Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mommie Dearest by christina Crawford: A Rebuttal (chapter 4)

Much of this chapter is devoted to descriptions of the neighborhood the Crawford family lived in, Brentwood CA, a (by the 1940's) very fashionable suburb of Los Angeles, as well as descriptions of christina's own legendary birthday parties. Joan Crawford bought a small house at 436 Bristol Avenue in 1929. Her daughter writes that at the time, everyone told her not to move so far out into the country, and that nobody would come to visit her: "...There was only a dirt road out to it from Sunset Boulevard." Of course, Joan enlarged the house, adding two wings to the home during her marriages to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr and Franchot Tone.

(The house Joan bought, back when it was still a cottage-Bristol Avenue, 1929)

Among the neighbors in this quiet area were Laurence Olivier and his son, with whom the entire Crawford family became good friends. (Joan and Olivier on the set of "Dancing Lady")

Also nearby were the Robert Preston family (whose son was a close friend of Christopher Crawford's), and Jennings Lang (Joan's agent) and his wife and son, who was also a friend of christina's. A few doors down was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hal Roach (producer of the "Our Gang" comedies. Christina was close to both the daughters and as she writes: "We played together frequently because I could easily walk to their house without mother worrying about my safety."
(Bristol Avenue, much enlarged, circa 1935)

Across the street lived Frank Fay, a star of the early "talkie" era and his wife, a young actress named Barbara Stanwyck. When Stanwyck fled the home after a violent fight with Fay, she climbed over the fence that surrounded the Fay estate and Joan took her in until she could find a place of her own. They remained good friends (albeit with a few "off" periods) for the rest of their lives.

(a charming picture of Stanwyck and Crawford in the '40's)

(Incidentally, Barbara would have her own share of problems with an adopted child in the future. On Mike O'Hanlon's splendid Barbara Stanwyck website connected to the utterly marvelous Kay Francis site --the author writes:

With the release of her daughter’s 1978 book and ludicrous 1981 movie adaptation, Joan Crawford’s reputation was in ruins. Why shouldn’t Barbara’s be? After all, Dion had legitimate complaints next to Christina Crawford’s bullshitted attempt to gain pity from the American public. Dion was about to bring the skeletons out of his closet, and reveal in a tell-all book about the rejection and humiliation that he had endured as a child. What he realized that Christina Crawford did not was that he was complaining about a mother who had been raised on abandonment and abuse. Dion’s speaking out about his childhood was done from a much more sensitive and sympathetic manner, telling reporters, “..perhaps if we meet once more, we can both live the rest of our lives in peace.” She refused to see him, and kept only one picture of him locked away in a closet where no one else could find it). Now, I find that utterly touching...that this man (who'd endured a traumatic childhood every the bit the equal of his adoptive mother's unbearably harsh youth) could look within himself and find the understanding and compassion for a flawed and very human woman that's so completely lacking within the pages of Mommie Dearest...Dion sounds like he grew up to be a balanced, emotionally healthy person! If only all celebrity offspring were half as sensitive...

Other neighbors included the Tyrone Power's, the Jaffes (whose son Andy "was my very first boyfriend in elementary school"), and the little Hathaway boy who was "a great favorite" of the author. Also in the area was Miss Shirley-effing-Temple!

(Joan and Shirley in 1938-Joan's in costume for Mannequin)

Once upon a time, Joan and Phillip Terry took christina and Christopher to visit the Temple home (described by the author as "nice, but not lavish") and Shirley's parents welcomed them inside and showed them around. The author's biggest impression that day was of Shirley's closets..."Her parents had saved all her clothes and all her movie costumes", arranging them in chronological order. "I never saw so many clothes. Even Mommie didn't have so many clothes and she had closets filled to the brim. I met Shirley temple that day, but my most vivid memory is of those closets." (in the original publication of Mommie Dearest, the wording is slightly different: "my most vivid memory is of those incredible closets").

(Hey, Joan's closets can compete with ANYONE'S! She even has one for her SHOES!)

However, in "The Divine Feud", author Shaun Considine recounts the occasion somewhat differently:
Taken on a tour of the home by Shirley herself, christina "headed straight for the closets and, goggle-eyed, she gasped: 'Look at all those clothes.' 'Those aren't clothes. They're costumes,' Shirley corrected, closing the door to the covetous child. Then Christopher wanted attention. Said Temple in her 1988 autobiography: "Without warning, he drew back his fist and punched her (Joan) in the thigh. Reaching down, she slapped him on the cheek. "He struck me" she wailed in defense to husband Terry." (Although Temple remembered this as occuring in about 1938, it couldn't have happened earlier than 1946 or so, simply because Christopher wasn't born until 1942. Then again, the episode must have left a vivid impression on her, for her to remember it for over 40 years)!

The author goes on to discuss the "circus spectacular" birthday parties Joan Crawford held for christina as a child at their home, describing "our property" as comprising nearly an acre of land (in fact, Joan's estate went clear through from one street to the next).

(A beautiful view of the backyard pool )

tina writes: "We had a very large back yard. In it there was a rectangular pool of near Olympic size, a building on one side of the pool called the theater and another building opposite it called the bath house. Beyond the pool and these buildings there was a badminton court flanked by large flower beds, olive and magnolia trees. Past the court was a lattice work pavilion that spanned the width of the garden."

(Mom in the backyard, apprx. 1948)

This huge space was given over to tina's birthday parties when she was a young girl."It was a private circus...a miniature Disneyland before one existed for the public." Clowns, ponies, magic shows, balloons and games..."There was no doubt about it...I was the incarnation of the perfect child. Mother had created me in the image of perfection and then created these birthday parties to celebrate another successful year with that creation." But not all was balloons and birthday cake at these celebrations: "One year, I think I was about six, I threw an absolute fit as all the children were about to arrive...I asked if my friend Alma had arrived yet...Mother said she'd forgotten to tell me, but Alma could not come to the party. I looked directly into my mothers eyes and announced: 'In that case, I'm not going to the party either.' I should explain that Alma was my constant playmate. She lived a few houses away from us with her mother who was a housekeeper. Alma was black." (The author says she refused to budge until her friend showed up).

Pretty damning stuff, no? Although Joan Crawford was clearly a bigot of the worst kind, at least her six year old daughter was a valiant crusader for civil rights.

(Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Christina Crawford: the white Rosa Parks)

And yet, once again, the facts differ somewhat from the authors recollections. A few years ago, Joan Crawford's grandson Casey (the son of Cathy Crawford LaLonde--one of the "non twins"--and contributor to the Legendary Joan Crawford website unearthed some of Joan's home movies, filmed between (approximately) 1939-1945, and he graciously made them available for exhibition at a few special events. Donna Nowak, webmistress of The Films Of Joan Crawford website (*please see note below regarding this website*) was one of the lucky few able to attend a screening and her experience watching these films was something of a revelation. Not only were they in glorious color (rare even for a studio film at that time) but they showed a side of Joan Crawford that we her fans can only dream of seeing! Sunbathing semi-nude, doting on little christina and other children, swimming, hiking through the woods on vacation with Charles McCabe (who, after Clark and Franchot, was one of the great loves of Joan's life) and even goofing around for the camera, apparently these films capture Crawford at her most relaxed and loving. And lovely. But what really made me sit up and take notice was Ms. Nowak's description of one of the reels of footage included in these home movies. Taken at one of young christina's birthday parties, the camera clearly reveals *Gasp* black children in attendance!!!

"Negroes? Dear God, what's next? Lesbians and Nancyboys?"
(Yust a little yoke. Ahem.)

So the point is the eldest daughter, in the oh so subtle fashion that's a hallmark of her writing, manages to "give the impression" that her mother was racist. Never anywhere else has such a charge been leveled against Joan Crawford--if anything Crawford was ahead of her time as far as tolerance towards people of all different stripes, persuasions and choices. The extremely professionally competitive woman might be accused of many things, but being a bigot? That just don't fly.

Next, tina writes : "A lot of times, I had to choose between Mommie and Phillip (Terry). I remember the last time. It was about which movie to show...his or hers...I'd never seen one of Phillip's, so I really should have and wanted to choose his film." According to the author, Crawford and Terry were fighting and Joan left the room, telling christina to call her when she'd decided. "I called her on the house phone. That night we screened a movie of mother's, I don't remember which one. It wasn't long after that that Phillip left." The two were indeed divorced on April 25, 1946.

(Joan and Phillip Terry at Monterrey, CA, in 1945)

In the 1998 edition of Mommie Dearest I have, this incident is recorded on page 35. Yet on page 89 of the same edition, the author writes: "I'd only seen one of mother's movies. It was called Humoresque with Johnny Garfield...the movie was very sad... I was crying...Before I could sort things out, I thought the movie was real..."

Humoresque (probably one of the greatest movies of Joan Crawford's entire career) was in production from mid-December 1945 to mid-April 1946 (it was released in one theater in Los Angeles in December 1946 but went into general release in January 1947). This bit has always stumped me, it did even as a teenager when I read MD for the first time. The author gives the impression that she'd seen quite a few of Joan's films prior to having to choose between one of Crawford's or one of Terry's that fateful night in early to mid-1946 (remember, the couple were divorced in mid-April, 1946, but he'd undoubtedly moved out at least a bit earlier-after all, divorce doesn't happen overnight) or she's just flat-out lying about chronology and events, to insinuate that her mother forced the entire household to watch her movies on a constant basis (she was so egotistical, dig?) You decide, gentle reader!

(and after you've decided, check out "Humoresque", perhaps the most achingly romantic film of Joan Crawford's career)

The last bit in this chapter is the part where christina discovers Joan has (supposedly) ripped Phillip Terry out of all the pictures in the family photo albums following their divorce. christina says she was terrified upon discovering this: "I spent the next thirty years trying not to make Mommie mad, so I wouldn't disappear, too." Right.

* Re: "The Films Of Joan Crawford" website, much of the written content has been removed, but it's for a good cause: Donna Nowak's book about Joan Crawford is being published in late June! One of the things I've always loved about Ms. Nowak's site is her clear, loving and enthusiastic editorial opinions about Joan Crawford, both as a person and an actress. Facts are cool, and I know most of 'em, but what I really like is to read about how Joan has touched people's lives and made a difference (God knows, she's made a difference in mine!). From what I gather, a ton of the information and photographs to be included in the book are going to be all "new and improved" and damn, am I jonesing for a new Joan book!

For her accomplishments in the realm of All Things Crawford, I'm bestowing upon Donna Nowak I'm Not Patty's first-ever "Elle Driver Award for Tenacity, Fierceness and Achievement"... Wield your Hanzo sword with pride, Ms. Nowak!


casu said...

What an interesting post, Rob! Of course I read MD but I never "connected" the neighborhood in such evokes an image of "normality" - whatsoever this is - for me.The "Shirley story" reminded me of the photo of Christina (first edition)showing her dressed up in her mother´s clothes - always wondered that "Mommie Dearest" allowed that! And about "Humoresque": do you remember that the twins told a similar story about watching that film? Anyway, considering Christina´s age I found it strange that she should have been allowed to watch the films - no matter if Joan´s or Terry´s. Susanne

FelixInHollywood said...

Rob - It's so wonderful that you are doing this, and doing this so beautifully!

The little band of us who are trying to restore Crawford's reputation is not so little anymore, thank heavens. We'll get the old girl back to where she belongs in the public's mind; a complex, somewhat flawed, very giving and very gifted artist.

Rob said...

Hi Susanne-I've actually started wondering if the eldest daughter didn't "borrow" that Humoresque story from one of the twins(Cathy, I think?)That really does seem to be in character for christina (I'm not joking, some of the passages I've been re-reading seem like the products of a delusional mind). And oh my GOSH, I'd forgotten about tina saying she loved raiding her mother's closets and assembling outrageous outfits-that doesn't sound like something "Mommie Dearest" would ever have allowed, does it?
And dear Felix, thank you so much for your comments! "complex,somewhat flawed" is a perfect decription of JC--and of everyone who's ever lived!I guess that's what I'm aiming for-not necessarily just to deny this or that(although christina makes it rather easy!)but to provide an alternate take on things that are frequently accepted as fact (why doesn't anyone ever call christina on her bullshit?)
Re:"The little band of us who are trying to restore Crawford's reputation is not so little anymore"--you are right, my bud, and here's the part that kind of floors me: Joan Crawford is a TOWERING figure in American cinematic history. Without her mother, christina Crawford is nothing. And yet,without her daughter, Joan Crawford still rocks!
Personal note of gratitude: I'm sort of impressed and almost freaked out, that so many "real" bloggers and writers have written kind comments and emails to me regarding I'm Not Patty. I'm aware that this is kind of a "niche" spot (me rambling on about Joan Joan JOAN and other girls that this gay guy can't live without)and I'm very touched to hear from all y'all! In the sidebar to the left, there's a list of websites and blogs (by no means all-inclusive)that I try to check out on a regular basis. Many of these are doubtless unaware that I'm a huge fan and dedicated reader-and that's intentional.I don't want it to be an "I linked to you, so you better link back to me!" thing--instead they're just THERE, and anyone can check 'em out and follow them as they like. Cool people(whether horror fans or classic film buffs or Joan Crawford fanatics)make me super happy, and I feel kind of lucky to know(and know of)so many! My sincere thanks!
And guess what?
It's 11:38 PM(Wisconsin time,that is)and 'Grease' just started on AMC. I love Patty Simcox...

Janie said...

Another great MD post Rob. It amazes me how Christina is never challenged on the contradictions and inaccuracies in the book. I saw some time back the sale on e bay of a copy of a tribute to Joan signed by over 100 of her friends - I think it appeared in Variety a few years after her death. It seems no one ever asked opinions from these friends or even accepted Myrna Loy's defense - it is always "Helen Hayes said....." Can't think of any other person - unknown or famous who would have friends sign such a tribute years after their death. It certainly wasn't to gain Joan's favor or use her power in Hollywood - because wherever she now is she cannot be used by anyone!

Rob said...

@ Janie re:"Can't think of any other person - unknown or famous who would have friends sign such a tribute years after their death. It certainly wasn't to gain Joan's favor or use her power in Hollywood - because wherever she now is she cannot be used by anyone!" My dear friend,you are so right! I don't want to get into this too much, because it's truly painful to me and I don't like to think about it too much, but on occasion,sometimes it just feels to me like EVERYONE used Joan unfeeling, abusive mother (who later on hid behind the facade of "nice little old lady") and an absolutely awful brother (both of whom seemed to see dollar signs whenever they looked at her),add to that the world's shittiest child,career pressures and being a single mom...and yet Joan just kept on pluggin' away, working her ass off to pay everyone else's bills.
Sometimes she must have gotten so tired...My Hero.

John said...

I'd forgotten about the racially motivated part in MD!

constance nunn said...

You sound like a racist bitch! Negroes and white rosa park. What about you CRACKER! Wet pale dogs.


constance nunn said...

Whata uo on negroes and white rosa park? You sound like a racist white pale cracker!

constance nunn said...

You sound like a racist bitch! Negroes and white rosa park. What about you CRACKER! Wet pale dogs.


constance nunn said...

Your just a racist cracker. Putting words in joan mouth!

Rob said...

Really, Constance?
I'm assuming that you're having a bad day, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but you seem to have missed the point of what I was going for: I was KIDDING!

Without getting TOO into it, in Mommie Dearest, the vile little spawn insinuated that her mother was racist. This was tidily refuted by the discovery of the home movies wherein black kids were filmed attending alongside white kids. I was GOOFING!

Get some rest, ok? Rob

Anonymous said...

That was not something to joke about Mr. Rob! It was very insensitive.

Spencer said...


I have read MD and seen the movie, and I think the film especially is character assasination that is hard to match. This is not a poor reflection of Faye Dunnaway's gift as an actress, but the fact that Joan was shown as this woman with zero redeeming qualities is what bothered me. She was capable of great genorosity. Based on my research, I believe Joan had her own demons to contend with and likely suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Her alcoholism could have been linked to that as well as her own deep seated insecurity. I do believe Christina suffered, but so did Joan.