Lucille Fay LeSueur was born in San Antonio, Texas, on March 23, 1904. Her father, Thomas E. LeSueur, abandoned her mother, Anna Bell Johnson, and her two eldest children, while she was still pregnant. Anna began a new relationship with Henry J. Cassin, and the family lived with him in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he ran the Ramsey Opera House. After Cassin was accused of embezzling, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1916.
Now penniless, Lucille (nicknamed Billie) received a haphazard education at the various boarding schools where she cooked and cleaned in lieu of tuition fees. She briefly attended college in Columbia, Missouri, before dropping out and returning to Kansas City. She joined a chorus line, travelling to Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Chicago on the revue circuit. In 1924, she caught the eye of producer Jacob J. Shubert, and joined the chorus of Innocent Eyes in New York.
Her screen test for the newly-formed MGM Studios was promising enough to merit a trip to Hollywood. Newly-named Joan Crawford as the result of a magazine contest, she busied herself within MGM’s Culver City walls, and entered and won local dance competitions before playing her first significant role in Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), and being selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926.
She established herself as a romantic foil for matinee idols like John Gilbert and Ramon Navarro, and while appearing in The Unknown (1927), she learned about the craft of acting from co-star Lon Chaney. But it was her role as shop-girl Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) which made Joan Crawford an icon of the flapper generation, and chief rival to Paramount’s ‘It Girl’, Clara Bow. Then in 1929, she married Douglas Fairbanks Jr, elevating her to Hollywood royalty.
Her first talking picture, Untamed (1929), was a hit with the public. In Paid (1930), she played a wrongly accused ex-convict. She would make eight films with Clark Gable, including Possessed (1931) and Dancing Lady (1933.) And in the classic Grand Hotel (1932), she held her own against Greta Garbo and John Barrymore.
United Artists hoped to repeat the success of their 1927 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s provocative short story, “Miss Thompson,” borrowing Crawford from MGM for the lead role. Tongues immediately began wagging. Less than three years had passed since the death of Kansas City native Jeanne Eagels, who had originated the role on Broadway. Crawford’s fellow cast members were plucked from the New York theatre, and remembered Jeanne fondly. “Listen, fishcake,” actor Walter Catlett told Crawford, “When Jeanne Eagels died, Rain died with her.”
Directed by Lewis Milestone, who had won an Oscar for All Quiet On the Western Front (1930), Rain was filmed on Catalina Island, using sets from Gloria Swanson’s silent version. Crawford neglected to build a rapport with her co-stars or the crew, preferring to stay in her bungalow at night and play Bing Crosby records. Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was also in trouble.
When Rain was released in October 1932, Crawford’s previously loyal fan base railed against her playing a prostitute, and for the first time in her career, she began to receive hate mail. Critics were mostly cruel, but some acknowledged her bravery in attempting a fresh take on Sadie Thompson.
“I hope they burn every print of this turkey that’s in existence,” Crawford remarked, seemingly in accord with her detractors. And her opinion did not change over the years. “Every actress is entitled to a few mistakes, and that was one of mine,” she reflected. “I don’t care what anybody says, I was rotten.” However, Crawford’s Rain has aged rather better than might have been predicted. The black-and-white photography creates a dismal, claustrophobic atmosphere, and Joan’s hard-edged performance is unexpectedly moving.
The Fairbanks marriage ended in 1933, and two years later, Joan married stage actor Franchot Tone. In 1937 she was named the first Queen of the Movies by Life magazine, but her victory was short-lived. In 1938, Crawford was one of several stars denounced as ‘box office poison’ by Harry Brandt, President of the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
By 1939 Joan was single again, and making a comeback in George Cukor’s The Women. She adopted a daughter in 1940, naming her Christina. After another acclaimed performance in A Woman’s Face (1941), Joan married actor Philip Terry and they adopted a son.
Crawford’s eighteen years at MGM ended by mutual agreement in 1943. She began a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers, appearing in Hollywood Canteen (1944), and served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. In 1946, Crawford divorced Terry and starred in the classic film noir, Mildred Pierce, as a self-made businesswoman who sacrifices everything for her treacherous daughter. She followed this with Humoresque (1947) and Flamingo Road (1949), and adopted identical twin girls.
After an Oscar nomination for Sudden Fear (1952), Joan starred in Nick Ray’s subversive Western, Johnny Guitar (1954.) Her final marriage was to Alfred Steele, President of Coca Cola, in 1955. She travelled extensively promoting the brand, even after his death from a heart attack in 1959.
In 1962, Robert Aldrich cast Crawford against old rival Bette Davis in the horror classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The two actresses played aging child stars, and despite palpable tension on the set, they were reunited in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964.) By the early 1970s, Joan had retreated from the spotlight. Although she would be ranked tenth in the American Film Institute’s 2004 list of classic Hollywood female stars, her reputation has never fully recovered from daughter Christina’s allegations of abuse.
On May 10, 1977, Joan Crawford died of a heart attack at her New York apartment. Her ashes were placed in a crypt alongside those of her late husband, Alfred Steele.