by Susie Hodgson

“Wait,” you gasp. “She was an MGM star and they were in Culver City! How dare you write about her in a BURBANK historical tome?” Because I can (!) – and what’s more, it was Burbank’s own Warner Brother Studios that saved her career. But more on that later.

Joan Crawford was born in San Antonio, TX in some year. No one is sure when. Her name then was Lucille LeSueur and, from an early age, had a real knack for dancing. Her mother was married two or three times. No one is sure how many.

Lucille went by the nickname “Billie” as a kid. Also as a kid, Billie sliced her foot wide open when she jumped on a broken glass milk bottle. She had to have three surgeries and miss 18 months of school.

Joan (Lucille then) moved herself up to New York City and got herself into the chorus lines of some famous Broadway shows. Rumor has it Lucille married a sax player in NY, but Joan never ever mentioned it. And she mentioned plenty of other things.

Soon she realized the real action was in Hollywood, so off she went. She even got herself a contract with MGM who promptly decided she needed a new name. So some PR genius decided to run a contest (“Name The Star”) in a movie magazine. The winning name was Joan Arden, but that name was already taken. As a result, the studio went with the runner-up, Crawford. Joan didn’t like it. It sounded like “crawfish.” But it took.

Joan became known as the epitome of a flapper – kind of a wild thing. To that, Joan was quoted as responding, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

In 1929, Joan hit the big time by marrying into Hollywood royalty – the Fairbanks family. She wed Douglas Fairbanks Jr., son of famed movie star Douglas Fairbanks and his second wife, stepmother Mary Pickford. The couple hated Joan, but after a while, Fairbanks Sr. warmed up to her. Pickford never did. But it didn’t hurt that the movie Grand Hotel (Crawford was in it) won Best Picture in 1932.

Joan divorced Fairbanks Jr. in 1933, claiming her husband was too jealous. In 1935 she married stage actor Franchot Tone. He loved acting for acting’s sake, especially on Broadway – or off. But Joan wanted him to be a movie star. To a degree he did, even garnering an Oscar nomination for 1935’s rendition of Mutiny on the Bounty. Tone also starred in the award-winning film

Dangerous with Bette Davis. THIS is when the well-known feud between Davis and Crawford began, many claim. The Tones divorced in 1939, when Crawford was proclaimed “Box Office Poison.”

In 1942, Crawford married actor Phillip Terry. Joan had already adopted Christina (you’ve heard of her, whether you know it yet or not!) Then, with Phillip, they adopted a boy they named Phillip Terry Jr. But when they inevitably divorced four years later, Joan changed the boy’s name to Christopher Crawford.

MGM had had enough and though they called their separation from Crawford “mutual,” word on the street was that she was fired. Luckily for her, Warner Brothers gave her $500,000 and a three-film deal. This broke her “Box Office Poison” reputation – especially with the second of the three – a 1945 movie that the Director never wanted her to be in.

The director was the famous Michael Curtiz. Both he and Warner Brothers wanted Barbara Stanwyck in the movie. Stanwyck said no. Curtiz wanted Bette Davis. WB said no and WB prevailed. Joan Crawford got it – the leading role in Mildred Pierce, based on a James Cain novel. Cain also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. He is known for doing some of his best writing in a rented cottage on Bel Aire Drive in Burbank.

Mildred Pierce went on to be a multi-Oscar nominated film and Joan Crawford won Best Actress for her acting in the title part. She was BACK!

Meanwhile, in 1947 the single Crawford adopted two more girls – twins Cindy and Cathy.

In 1955, Joan married the head of Pepsi-Co, Alfred Steele. She took on a lot of responsibilities promoting Pepsi. In 1959, Steele died and Joan joined Pepsi’s Board of Directors, still pushing Pepsi at every step and introducing product placement in every media production she made. In 1973, the Board voted Crawford off the Board, which hurt.

Joan made a few more movies, mostly for the money. This included Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with her long-time “enemy,” Bette Davis.

In 1969, Joan’s daughter Christina was copying Mom and acting in the soap opera The Secret Storm. Christina fell terribly ill and Joan offered to play the part (the part of a 24-year-old, mind you!) The TV show even said yes!

In 1977, Joan was not feeling too well, causing her to give away her beloved dog. Only four days later, Joan Crawford died of a heart attack. One year later, Crawford’s daughter Christina wrote the bestselling controversial book Mommie Dearest. It described Joan as an abusive, neglectful, horrible mother. It was noted by many that Christina (and her brother Christopher) were blatantly left out of Joan’s will. The latter two daughters, Cindy and Cathy, were included in the will and were adamant in their opposition to the contents of the book Mommie Dearest. Many people in Hollywood also disagreed with book, yet there were others who agreed with it. Although critically panned, the book became a cult-favorite movie starring Faye Dunaway in 1981.

So what was Joan Crawford really like? Much like her birthday and the number of husbands her mother had (and even Joan had), no one is sure.

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