Inside the Crawford Biography Possessed

Joan Crawford: PossessedJoan Crawford was a bitch.

That may not come as a revelation to the folks who know Ms. Crawford from the image that has been perpetuated since Mommie Dearest, the book and the movie, were released in 1978 and 1981, respectively.

From the portrayal of Joan in book and film, “bitch” may have been a kind word. After all, here was a woman who was crocked most of the time, showed little regard for her kids and regularly abused them, slept with most of the men (and many of the women) in Hollywood, had a horribly violent temper and showed an unusually strong disdain for wire hangers. The book, of course, was written by Christina Crawford, her adopted daughter, who was left out of her mother’s will along with her brother Christopher, also adopted.

Faye Dunaway’s uncanny impersonation of Crawford in Frank Perry’s 1981 campfest show-all is the image many people of this generation likely connect to the actress’s name.

Over the years, some have cried foul. Friends like Van Johnson and Myrna Loy called the accusations downright lies, while Joan’s two older children, Cody and Cathy, strongly objected to Christina’s portrayal of their mother.

Somewhere in the middle therein, one assumes, lies the truth.

But that’s not what Donald Spoto suggests in Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, recently published in a paperback edition.

The author—biographer of the likes of Grace Kelly, Tennessee Williams, Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock (his Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius is one of the best bios on the suspense master)—is an unadulterated Crawford fan. Been one for decades, and even corresponded with her in letters to her assistant when he was younger. His book is meant to serve as a corrective on the thorny legacy of the Hollywood actress.

There’s no denying she had talent to burn, and was determined to use it to make her Hollywood’s biggest star. Under contract to Louis B. Mayer at MGM and later Jack Warner at Warner Brothers, she took home more money than just about any actress at the time—or any woman at the time. Even Spoto, in all of his glowing admiration, admits Crawford wasn’t a model mamma. But according to him, she was usually a good one, making sure the children were cared for when they needed to be and allowing dependable surrogates to be around when she was working or, um, other things.

Possessed has no problem documenting the fact that Crawford was a serial bed-hopper, although it does leave out her previously reported lesbian liaisons with Barbara Stanwyck, filmmaker Dorothy Arzner and others. She not only tickled the fancies of acting hubbies Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Franchot Tone, and Phillip Terry, and Pepsi executive Alfred Steele (who, ironically, left her high and dry when he passed away at age 57 in 1959), but also the likes of Clark Gable, James Stewart, Tony Martin, director Vincent Sherman and many, many more.

The tough-as-nails Texan was brought up the hard way as Lucille LeSueur, the product of a fractured San Antonio family, who started her performing career in shows in the Midwest, first as a dancer, then a singer. She then took her act to California and landed in Hollywood where she started in silents. She segued into soundies such as Sadie McKee, Grand Hotel, No More Ladies and Love on the Run, one of eight films regular paramour Gable made with her. While Spoto notes her career at MGM was inconsistent because of the roles she was handed, she did managed to do even better when she moved on to Warner, where she acted in Strange Cargo, Susan and God, Humoresque, and Possessed, as well as her  Academy Award-winning effort playing James M. Cain’s entrepreneur-accused-of-murder Mildred Pierce.

Just reading Spoto’s account of Crawford’s daily routine is exhausting. Exercise, primping, makeup application, going over script revisions (she carried lots of clout), time to meet her many lovers, etc. etc.—and that was on the days she wasn’t making movies. Spoto’s account makes it seem unlikely Crawford was an attentive parent.  But one would find it also unlikely for Ms. Crawford to find the time or the energy to do all of the unthinkable things Christina accused her of.

As if to place more muscle in his defense of Crawford’s good side, Spoto spends lots of space chronicling her efforts for such organizations as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. He writes of her charitable nature to crew members and the commoners among the elite in Tinseltown. By a similar token, he talks about her extravagant lifestyle, but also reports on “the Pepsi Years” of her marriage to soda exec Steele: Their move to New York where they overextended themselves financially by refurbishing a house;  her indefatigable push for promoting the drink in person and on the screen (presaging a revolution in product placement); and Steele’s hidden debt, which forced Crawford into performing in horror films ranging from classic (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, opposite long-time rival Bette Davis), to mediocre-at-best (Strait Jacket) to embarrassing (Trog) for cash.

There’s no doubt that Crawford had a serious drinking problem that, according to the author, got worse as she got older, accelerating in order to cover her pain. Spoto paints her as a woman desperately seeking love, and willing to take it wherever and whenever she could get it.

As shown by Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, its subject was driven, tempestuous and often surly, a real piece of work. On the other hand, she could also be incredibly charitable, kind, understanding and hopelessly devoted.

Whatever the case may be, the book’s title makes sense. She was certainly possessed, seemingly in good ways and bad.

For further information on Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, go to:





  • Ron

    I’ve never cared about an actors’ private life, just their performances.

  • Mary

    Bitch or not, I love her movies.

  • KC

    Females are always bitches and sluts, no matter what industry, no matter that is 2012. Will this ever change? Sigh…

    • Glenn Davis

      You don’t happen to be Gay do you?

      • KC

        I meant that females are most often labelled in a derogatory fashion instead of being considered powerful or such a “ladies man”. Labelled< I guess is a key word I left out, and Glenn your point is…?


    Lets see.How many people have they tore apart since they passed away?Elvis Presley,Hank Williams SR,Buddy Holly,JFK,J Edgar Hoover,Errol Flynn,Bing Crosby,etc Dont you love it when they are not here to defend themselves?
    Why should Joan be left out?

  • KC

    Thank you, Brian for bringing up another point I meant to add, but was up on my female high horse.

  • Frank DeCavalcante

    I read this biography and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, Joan Crawford has been unfairly vilified since the publication of Mommie Dearest. However, I prefer to think of her as a talented actress who was very loyal to her fans, quietly helped out colleagues in trouble and was the definition of a movie star.

    I find it ironic that the more popular Bette Davis detested Crawford and took great joy in the publication of Mommie Dearest only to be demonized even more in her own bitchy daughters autobiography. Davis was a terrific actress but lacked many of the more endearing qualities of Crawford.

    Why is it that gay men adore Davis but enjoy belittling Crawford?

  • Juanita Curtis

    Recently saw the Mildred Pierce remake and though I love Kate Winslet no-one could match the great Joan Crawford. I have ordered a copy of the movie just to remind me of her fantastic Oscar winning role. I remember I adored Errol Flynn until I read his autobiography(?). We will never know what her personal life was really like and at the end of the day does it really matter !!!!

  • charles

    Joan Crawford was a great actress. Could she be a bitch? Of course. We all can.We all have done things in our personal lives that we might not like others to know.

  • Irv Slifkin

    I thought it was important to report on this book and its portrait of Joan Crawford. I am glad it has elciited such an emotional repsonse. I am a Crawford fan and I thought she got a fair shake in this book, a kind-of corrective to “Mommie Dearest.” Nobody leads a perfect life, and the nature of Hollywood dictates that perosnal matters often become public. And Glenn, I am not sure what that question has to do with anything.

  • Irv Slifkin

    Jim: I am thrilled you got to meet Ms. Crawford What a great memory. Thanks for sharing.

  • Frank Guerrasio

    How can somebody get paid, and STILL make stupid mistakes ? OF COURSE any Joan fan knows that, as stated above, “Strange Cargo ” and “Susan and God”
    were both made when she was still with MGM (1940). And the rest of us don’t get a DIME for knowing these things !!!

    • Irv Slifkin

      Frank: The confusion came in by the fact that Warner now contro,ls the MGM library, and working in the video bsuiness day to day, these things get muddy, I apologize for the mistake and will make sure to unuddy the waters next time.

  • becky

    Never was much for Joan Crawford. She did some real intense strange movies. Probably why her kids didn’t like her much. She obviously brought her work home with her. Actresses, even actors, get deeply in the characters they are playing at the time. Hence you become your character. I have watched stuff like Queen Bee, etc. Very interesting, but strange!

  • Brenda

    I, too, am a fan of Joan Crawford. While she may have been tough, and probably did sleep around, I think her daughter was just out for revenge. While I am always disappointed when a favorite star of mine is not a great person in “real life”, I still have favorite movies of theirs. I don’t like all Crawford’s movies, just as I don’t like all Gable, Grant, etc., ones—I have my favs and watch them over and over. Joan was bitchy but great in “The Women”, and for heavens sake don’t even watch the remake—it’s really disappointing even though I like the stars. I once wrote to Joan and she responded with a personally signed photo. Just remember them for their great films and let them rest in peace.

  • Jerry

    During WW2, my mother had a friend who needed baby’s things, including children’s furniture. Somehow, Crawford got wind of it and handed my mother’s friend the keys to a storage facility where unused tots items were – she got scads of gifts from well-heeled friends when the two eldest were adopted – way too much for Joan’s kid’s needs – and let this stranger take whatever she wanted for her children.

    Unselfishness personified.

    IMO, Joan was a good actress, but not a Great Actress. She was definitely the epitome of “Movie Star”. With all he good fortune, I’m sure she had a tough life. Money doesn’t buy love and happiness. Vodka doesn’t help either.

    And BTW, Her first flick with WB was a cameo appearance in “Hollywood Canteen”. Bette Davis turned down “Mildred Pierce” having first rights of refusal in her contract. Producer Jerry Wald offered it to Joan. It’s one of the finest films I’ve ever seen – very tight script too.

    Went to bid on her estate items in 1992 at Christies in NYC – Wanter her MP Leather-bound script (She bound all her scripts) but was outbid by an Kuwaiti Banker. That lot included and copy of James Cain’s book, signed to Joan from James – “Thank you for bringing my character to life!”.
    Love Kate Winslet, but didn’t care much for her interpretation of the character, though it stuck to the book more accurately.

    I came home from Christies with two other bound scripts of Joan’s – “Daisy Kenyon” (Otto Preminger had so many blue pages of edits) and “The Damned Don’t Cry” (totally reworked in post production). Also Joan’s own copy of “Our Dancing Daughters”. I sold two of these three for needed cash. It was nice having them for awhile. I still have something of Joan’s that I treasure.

    Deep down, I think she was no different that the rest of us. Normal – with flaws.


  • John Lewis

    The review of this book was full of mistakes – the reviewer’s mistakes – not Donald Spoto’s. Cindy and Cathy Crawford, the twins, were younger that Christina and Christopher (“two older children, Cody and Cathy”) and Joan’s first movie at Warners was Mildred Pierce – Strange Cargo and Susan and God were filmed at MGM. An affair with Stanwyck? I have read every legitimate biography ever written about Crawford and I’ve never run across that one. Pure irresponsible speculation on the part of an ill-informed reviewer. Disappointing.

    • Irv Slifkin

      John: the confusion over the companies comes from the fact that Warners controls the rights to the MGM library now, fow hcih I apologize. As for the stanwyck-Craford affair, the word has been around for years. Whether it is true or not, nobody knows for sure as is often the case with such rumors. I am sorry you are disappointed with my review.

      • Jerry

        “she did managed to do even better when she moved on to Warner, where she acted in Strange Cargo, Susan and God,”

        This statement has nothing to do with who owns the rights to the films. It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s just not factual! I could own the rights to these films, but it can’t be said she moved to my studio and did these films. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

        • Irv Slifkin

          Yes, that is a mistake on my part for which I apologize and am glad you set the record straight.

  • Ellen U

    I think Joan Crawford was a terrific actress! I have seen many of her movies. People like to hear “dirt” about show business people. I think it makes them feel better to know stars have faults the same as regular people. It has nothing to do with their work. It does seem to come out after they have died & cannot defend themselves. I don’t care about their private life – just their movies!

  • Billy

    Ms. Crawford is/was a legend ! One of the top 3 actresses of all time. Her spiteful daughters book has now been totally debunked ….So, let’s just remember Ms. Crawford for what she was….An amazing actress, that absolutely ADORED her fans. Not really interested in a book that beats up it’s subject (Ms. Crawford), when she isn’t here to defend herself. Just a shameless attempt to sell books at someone else’s expense. This stuff should be saved for the tabloids….

  • Jerry

    I’d also correct the “review” regarding the Steele’s expensive “house” in NYC. It wasn’t a “house”. It was a co-operative apartment building. One of the first built for that purpose – 168 East 69th Street, aka Imperial Towers. The Steeles bought 2 apartments and combined them as one, with massive renovations. There lived many other notables in the building. She sold the larger apartment and moved to a smaller one on a lower floor where she died. The building still stands – between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. Formerly on the site of this huge apartment complex was the New York Foundling Hospital (Orphanage), Est. in the 1800′s. My father was dropped of there when he was born in 1906, only to be reclaimed a year later by his mother.

    The neighborhood was then known as Dry Dock Country – after Dry Dock Savings Bank (opposite Bloomingdale’s) on 59th – 60th and Lexington. Joan had an account at this main branch where I worked in the mid 70′s. She lived 8 short blocks up the street. She didn’t have to do her personal banking with the tellers. There was an area for “special depositors” where under-management took their banking needs to the teller area for them.
    Ironically, a co-star on Joan’s, Constance Ford (from “The Caretakers”) bypassed the protocol and would come directly to my window. Ford was working on a soap then – “Another World”. Doug Fairbanks Jr. also lived in the neighborhood. Joan remained friends with Fairbanks and Franchot Tone, who she saw several times in the 60′s when he was dying of cancer. Dry Dock Country was a lovely part of Manhattan. Now just considered part of the “Upper East Side”. Dry Dock’s spokeswoman was Jane Powell, who did commercials for the bank. I met her. She was TINY!

    A fun note: During the filming of “Humoresque”, Jean Negulesco was out sick, and my old friend Irving rapper (“Now, Voyager”) stepping in to direct Joan, but they weren’t important scenes. Irving brought John Garfield to Hollywood from NYC and introduced him to Jack Warner and Michael Curtiz. Irving was Curtiz’ dialogue coach/director for several years before helming his own pictures.

    And on Davis: They weren’t enemies. All that is a fabrication for the gossip-crazy reading public. Davis said herself that they just weren’t the same kind of person and had nothing in common. The feud was mostly manufactured. It irks me that folks like to read, let alone believe trash. There were parallels in their lives, however. Davis may have had a brief romance with Tone while he was married to Joan (Davis and Tone made “Dangerous” together, he on loan-out from MGM), but Joan did have an ongoing romance, throughout her first three marriages, with Gable. That’s what broke her and Doug apart. Davis and Crawford hid not “hate” each other. The “Charlotte” problems were about Joan and Aldrich. He reneged on promises made to her prior to filming.

    • Irv Slifkin

      Thanks for your informed comments.
      As Spoto tells it, the rivalry was a lot of media hooey, but there was a professional thing going on between the two and Bette is quoted as saying some doodzies about Joan. Joan seemed to relish the thought she took mostly points for Baby Jane and Bette took her fee totally as salary and Joan cashed in big time becuase it was such a hit. At least according to the book, that is.

  • honesttwoafault

    Wow, so many mistakes in this article, I wouldn’t know where to start.

    • Irv Slifkin

      Besides the MGM and Warner and children’s name’s confusion, I’d appreciate it if you could point them out. Because of space and time, I wasn’t able to get into her living situation in New York. As for her romances, all mentioned were presented in this book or elsewhere. Please tell me what else is wrong so I can research and stand corrected.

  • countmarc

    The rumor was that when Bette filmed Dangerous with Franchot there was a fling. Franchot and many other actors made it a point to notch the bedpost with leading ladies and at the time he was newly wed to Joan, who had an on and off with Gable. Then when Joan was ushered in style at WB and Bette got territorial there was a rekindling of “Who does she think she is?”
    As far as the personality flaws, early 20th century Texans thought spare the rod was the definition of bad parenting. True it was mixed with a lot of drink so it looked bad out of context like any historical era taken out of context.
    Crazy? you bet but not unique among artists

  • Jack Jones

    Along with “Mildred Pierce” and “The Women” a favorite of mine is “A Woman’s Face”.
    In 1945 the newspaper ads said “Please don’t tell what Mildred Pierce did” and some of the first run theatres would not seat anyone during the last ten minutes of the picture.

  • Marsha

    I’m kind of stunned. I thought this book was very sympathetic to Joan Crawford and deliberately did not paint her as a bitch. In fact, her daughter came in for most of the criticism. I thought she was portrayed as human – with failings and good qualities, not as a cartoon character.

    • Irv Slifkin

      I thought the book was trying to be fair and did critcize her daughter and her daughters’ intentions. But while it was pretty even-handed in its writing and research, it didn;t overlook Joan’s diva-like tendancies not the reasons for them. thanks for the comments!

      • Irv Slifkin

        that’s “nor” the reasons for them.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    I would love to see the Joan Crawford-films Kenneth Anger wrote about in his books Hollywood Babylon.

    • Jerry

      I doubt Crawford ever did “blue movies.” Interesting that you would want to see them. Those ARE the films you’re citing from “Hollywood Babylon”, yes?

  • Jackie

    I read “Mommie Dearest” and thought how horrible it was for adopted children to be so ungrateful.So what if she hated wire hangers…you have to admit ..wire hangers are a nuisance if they all get wrapped around one another.Also Ms. Crawford knew she could provide for her kids and I think it was wonderful of her to try to instill charitable traits to her children and demand that gifts should be donated to those who had nothing. It is sad that these individuals waited until their mother died and THEN wrote their book.If my kids hated me I need to know it now so I could work on fixing hurt feelings.(my kids are my own and I love them dearly)They never felt left out if I asked them to donate gifts to the poor.I have seen almost all of Ms. Crawfords’s films and especially liked “Harriet Craig”She was such a fantastic actress.