, as Priscilla Crowninshield in Across to Singapore, but it was her role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that catapulted her to stardom. The role established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity that rivaled the image of Clara Bow, who was then Hollywood's foremost flapper. A stream of hits followed Our Dancing Daughters, including two more flapper-themed movies, in which Crawford embodied for her legion of fans (many of whom were women) an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl.
To rid herself of her Southwestern accent Crawford tirelessly studied diction and elocution. Her first talkie was Untamed (1929), opposite Robert Montgomery, which was a box office success. Crawford made an effective transition to sound movies. One critic wrote, "Miss Crawford sings appealingly and dances thrillingly as usual; her voice is alluring and her dramatic efforts in the difficult role she portrays are at all times convincing."
Crawford starred opposite of Clark Gable in Possessed (1931). They began an affair during the production, resulting in an ultimatum from studio chief Louis B. Mayer to Gable that the affair end. Gable complied, although for many years their affair resumed sporadically and secretly. Upon release, Possessed was an enormous hit.
The studio then cast her in Grand Hotel, which starred the most famous actors of the 1930s and was MGM's most prestigious movie of 1932. Crawford later achieved continued success with Letty Lynton (1932). Unfortunately, soon after its release, a plagiarism case forced MGM to withdraw it and it has never been shown on television or made available on VHS/DVD, and is therefore considered the "lost" Crawford film. The film is mostly remembered because of the "Letty Lynton dress," designed by Adrian: a white cotton organdy gown with large ruffled sleeves, puffed at the shoulder. It was with this gown that Crawford's broad shoulders began to be accentuated by costume. Macy's copied the dress in 1932, and it sold over 500,000 replicas nationwide.
Following Possessed, Crawford starred opposite of Gable in the rollicking smash hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which she received top billing. Crawford's next movies, Sadie McKee, Chained and Forsaking All Others (all 1934), were among the top money makers of the mid-1930s, and marked her peak as a popular star at the box office for MGM.
By the end of the decade Crawford's characters were defined as much by their glamorous clothing, accessories, and styled hair and make-up as by any character trait. However, eventually Crawford's movies began to lose money. She was labeled "box-office poison" along with Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Fred Astaire in 1938. Around the same time, however, Crawford was considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939).
However, Crawford made a small comeback with her role as bitchy home-wrecker Crystal Allen in director George Cukor's huge comedy success The Women in 1939. She also broke from formula by taking the unglamorous role of Julie in Strange Cargo (1940), her eighth and final film with Clark Gable. Crawford then starred as a facially disfigured blackmailer in A Woman's Face (1941). While the film was only a moderate box office success, her performance was hailed by many critics.
Eager to promote new actors Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and Hedy Lamarr, the MGM management began to view Crawford as a bad investment. After eighteen years Crawford's contract was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943. In lieu of one more movie owed under her contract, MGM bought out her contract for $100,000. The same day, the studio cleared out her bungalow.
Crawford wanted to play the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), but Bette Davis was the studio's first choice. However, Davis did not want to play the mother of a seventeen year old daughter (Ann Blyth), and she turned the role down. Director Michael Curtiz didn't want Crawford and told Jack Warner, "With her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads, she's a has-been." Following Barbara Stanwyck's success in Double Indemnity (1944), also based on a James M. Cain novel, Curtiz bent to Warner's demand. However, Curtiz demanded Crawford prove her suitability by taking a screen test. After the test, Curtiz agreed to Crawford's casting. Crawford starred opposite Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth and Butterfly McQueen. Mildred Pierce was a commercial success. It epitomized the lush visual style and the hard-boiled film noir sensibility that defined Warner Bros. movies of the late 1940s. Crawford earned the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Crawford said one of the main reasons she signed with Warner Bros. was because she wanted to play the character "Mattie" in a proposed 1944 film version of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome (1911). However, Davis wanted to play Mattie and reportedly told Jack Warner, "Joan's far too old, and besides, she can't act."
Time To Sing (1947) was a proposed film telling the story of two retired stage actresses who team up for a tour of summer stock theatres, similar to RKO's Stage Door (1937), starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. The project was intended to team Crawford with Davis; however, it was never made..
Caged (1950) was a prison drama based on the novel Women Without Men by Virginia Kellogg. The story surrounded a female prison warden who attempts to rehabilitate a prisoner before she becomes a hardened criminal. In 1973, Crawford said, "I knew of a women's prison picture; it was written by Virginia Kellogg and later became Caged  with Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead." This too was intended to pair Crawford with Davis, who made it clear that she would not be starring in any "dyke movie".
Crawford and Davis did not appear together in a motion picture until the 1962 film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?.
From 1945-1952, Crawford reigned as a top star and respected actress, appearing in such roles as Helen Wright in Humoresque (1946), Louise Howell Graham in Possessed (1947, for which she was nominated for a second Oscar as Best Actress) and the title role in Daisy Kenyon (also 1947).
Crawford's other movie roles of the era include Lane Bellamy in Flamingo Road (1949), a dual role in the film noir The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and her performance in the title role of Harriet Craig (1950) at Columbia Pictures. After filming This Woman Is Dangerous (1952), Crawford asked to be released from her Warner Bros. contract. As she had done so before, Crawford triumphed as Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear (1952) at RKO, which was also the movie that introduced her co-star, Jack Palance, to the screen and earned Crawford a third and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Crawford worked in the radio The Screen Guild Theater on January 8, 1939; Good News; Baby, broadcast March 2, 1940 on Arch Oboler's Lights Out; The Word on Everyman's Theater (1941); Chained on the Lux Radio Theater and Norman Corwin's Document A/777 (1948).
She appeared numerous times in episodes of anthology TV shows in the 1950s and, in 1959, made a pilot for her series, The Joan Crawford Show, but the show was never picked up by a network.
Crawford was the recipient of the sixth annual "Pally Award," which was in the shape of a bronze Pepsi bottle. It was awarded to the employee making the most significant contribution to company sales.
In 1973, Crawford retired from the company at the behest of company executive Don Kendall, whom Crawford had referred to for years as "Fang."
After her triumph in RKO's Sudden Fear (1952), Crawford continued her career, with films ranging from the cult western film Johnny Guitar (1954) to the drama Autumn Leaves (1956), opposite a young Cliff Robertson. By the early 1960s, however, Crawford's status in motion pictures had diminished.
Crawford's starred as "Blanche Hudson," a physically disabled woman and former A-list movie star in conflict with her psychotic sister in the highly successful thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). Despite the actresses' earlier tensions, Crawford suggested Bette Davis for the role of Jane. The movie became a blockbuster.
Crawford played Lucretia Terry in the United Artists movie The Caretakers (1963). For her performance in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Davis was nominated for an Academy Award that year. Crawford secretly contacted all the other Oscar nominees to tell them if they were unable to attend the ceremony, she would be happy to accept the Oscar on their behalf. Both Davis and Crawford were backstage when the absent Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner. That same year, Crawford starred as Lucy Harbin in William Castle's horror/mystery Strait-Jacket (1964).
Aldrich cast Crawford and Davis in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). However, Crawford entered a hospital and after a prolonged absence Aldrich was forced to replace her with Olivia de Havilland. There is a long shot in the beginning of the movie, when Miriam gets out of the taxi upon her arrival at the Hollis plantation, that actually shows the back of Joan Crawford's head and not de Havilland's. "When the taxi pulls up with cousin Miriam inside and stops at the foot of the steps, if you look closely before Miriam gets out you can just for a split moment see it is fact Joan Crawford in the back and not Olivia de Havilland. You can't see Crawford's face but you can tell it's her by the black dress and dark sunglasses that she is wearing. When de Haviland as Miriam is seen in the taxi before she arrives she is wearing a white hat and her clothing is light colored."
Upon her release from the hospital Crawford played the role of Amy Nelson in I Saw What You Did (1965), another William Castle vehicle. She starred as Monica Rivers in Herman Cohen's horror/thriller Berserk! (1968). After the film's release, Crawford guest-starred as herself on The Lucy Show. The episode, "Lucy and the Lost Star," caused much celebrity fodder as during filming title star Lucille Ball had a very public feud with Crawford. According to Ball, Crawford was often drunk on the set and could not memorize her lines. Ball was said to have requested several times to replace Crawford with Gloria Swanson, who was supposed to have originally filled the role, but bowed out at the last minute. When asked during an interview how she had liked working with Ball, Crawford's response was, "And they call me a bitch!"
In October 1968, Crawford's 29-year-old daughter, Christina (who was then acting in New York on the TV soap opera The Secret Storm), needed immediate medical attention due to a ruptured ovarian tumor. Until Christina was well enough to return, Crawford offered to play her role, which the producer readily agreed to. The implausibility of Crawford (then 63) playing a 28-year-old woman was coupled by her apparent state of intoxication on the live telecast. Christina was fired from the role the following year. In her memoir, Mommie Dearest, Christina claimed her mother's behavior contributed to her firing.
Crawford made four more TV appearances, as Stephanie White in an episode of The Virginian (1970), entitled "The Nightmare"; as a board member in an episode of The Name of the Game (1971), entitled "Los Angeles"; as Allison Hayes in the made-for-TV movie Beyond the Water's Edge (1972); and as Joan Fairchild (her final screen performance) on an episode of the television series, The Sixth Sense, entitled, "Dear Joan: We're Going To Scare You To Death" (1972).
In 1929, at the time she wed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at St. Malachy Church in New York, Crawford purchased a mansion at 426 North Bristol Avenue in Brentwood, located midway between Beverly Hills and the Pacific Ocean. The home would be her primary residence for the next 26 years. During that period, Crawford had her home decorated and redecorated by William Haines, her former silent movie co-star and lifelong friend, who was much in demand as an interior designer after receiving Crawford's recommendation.
Crawford had four husbands: actors Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (married June 3 1929 in New York-divorced 1933); Franchot Tone (married October 11 1935 in New Jersey-divorced 1939); Phillip Terry (married July 21 1942 at Hidden Valley Ranch in Ventura County, California-divorced 1946); and Pepsi-Cola president Alfred N. Steele (married May 10 1955 in Las Vegas, Nevada-his death 1959).
Crawford moved to a lavish penthouse apartment at 2 East 70th St. with her last husband and sold her Brentwood mansion. She stayed in New York, moving to a smaller apartment, number 22-G in the Imperial House. She later moved to a smaller apartment in the same building (Apt.# 22-H) where she died, aged 72. She kept a small apartment in Los Angeles for her frequent trips there. Crawford was well-known for her relationship with her fans, often sending thousands of handwritten replies to fan letters each month. She also worked tirelessly with her official fan club, which disappeared after her death. It was re-established in 2007.
In June 1947 she adopted twin infant girls Cynthia "Cindy" Crawford and Catherine "Cathy" Crawford, born on January 13 that year in Dyersburg, Tennessee to an unwed mother who died seven days after their birth. Cynthia died on October 14, 2007 in Fort Worth, Texas from complications following a liver transplant.
Crawford was raised Catholic by her stepfather, Henry Cassin, a Roman Catholic (although he and Crawford's mother ultimately divorced). Crawford insisted on marrying Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was not Catholic, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
By the late 1930s, Crawford attended The Church of Christ, Scientist. She would bring her adopted children to that church regularly, but not always weekly. Although Crawford practiced Christian Science, she sought medical care for herself and her children when necessary.
Christina Crawford attended the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy For Girls for her junior and senior years of high school, along with the daughters of non-Catholic actresses Virginia Field and Lana Turner. Christina Crawford stated in her memoir, Mommie Dearest, that the Catholic doctrines she was taught came as a shock following her experiences with Christian Science. Christina also stated in Mommie Dearest that Crawford considered herself a Catholic despite the fact that she had stopped practicing the faith nearly 50 years before her death.
In 1970, Crawford was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by John Wayne on the Golden Globes, which was telecast from the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She also spoke at her alma mater, Stephens College, from which she never graduated.
A Portrait of Joan, an autobiography written with Jane Kesner Ardmore, was published in 1962 by Doubleday. Crawford's next book, My Way of Life, was published in 1971 by Simon and Schuster. Those expecting a racy tell-all were disappointed, although Crawford's meticulous ways were revealed in her advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, and even food storage.
In September 1973, Crawford moved from apartment 22-G to the smaller apartment 22-H in the Imperial House. Her last public appearance was September 23 1974, at a party honoring her old friend Rosalind Russell at New York's Rainbow Room. Russell was battling breast cancer at the time and died two years later in 1976. On May 8 1977, Crawford gave away her beloved Shih Tzu "Princess Lotus Blossom," which signaled to her close friends that her death was near.
Crawford died two days later at her New York apartment from a heart attack, while also ill with pancreatic cancer. According to her daughter Christina, Crawford's alleged last words were "Damn it...Don't you dare ask God to help me," which were directed at her housekeeper, who had begun to pray out loud. However, other sources indicate that Crawford was found dead on the bedroom floor by her housemaid. A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, on May 10 1977. All four of her adopted children attended, as did her niece, Joan Crawford LeSueur (aka Joan Lowe), who was the daughter of her late brother, Hal LeSueur (died in 1963). In her will, which was signed October 28 1976, Crawford bequeathed to her two youngest children, Cindy and Cathy, $77,500 each from her $2,000,000 estate. However, she explicitly disinherited the two eldest, Christina and Christopher. In the last paragraph of the will, she wrote, "It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them."
A memorial service was held for Crawford at All Souls' Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue in New York on May 16, 1977, and was attended by, among others, her old Hollywood friend Myrna Loy. Another memorial service, organized by George Cukor, was held on June 24 in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California.
Crawford's hand and footprints are immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street. In 1999, Playboy listed Crawford as one of the "100 Sexiest Women of the 20th century," ranking her #84.
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