Book Review: Joan Crawford: A Biography
Much like the character of Joan Crawford that she created as her glamorous Hollywood alter ego, Lucille LaSueur was an enigma.
Early on in her film career, when MGM producers shuddered at the thought of audiences struggling to pronounce their new stars’ French name, LaSueur became Joan Crawford. But whether people knew her from her early days as Lucille or from her lengthy career as Joan, it may be impossible to ever truly understand the complex, often volatile, woman behind them both.
As far as celebrity biographies go, Bob Thomas’s Joan Crawford: A Biography (Bantam Books, 1979) provides some juicy tidbits, but mainly sticks with surface-level facts. Most people who dive into Thomas’ biography will already have some knowledge of her four failed marriages, her widely-publicized role as Chairman for the Pepsi-Cola Company and her diva-like demands. For a man who claims to have interviewed Crawford on several occasions over the span of a decade, Thomas either deliberately glosses over significant moments in her career (most notably her infamous rivalry with fellow thespian, Bette Davis) or simply avoids delving deeper into her widely chronicled eccentricities later in life, including her allegedly abusive behaviour towards her four adopted children.
No matter which why you look at it, it often feels as though Thomas is holding back on really getting to the nitty-gritty of what made Crawford tick. She was such an enormously popular woman, yet there were times when it felt as though Thomas was grasping at straws when trying to explain her behaviour. Granted, this biography was published a mere two years after her death in 1977, so while Thomas may have been one of the first to attempt to analyze this icon of the screen, it’s likely that others did it better with the advantage of some distance and new revelations that came out well after her passing.
Born in 1904 (or 1906, if you’d asked Crawford herrself) in San Antonio, Texas, Crawford suffered through an abusive and emotionally deprived childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was a small child, while her mother flitted from relationship to relationship, indifferent to the effect it would have on her two children. When she proved to be too much for her mother to handle, Crawford was shipped off to Rockingham Academy where she had to work in a janitor-type position in order to pay her way through school — and where, she claimed, if she made any errors she was beaten by the headmaster’s wife. Having come from poverty and a mostly loveless childhood, it’s no small wonder that Crawford dreamed of fame on Broadway.
Crawford’s main ambition was to become a dancer. And, although she was a capable performer (and later appeared as an MGM chorus girl in her early film career), she was never at the top of her class and was often just reduced to minor roles in various plays and vaudeville acts. When her career as a dancer didn’t pan out, Crawford realized she had to put her other talents to use so as not to waste her contractual opportunity with MGM.
Her widely publicized 1929 marriage to Hollywood royalty, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and her success with silent-era films (such as Across to Singapore and Our Dancing Daughters) led to her being touted as the Queen of Movies. It was her precipitous decline only two years later that led her to being dubbed “box office poison” after a string of film failures, some of which included features that co-starred her occasional lover Clark Gable and second husband, Franchot Tone. However, it was her move to Warner Brothers Studios that turned her fortune on its head. In 1945 she won an Oscar for her iconic, riveting performance in Mildred Pierce, a film role originally turned down by Bette Davis, much to the latter’s later frustration. And just like that, fickle Hollywood was back in love with their former Queen.
Despite her onscreen charm and unique beauty, Crawford was frequently featured in tabloids that took vicious delight in reporting on her failed marriages, strange demands and her role as a single mother. And while Crawford was notoriously difficult to work with — especially if she didn’t get along with a co-star, such as her rival Norma Shearer — she also had a softer side. The sheer volume of fan mail she received, specifically from women, was astounding. What is even more astonishing was that Crawford set aside to time to personally respond to each and every letter she received. Written by hand and mailed from her home, Crawford kept up regular correspondence with some of her most ardent fans, earning a reputation for being exceeding generous to the audience that adored her.
It’s stories like that which make it hard to reconcile the Crawford who cruelly disciplined her children and made outrageous demands while on her film sets with the woman adored her fans and who liked to bestow gifts on each and every member of the cast and crew. But that’s part of what makes Crawford so alluring, even decades after her death.
Unfortunately, Thomas never really digs deep enough in Joan Crawford: A Biography. There’s also his prose style, which may not appeal to everyone. He has the tendency to describe Crawford’s life from her point of view, recreating her life events with his own dialogue and providing Crawford with an interior monologue and access to private thoughts that he could never really know. It reads like fiction and, at times, feels as such. That being said, his study is a good place to start for a new generation of Crawford fans. It gives a comprehensive overview of her career and the rumours and eccentricities that plagued her until her death. If nothing else, Joan Crawford: A Biography is the ideal starting point; a Coles Notes version of one of the most important icons of American cinema.