Death and taxes, that’s what they say. But for many
The glamorous Joan Crawford would have turned 110 this week. She appeared in over 70 films during her 45-year movie career. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper … young things with a talent for living.” Joan’s own life was one of scandal and tragedy. Here are some key facts.
1. Name controversy: Joan began her career under her real name, Lucille LaSueur, but MGM head Louis B. Mayer took issue with a surname that sounded like “sewer.” Joan’s new name was chosen through a write-in contest for Movie Weekly magazine. She disliked her new surname because it sounded like “Crawfish.” Actor William Haines took to referring to Joan as “Cranberry” during their lifelong friendship.
2. Previous jobs: As a young girl, Joan grew up poor and was bullied by students at her Kansas City, Missouri elementary school. Joan performed duties with her mother as a laundress and became obsessed with how her classmates could detect chemical smells upon her skin. During her teenage years, Joan worked as an elevator operator in a department store.
3. A clinical fear of germs: Joan suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, which she traced to excessive self-cleaning (to remove the scent of chemicals from her skin). As an adult, she washed her hands every 10 minutes and wore gloves when leaving the house. Joan would always scrub a hotel bathroom before using it. She followed houseguests around her home and would clean everything they touched. Joan regularly replaced toilet seats in her home and even reportedly tore out an entire toilet after a plumber used it.
4. Charitable work: Joan worked with Dr. William Branch (who performed her own surgeries) to fund hospital bills for destitute patients. She instructed the doctor’s staff to send her all bills for patients who had ever been employed in film. Joan personally paid for nearly 400 major surgeries. All bills were sent to Joan’s personal address, and she paid them confidentially without any public recognition. When Joan’s good deeds were later uncovered, she pretended to know nothing of them.
5. Many love affairs: Joan’s list of lovers contains many recognizable names, although she only considered one — Clark Gable — to be her life’s true love. Joan was also linked to Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, Cesar Romero, Howard Hughes, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, JFK, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne. Bette Davis once remarked, “She’s slept with every star at MGM, except Lassie.” (Arf!)
6. Her thoughts on sex in film: Joan found “suggestion a hell of a lot more provocative than explicit detail.” She saw censorship as “a pain in the ass — when it was moral or political — but in the long run, considering what I see now, I think it served a purpose.” Joan believed that the power of suggestion in Gone with the Wind‘s bedroom scene was much sexier than a shirtless, overweight Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris.
7. Adopted children: After experiencing several miscarriages, Joan adopted four children before she ever married. The East coast agency in charge of her adoptions was later revealed to be part of a black market baby ring. Joan’s eldest daughter, Christina (who was originally named “Joan Jr.”), published a memoir (Mommie Dearest) that revealed Joan’s alleged abusive behavior. Christina revealed that Joan’s famous hatred of wire hangers originated from her childhood work as a laundress.
8. Married four times: Joan married three actors (including Douglas Fairbanks Fr.) before finally settling down with Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi-Cola. After Steele’s death, Joan remained with the company as an ambassador and executive until 1972. She was the first woman to serve on Pepsi’s board of directors.
9. Devoted to her fans: Joan reportedly enjoyed responding to her own fan mail. She spent much of her weekends typing personal letters on blue paper and always included an autograph.
10. She hated her own films: Joan trash-talked a good many of her projects. Of her movies after 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan said, “They were all terrible, even the few I thought might be good. I made them because I needed the money or because I was bored or both.” On another occasion, she said, “I hate being asked to discuss those dreadful horror pictures I made the mistake of starring in. They were all just so disappointing to me.” She considered Berserk to be “the worst of the lot” while I Saw What You Did “was the most wretched of them all.” Joan also looked back at 1952’s This Woman Is Dangerous as “the worst picture I ever made.”