Sav­ing Craw­ford from ‘Mom­mie Dear­est,’ and her­self

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY CHARLES MATTHEWS book­world@wash­post.com Charles Matthews is a writer and edi­tor in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

First you’re an­other Sloe-eyed vamp, Then some­one’s mother, Then you’re camp.

The ca­reer arc of the Hollywood ac­tress was neatly traced by Stephen Sond­heim in the song “I’m Still Here” from the mu­si­cal “Fol­lies.” Joan Craw­ford per­fectly fits that par­a­digm: The flap­per of “Our Danc­ing Daugh­ters” be­came the suf­fer­ing mother of “Mil­dred Pierce” and, fi­nally, the faded star of the over-the-top “What Ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane?”

Don­ald Spoto fleshes out the pat­tern a lit­tle more in his new bi­og­ra­phy. “For half a cen­tury, she as­sessed what the pub­lic wanted in each era: the jazz baby dur­ing the 1920s; the in­de­pen­dent thinker of the 1930s; the trou­bled post­war woman of the 1940s; the ro­man­ti­cally starved woman of the 1950s; the horror queen of the 1960s and 1970s.”

It was her own sheer am­bi­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion that trans­formed Lu­cille Le Sueur, the for­mer laun­dress and cho­rus girl, into Joan Craw­ford, the em­bod­i­ment of Hollywood glam­our. Born and raised in poverty, she was barely ed­u­cated, ad­mit­ting late in life that she “never went be­yond the fifth grade.” But when she mar­ried the so­phis­ti­cated Dou­glas Fair­banks Jr., Spoto tells us, she set about “with her usual sin­gle-minded en­ergy” to turn her­self into a “so­ci­ety doyenne”: “She stud­ied French, en­gaged a vo­cal coach and learned opera arias, she learned to dress with bet­ter taste, and . . . read vo­ra­ciously, pick­ing up a book when­ever she had a quar­ter hour to her­self at home: the Ro­man­tic po­ets, the clas­sics, his­tory, the nine­teenth cen­tury nov­el­ists, Shake­speare, H.G. Wells and more.” The in­ten­sity of her ef­forts at self-im­prove­ment can by gauged by a claim she made: “I be­came a pretty good polo player in or­der to get over my fear of horses.” Which is a lit­tle like swim­mingthe EnglishChan­nel to get over a fear of wa­ter.

Spoto’s bi­og­ra­phy gives you the sense that it must have been ter­ri­bly ex­haust­ing to be Craw­ford, al­ways la­bor­ing to achieve and hold on to star­dom. No won­der she hit the vodka bot­tle a lit­tle too much, and mar­ried too of­ten and sel­dom well. It didn’t help, ei­ther, that icon­o­clasts were al­ways ready to hack away at her im­age.

Even when she was still Lu­cille Le Sueur, there were ru­mors she had danced nude in night­clubs and made porno­graphic movies: One man ap­proached MGM with a clip from a film that he claimed was of her, of­fer­ing to sell it to the stu­dio or he would take it to the pa­pers. Though stu­dio head­Louis B. Mayer as­serted that “ the girl in this pic­ture could be any­body — any­one at all — ex­cept our Lu­cille,” Spoto also notes that the black­mailer’s “ house mys­te­ri­ously burned to the ground the fol­low­ing month.”

But the great­est dam­age to Craw­ford’s rep­u­ta­tion was done posthu­mously, by her adopted daugh­ter, Christina, and by mak­ers of the 1981 film ver­sion of Christina’s mem­oir, “Mom­mie Dear­est,” which pre­sented Joan as a cold, harshly de­mand­ing, ex­ces­sively con­trol­ling mother. Spoto calls the book “a vi­tu­per­a­tive act of re­venge af­ter Joan ex­cised her two old­est chil­dren from her will af­ter many years of dis­cord.” He is de­ter­mined to re­pair the dam­age, even in­ves­ti­gat­ing the most fa­mous moment in the book and movie, in which Joan attacks Christina for putting her clothes on­thewrongkind of hang­ers:“No wire hang­ers, ever!” Ac­cord­ing to Spoto, laun­der­ers and dry clean­ers “were un­der strict in­struc­tions to re­turn all cloth­ing on the richly cov­ered hang­ers Joan pro­vided.” He thinks Christina re­mem­bered these in­struc­tions and re­worked them into “a mad scene wor­thy of Ital­ian opera.”

Spoto is an un­apolo­getic fan, be­gin­ning his book with Craw­ford’s re­sponse to a let­ter he wrote her as an 11-year-old in 1952. He has seen, and writes about, ev­ery ex­tant Craw­ford film, and “Pos­sessed” is larded with praise for her act­ing. But he is will­ing to ad­mit that Craw­ford be­trayed her­self into that fi­nal stage of her ca­reer: camp. She “re­garded the thickly arched eye­brows and over-the-lip gloss as an in­fal­li­ble sign of fe­male de­sir­abil­ity,” long af­ter the fashion had faded. As a re­sult, “ her ap­pear­ance is some­thing to get be­yond, be­fore the qual­ity of the act­ing can be as­sessed. Alas, per­form­ers of drag quickly got to work and of­fered de­press­ingly ac­cu­rate par­o­dies.”

A pro­lific bi­og­ra­pher of al­most ev­ery­one from Je­sus to Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis, Spoto has in­ter­viewed and writ­ten about so many of Craw­ford’s con­tem­po­raries that he seems to feel com­pelled to tell us ev­ery­thing even re­motely re­lated to his sub­ject, and the book some­times feels padded. His prose plods at best but some­times stum­bles, as when he writes about Craw­ford trav­el­ing with “a trunk full of furs and her mil­lion­aire hus­band.”

But we need a re­assess­ment of Craw­ford, a star now eclipsed by such con­tem­po­raries as Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Katharine Hep­burn, even though she was prob­a­bly as good an ac­tress as any of them. Her lively, nat­u­ral per­for­mance is the best thing in “Grand Ho­tel,” that dis­play case full of ham, and she stole “ The Women” out from un­der the neatly pow­dered noses of Norma Shearer, Ros­alind Rus­sell, Paulette God­dard and Joan Fon­taine. Spoto has given us a use­ful start at res­cu­ing Craw­ford not only from Christina, but also from her­self.

WIL­LIAM MOR­ROW, AN IM­PRINT OF HARPERCOLLINS PUB­LISH­ERS

STEP BY CA­REER STEP: A new bi­og­ra­phy traces Joan Craw­ford from flap­per to suf­fer­ing mother and, fi­nally, to faded star.

By Don­ald Spoto Wil­liam Mor­row. 336 pp. $25.99

POS­SESSED The Life of Joan Craw­ford

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