As the author of twenty-six books, most of them biographies, I've developed a kind of motto: "The biographer is obliged to tell the truth--even when it means saying something good about someone." This is not always a popular position to stake.
Twenty years ago, for example, I began research for a life of Marilyn Monroe--the first such project authorized by her Estate, with no strings attached and unhindered access to a massive array of materials never before consulted. After conducting more than a hundred interviews and surveying an astonishing cache of primary material, something unexpected became clear. Monroe was not a dimwitted woman of easy virtue who spiraled downward into suicidal depression. She was something very different indeed from that popular misconception.
I had precisely the same experience while working on my latest book, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. Important new material revealed a woman very different from the conventional, false image. With the possible exception of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps no movie star has been so underappreciated, misrepresented by rumor, innuendo, fabrication, unfounded allegation and rank distortion.
Joan Crawford was neither Joan of Arc nor an arch she-devil. She was a recognizably human and passionate woman who entertained millions; she made egregious mistakes and learned from them; and she always had a legion of friends and countless admirers. One's fame or power or influence was never the criterion for friendship with Joan, and she was on warm terms with people from every walk of life.
The shift in public opinion from respect to contempt began a year after her death, with the publication of a book called Mommie Dearest, which alleged that Joan was a sadistic alcoholic who took special pleasure in torturing her adopted children. That volume, remarkable as the work of a somewhat hysterical imagination, cannot be taken seriously after one has checked the facts, reviewed original documents and interviewed those who knew Joan and her children. More to the point, the author of the book has retreated from her most outlandish claims--but that, of course, is very rarely reported.
In many ways, Joan Crawford was a jumble of contradictions, but the contradictions provide clues to an incontrovertible fact--that she was much more than just a movie star; she was demonstrably one of the screen's most gifted actresses. In this regard, it has often been claimed that Crawford simply played variations on the theme of the poor shop-girl who climbs (and sometimes claws) her way to the top, achieving material success by sexual boldness or sheer force of will. But that is worse than a simplification: it's downright inaccurate. Of twenty-five Crawford films released during the 1930s, she portrayed a salesclerk in only two (Our Blushing Brides and The Women); the record shows that she played a far wider spectrum of characters than is commonly asserted.
Joan's critics claim that she had no gift for comedy, and that the so-called "weeping woman's movie" was the extent of her range. But only those who have not seen comedies like Chained, Forsaking All Others, Love on the Run, The Women, Susan and God, When Ladies Meet and Above Suspicion can say that. Those movies prove that she was a gifted exponent of high comedy--a fact that comes as a surprise to those who identify Joan Crawford only with Mildred Pierce, Humoresque or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Born in Texas, Lucille Le Sueur was renamed in a studio-sponsored publicity contest. As Joan Crawford, she never took an acting lesson, nor did she ever study with a drama coach. Working by instinct, intensely focused and observant, she was completely self-educated; as her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., told me, "She never ceased in her efforts at self-improvement and was dedicated to her art--to a point of almost religious devotion."
Joan moved through several phases in her fifty-year career--from Broadway chorus girl to flaming flapper, from silent movie vamp to comic mannequin, from dramatic actress to businesswoman and corporate executive at Pepsi-Cola. Through it all, she was tenacious, tough and tender. When people met her, they were often surprised to see that the woman who seemed so much larger than life onscreen was only five-feet-three-inches tall.
Perhaps because she had come from a crude, poor background and was mistreated in her childhood, Joan always insisted--sometimes even to her own amusement--that people demonstrate exquisite manners and courtesies, both toward herself and others. "People were in awe of her, but she was never in awe of herself," recalled the director Herbert Kenwith. "She could speak with all kinds of people on their own levels."
That quality was evident one day not long before Joan died. She was leaving a Manhattan restaurant when a team of construction workers recognized her and whistled loudly. "Hey, Joanie!" shouted one of them.
Smiling, she went over to shake their hands. "I'm surprised that you fellas know who I am!"
"You're one in a million," said a workman. "They sure don't make them like you anymore, baby!"
She loved it.