What You Never Knew About Joan Crawford

Legendary actress Joan Crawford took the world by storm during Hollywood's golden era, gaining massive popularity during the 1930s. Her extensive film career mainly involves playing strong, empowered women who achieve financial success after hard work, which were roles that were highly appreciated by audiences during the Great Depression. "She grew up in and was formed by the Depression, and that experience permeated the films she made and explains the intensity of her appeal to millions who were living through hard times," film historian Molly Haskell told Allure.

Crawford got her start with major film agency Metro Goldwyn Myer (via Biography), which dominated the industry in the early 20th century. When films began to incorporate sound in their productions, many stars' careers rapidly declined due to the unideal sound of their voices. However, Crawford managed to thrive during the transition, starring in one of the first ever "talkies," "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (via Harper's Bazaar).

Despite her influence and impressive performances, Crawford's complicated personal life was laced with much controversy, much of which is not known by the general public. Here is what you didn't know about Joan Crawford.

Joan Crawford got her start on Broadway

Although her birth year is still a mystery, it is widely speculated that Crawford was born around 1906 in Texas to a working class family. From a young age, it was Crawford's dream to become a dancer. However, according to "The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries," by Mark Knowles, she sustained a major injury when jumping off her home's front porch during her childhood. She severely sliced her foot on a broken milk bottle, and the damage was so severe that she had to endure three operations and was unable to attend school for a year. Despite this, she managed to have a steady career in dancing, which led to her discovery.

After becoming a dancer at her stepfather's theater, she won a "Charleston Contest," and was then hired in a club in Detroit. She was then recruited by producer J.J. Schubert to star as a chorus girl in a production of a Broadway musical titled "Innocent Eyes." It was then she was discovered by an MGM talent scout, who agreed to set up a screen test for her, and the mega star as we know her today was born.

Her name was chosen at a public contest

Born Lucille Fay LeSueur, she also went by the name Billie Cassin while performing before fame, going by the same last name as her stepfather. After being offered a film contract by MGM, she was told her original last name sounded too much like "sewer," and was too difficult to pronounce. Needing a fitting stage name to aid her budding career, a magazine called "Movie Weekly" then ran a contest called "Name Her and Win $1000," according to Mark Knowles' "The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries."

While the original winning name of the contest was Joan Arden, there was already an actress associated with MGM with that exact name who threatened to sue the company. Therefore, they decided to go with the second place winner, Joan Crawford. According to Biography, everyone was satisfied with the name except for Joan herself, who reportedly said that it reminded her of a crawfish. Her friend, actor William Haines, even nicknamed her the "Crawford Cranberry."

The actress eliminated her Southern accent for the screen

Joan Crawford's name wasn't the only aspect of herself that she reinvented to be an ultra successful movie icon. A Texas native with a southern drawl, Crawford had to reinvent herself for the screen to be well received by audiences at the time. "(Crawford) came of age when being a star — developing a star persona, connecting with audiences — was a full-time business," film historian Molly Haskell explained (via Allure).

According to The Independent, she underwent an extensive amount of voice and speech training to transform her tone. She even went as far as to change her laugh and subconsciously alter her mannerisms. The voice that is heard in her later films is what is known as the "Mid-Atlantic Accent," which is an acquired accent that is a mix between British and American that was specifically bred for Hollywood films during the "Golden Age." "The one that we hear in theaters — in movies and on stage — is kind of an evolution of a form of speech that was taught in elocution classes," said writer Dan Nosowitz in an interview with NPR.

She also changed her appearance

Taking her transformation one step further, Crawford changed her appearance for her films as well to present a certain image for herself. "She had the uncanny skill to adjust her looks to simultaneously reflect and seem slightly ahead of whatever was the conception of the modern woman at the time," wrote critic Angelica Jade Bastien for Roger Ebert.

Although she is known in her extensive career as a brunette, she was actually born a redhead. She covered up her natural hair color with hair dye, and her freckles with makeup. When she had some of her back teeth removed, the hollowed space gave her more defined cheekbones (via Bustle). Clearly a fan of the sultry, mysterious look this gave her, she also overdrew her lips with lip liner to balance out her features and give herself the signature, Hollywood glamorous appeal (via CR Fashion Book). According to Refinery 29, she was also a fan of pencil-thin, highly arched eyebrows, a massive trend during her era. She also went as far as to wash her eyes daily with boric acid solution in order to give herself a "bright" appearance. She also made sure to chew gum on a regular basis, as she believed that it gave her jawline a tighter, more refined look.

Joan Crawford was married four, possibly five times

Crawford was known for living a scandalous life, and during her prime, her rocky romantic endeavors were always in the spotlight. According to Bustle, she had an on-and-off love affair with beloved film actor and costar Clark Gable, despite them both being married to other people. However, the two never wed and remained close friends throughout their careers. Crawford stated that the undeniable chemistry between the two stars during their shared screen appearances was based on real life feelings and attraction.

Her first brief marriage was speculated to be to saxophone player James Welton in 1925, whom she met while dancing on Broadway. However, little is known about this courtship, as Crawford refused to speak about it publicly. She had another marriage with high profile Hollywood figure Douglas Fairbanks Jr., which lasted from 1929 to 1934, and was supposedly highly frowned upon by her in-laws. She was also wed to fellow actor Franchot Tone from 1935 to 1939, who was also her costar on multiple occasions. Clearly having an affinity towards men in the entertainment industry, she tied the knot with American actor Phillip Terry, but the two split up in 1946. Crawford then remained single for nine years until she wed businessman Alfred Steele. He passed away from a heart attack four years later in 1959.

She was involved with Pepsi

Since her last husband Alfred Steele was the chairman of the Pepsi-Cola Company at the time, it's no surprise that Crawford became heavily affiliated with the beverage company. After Steele passed away in 1959, Crawford took a role on the company's board (via The New York Times). According to a 1971 article by Movie World, after her husband's death, she went to the Pepsi offices and began taking care of the late Steele's business. She made it clear to the other executives that she was not just some air-headed actress, but a knowledgeable and capable business woman. 

However, in 1973, Pepsi forced Crawford into retirement — which she learned about herself by reading The New York Times, according to Vanity Fair. Because of the termination, she no longer had access to her salary, car, secretary or jet. Therefore, she was forced to sacrifice her lavish lifestyle by moving into a smaller apartment.

She was known as a flapper

In 1928, Crawford appeared in "Our Dancing Daughters," a critically praised film about flappers, according to Variety. Fittingly, Crawford had a slim, boyish figure, which was seen as the ideal body type for women during the 1920s. She also had thin, overly plucked eyebrows, light blue eyes, and hair that was styled in soft waves, matching the quintessential flapper aesthetic. Even legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald commented on her remarkable style, stating, "Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living" (via Roger Ebert).

By the 1930s, she heavily influenced fashion at the time by drawing attention to her signature broad shoulders, a feature that was not typically previously acknowledged during that era (per The Huffington Post). Famed costume designer Adrian constructed a renowned dress for Crawford for her 1932 film "Letty Lynton," which featured extremely exaggerated ruffles at the sleeves. The dress was so widely well received that it reportedly sold over a whopping 50,000 off-brand versions. With a clear affinity for glamor and lavish looks, Crawford was notoriously quoted as saying: "If you want the girl next door, go next door" (via Roger Ebert). 

The actress was later labeled 'Box Office Poison'

In the early 1930s, Crawford was consistently named in a "Top Ten Money Making Stars" poll. However, despite her illustrious image and unparalleled success in her early years, Crawford faced many ups and downs in her career. In 1937, she starred in an MGM film titled "The Bride Wore Red" with then-husband Franchot Tone. The story follows Crawford as a dive bar singer who poses as an aristocrat in a typical rags-to-riches role (via The New Yorker).

Soon after the movie's release, the Independent Theater Owners Association published an open letter to the Independent Film Journal, labeling the once unstoppable actress as "Box Office Poison" (via Biography and The Independent). The letter referenced the lack of ticket sales she had recently been bringing in with her films. Other actors accused of being bad for box offices in the letter were the prolific Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. The letter did not come unprompted, as Crawford had starred in a series of box office disappointments during these years.

Joan Crawford made a major comeback

Despite a major setback, Crawford managed to use her talents to restore her name in Hollywood. In 1943, she left MGM to sign with competing film company Warner Brothers (via Vulture), which proved to be a critical step in her career. She was cast as the titular character in the 1945 film noir movie "Mildred Pierce," a role that was originally supposed to go to Crawford's notorious rival Bette Davis, who ended up declining the part. Although the director was hesitant to cast Crawford, she managed to change his mind after a screen test.

The plot of the iconic film revolves around the unsolved murder of the main character's husband. A 2001 review from The Guardian calls the film "utterly gripping," while praising Crawford's esteemed performance as "compelling." Commonly regarded as Crawford's best performance, she then went on to receive an Oscar for Best Actress at the 18th Academy Awards in 1946 for the role, famously accepting the award while residing in her bed (via The New York Post). The film was so well received that it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by The Library of Congress, and was selected to be preserved by the National Film Registry fifty years later in 1996.

She had a famous feud

At the height of her stardom, Crawford's name was often infamously associated with scandal and personal drama. She had an iconic feud with competing actress Bette Davis, as Crawford frequently upstaged Davis' name in the media. The true rivalry began when Davis fell in love with Franchot Tone while they co-starred in the movie "Dangerous." However, Crawford quickly became engaged to Tone during filming, reportedly covering him with lipstick on set in order to make Davis jealous (via Harper's Bazaar). "She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will," Davis said in 1987 (via The Daily Mail).

Years later, the two made their only film appearance together, playing sisters in 1962's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" The tension between the two was so intense that Crawford reportedly requested a body double in a scene where Davis hits her character, because she was worried that Davis would actually hurt her. According to Davis' memoir, when Davis was nominated for an Oscar for the role, Crawford reportedly contacted members of the Academy and told them not to vote for Davis. The award ended up going to Anne Bancroft that year (per Bustle).

She may have adopted her children illegally

Crawford was unable to have biological children, as all her attempts to reproduce with her third husband sadly ended in miscarriage (via The New Yorker). She therefore chose to expand her family by adopting five children. In the 1920s, adopting children started to become more socially acceptable, and was seen as a means to improve society. In 1940, Crawford adopted a girl named Christina. Two years later, she adopted a boy named Christopher, who was taken back by his birth mother shortly after. In 1943, she adopted another boy, also named Christopher, and twins Catherine and Cynthia in 1947 (via Bustle). Since single parents were banned from adopting in California at the time, Crawford used "illegal baby brokers" to expand her family (per Biography).

A disturbing 2019 article from Insider chronicled the actions of child-trafficker Georgia Tann, who kidnapped children and sold them to wealthy individuals, targeting the "rich and famous." According to the piece, Crawford reportedly adopted Catherine and Cynthia from Tann.

Her daughter denounced her in a memoir

Despite Crawford's immense talents, her legacy is now largely associated with her daughter Christina's chilling memoir, "Mommie Dearest," published in 1978, one year after Crawford's death. In the haunting recollections, Christina recalls horrific incidents of physical abuse induced by Crawford. Crawford was allegedly an overly-strict, controlling alcoholic who unleashed cruel and unusual treatment towards her children, and only cared about fame. According to The Hollywood Reporter, punishments included shredding Christina's favorite dress and making the children clean up messes they didn't make for hours in the middle of the night.

While her ex-husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her youngest children Cathy and Cindy vehemently denied the claims, her son Christopher bitterly told The Los Angeles Times in 1978: "She was not a mother. She was not family. I honestly to this day do not believe that she ever cared for me." 

"We don't recognise the long-term psychological damage that is inflicted on people who are abused, neglected and trafficked," Christina told The Guardian in 2019. She also revealed that in her early 20s, she cut contact with her mother until Crawford's death. Crawford made her final film appearance in the 1973 sci-fi movie "Trog," which was universally panned by critics. After a series of unflattering photographs of her were released in 1974, she became reclusive, refusing to be photographed publicly (via The Los Angeles Times). She died three years later in her Manhattan apartment of a heart attack, per Vanity Fair.