Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biographyby Charlotte Chandler
In this fascinating new biography of screen legend Joan Crawford, Charlotte Chandler draws on exclusive and remarkably candid interviews with Crawford herself and with others who knew her, including first husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Crawford's daughter Cathy. As a result, this biography is fresh and revealing, a brand-new look at one of Hollywood's most acclaimed stars.
Joan Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, in 1908 (as she always insisted, though other sources disagreed). Her father abandoned the family, and her mother soon remarried; Lucille was now known as Billie Cassin. Young Billie loved to dance and achieved her early success in silent films playing a dancer. Her breakthrough role came in Our Dancing Daughters. Soon married to Hollywood royalty, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (who called her "Billie"), she was a star in her own right, playing opposite John Barrymore and a stellar cast in M-G-M's Grand Hotel.
Crawford was cast opposite another young star, Clark Gable, in several films. They would sometimes play lovers on screen -- and off as well. After her marriage to Fairbanks broke up, Crawford married actor Franchot Tone. That marriage soon began to show strains, and Crawford was sometimes seen riding with Spencer Tracy, who gave her a horse she named Secret. Crawford left M-G-M for Warners, and around the time she married her third husband, Phillip Terry, she won her Oscar for best actress (one of three times she was nominated) in Mildred Pierce. But by the 1950s the film roles dried up. Crawford and Terry had divorced, and Crawford married her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele. In 1962, she and longtime cinematic rival Bette Davis staged a brief comeback in the macabre but commercial What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Following Steele's death, Crawford became a director of Pepsi- Cola while she continued raising her four adopted children. Although her daughter Christina would publish the scathing memoir Mommie Dearest after Crawford's death, Chandler offers a contrasting portrait of Crawford, drawing in part on reminiscences of younger daughter Cathy among others.
Not the Girl Next Door is perhaps Charlotte Chandler's finest Hollywood biography yet, an intimate portrait of a great star who was beautiful, talented, glamorous, and surprisingly vulnerable.
In this sympathetic biography, Chandler (Ingrid: The Girl Who Walked Home Alone) chronicles Crawford's life-from a brutal Midwest childhood to her self-imposed exile in New York. Crawford (1905-1977) began as a dancer, but her extraordinary features, perfect for the new medium of film, served her well. Her career spanned silents to Hollywood's golden era, and her body of work is legendary-Grand Hotel, The Womenand Mildred Pierce, to name just a few. Divided into 10 sections, including the luminous MGM and Warner years, the book provides a brief description of her films and studio life, and offers a sanitized view of her four marriages as well as a strong refutation of the "Mommie Dearest" claims. Chandler isn't interested in sex or scandal; she had, however, extensively interviewed Crawford; her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; and scores of film luminaries, like Myrna Loy and Bette Davis. All reveal a hardworking, disciplined and generous woman who lived for work. "Joan Crawford and her camera. It was the greatest love affair I have ever known," said director George Cukor. Chandler's bio is a breezy, laudatory read that would have pleased Crawford, who was fiercely protective of her iconic status. (Feb.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Joan Crawford (nee Lucille Le Sueur and known as Billie Cassin) had become a star by the end of the 1920s. Although she was the very definition of a screen diva, she never completely succeeded in being respected as an actress, even after winning a 1945 Academy Award. Later, the publication of the infamous book Mommie Dearestby her adopted daughter was a blow from which her reputation never recovered. Chandler, who has done similar books on Bette Davis (The Girl Who Walked Home Alone) and Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid), among others, had access to Crawford toward the end of her life. She recorded the star's own words and those of a few people who knew her, including her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This is not actually a biography but a series of interviews that should be titled Crawford on Crawford. There is no effort to bring an objective viewpoint to the subject, and the star remains as much of a mystery as ever. Recommended only for all-inclusive cinema collections.
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Read an Excerpt
When I became famous and had enough money to buy anything," Joan Crawford told me, "do you know what I would have bought if I could have? My childhood.
"But I learned a valuable lesson from the childhood I had. It wasn't the way I wanted my life to be."
According to Joan, she was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, on March 23, 1908. Since Texas didn't register births until after 1908, there is no official record. Other birth years, a few years earlier, have been suggested, but this is the one Joan gave, and the one in the New York Times obituary.
Joan's mother, Anna Bell Johnson, had married Thomas LeSueur in 1902 and was happy to leave her job as a waitress. The twenty-one-year-old Anna was of Irish-Swedish descent, and Tom was French Canadian. Their first child, Daisy, was born in 1902 and probably died that same year. Their second, Hal Hayes, was probably born in 1904.
Shortly before Joan was born, Tom LeSueur abandoned his family, thus fulfilling Anna's parents' dire predictions of the unhappiness her choice of a husband would bring her.
When Lucille was still an infant, Anna moved with her two children to Lawton, Oklahoma, in the county of Comanche. Lawton is a relatively large town in southwestern Oklahoma, close to the Red River, which defines the border with Texas. Anna, a very attractive young lady, soon found another husband.
The man was Henry "Billy" Cassin, whom Joan described for me as "a vaudeville theater manager, producer, and entrepreneur." Since the Indian Territory, as Oklahoma had been known, had just become the 46th state, Cassin saw great opportunity there for a person with his energy, personality, and some capital.
He would lease or buy existing theaters and then book traveling acts to fill their bills. The acts were third-rate at best, but at the time there was not much public entertainment in rural America. Occasionally, when the theater business was slow, he would dabble in bail bonding, a business that required capital and a reasonably good reputation.
"I never knew how old Daddy Cassin was," Joan said. "He wasn't very young and he wasn't very old." Although eventually she did meet her birth father, Cassin was the only father she ever really knew. "I couldn't imagine anyone else being my daddy. For a long time, I didn't know that I had another father. When I heard that I had, it was sort of shocking to a little girl, but it didn't really matter."
Cassin was a caring, attentive father for little Lucille, whom he nicknamed Billie, after himself. Years afterward, she preferred Billie to Lucille and, at first, to Joan, the name selected for her in Hollywood.
Cassin owned two properties in Lawton, the Ramsey Opera House, where the celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova had once danced, and an "air dome." This kind of open-air theater was especially popular in Oklahoma and Texas, "before the days of air-conditioning and insecticides," Gummo Marx, the fifth Marx Brother, told me. "Only the most desperate acts would play there. The Nightingales qualified." This was one of the names the Marx Brothers used for their singing and dancing act when they were starting out in show business.
As a very young child, Billie loved to visit the opera house. "I can still feel Daddy Cassin's rings when he took me by the hand to watch from the wings. I would watch the dancers once or twice, and then I would do the steps they were doing. The dancers seemed very impressed, too, when they saw what I was doing. They applauded, patted me on the head, touched my curls, and said something encouraging when they came offstage. It was my first applause, kind of my first fan mail, you might say. I loved how it felt. I memorized the feeling."
When Cassin saw how quickly the little girl learned the dances, he was amazed and joined in the applause. It was his applause that meant the most to her.
He encouraged her to become a dancer. Billie didn't need much encouragement to do what she really wanted to do.
She remembered walking around their house for days on her toes. "My mother didn't notice, and I was very upset by that.
"Now, looking back, I suppose she must have noticed, but she didn't want to humor me and say anything because she thought if she did, it would encourage me. She probably figured I would get tired of it on my own, which I did.
"While I was still up on my toes, my brother, Hal, who usually didn't pay any attention to his little sister, me, said, 'Why are you walking around on your toes like that? Did you hurt your foot?'
"Hal was always so mundane.
"I announced, 'Because I'm going to be a toe dancer.' I thought that was pretty big news. I had made an important decision. I had decided on a career! But he wasn't impressed. He was on his way out the door, and I'm not sure he even heard my answer. He felt very superior because he was a boy. He had more confidence in himself than he had in anything else, and my mother encouraged that. He was her pet. All the mother love she had was for him. I think she felt closer to a son, and he'd been around longer.
"I remember when, after a few days, I got tired and came down from my toes, Hal said, 'So, you got tired of being on your toes.'
"'No,' I said. 'I've changed my plan. I'm going to be a tap dancer.'
"That produced a shrug. He didn't believe I was going to grow up to be a famous dancer. But I was sure. I knew I had to, because I felt I would die if I couldn't.
"My mother punished me frequently, not so much verbally, because she didn't really have much to say to me, but physically and, usually, wrongfully. I didn't like being hit, but what I minded most was I was always being blamed for something or other my brother had done. But Hal never got the blame, and he never took the blame. He would see me get punished for what he did, and he kept quiet.
"I could never have seen him punished for what I did. Of course, I tried not to do anything wrong and the situation never occurred. My mother was crazy about Hal, so he could get away with just about anything. I don't think she liked me at all. I had the idea that maybe Hal was only my half-brother, though he had the name LeSeuer, and my mother never said a word about us not having the same father. To the contrary. And my father never said anything, because he had already disappeared before I was born or when I was a baby.
"What I did wrong was never explained to me, and I decided I would never be that kind of parent. If I ever had to discipline my own children someday, I was going to be certain that they understood why, and that they agreed the punishment was appropriate.
"My mother never talked about the loss of a baby girl before I was born. Then, once when I was only maybe about four years old, my mother was speaking to me, and she called me 'Daisy.' I asked her why she called me that. She said, 'What?' I said, 'Daisy. You called me Daisy.'
"She looked shocked, like she didn't know what to say. Then, kind of angrily, she said, 'I never said that. You imagined it. You're hearing things.' Well, I know I didn't imagine it, and I wasn't hearing things.
"Since it had upset my mother that much, I certainly was never going to ask her again. But I didn't forget, and one day, I asked Hal. He knew everything, or so it seemed to me at that time. He did know a lot more about the world we lived in then than I did just because he'd been around longer than I had. Later, I understood he didn't know everything. He was a know-it-all personality. When we grew up, I found out he wasn't wise at all and hardly seemed to know how to take care of himself.
"I asked Hal if he knew who Daisy was.
"'Yeah, sure,' he answered, forcing me to ask him for an explanation.
"'Well, who is she?'
"'Our sister. But she died before you were born.'
"That should have made me more precious to my mother, but I never felt very precious to her. Maybe she had preferred Daisy and wished she had her instead of me. I was a tomboy, and my mother didn't approve. She said, 'A boy should be a boy and a girl should be a girl.'
"When my mother switched me across the legs, I didn't like that at all. It hurt, but it didn't hurt much. She didn't hit very hard. It was like she was doing her duty. She believed she was doing it for my own good, she said. If you'd asked me, I wouldn't have agreed. It wasn't that it was so painful, but it was humiliating, especially because I was usually being punished for something Hal had done.
"Hal was not just getting into trouble, but making it. He was a prime instigator of trouble. I wasn't in on any of the mischief. I was just a little sister, and he never wanted a little sister tagging along. He didn't need me. I needed him.
"I remember how my mother was to me when I was a little girl and I got hurt. I had an accident, which was my fault, and I thought she would scold me. But she didn't. She was very, very worried, and she was tender. I hardly recognized her that way. I was always dancing around, because that was what I loved best to do.
"Some people dance because they're feeling good. With me, if I danced, I felt good. In those days, nothing made me happier than dancing. It made me feel free, like birds flying high. And I always liked to walk around barefoot. My mother used to tell me not to walk barefoot outside. I heard her, but I didn't pay attention.
"I danced out of the house in my bare feet, right off the porch onto some broken glass. It hurt terribly, and my foot was bleeding badly. Someone came from across the street, and he picked me up and carried me into my house.
"The doctor came, and I could tell from the way he looked that it was more than just a little cut. The doctor looked very grave. Then, he took my mother into the hall, and they whispered. That wasn't a good sign. It also wasn't a good sign how much my foot hurt.
"I only had one question. It wasn't about walking. I wasn't thinking about when I would walk. I wanted to know when would I be able to dance again. The doctor said he didn't know.
"I hadn't thought my mother cared about me, but when I had my accident, she looked so worried and took good care of me."
Just as important as her mother's attention was the encouragement given her by Cassin, who filled her sickroom with dolls and fabulous descriptions of acrobats and dancers on the stage of his theater. He never stopped telling her she would dance again. His prediction proved accurate, earlier than expected, and Billie was soon dancing around her room.
One day in 1913, Billie was playing in the cellar of the Cassin home, when she noticed a burlap bag. She tried to move it, but it was too heavy. Curious, she looked inside. It was full of beautiful gold coins, unlike anything she had ever seen before. Very excited, she rushed up the basement stairs to tell her mother.
She thought her mother would be pleased by what she had found, but she wasn't. Her mother became terribly upset, although she tried not to show it. What Joan remembered all her life was what her mother said to her, especially because of the somber tone in which she spoke. Billie was told to listen carefully to her: "'You must never tell anyone, not anyone, not even Hal, about what happened here today, about what you found.'
"Hal was the last person I would have told. I would never have shared a confidence with him, because if I had, the first thing he would've done was to tell everyone, screaming it like an extra edition of the newspaper.
"What really impressed me was that my mother spoke to me as if I were an adult. She had never done it before, not like that. For that one moment, we were very close. Circumstances had made me her confidante.
"I didn't know what it all meant. My first reaction when I found the heavy bag of gold coins was pure happiness. I thought it meant we were going to be rich.
"I never thought of us as poor, but I knew my mother was always worried about money. If we had more money, I thought it would make her happier, and then we would all be happier. I didn't ask her my questions because I saw she was very upset, and I didn't want to upset her more.
"My mother didn't have to caution me again not to say anything, and she didn't. You know, I would have died before I told our secret. I didn't realize that what I had found confirmed my mother's suspicions."
After that, Billie and Hal heard a lot of whispering at night, and then they were sent away to stay with Anna's parents in Phoenix, Arizona. Billie missed her daddy terribly.
On the train, Hal told Billie that Cassin wasn't her birth father. This made Billie very sad, and she didn't know if she should believe Hal or not. Sometimes he said terrible things to her that he knew would hurt her, and she tried to pretend they hadn't really hurt her because she knew if Hal saw how much his words had affected her, he would be sure to repeat them
She knew Hal was a liar. He lied so much, she thought maybe he didn't even know the difference anymore between the truth and a lie.
Other little girls said they wished they had an older brother to protect them and help them. When they mentioned their wish to Billie, she didn't say anything, but she thought, "You can have mine."
Henry Cassin had to stand trial. The bag of gold apparently belonged to one of his partners in bail bonding, and Cassin was keeping it for him. Billie's daddy was charged with complicity in embezzlement, "though it was all clouded," Joan said.
At the trial, he was found innocent, but his good reputation had been damaged. Some still questioned the verdict. "Why do so many people want to believe the worst?" the grown-up Joan asked.
Joan said that for the rest of her life she never escaped the guilt she felt because of finding that bag of coins. What if she hadn't played in the cellar that day? What if she hadn't told her mother about the bag of gold coins? What would have happened then? What part had she played in the disaster that befell her beloved Daddy Cassin and the terrible repercussions of that day? Then, why did they have to leave their home and Lawton? "Sometimes you wish you could tear the page out of a calendar so that day never happened."
When Billie and Hal rejoined their mother and Daddy Cassin in Lawton, it wasn't possible to ignore the difference in the family situation. People looked at Joan in a different way. The adult Joan was certain it hadn't been her imagination. The relationship between Henry and Anna, which had never been ideal, had deteriorated badly. Though Cassin had been found innocent, it was apparent that Anna, as well as Henry, had been disgraced. It was decided that the family would move to another place where Cassin could make a new start. He chose Kansas City. Joan never knew why.
They stayed in a transient hotel in the commercial section of the city while Cassin waited for what he hoped would be a large sum from the sale of his Lawton house.
Billie was enrolled at Scarritt Elementary School, where she was held back three grades when the school found she didn't have any education. Though she was small, it was still clear to her classmates that she was a few years older than they were. This did not make her popular. It was assumed there was something wrong with her.
She was ridiculed and occasionally pushed and hit by a few older girls who were bullies, but she didn't complain, at school or at home. She knew there was nothing to be done about it until she could manage to fit in, be accepted, and make friends. She had heard "sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you," but more than half a century later, she recalled, "It was the words which hurt most. The bruises healed, but I replayed the words over and over in my head, especially at night, so that the punishment was ongoing."
Anna did not seem to notice her daughter's unhappiness, perhaps because she was so involved in her own and in the never-ending struggle for economic survival. If she did notice, she didn't know what to do about it. Cassin, being more aware of the little girl's troubles, enrolled her at St. Agnes Academy. The school had a good reputation, and since Cassin had been brought up Catholic, he had greater faith in it and felt that Billie would be better taken care of there. He managed to have her enter as a boarder, feeling that would mean she would have a better attendance record and more time for studies, and that there would be opportunity for her to make friends.
The families of most of the other girls could well afford to pay for their board as well as for tuition. Cassin intended paying the fees, but the sale of the house in Lawton brought much less than he had hoped. He had to find other means of support than a theater. When the operators of the transient hotel in which they were living left town, Cassin took over the lease and management of the establishment. Its clientele was chiefly men who often drifted on without paying their bills.
"Daddy Cassin was the eternal optimist," Joan told me. "I loved that about him. If you don't have optimism, there's no real happiness possible. You have to be able to enjoy the present and look forward to the future. It's a lot harder to be a success if you don't believe in yourself and in the future." When Cassin's fortunes failed, it was arranged with the nuns for Billie to do jobs around the school to earn her board. She waited on tables and washed dishes. This gave her less time for her studies, and the tasks often made her late for classes. She had even less opportunity to make friends. She had no free time, and the other girls looked down on her, since she was serving them. She was never able to earn the grades that would have qualified her for a scholarship.
Then, one weekend, Billie went home and was told Daddy had gone and that he wouldn't be coming back. "My heart was broken," she remembered. "I hoped it wasn't true."
Unable to continue managing the hotel and paying the lease by herself, Anna found work in a laundry. She then moved with Hal to some back rooms of the laundry building while Billie continued earning her board at St. Agnes. Hal had enrolled in a technical high school.
"The laundry had the most terrible smell. I didn't know exactly what it was, lye, disinfectant, some terrible soap, dirt and grease on the clothes. It made me feel sick and took away my appetite. That was its only advantage, since otherwise I would have gone to bed hungry most nights whenever I was at home. We weren't living at the bottom of the barrel, but close.
"We slept behind the laundry and our rooms had that smell. My mother said we'd get used to it right away and not even smell it anymore. Well, she couldn't have been more wrong, for me, anyway. I can still smell it. It was a long time before I got used to it enough to be able to sleep.
"Whenever I wasn't in school, where I had to do a lot of physical labor -- scrubbing floors, serving food to the other girls, washing dishes, and making beds to pay my way -- I worked with my mother in the laundry. I was always afraid that the smell of the laundry would stay with me, and that the children at school would be able to smell it.
"Later, when I was grown up and in another life, I had the choice, and I used to take a lot of showers, two, three, even four a day. Sometimes I was asked why, and I'd just smile and say, 'I enjoy it.' Well, that part was true. I did enjoy a shower.
"But so many of them?
"I've come to believe I was still washing off the smell and the dirt of that long-gone laundry. I guess part of us is made up of our memories; even the memories we don't remember we remember. That laundry had disappeared long ago, except in my mind."
It was at St. Agnes that Billie performed on a stage for the first time. She was January in a ballet-pantomime called The Months of the Year.
This was an important event for her. She had feared she might never walk again without a limp, if she could walk at all. Since her accident, a slight limp had persisted. At the time of the accident, no one, especially the doctor, had even considered the possibility of her dancing again, but she knew she would.
Despite some pain, Billie knew that she danced beautifully in the school production and that no one but she was aware that her foot still hurt. She had hoped for some acclaim, but the audience was composed of parents watching only their own daughters.
"The sisters never expected me to excel," Joan told me, "so they didn't notice. I shouldn't have cared, but I did. People see what they expect to see. I wonder how many of those parents and their dancing daughters recognized little Billie Cassin with a different name up on the screen in Our Dancing Daughters ten years later?"
Billie's mother couldn't be there because she had to work. "So, I didn't have the family support the other girls had. They had their families praising them, however they performed. I didn't need that. I might have been a very insecure girl who didn't have much confidence in herself, except for that one thing, my dancing, but that was a pretty big 'except.' Daddy Cassin had told me I had the best natural sense of rhythm of anyone he had ever seen, and he knew, because he was in show business. He couldn't be there, but for me, his spirit was there with me."
Cassin had left without saying goodbye to Billie. There was only one way she could interpret that. It meant his departure was only temporary, not for very long. If he had gone intending to be away for a long time, he certainly would have said goodbye to her, because she knew he loved her. She felt it, and he was, after all, her daddy, no matter what anyone said. Going as he did must have meant that for some reason she wasn't old enough to be told he had to move quickly, and it would have been too sentimental and sad for them to have to endure that last moment of parting. Later, she understood that he must have suffered a terrible loss of pride and probably found it difficult to face her. It wouldn't have made a difference to her, because "I would have loved him no matter what. He meant the world to me."
Joan's brother, Hal, would sometimes call her "Lucille" and hint that Thomas LeSueur had walked out because he wasn't really her father, either, and that she and Hal were only half-brother and sister. "Otherwise," he taunted her, "how could I be so handsome and you so ugly?" Little Billie knew her brother was handsome because her mother and everyone thought so, and she knew she wasn't very pretty because no one ever told her she was, except Daddy Cassin, and "he wore rose-colored glasses where I was concerned.
"After that, I was always watching for Daddy Cassin. I knew in my heart he would be back. He had to.
"I had my secret hope that when I saw him the next time, he would take me away with him. I wished he had taken me with him when he left.
"Daddy had very small, beautifully shaped feet, and he was very proud of them. He had many pairs of the most wonderful shoes, and he took very good care of them, every day shining the pair he was going to wear that day.
"Because I was small, small even for my age, I couldn't always see all the faces of people when there was a crowd. I would stand on my toes the way I had when I was going to be a toe dancer, but still, that wasn't enough, so I watched men's feet. I knew that I would recognize his feet instantly. And I did.
"One day, it happened. I saw his feet. I screamed, 'Daddy! Daddy!' and I jumped into his arms and he caught me. I knew he wouldn't let me fall. It was, up to then, the most wonderful, wonderful moment of my life.
"He was as happy to see me as I was to see him. He said, 'Let's have a soda, Billie.' He knew I loved sodas. He always understood me.
"He ordered two chocolate sodas with vanilla ice cream. He knew that was my favorite. He always remembered just what I liked. He liked best the same kind of soda I liked. It was that way. We couldn't have been more alike.
"We didn't talk very much. There wasn't really that much to say. It was all feeling. I drank my soda as slowly as possible to make it last, because I didn't want the moment to ever end. But finally there was the last gurgling sound, and Daddy Cassin said he would have to leave, but he said that he would be coming back.
"It wasn't a lie. He said he would be coming back because he didn't want to make me sad, but I think he hoped his promise to return would be the truth. Wishful thinking!
"He hugged me, and I didn't want him to let go.
"This time, I didn't feel in my heart that I would ever see him again.
"And I never did."
The next man in Anna's life was L. A. Hough, called Mr. Hough by Anna and her children. He owned a delivery truck and lived in a fine house. Anna said she had received word that Daddy Cassin had died.
If Anna married Hough, she could move from the cramped laundry quarters. The laundry had become too much for Anna to bear. She told her children that she needed help to get along in life.
Billie well understood her mother's desire to escape the laundry. "It was hard, unpleasant, and unrewarding, and my mother was always unhappy, with good reason. I wasn't so happy myself. When my mother married Mr. Hough, I was glad for her.
"I remember only one completely happy day with my mother. I was at St. Agnes, and we didn't see much of each other anymore. It was a Sunday and she'd saved up enough money to invite me to a ladies' tearoom in Kansas City. She picked me up at St. Agnes, and we took a streetcar downtown.
"I remember we had steak and kidney pie and ice cream sodas, and then we talked as we'd never talked before, or after. She told me about funny mistakes of laundry that was sent to the wrong people, and I described some childish pranks we'd played on the nuns at school. We laughed. I couldn't remember if I'd ever seen my mother laugh before. It was wonderful to hear her laugh.
"Afterwards, we went to a Mary Pickford movie, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and we cried.
"At that time, I didn't know that one day I would know Mary Pickford in her own home, Pickfair, with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, and that I would be related to her by marriage. My mother wouldn't have believed me, and I wouldn't have believed it myself.
"I'd had a wonderful afternoon, and I saw how life could have been, could be. I promised myself I would give my mother some wonderful days.
"Then, my mother took me back to St. Agnes, where we hugged and kissed goodbye. It was one of those memories you play over and over again in your mind. I wonder why we had so few?"
When Hal was old enough to leave home, he went to Phoenix and then California. Billie graduated from St. Agnes, and it was decided that she should go to a girls' boarding school for her high school degree.
She enrolled as Lucille LeSueur. Rockingham Academy was chosen because it had a respectable reputation and, most important, offered board in exchange for work, as had St. Agnes. "The school was," according to Joan, "a kind of dumping ground for teenage children from families that could afford the tuition and board, and didn't want their kids living at home." Billie's household tasks were unending and laborious, and she had little time to learn anything.
At Rockingham, Billie was so badly treated, even to the extent of being beaten by the headmistress for not having made a bed well enough or for stopping to look in a mirror, that one night she couldn't bear it anymore and ran away. She did it impulsively, without thinking about consequences. Since her mother was living with Hough, there was no place for her to go. She went back to Rockingham believing the headmistress's attitude toward her would only get worse. To her surprised disbelief, it got better.
"I was about fifteen," Joan told me, "and I began to notice there was a different reaction to me. I saw it in the eyes of people when they looked at me. Especially. I saw it first in the eyes of the boys.
"I took a good look in the mirror and I surprised myself. I never had time to study myself in the mirror, and besides, it seemed rather hopeless. I knew my mother was disappointed because I didn't look like her, and she didn't think I was going to grow up very attractive, the way she was. I looked more like a photograph Hal had shown me once of my [birth] father. He seemed to have eyes just like mine. He was a big man, and the only way I resembled my mother was I was small.
"I stayed by that mirror for a while. I could see the change myself. It wasn't just my figure, which had developed some shape, but it was my face. It wasn't regular like all of the other girls. It was different, interesting. I wasn't hard to look at.
"Boys from a nearby college began to ask me out, especially when they learned what a good dancer I was. At first, I attributed it largely to my dancing, but there was more to it than that. Boxes with corsages began to arrive for me ahead of going out on a date. I don't think anyone around there had ever seen an orchid before. I certainly hadn't."
The headmistress was impressed by the respectable young men from well-to-do Kansas City families who showed interest in Lucille, sometimes arriving in expensive new automobiles. Such attention not only reflected well on the institution and might lead to new and more affluent students, but also offered possibilities for soliciting charitable donations from their families.
One of those young men was Ray Thayer Sterling, who became Billie's admirer, best friend, and her constant companion in Kansas City. He took her to dances, where some of the girls made fun of what Joan described as "my rather pathetic frocks." Clearly, though, she was the outstanding dancer. "I would have been the best without even trying, but I always tried to do the best I could." Billie won her first amateur dance competition, the first one she entered, when she was fifteen.
Ray was a serious, intelligent young man who saw and believed in Joan's great potential, not only as a dancer, but as a person, and he encouraged her. Joan felt it was her first real encouragement from someone since Daddy Cassin's help in her childhood. "Just as I was going out to face the world, Ray offered me support when I needed it. Having him come into my life was a real blessing."
Joan graduated from Rockingham in 1923 and went to work as a department store clerk, earning $12 a week. Opportunities for a girl without higher education and without family connections were limited. Then, with Sterling's encouragement and that of Dr. James Wood, the former principal of Scarritt Elementary School, who had become the head of Stephens College, Billie was admitted to Stephens in nearby Columbia, Missouri. "He just happened to pass me on the street," Joan recalled. "It was so lucky. He had this new post, and he understood that I had merit and would try hard. What a wonderful coincidence!"
With a little help from Anna, who was pleased by her daughter going to college, and with a job at the college waiting on tables, Billie was able to afford Stephens.
Suddenly, she found out what it was like to be popular. "It was a different world," she said. Most exciting for her was being nominated for a sorority.
"I was indescribably happy," Joan remembered. "I had never considered such a possibility. Belonging to a sorority didn't seem anything I could aspire to. Then, a girl I knew slightly told me that she had nominated me for her sorority. I was ecstatic before I knew the meaning of the word.
"I didn't make it. She had to tell me that she hadn't known I was working my way through school. That made me ineligible for the sorority. I guess that it meant to them that I was different from them. I didn't belong.
"She told me that a lot of the girls liked me and were sorry I couldn't be in their sorority. I was indescribably unhappy. I was sorry that I had been asked at all. It wasn't something I was thinking about, but after I was rejected, at least for the moment, I was obsessed by it. When you are trying not to think about something, it makes it even more difficult not to think about it.
"Later, I remembered that feeling when I arrived at M-G-M, just a beginner. I hadn't really read the contract. I found out that what Metro had was an option, and that after six months, they didn't have to pick it up. They didn't have to pick me up. I could be thrown away. I saw it happen to many others. It was heartbreaking. They were destroyed. I knew the feeling would be like being rejected by the sorority, but so much more terrible."
Billie couldn't get over her sorority disappointment, nor did she manage to get good grades. She thought that maybe all of those people who had judged her as not very smart were right and that she just wasn't very smart.
One night, she decided to leave college and pursue a dancing career. She was stopped from acting rashly by Dr. Wood, who learned of her plan and urged her not to leave so abruptly. He told her that she was intelligent, but through no fault of her own had come to college unprepared. Someday, he predicted, she would become a fine teacher. He didn't discourage her from trying to become a dancer, but he did advise her not to break off her education. Joan had great respect for him, and his words, "Don't run away," stayed with her all of her life. She understood that running away from something was very different from running to something.
Back in Kansas City, Billie lived with her mother and Mr. Hough. She held various jobs, such as telephone operator and department store clerk, earning around $15 a week. She and Ray Sterling continued to go to nightclubs, by that time "speakeasies," where Billie often won the dancing contests. "Ray," she said, "was not a great dancer, but acceptable, and dancing as a couple, I could make him look good."
She still hoped she might dance professionally. Her ideal was Pavlova, whom she had never seen but remembered hearing about when she was a child. In reverent tones, people had talked about the great ballerina's appearance in Lawton. Someday, Billie hoped people would speak that way about her.
Billie's first professional opportunity arrived when Katherine Emerine's traveling revue arrived in Kansas City, auditioning for dancers. In the days before sound films and radio, entertainers could attain regional popularity without being known nationally, and Emerine was one of those in the Midwest. While her base was Chicago, she would take her show on the road all over the Midwest. To save money, dancers were recruited along the way, and then replaced at the next stop. Billie was among those who tried out as dancers for Emerine's Missouri stand. Sixteen chorus girls were chosen, among them Billie. She gave her name as Lucille LeSueur for the billing.
At the end of two weeks, in Springfield, Missouri, the show completed its run. As Billie prepared to return to Kansas City, Emerine invited her to get in touch with her if she ever came to Chicago. She told Billie that she liked her enthusiasm as much as her talent.
Life back in Kansas City meant finding another job in a department store while Billie lived with her mother and Hough. After two weeks of show business, Billie had more trouble than ever adjusting. She treasured the piece of paper Katherine Emerine had given her with her phone number and Chicago address.
"I was inspired by the life my mother lived, as a slave of circumstances, to live a completely different life. Life at the bottom of the barrel doesn't have anything redeeming about it, and it doesn't build character. It destroys character. My mother didn't have much chance to be a wonderful mother because she had to work so hard. The struggle was too hard for her.
"I never got to know the person she was when she was young, before life wore her down, the person she might have been if things had been easier for her."
Without announcing it to anyone, even Ray, and leaving only a note for her mother not to worry, Billie, using all of her small earnings, took the day coach to Chicago.
* * *
Chicago wasn't all she had hoped it would be. Katherine Emerine was not a big star there. She wasn't even there. When Joan reached her address on the South Side, Emerine was on tour. Joan didn't even have a return ticket to Kansas City. She hadn't considered the possibility of failing and going back. Fortunately, she knew who Emerine's agent was, and found him in the phone directory. She didn't call, but went straight to his office.
He helped her, and she was immediately hired as Lucille LeSueur to dance at the Friar's Club for $25 a week. Next, she was sent to dance in a revue in Oklahoma City, and then to the Oriole Terrace in Detroit. There she attracted the attention of the powerful producer J. J. Shubert, who was at the club to hear Mistinguett, the legendary French singer.
Joan had heard a story that she "caught J. J. Shubert's eye" by spilling a drink on him as she was serving between the acts. She said it was not true. "I would never have deliberately done such a stupid, clumsy thing, and I was never a conniving person. If it had happened, an accident, I would have been so mortified, I certainly would have remembered it all my life. The drink part didn't happen, but Mr. Shubert seeing me was a turning point in my life."
Lucille was offered a part in the chorus of Shubert's new show, Innocent Eyes, which would feature Mistinguett singing music by Sigmund Romberg. The next night, she was on the train to Philadelphia, where the show would try out. "I was Lucille for this one," she said, "but Billie inside me was excited."
A quick study, Lucille learned all of the dance routines right away, and was even promoted from the back of the chorus to the front. The show opened in New York at the Winter Garden in March of 1924. It was not a big success, and sooner than expected, the bans were posted. Lucille declined an offer to go on the road with it, preferring to stay in New York, which she decided agreed with her. She was thrilled by the city.
"One of my happiest homes was when I got my place in the chorus in New York City," Joan told me. "I was invited to share an apartment with four of the girls in the chorus. It turned out to be only one room. I loved it."
Among Lucille's friends in New York was a young dancer named Lewis Offield, who chose to stay with the show as it toured. Like Lucille, he was from Missouri and desperately wanted to succeed as a dancer on Broadway. They met again some years later at a Hollywood premiere as Joan Crawford and Jack Oakie.
Throughout her life, Joan chose each of her friends individually for qualities she saw in them that she valued, "sincerity, honesty, intelligence, talent, good motives, knowing how to be a friend, understanding of pressures on a performer, humor, if possible, generosity, not being excessively judgmental, not being too temperamental, not liking to make scenes, and discipline."
Her friends were not from any single group, nor did they need to be people who knew each other. She ignored the Hollywood caste system. In her later years in New York, she said, "I consider several of the waiters at '21' to be my friends."
Lucille joined the chorus line of The Passing Show of 1924 at the Winter Garden. Her weekly salary was now $35. She earned additional money by working at the popular Club Richman, a speakeasy, where she performed the new dances she had seen on visits to Harlem nightclubs. Harry Richman, who owned Club Richman and was himself a famous song-and-dance man, had been impressed by Lucille when he saw her dancing in the Passing Show chorus.
Also impressed was Harry Rapf, an important M-G-M executive who offered her a screen test. At first, Lucille was not enthusiastic, even indifferent. She was doing what she wanted to do, dance, and her goal was to go to the top of that profession. The Broadway stage seemed a better venue for a dancer than the silent screen. Besides, she hoped to go home for the Christmas vacation.
Lucille made a test along with some other girls, and then was asked to come back for another test. When she was asked by Rapf where she could be reached, she gave him her mother's Kansas City address. She had no idea at this point in her career how seldom opportunities like this came along or how important this one was.
"I learned a few things which I've passed on to younger aspiring actresses," she told me, "hoping to help them with what I had learned. Don't turn down parts, especially at the beginning when each part you turn down could be the last one you're ever offered. And I said that regret is the worst companion you can have. Looking back with regret is unhealthy. The frustration can make you ill.
"Later, if you become a big star, you can afford to pass up something because you feel taking it might mean a death knell to your career. But you'd better not make a habit of it no matter how brightly your star is shining.
"It's not just a matter of pleasing your bosses or not displeasing them, but it's your public, your audience. You always have to think about them. It's ideal to give your audience a picture a year, even more than one in a year, if you have the opportunity. Waiting two years is dangerous to a career. You have to be very well established to do that.
"Your audience has to see you, lest they forget. Always remember, you have to stay in view."
Christmas in Kansas City turned out to be disappointing. Lucille had hoped to see Ray, but he had gone home to visit his family. Instead, she stayed with Mr. Hough and her mother, who was critical of the work she was doing. Anna had heard lurid stories about the lives of chorus girls in New York City. "If chorus girls did all the things people think they do, they wouldn't have any time to dance," Joan said.
Just before Christmas 1924, a telegram arrived for Lucille. Her mother gave it to her. It was the first telegram she had ever received. It would be the most important telegram of her life.
It offered her a five-year M-G-M contract at $75 a week. There was something about an option. She was to pick up $400 for her traveling expenses at their Kansas City office and leave immediately for Culver City, California.
She had almost forgotten about those screen tests. The first one she felt wasn't too successful, but she thought the second one turned out much better. She received some direction, and when she was asked to "run the gamut of emotions," she thought she did rather well.
She had been asked to laugh, then to cry, which she did, using her own "method," remembering times her mother had hit her when she hadn't done anything. What really brought forth a flow of tears that actually rolled down her cheeks was remembering Daddy Cassin. She had difficulty when they told her to stop crying and she couldn't, but apparently they hadn't held that against her.
Then, she had an opportunity to move. She always moved well, and it was easier to act when she didn't feel "frozen." The first test had concentrated almost entirely on static close-ups of her face.
"Later, a girl at M-G-M told me," Joan recalled, "that Mr. Rapf really just chose the girl he personally liked best, not the one who was best. She said that I didn't win on merit, even though I knew my second screen test was so good. I didn't like to think I was chosen for something else. Her words hurt me because I always wanted to succeed on merit, not on the casting couch, and I thought I had succeeded on merit.
"I have never been able to get over that, cruel words hurting me, even if they were untrue, even if they were said in anger or jealousy by people who only meant to hurt me.
"Words can be such weapons, and once angry words are spoken between people, they can't ever really be taken back. I must say with my husbands, we were very careful, as best we could be, not to exchange angry words.
"I feel in my heart that my second screen test was good, but I also knew there was some truth in what she said about Mr. Rapf liking me. But if he liked me best, maybe it was because I was the best, and also I was happy because I had justified his recommendation of me."
Joan had no reason to want to extend her stay with her mother. She had looked forward to being home for the holidays, but the visit hadn't lived up to her hopes. She had forgotten how difficult it was for her to get along with her mother, whom she couldn't seem to please. They didn't have much to talk about and share because she felt whatever she shared with her mother "turned out to be ammunition to be used against me in the future."
She didn't feel her mother would be sorry to see her leaving a few days early, until the last hours at home, when suddenly her mother, who hadn't seemed happy at all to have her there, seemed so unhappy to see her going.
Joan showed the "glorious" telegram that she had received to her mother, but Anna scarcely looked at it and didn't appear impressed. She seemed to have no more interest in this confirmation that her daughter was moving forward than she had when she seemed not to notice that little Lucille had been walking on her toes.
M-G-M had provided enough money for her to travel in a Pullman sleeper, "but that wasn't how I wanted to spend their money," Joan told me. "I could travel coach. I had a much better use for the money. This was my opportunity of a lifetime, it seemed, to buy clothes. I love shopping for clothes, but I had never had much opportunity for it because everything cost too much."
She had very little to pack. Her wardrobe consisted mostly of homemade dresses and a few things she had bought with her discount during her brief jobs at department stores.
"I could go into stores where I'd worked, like Kline's and Emery, Bird & Thayer, where I'd been a sales clerk or had only just looked in their windows, and I could be a customer. It was lovely to be treated as a customer.
"I bought shoes first. I've always loved shoes. I could usually get a bargain because of my small feet, size four. I was able to get two pair for the price of one. So I got four pair.
"My next purchase was quite impractical, a summer coat. When you hear it, it doesn't make sense, because why would you need a coat for summer? Not for warmth. The one I got was real linen, white. It was the height of luxury. I'd seen rich girls when I was at school who had light coats for spring and summer when you didn't need one, but it made the outfit look very finished. Since it was winter in Kansas City,
I bought what they called 'cruise clothes.' "I bought a white purse and a black purse, and some lightweight billowy flowered print dresses because I was going to Hollywood, where it was always summer, or so they said. I would be happy to leave behind the puffed-sleeve dresses my mother had made, so everything I'd bought would fit into one case. It was exciting. I was going to wear my new clothes in my new life."
Just in case she might be hungry, she bought a loaf of bread and some slices of cheese, and a few pieces of fruit. She didn't want to waste any of the money she had left on overpriced food in the dining car. "Besides, I realized I'd spent all my money on clothes. That last blouse meant I couldn't eat in the diner."
She hoped the train wouldn't be crowded, because she didn't like crowds. Crowds bothered Joan all her life. Crowds made it seem warmer than it was and they made her feel "small and lost." All of her life Joan preferred a temperature of 55 degrees. When she had the power as a star, she put into her contract that the set should never be over 55 degrees. Many people were cold on her sets.
On an unseasonably warm New Year's Day morning, Joan and her mother boarded the Country Club streetcar, which passed the Union Station entrance, where they got off. The Sunset Limited, coming from Chicago, was early. Joan and her mother exchanged only a few words, then as her daughter boarded, Anna, holding back tears, spoke: "Be sure and send some money home from your paycheck, honey."
Evidently, her mother was not totally convinced Joan would fail.
During the two-and-half-day journey to Los Angeles, Joan kept hoping M-G-M would be meeting her at the train station. "I'd spent so much that I didn't have enough money left to take a cab. If no one met me, I wondered how long a walk it would be to the hotel. Maybe there was a bus or a streetcar..."
Copyright © 2008 by Charlotte Chandler
Meet the Author
Charlotte Chandler is the author of several biographies of actors and directors, including Groucho Marx, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and Mae West, all of whom she interviewed extensively. She is a member of the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and lives in New York City.
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Charlotte Chandler, whose writing is positively magic, has given us in this compelling new personal biography, "NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR", something far beyond very important new information on this complex Oscar winning star. She has given us an actual personal experience of Joan Crawford herself.
Often times there is far more to be learned from how individuals "see themselves", and also "want to be seen", than from only the cold hard facts of their lives. If all you want to know about Joan Crawford is dates, people, hearsay, and gossip, then looking her up in an encyclopedia of film history and reading all the slander that was written specifically to hurt her and to damage her reputation will suffice. However, if what you want is the extraordinary opportunity of sitting and listening to Joan Crawford tell you about her life, as it personally impacted her, then "NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR" is absolutely the book for you!
Perfectly set with carefully observed background description, and skillfully crafted from first-hand personal interviews with Ms Chandler, this book reads with the reality of a face-to-face encounter with Joan Crawford and those who knew her well. And because the author, mercifully, has NOT burdened her audience with endless speculative and psychological analyses of the star, readers themselves are closely drawn into active participation with the narrative and can come to their own conclusions, based upon their own understanding of Joan Crawford as she and her contemporaries speak directly to them.
Joan Crawford, whose devotion to her fans is legendary, was the quintessential "Movie Star". No one has ever worked harder to perfect her talents and her physical self, or to please her studio and moviegoers. At its core, "NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR" refocuses our attention on Crawford's justly earned film career fame along with her many often unmentioned kindnesses to others, while at the same time balancing these accomplishments with the fears, insecurities, and childhood demons that we begin to perceive she always had to struggle against. Having read other books on and interviews of Miss Crawford I believe that she has revealed herself, in these largely "end-of-life" sessions with Ms. Chandler, in a way that we have never seen her before.
Also, importantly, in a stroke of sheer creative genius, Ms Chandler has set her own ego aside, and almost never reveals herself as present in the rooms where she sat and so carefully listened to those who told her their stories. It is, in fact, as if she has graciously gotten up and given her seat to her readers, and stepped out of the way so that they alone may be spoken to. In addition to what you will learn, it is the mystery of Ms Chandler's skill as a listener, and the magic of her writing as an author, that will leave you unable to put this book down.
My suggestion to you is to sit in a comfortable chair, turn out all the lights save the one you are reading with, pick up your copy of "NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR" and listen quietly as Joan Crawford personally tells you her story. Thanks to the keenly perceptive talent of Charlotte Chandler, I guarantee that you will not be disappointed!!
A purposefully detracted biography in opposition from her adopted daughter's "Mommie Dearest" memoir. Not the monster hanger hater as remembered by friends and co-workers. Which to believe? Every child has their own selective reality, I guess. But she was an icon of the great movie star legends. Loved her in Grand Hotel and Mildred Pierce. A fascinating life ideed...
Very intreging, good to hear the other side of Mommy dearest,
I really enjoyed this book, because it is, amongst others based on extensive interviews with Joan's other daughter, therewith giving the public the opportunity to get glimpses of the other side of the coin. And at the same time, this book 'Not the Girl next Door' gives us a complete overview of this superstars enormous body of work. It's about time!
The book was an easy read, but obviously written by a Joan Crawford fan. Not only was the author a fan, but the interviews were conducted with friends as well. As an adoption social worker I was very disapointed to read the thoughts of Miss Crawford, her friends and youngest children regarding adoption. It was no suprise to me that her eldest daughter was so angry with her mother considering that she and her siblings were expected to the 'grateful' for being 'chosen'. It is a shame that Joan never sought help for the children, besides boarding school, to deal with the issues of loss regarding adoption. I believe that there are at least two sides to every story and both are worth considering.