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.

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