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Joan Crawford Biography

Joan Crawford (March 23, 1905 – May 10, 1977) was an acclaimed Academy Award winning American actress.

Starting as a dancer, she was signed to a motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in the mid-1920s and played in small parts. By the end of the '20s, as her popularity grew, she became famous as a youthful flapper. At the beginning of the 1930s, her fame rivaled that of fellow MGM colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. She was often cast in movies in which she played hardworking young women who eventually found romance and success. These "rags to riches" stories were well-received by Depression era audiences; women, particularly, seemed to identify with her struggles. By the end of the decade she remained one of Hollywood's most prominent movie stars, and one of the highest paid women in the U.S.

Moving to Warner Bros. in the early 1940s, Crawford won an Academy Award for her performance in Mildred Pierce, and achieved some of the best reviews of her career in the following years. In 1955, she became involved with PepsiCo, the company run by her last husband. She was elected to fill his vacancy on the board of directors after his death in 1959, but was forcibly retired in 1973. She continued acting regularly into the 1960s, when her performances became fewer, and retired from the screen in 1970. By the mid-1970s, she became a recluse due to illness.

She was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, the third child of Thomas E. LeSueur (1868-1938) and Anna Bell Johnson (1884-1958). Her older siblings were Daisy LeSueur, who died as a very young child, and Hal LeSueur. Her father, who was born in Tennessee, was of French Huguenot extraction, and her mother was of Irish and Scandinavian descent. Tom LeSueur's ancestors immigrated from London, England, in the early 1700s to Virginia, where they lived for several generations. LeSueur was said to have abandoned the family in Texas; Crawford later said she had been only a few months old when her father left.

Her mother later married Henry J. Cassin (1867-after 1919). The family lived in Lawton, Oklahoma, where Cassin ran a movie theater. The 1910 Comanche County, Oklahoma, Federal Census, enumerated on April 20, shows Henry and Anna living at 910 "D" Street in Lawton. Lucille was then 5 years of age.

For most of her life, Crawford maintained that she was born in 1908. It has been generally accepted, however, that she was born earlier. As birth records for San Antonio are not available for years earlier than 1908, and in the absence of a birth certificate, her year of birth has been estimated to be 1905 based on the April 1910 census when she was 5.

Lucille 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. Unfortunately, she cut her foot deeply on a broken milk bottle when she leapt from the front porch of her home in an attempt to escape piano lessons and run and play with friends. A neighbor, Don Blanding, who became a poet, carried her into the house and phoned the doctor. She was unable to attend elementary school for a year and a half and eventually had three operations on her foot. Demonstrating the steely determination that would serve her for the rest of her life, she overcame the injury and returned not only to walking normally, but to dancing as well.

Around 1916, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Henry Cassin was first listed in the City Directory in 1917, living at 403 East Ninth Street.

While still in elementary school, she 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, she registered at 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.

Her career spanned over four decades, with numerous highs and lows. She passed through a variety of stages in movies: dewy ingenue, high-spirited flapper, determined working girl, sophisticated leading lady, heroine of noir-inflected melodramas, and finally a scream-queen in a number of horror movies.

She began as a dancer in a chorus line under the name Lucille LeSueur, eventually making her way to New York. In 1924, she signed a contract with MGM, and arrived in Culver City, California, in January, 1925.

Starting out in silent movies, she worked hard to ensure that her contract with the studio would be renewed. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer was unhappy with her name, however, reportedly saying that "LeSueur" sounded too much like "sewer." A contest in the fan magazine, Movie Weekly, became the source of her well-known stage name. The female contestant who entered the name Joan Crawford was awarded $500. Though Crawford reportedly detested the name at first, saying it sounded like "crawfish," and called herself JoAnne for some time, she eventually became used to it.

Crawford first made an impression on audiences in Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), in which she played Irene, a struggling chorus girl who meets a tragic end. The following year, she 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, she consolidated on these gains, appearing in increasingly important movies as the romantic interest for some of MGM's leading male stars, among them Ramon Novarro, William Haines and John Gilbert.

Her most unusual movie from this period was The Unknown (1927), with Lon Chaney, Sr. as a carnival knife thrower with no arms and Crawford as the skimpily clad young carnival assistant, Estellita, he hopes to marry. Directed by Tod Browning, who also directed Dracula and Freaks, the movie features a famous performance by Chaney. Crawford would always insist that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work in this movie than from anything else in her long career.

Crawford's role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) catapulted her to stardom and established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity that rivalled 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, mostly female, an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl.

She tirelessly studied diction and elocution to rid herself of her Southwestern accent. Her first talkie was Untamed (1929) opposite Robert Montgomery, which was a box-office success. The movie proved to be an important milestone for the durable star, as she 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."

During the early 1930s, Crawford modified her image to better fit the hard-scrabble conditions of Depression-era America. In this new role, she played a glamorized version of the working girl who relied on her intelligence, looks, and sheer determination to get ahead in life. On the strength of this new star persona she became known as the "Queen of the MGM Lot." One indication of her lofty status was the studio's decision to cast Crawford in its most important movie of 1932, the all-star extravaganza Grand Hotel. Although billed third behind Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, but ahead of Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore, Crawford was lauded for her touching performance as a stenographer on the make, all but stealing the picture from her more experienced co-stars.

Around this same time, she achieved special success in a series of steamy pairings opposite Clark Gable, in which they established themselves as the most formidable romantic duo of the 1930s. Their rollicking smash hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which Crawford received top billing over Gable, was the only movie to feature Robert Benchley, Nelson Eddy, Fred Astaire and the Three Stooges all together in one movie. Her next two movies with Gable, Chained (1934) and Foresaking All Others (also 1934), were both big hits, being among the top money makers of the mid-1930s, and marked Crawford's peak at MGM as a popular star at the box-office.

By the end of the decade, Crawford had adopted a more sophisticated image in which her characters seemed to be defined as much by their glamorous clothing, beautiful accessories, and carefully styled hair and make-up as by any meaningful character trait. Fans soon tired of this remote "clothes horse" persona and eventually her movies began to lose money. In 1938, she was one of the unfortunate stars to be labeled "box-office poison," along with Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Fred Astaire.

Crawford somewhat rectified her position at MGM through a fruitful collaboration with the director George Cukor. Starting with her role as the bitchy home-wreaker Crystal Allen in Cukor's comedic masterpiece The Women (1939), then capitalizing on this success in two more movies under his direction, Susan and God (1940) and A Woman's Face (1941), Crawford demonstrated that in the right role she could be a first-rate actress. Aside from The Women, however, these movies underperformed at the box-office. Eager to promote their new generation of female stars, among them Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and the resurgent Katharine Hepburn, who joined the studio from RKO, the management at MGM began to view Crawford as a bad investment. After 18 years at the studio, Crawford's contract was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943. In lieu of one more movie owed under her contract, she paid the studio $100,000. That same day, she drove herself to the studio and personally cleaned out her dressing room.

Upon leaving MGM, Crawford signed with Warner Bros. for $500,000 for three movies and was placed on the payroll July 1, 1943. She appeared as herself in the star-studded production Hollywood Canteen (1944) and was cast in the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), in which she played opposite a stellar cast, including Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, and Butterfly McQueen.

Director Michael Curtiz and producer Jerry Wald developed the property specifically for Crawford from the popular James M. Cain novel, which was adapted for the screen by Ranald MacDougall. The final product was a commercial and artistic triumph. It epitomized the lush visual style and the hard-boiled film noir sensibility that defined Warner Bros. movies of the late 1940s. Mildred Pierce served as a first-rate vehicle for Crawford, highlighting her skills as an actress and allowing her to inhabit a new persona as the tortured heroine of glossy melodrama. She received the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance.

On the strength of this movie, she established herself as the chief leading lady at Warner Bros., effectively stealing the limelight from the former queen of the studio, Bette Davis, and sowing the seeds for their future conflict. For the next few years, she reigned as a top star and respected actress, appearing in such memorable roles as Helen Wright in Humoresque (1946), as Louise Howell Graham in Possessed (1947) opposite Van Heflin and Raymond Massey, 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), her powerful performance in the title role in the excellent Harriet Craig (1950) at Columbia Pictures and Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear (1952) at RKO, the movie that introduced her co-star, Jack Palance, to the screen and earned her a third and final Oscar nomination as Best Actress.

Besides acting in motion pictures, Crawford also worked in radio and television. She appeared a number of times in episodes of anthology TV shows in the 1950s and, in 1959, made a pilot for her own series, The Joan Crawford Show, but it was not picked up by a network.

In 1929, at the time she wed her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Crawford bought a mansion at 426 North Bristol Avenue in Brentwood, midway between Beverly Hills and the Pacific Ocean, which was her primary dwelling for the next 26 years. Over the years she 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).

She moved to a lavish apartment, number 22-G in the Imperial House, in New York with her last husband, Alfred Steele. He died there on April 19, 1959. She then sold her Brentwood mansion and stayed on in New York, although she kept a small apartment in Los Angeles for her frequent trips there.

Crawford adopted six children, according to L.A. Times articles from the time, though she kept and raised only four.

The first was Christina (born June 11, 1939), whom Crawford adopted in 1940 while a single, divorced woman.

The second was a boy she named Christopher Crawford (born April 1941), whom she adopted in June of that year. In 1942, his biological mother found out where he was and managed to get him back.

The third child was an 8-year-old that Crawford named Phillip Terry, Jr. (born 1935). She and then husband, Phillip Terry, adopted him in April 1943, but did not keep him either.

The fourth child was Christopher (born October 15, 1943). She and Terry adopted him that same year, and he remained her son after she and Terry divorced. (According to Christina, Joan changed this second Christopher's birth date to October 15 because she was afraid he would also be taken away.)

The fifth and sixth children were twin girls Cynthia "Cindy" Crawford and Cathy Crawford (both born January 13, 1947). Crawford adopted them in June of that year, while she was a single, divorced woman. (According to Christina, Joan called the two girls twins but they were not. Cindy and Cathy both dispute that claim. According to them, they are twins born in Dyersburg, Tennessee, to an unwed mother who died seven days after their birth. They said that Crawford was afraid their biological parents might try and get them back, and would therefore say they were not twins. Their version is consistent with newspaper reports at the time of their adoption.)

Crawford was raised Catholic; her stepfather, Henry Cassin, was Catholic, although he and Anna were ultimately divorced, and Crawford insisted on marrying her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in a Roman Catholic church.

She later became a Christian Scientist.

Besides her work as an actress, from 1955 to 1973, Crawford traveled extensively on behalf of husband Al Steele's company, PepsiCo. Two days after Steele's death in 1959, she was elected to fill his vacancy on the board of directors.

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, she was forcibly retired from the company at the behest of company executive Don Kendall, whom Crawford had referred to for years as "Fang."

By the early 1960s, Crawford's status in motion pictures had diminished significantly. She managed to reverse this trend one last time when she accepted the role of Blanche Hudson in the low-budget, but highly successful, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), directed by Robert Aldrich. She played the part of a physically disabled woman, a former A-list movie star in conflict with her demented sister. Despite their earlier tensions on the Warners lot, Crawford suggested Bette Davis for the role of Jane.

Davis immediately started taking over the set and throwing her weight around, as if she was the producer, director and the big boss. Crawford naturally opposed her authority and that started it. The actresses reportedly mutually detested each other, although Davis, who was also famous for her feuds and rivalries with dissenting performers, was the more aggressive in her contempt.

The movie was completed and became a blockbuster. Crawford went on to play Lucretia Terry in the United Artists movie The Caretakers (1963). Davis was nominated for an Academy Award that year for her performance as Jane Hudson and Crawford reportedly campaigned against her. She then accepted the Oscar at the awards for Anne Bancroft, to whom Davis had lost, to Davis's fury.

Crawford then starred in the role as Lucy Harbin in William Castle's horror/mystery Strait-Jacket (1964). When Aldrich cast the rivals in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) Davis proved to be even more of an overbearing bitch. Crawford then entered a hospital with an illness that was reportedly feigned in order to get out of the commitment. After a prolonged absence, Aldrich replaced her with Olivia de Havilland.

Upon her release from the hospital, Crawford played the role as Amy Nelson in I Saw What You Did (1965), another William Castle vehicle. She next starred as Monica Rivers in Herman Cohen's horror/thriller Berserk! (1968).

In October, 1968, her 29-year-old daughter, Christina, who was then acting in New York on the TV soap opera The Secret Storm, fell ill and needed immediate medical attention. Crawford offered to fill in for her and play Christina's role until she was well enough to return, which the producer readily agreed to. The implausibility of Crawford playing a 28 year old woman on the soap, however, was coupled by her apparent intoxication on the live telecast. Christina held it against her, blaming her because she was fired from the role the following year.

Crawford's appearance as the blind, but ruthless, Claudia Menlo on a 1969 TV episode of Night Gallery, titled Eyes, marked one of Steven Spielberg's earliest directing jobs.

She starred on the big screen one final time, playing Dr. Brockton in Herman Cohen's sci-fi/horror Trog (1970), rounding out a career spanning more than 40 years and over 80 motion pictures.

Crawford made three more TV appearances, as Stephanie White in an episode of The Virginian (1970) titled The Nightmare, as a board member in an episode of The Name of the Game (1971) titled Los Angeles, and as Allison Hayes in the made-for-TV movie Beyond the Water's Edge (1972).

In 1970, she was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by John Wayne on the Golden Globes, which was telecast from the Cocoanut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She also spoke at her "alma mater," Stephens College, from which she never graduated.

Her book, My Way of Life, was published in 1971 by Simon and Schuster. In September 1973, she 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 friend Rosalind Russell at New York's Rainbow Room. On May 8, 1977, Crawford gave away her Shih Tzu dog named Princess Lotus Blossom.

Joan Crawford died two days later at her New York apartment of a heart attack, while also ill with pancreatic cancer. A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, at 10 a.m. on May 13, 1977. All four of her adopted children attended, as did her niece, Joan Crawford LeSueur (aka Joan Lowe), the daughter of her late brother, Hal LeSueur, who had died in 1963. Crawford's Last Will and Testament was read to the family that evening.

In the will, which was signed February 28, 1976, she 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, with the phrase "...for reasons which should be 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.

She was cremated and her ashes placed in a crypt with her last husband, Al Steele, in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

Joan Crawford's hand and foot prints are immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street.

Shortly after her death, the eldest of her four children, Christina, published an exposé that became a bestseller containing allegations that Crawford was emotionally and physically abusive to her and her brother, Christopher. Though many of Crawford's friends harshly criticized and disputed the book's claims, other friends did not, and her reputation was severely tarnished. The book was later made into a movie of the same title starring Faye Dunaway (whom Crawford had praised in the past). For further detail and comment, see: Mommie Dearest (book) and/or Mommie Dearest (motion picture).

In 2005, alleged transcripts from Marilyn Monroe's sessions with her psychologist claimed that she had a one-night stand with Crawford. According to Monroe, Crawford enjoyed the sexual encounter and wanted to have another. Monroe claimed to have declined Crawford's offer, which made the older actress "spiteful."

In 1981, Blue Öyster Cult released the song "Joan Crawford" (Lyrics), on the album Fire of Unknown Origin.


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