- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008



By Charlotte Chandler

Simon & Schuster, $26, 336 pages, illus.


If you are a fan of the glory days of Hollywood and fascinated by revelations about the old studio system “Not the Girl Next Door, Joan Crawford a Personal Biography,” is the book for you.

To celebrate the 100th birthday of the legendary leading lady, Charlotte Chandler, the author of several well-received personal biographies including, “Hello I Must be Going: Groucho and his Friends,” and “Ingrid,” about the life of Ingrid Bergman, has cobbled together a series of lengthy taped interviews with well known names of the past: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, and Henry Fonda to produce an intriguing oral history on the ups and downs of the formidable actress.

The premiere voice is that of star herself giving something of a YOUTUBE presentation of her extraordinary life. Her observations along with those of various ex lovers, husbands and close associates ultimately draw you into what seems to be a fascinating conversation, offering what TV tabloids would call “a sneak peak ” into the racy lives of the luminaries of yesteryear.

“If you were telling the story of my life,” noted Crawford who was born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas in approximately 1908, and abandoned by both her father and step father, “you could say I believe my greatest weakness was I needed love too much. I was love deprived when I was a child. I found great true romantic love a few times, but the love that was lasting was with my audiences.”

Determined to climb out of poverty she began her career as a chorus girl in New York in the 1920s, won a screen test at MGM, was renamed Joan Crawford, through a movie magazine contest, and by 1931 evolved in to the ultimate femme fatale starring in “Laughing Sinners” with an obscure actor named Clark Gable. She was quick to discover his appeal and he became one of her many lovers.

According to Crawford, “he was the co-star on the screen I was most attracted to in all my years as an actress. I have to admit I was even was more attracted to him off the screen. Clark was all man.”

Married four times, her first husband was the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Jr. After a passionate courtship they tied the knot in their late teens — both were just beginning to light up the silver screen.

Fairbanks on their wedding night: “I imagined hours of glorious passion. I couldn”t get my clothes off fast enough. I was down to my shirts and socks. Billie (Joan”s childhood name) was disrobing she always had the most beautiful silk underwear and she looked beautiful in it, even more beautiful out. I tore off my socks and tossed them on the floor.

“I was startled by Billie’s voice … I was jarred by the sharp tone of her command.

“‘PICK UP YOUR SOCKS.’ Our marriage only lasted a few years. Maybe the beginning and end began with a pair of socks.”

The second spouse was sophisticated New York actor Franchot Tone. That marriage quickly lost its luster and Crawford told her friend Barbara Stanwyck she decided to divorce so she and Franchot could remain friends. They did.

Her third try was with was grade B actor Philip Terry, her fourth a Pepsi Cola executive Alfred Steele, who introduced her to the new role of corporate wife and showered her with massive jewels. But he died shortly before their fourth wedding anniversary leaving her deeply in debt. She was forced to reduce her lifestyle and sold off her California home and many of her possessions to cover the losses.

Over the years she also adopted four children. For some unknown reason she decided all their names should begin with a C. Cathy, Cindy, Christopher, Christina Even her French poodle Cliquot adhered to the rule. In an ironic twist she fesses up the favorite name for herself was “Mommie Dearest. It made me so happy it sounded like applause.”

It was a lethal choice. There were no accolades involved, when, after her death, her eldest daughter Christina wrote a scorching bestseller of the same name describing her mother as a virago, detailing her abuse, alcoholism and cruelty.

Over five decades Crawford appeared 86 films — her severely tailored suits, oversize shoulder pads and upswept hairdo set the style and made her an icon of the 1940s. In 1946, she won her first and only Oscar for “Mildred Pierce” and was at apex of her career. There is a delicious exchange between Crawford and her arch rival Bette Davison that subject.

Crawford: “The thing I appreciate most about Bette Davis, is that she turned down Mildred Pierce.”

Davis: “I turned down Mildred Pierce. I don’t think they told that to Miss Crawford. She might not have appreciated being offered my leavings.”

They worked together in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” in the 1960s — Crawford brought the project to Davis. The latter accepted only after she determined she would play the title role and that Crawford was not romantically involved with director. She did not want her competitor stealing any of the limelight. That film was a turning point in both careers — the aging celebrities were seen in a totally different perspective and given new parts to play: Gothic horror mavens.

When asked why she hadn’t retired gracefully, Crawford explained she genuinely loved working. “Stars of my age weren’t in constant demand. I felt lucky to be asked. Though I did feel I was being asked more for my name value of the past than for my talent in the present.” The specter of poverty also lurked in the background.

In reminiscing about Crawford, one her favorite directors, George Cukor, summed up the essence of the star: “Joan Crawford and her camera, it was the greatest love affair I’ve ever known. She married many times and had many lovers and I was never in her bedroom, but I’m certain no man ever saw the look on her face that she had as the camera moved in.”

Turn on TCM and catch her in a close up.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington based journalist.

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