Joan Crawford might have been one of the most electric actresses of her generation, but that genius came with an infamous price. From her bitter feud with fellow screen legend Bette Davis to the scandals erupting just behind her bedroom door, Crawford’s risque stardom and controversial life are complex, tragic, and forever tarnished.
Joan Crawford was born a Southern belle in San Antonio, Texas, but her life was nothing like the glamorous romp we know it as today. The star’s real birth name was the far more modest "Lucille Fay LeSueur," and her parents Thomas and Anna struggled to make ends meet for their young family. Before long, the young girl would know immense tragedy.
When Crawford was just a 10-month-old baby, her father dealt her a heartbreaking blow. Thomas abandoned his family entirely, moving to a different city and leaving Crawford’s mother scrambling. She eventually re-married opera house manager Henry J. Cassin, but the union would be both a minor blessing...and a terrible curse.
Although Cassin’s profession exposed Crawford to legendary performers like ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, it also exposed her to far darker things. Even though she believed Cassin was her biological father for a long while, the older man began mistreating her when she was just 11 years old. Sadly, the secret would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Desperate to get out from under her family horror story, Crawford leapt into the first romance she could get her hands on. While at school in Rockingham Academy, the teenager started a serious tryst with Ray Sterling, a trumpet player who tried to push her academic ambitions. By all accounts, it was a healthy relationship…which is probably why it didn’t last.
In 1922, Crawford gave up entirely on academics and Ray Sterling, and instead turned toward something much shinier: Stardom. That year, she hastily dropped out of college and started dancing in a series of choruses across America. Somehow, it worked, and she started getting small parts in Hollywood movies. There was just one big problem.
Hollywood isn’t exactly know for its tender loving care, but it was absolutely vicious to the young girl. She was still getting credited as “Lucille LuSuer” in her first films, but producers detested the name, with MGM publicity executive Pete Smith even saying it reminded him of a sewer. Instead, Smith came up with a legendary plan.
Smith put out a “Name the Star” contest in the paper, where readers chose the up and coming starlet’s new stage name. Their first choice? Not “Joan Crawford". The name “Joan Arden” initially won, until the studio realized there was already a working actress with that moniker. Crawford was just a backup last name—and the actress always despised it.
Crawford was thrilled when she got her first film role, but it was full of embarrassment. When she nabbed a part in 1925’s Lady of the Night, Crawford was actually a glorified extra, and spent her time on set acting as a body double for MGM’s most popular star, Norma Shearer. It was enough to make anyone jealous, and Joan Crawford wasn’t just anyone…
Crawford has one of the most spiteful reputations in Hollywood history, and her competitive behavior started very early. She considered Shearer her professional nemesis, especially since Shearer was married to a studio head and got the best parts. As Crawford once sniped, “How can I compete with Norma? She sleeps with the boss!” Well, it wasn’t long before Joan learned from the best…
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Soon enough—at least if the whispers are to be believed—Crawford had no qualms using the casting couch as a bedroom, snagging some of her biggest roles through seduction. One such conquest, the married director Vincent Sherman, said Crawford had “a masculine approach” to bedroom relations. As for Sherman's wife? When she found out, she only said, “I guess it’s too much to ask of any man that he turn down the opportunity to sleep with Joan Crawford".
Crawford’s competitiveness didn’t end with Shearer. When she became unhappy with how MGM was marketing her, her response was shameless. She started on a self-promotion tear, attending dance competitions all around Hollywood to get her name out there. As one screenwriter put it, “Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star". And her big break was right around the corner.
In 1928, poor little Lucille LuSuer became Joan Crawford, Hollywood starlet. That year, Crawford starred as a flapper in Our Dancing Daughters, and her performance put her on the map as the next “It” girl after big-time starlet Clara Bow. Yet the young actress was about to find out that with big-time fame came big-time scandal.
Crawford got into her first serious Hollywood relationship in 1929—and it was a doozy. That year, she met and then quickly married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. the heir of Old Hollywood power couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Racily enough, Fairbanks was only 19 years old, while Crawford was about four years older. But that was just the beginning of the scandal.
Crawford’s new in-laws utterly despised her, and they made her feel it in cruel ways. Pickford and Fairbanks, Sr. had a famous estate they nicknamed PickFair, but they refused to invite the newlyweds to the sprawling property until eight months after the wedding. And when Crawford finally did step into PickFair’s hallowed halls, she found a carefully laid trap.
Crawford never learned how to play well with others, and Mary Pickford was no exception. Even though Joan repaired her relationship with the man of the house, she and Mary continued to despise each other. If Crawford was ever left alone with the elder actress, Pickford would often just “retire to her rooms,” AKA abandon her.
No one wanted stardom more than Joan Crawford, and no one worked so hard to keep it. In order to tame her Southwestern accent, Crawford read books and magazines aloud to herself for hours on end, repeating words endlessly until she got the pronunciation right. Yes, this obsessive behavior was an ominous sign of things to come—but first, it became a stroke of genius.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood underwent the enormous change from silent films to talkies, and Joan Crawford—as always—made sure she was immaculately prepared. By 1932, she was the third most profitable star in Hollywood and had starred in a string of talkie hits. Only just as her career settled into legend, her personal life got very messy.
Crawford’s marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had never been that stable—and it reached a disturbing climax. Crawford, always focused on her career ambitions, had started an affair with rising star Clark Gable, though it wasn't like Fairbanks was any better. He unsuccessfully pursued Katharine Hepburn and had a slew of other trysts as well. In other words, they had nowhere to go but down.
Crawford and Clark Gable were horrifically blunt about their affair, despite the fact they were both married at the time. In fact, their most scandalous moment together was right next to their spouses. One night, their friend Adela Rogers St. Johns was out with the couples when she stumbled upon Joan and Clark, wrapped around each other behind a bandstand.When Joan saw she was caught, her reply was…unexpected.
As St. Johns put it, Crawford, "had her legs wrapped around him, in a position that only a supple dancer like Joan could assume". However, Crawford didn’t seem to notice the indignity of the situation. She simply looked up and said, “Adela! Darling!” But then she outdid herself. The next day, she sent St. Johns flowers and a note that read, “I bet you were thrilled watching!”
Crawford soon developed a reputation for unbounded sensuality…and not always in a good way. When she was in her 30s, Crawford even seduced the teenage star Jackie Cooper, and she had some pretty strange bedroom habits. As Cooper recalled, “She would bathe me, powder me, cologne me. Then she would do it all over again". Think that's bad? Just wait.
Crawford and Fairbanks’ marital problems extended out of their bedroom, too. Crawford claimed that Fairbanks was constantly “jealous and suspicious” of everyone, including her friends, and that they often had loud arguments that went “far into the night". In 1933, she divorced him, citing “grievous mental cruelty". And then it was out of the frying pan and into the fire…
Once she became a star, Crawford earned true icon status for her trademark look of pronounced shoulder pads. It was a new, modern silhouette for a woman that focused on her power and freedom, and Crawford’s signature style quickly sparked a fashion trend, with every starlet in Hollywood donning outfits with shoulder pads.
Immediately after her divorce from Fairbanks, the studio paired Crawford with her old fling Clark Gable and a shiny new man, Franchot Tone, in 1933’s Dancing Lady. It was a recipe for disaster. Despite worrying it was far too soon for romance, Crawford fell in love with Tone, marrying him in 1935. Sadly, they too were doomed to a heartbreaking end.
Crawford was an incredibly ambitious woman about her fame, but she never seemed to pick men who supported these dreams. Where Fairbanks was more interested in politics, Tone was an actor’s actor, and wanted to put on local stage plays instead of starring in blockbusters. Crawford wore herself out trying to make him into a reluctant star—and then their real trouble started.
Though Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford were obviously unhappy on the surface, they hid more painful secrets behind bedroom doors. Crawford desperately wanted children, but although they tried twice to have them, both pregnancies ended in tragic miscarriages that left Crawford exhausted and grieving. Tone’s response, however, was even worse.
Depressed and frustrated with the miscarriages and his marriage, Tone began drinking and, most terrifying of all, taking his anger out on Crawford. Heartbreakingly, the mistreatment she endured as a child came back once more, with Tone physically harming her during their fights. Thankfully, Joan wasn’t dealing with that anymore, and she divorced him in 1939.
Crawford was just about ready to take back her life when reality gave her another sideswipe. Her popularity had been waning, and in May 1938, an article came out that dubbed her “Box Office Poison” and claimed she wasn’t worth her hefty price tag. It must have been an enormous blow for a woman who spent her life courting adoration, and Crawford…didn’t necessarily react to it well.
In 1940, Crawford’s life took on a frenzied, anxious quality. Oh, the year started out well enough: Acting on years of yearning, Crawford adopted a daughter through a Las Vegas agency. Sure, she originally named her “Joan” on a narcissistic impulse, and then quickly renamed her “Christina,” but that’s not a red flag…right? Wrong.
Next up in Crawford’s nightmare was a quickie third marriage in 1942, this time to actor Phillip Terry, who she had only been seeing for six months. To seal the deal, they adopted another child together, Christopher—then tragedy struck. The boys’ birth mother reclaimed him shortly after, putting Crawford through a world of grief. And the chaos kept coming.
Soon after the loss of her son, Crawford and Terry adopted another boy, naming him Phillip Terry, Jr. But in 1946, continuing the Decade of Pain, Crawford’s union with the elder Phillip broke up. She rebounded in a bizarre way. Instead of keeping Junior around as a reminder of her failed marriage, Crawford spitefully changed the boy’s name to…Christopher. Joan, there are other names.
Not everyone was a Joan Crawford fan. In 1945, the actress lobbied hard for the title part in Mildred Pierce, but director Michael Curtiz wanted anyone but her. “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads,” Curtiz told studio heads, “Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?” The words must have stung, but Crawford got cast anyway...and it was not smooth sailing.
Unsurprisingly, Curtiz and Crawford were at each other’s throats on set—and especially off it. Still obsessed with Crawford’s strong-shouldered outline, Curtiz once busted into one of her costume fitting sessions and started tearing at her neckline, certain she was wearing shoulder pads.
In the end, Crawford’s frighteningly obsessive hard work paid off tenfold. Mildred Pierce was a blockbuster both with critics and with audiences, and the film earned Crawford her first Academy Award nomination and win for Best Actress at the 1946 Academy Awards. Crawford should have been celebrating—only, well, she wasn’t there.
Right before the Oscars, Crawford got a bad case of insecurity and became convinced she was going to lose out to Ingrid Bergman that year. When she found out she actually won, she simply called up her makeup people and had an impromptu photoshoot on her bed to print in the next day’s papers. Finally, Joan was back on top of Hollywood; but the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
In 1947, Crawford decided to add to her growing brood and adopt two more children, Cindy and Cathy. Yet her love had a chilling side. This time, Crawford used the now-disgraced Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which was actually little more than a human trafficking operation. It was the beginning of true infamy for Crawford, and it wasn’t stopping any time soon.
Despite her reputation as a career starlet, Joan could be quite the bad girl on set. While working on the western Johnny Guitar with Mercedes McCambridge, the two lead actresses butted heads the entire time. Why? Well, it probably had something to do with the fact that Crawford once slept with McCambridge’s husband…but that didn’t stop Crawford from twisting the knife in deeper.
At one point on the set of Johnny Guitar, a drunken Crawford tossed McCambridge’s clothes onto the highway, leaving them for cars to tread over. McCambridge would go on to call Crawford "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady," but Crawford was no fan either. "I have four children," she was said to have quipped about McCambridge, "I do not need a fifth".
Crawford’s competitive tendencies and unhealthy obsessions only got worse as she aged, and in the 1960s, she struck up her most iconic rivalry. In 1962, she starred opposite fellow screen legend Bette Davis in the thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The two A-Listers had always had a chilly relationship…but it was about to go nuclear.
Consummate professionals that they were, Crawford and Davis managed to keep it together while filming the movie. But when the cameras shut off, the trouble started. When it came time to promote the film, Crawford left Davis high and dry because, according to Davis, she didn’t want to share the stage with anyone. It was the first salvo in a bitter battle.
Soon enough, both Davis and Crawford were calling each other out publicly, and they did not mince words. Davis once said of Crawford that she “slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie”—but Crawford’s insult cut even deeper. She immediately attacked Davis’ acting ability, saying, “Bette and I work differently. Bette screams and I knit. While she screamed, I knitted a scarf that stretched clear to Malibu".
In truth, Crawford was always a little catty toward Bette Davis, going back decades. At the 1936 Oscars, when both women were still just ingénues, Bette had worn a dress so frumpy and informal, even her fellow attendees thought it was an insult to the Academy. Joan being Joan, she went right up to Davis, gave her best “screw you” grin, and said, “Dear Bette, what a lovely frock!”
In 1963, Crawford and Davis’s feud took center stage in the most hostile way imaginable. At that year's Oscars, Davis received a nomination in the Best Actress category for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane…and Crawford didn’t. Ouch. Stung to her core, Crawford didn’t just sit back and let her co-star get the glory, oh no. Instead, she put all her cunning into total overdrive.
Ahead of the ceremony, Crawford contacted all the other Best Actress nominees and "graciously" offered to accept any award on their behalf in the event that they couldn't attend the show. The kicker? They were all located on the East Coast, far away from the ceremony, so they all agreed to Crawford plan. All that Joan had left to do was wait for Oscar night…
Even though she wasn’t even nominated, the Oscars turned into a victory lap for Joan Crawford. Sure enough, Bette Davis lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. Only, of course, Bancroft didn’t attend the ceremony. Instead, Joan Crawford waltzed out to accept “her” award, right in front of the loser Davis. Revenge is best served piping hot, people.
According to Bette Davis herself, there was one heartless root to her feud with Crawford: Love. Both women went after Franchot Tone, but while Davis was head over heels, she lost him to Joan. Just two years before she passed, Davis admitted, that Joan "took him from me. She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will".
As she headed into the 1950s, Crawford managed to bag her biggest beau yet in aging Pepsi president Alfred Steele. The pair first met at a party, but like so many of Crawford’s romances, it was more about how it ended than how it began. Though they married in 1955, Alfred passed from a heart attack just four years later. Crawford immediately took advantage of the situation.
Upon Steele’s passing, Crawford earned herself her some extremely powerful enemies. Pepsi wanted nothing to do with her, and all but fired her from the company. Crawford knew just what to do. Incensed, she went to gossip hound Louella Parsons and threatened to publicize her tale. Wouldn't you know it, Pepsi quickly changed its tune and put her on the board of directors. Beware: Whatever Joan wants, Joan gets.
Crawford knew a publicity opportunity when she saw one, and when it came to her work at Pepsi, she didn’t back down. Infamously, the actress insisted on having Pepsi machines installed on all of her film sets, just to get that extra bit of exposure for her company. She even forced director Billy Wilder to include Pepsi content in his upcoming film…about a Coca Cola executive.
Though Crawford rode high on the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, her career quickly started slipping toward rock bottom. In 1968, she made a cameo on The Lucy Show, but she was drinking so heavily in rehearsals that she couldn’t remember her lines and almost got replaced with Gloria Swanson. Eventually, Crawford clung on and gave an astounding performance for the taping, but she wouldn’t always be so lucky.
Throughout her life, the type-A Crawford became notorious for her eerie commitment to cleanliness. She even hired a personal maid—a German woman she bizarrely called “Mamacita”—because the woman refused to work with a mop, preferring to go old school on her “handsies and kneesies,” as Crawford put it. It wasn’t the last time Joan gave into her neat freak tendencies.
Though Crawford gave the image of being a loving mother, she dealt her own child a vicious blow. Her daughter Christina was once working on the soap opera The Secret Storm, but had to bow out after a ruptured ovarian tumor. Ever the considerate mom, Crawford contacted the producers and offered herself as a replacement. Even worse, they agreed.
Crawford was a strong, powerful woman, and she chose strong, powerful spirits to make her demons go away. In her twilight years, she often carried around a flask filled with 100-proof clear "liquid," which she tended to store in a custom-made refrigerator she put in her bathroom for easy access to a quick, gasoline-burn pick-me-up.
In Crawford’s later years, her drinking problem became rampant, so much so that in 1974, she ended passing out, slipping, and hitting her face. Fearing for her money-maker—and having just taken up Christian Science as her religion—Crawford finally kicked the habit that same year, and never looked back. Sadly, she had precious little time left.
One of Crawford’s other obsessive clean tendencies? She put everything in a plastic casing. Sure, your Italian grandmother vacuum-packed her sofa, but Joan Crawford was next level. All her furniture had custom plastic encasings, but so did her lampshades, her hats, her shoes, you name it. As her interior designer put it, “There were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan’s apartment than in an A&P meat counter".
Even at the height of her ingénue period, Crawford was never one to mince words. Although men loved her for her looks and women liked her for her free spirit, some critics denounced the starlet as too glamorous and unattainable. Yet when discussing her brand of allure, Crawford only quipped, "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door".
One day late in her career, Crawford attended a party and took photos for the next day’s paper. When she saw the photos, her blood ran cold. She hated how she looked in them, and soon went to drastic measures to make sure the public never saw her that way again. As always, Crawford had too much follow through: She became a recluse for the next three years, saying, “If that's how I look, then they won't see me anymore".
Crawford’s reputation as a dynamo in the sack was well-earned, but there was a side to her sensuality most people don’t know. Today, some Hollywood historians believe Crawford was bi, and her many affairs spanned not just men but also some of the most eligible women in Hollywood, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and even Marilyn Monroe.
We’ve been calling Joan Crawford “Joan Crawford” for nearly 100 years now…but we’re all wrong. Not only did Crawford intend the pronunciation of her stage name to be “Jo-Anne” when she first signed up for it, in her private life she often went by her childhood nickname of “Billie,” at least with those who she loved most.
Eternally organized and determined, Crawford became notorious around Hollywood for always, always responding to the letters her adoring fans sent her. Like, every single one. Crawford would dutifully type up her responses on blue paper and then personally autograph each letter. No wonder the other stars were jealous of her...who has the time??
Joan Crawford was a modern star in every sense of the word, and she always made sure she looked it. She was the queen of the paparazzi walk before it was even a thing, and insisted on not leaving her house and entering the public unless she was dressed to the nines and in full hair and makeup, even if it was just for a grocery run.
Joan was many things, but let it not be said she didn’t give credit where it was due. Besides her lifelong devotion to her fans, to whom she attributed all her stardom, she also insisted on remembering the names of every crew member on the set of her films. As she once said, “It’s important to remember people. I pride myself on doing that".
Just a handful of years before she passed, one of Crawford’s best allies became her most bitter enemy. In 1973, after years of struggling to keep control, Pepsi forced her out of their board of directors, finally ending the Age of Joan at the soda company. Even more surprisingly, Joan let them. For the first and last time in her life, Joan Crawford stopped fighting to stay on top.
Crawford’s love life spanned countless affairs and four marriages…or, was it five? According to one of her biographers, the star may have hid an enormous secret. In the very infancy of her career, Crawford took up with saxophone player James Welton, and there is some scant evidence that the pair married in 1924, making Welton her shadowy first husband.
When the end came, Crawford saw it coming. On May 6th, 1977, she gave away her Shih Tzu, the delightful “Princess Lotus Blossom,” because she was too weak to care for the dog anymore. Four days later, she passed from a heart attack at the age of 73. Honestly, trust the one and only Joan Crawford to go out exactly on time.
When Crawford passed, her adopted brood of children seemed heartbroken—until the contents of her will revealed the dark truth. Though she left Cindy and Cathy a small sum of money, she notoriously shut out her two other children entirely from an inheritance. As she wrote, "It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son, Christopher, or my daughter, Christina, for reasons which are well known to them". Those dark reasons soon came out.
In 1978, while Crawford was still warm in her grave, her daughter Christina got a long-awaited revenge. The young woman released her infamous tell-all book Mommie Dearest, letting all Crawford’s secrets loose in the process. Although many contest the claims, the book alleges that Crawford emotionally and physically mistreated Christina and her brother Christopher—and the details weren’t pretty.
According to Christina, Crawford’s harmful antics combined with her cleanliness obsession to make one unholy mix. Most famously, Crawford hated wire hangers and any kind of mess, and she would wake her children up in the middle of the night if they hung anything up on an ordinary hanger or left a crumb on the floor or a book out of order.
One of Mommie Dearest’s most chilling accusations targets Joan Crawford’s picture-perfect image. Christina claimed that during Christmas, Crawford would lavish her children with gifts for photo ops, but then force them to choose only one while the cameras stopped rolling, giving the rest away to charity. But when it came to infamous allegations, Christina saved the best for last.
In the aftermath of Mommie Dearest, Christina added a new sin to Joan's reputation. According to Christina, Joan’s fourth husband Alfred Steele didn’t pass from a heart attack. The family found him at the bottom of a flight of stairs, and there was apparently no autopsy. Without explicitly calling Joan out, Christina said, “I didn’t believe it was an accident…I know what Mommie was capable of in a state of rage".
Beyond all the feuds and the affairs, one filthy rumor dogged Crawford for her entire career—and many historians believe it’s true. When she was starting out, many people claim Crawford made a “stag film,” a sensual movie meant for bachelor parties, where she performed certain acts scantily clad, or perhaps not clad at all. The evidence for this is compelling.
Though Crawford staunchly denied it, her first husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. admitted in his own autobiography that Crawford confessed to him about the tape. “I tried to get as many details from her as possible," Fairbanks said, "but I only got tears". The film has never resurfaced, and those who believe in it think the studio destroyed the footage to keep their starlet squeaky clean.
While on the set of 1947’s Daisy Kenyon, Crawford fell into uncontrollable lust for her co-star Henry Fonda, and she wasn’t shy about showing it. She got the costume department to create a custom, red-sequined jock, er, strap, which she then presented to the star in a gift box. Oh, but things got more awkward than that before they were through.
Fonda was the “strong, silent” type, and he initially didn’t even acknowledge Crawford’s racy gift. Instead, Crawford had to get creative. While they were doing a scene together where Fonda carried her up some stairs, she leaned in and asked him to model the underwear for her in private. As Fonda said, “When she whispered the invitation, I nearly dropped her". Yet Crawford’s strangest bedroom act was still on the horizon.
Crawford's obsessive cleanliness reared its pristine head even in her bedroom affairs. In his memoirs, Kirk Douglas recalled a particularly disturbing and bizarre romantic encounter when the two stars once went back to Crawford's house. In the middle of the act, Douglas reports, Crawford leaned in and murmured, "You're so clean. It's wonderful that you shaved your armpits when you made Champion". As Douglas put it, her passionate outburst was "a real conversation stopper".
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