No More !
BY Jeremy Kinser
November 11 2010 6:30 PM ET
After fleeing a Dickensian childhood in the Midwest and following a stint as a dancer in New York, ambitious Lucille Le Sueur arrived in Hollywood in 1925, changed her name to the more marquee-friendly Joan Crawford, and launched one of the most illustrious careers in movie history. Always a resilient, adaptable actress, Crawford embodied the "jazz baby” of the 1920s, the struggling shopgirl of the Depression era, and the determined career woman of the World War II years, highlighted by her Oscar win for 1945’s Mildred Pierce. Eager to become a mother, Crawford adopted a daughter, Christina, in 1940. Subsequently she adopted three more children — a son, Christopher, and twin girls, Cathy and Cindy. Crawford continued working —1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opposite Bette Davis was a late-career box office smash—until 1972, when she retired to her New York apartment until her death from cancer in 1977. A year and a half after Crawford’s death, Christina, who along with her brother, had been disinherited by her mother, wrote the shocking, best-selling exposé Mommie Dearest. With it and the horrific film adaptation, which starred Faye Dunaway as a Kabuki-monster version of Crawford, the actress’s reputation would forever be sullied.
Donald Spoto, author of best-selling biographies of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Tennessee Williams, among others, was 11 years old when he became a Crawford fan after watching her Oscar-nominated turn in Sudden Fear in 1952. “Her performance knocked me out,” he says. Spoto wrote the actress a fan letter, and to his surprise she responded personally, an anecdote he uses to open his latest book. Using newly discovered archival information and exclusive interviews, Spoto has created an illuminating, three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman in Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford (William Morrow, $25.99). Spoto speaks with The Advocate about Crawford’s relationship with gay men, her rumored bisexuality, and the truth about her daughter’s scandalous book.
The Advocate: Since there have been so many biographies written previously about Joan Crawford, did you chiefly set out to repair the damage of Christina’s book?
Donald Spoto: I didn’t approach the topic with an agenda. What I realized was that Joan Crawford was considered a star and a personality but was not taken seriously as an actress. I wanted to set the record straight about her talent. I think she was one of the greatest screen actresses of the century. It’s very gratifying as a biographer to find out that people are not the dreadful monsters they’re often portrayed as. Joan wasn’t Joan of Arc, but she was also nothing like the character Faye Dunaway played in Mommie Dearest.
Many other books portray Joan as a very complicated person, but in yours she also comes off as incredibly likable. How do you find new information on a woman who has been dead for over three decades?
I spoke to people who worked with her and knew her, I went to the archives, and I had material from writing other books and talking to people from the Golden Age who are no longer with us. At the New York Public Library, I discovered receipts and letters for an extraordinary list of charitable donations she made. She refused to allow these philanthropic organizations to publicize her donations. She didn’t want to be thanked or admired. She had a good and comfortable life, and she felt she had to give something back. I believe a biographer is obliged to tell the truth even if it means saying something good about somebody.
Were people who knew her eager to speak with you to clear up the misperception?
Absolutely. People were eager. They said, “Please tell the truth. This woman does not deserve the ill repute.”