Leading Lady

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Reviewed by John Epperson
Sunday, February 24, 2008


By Charlotte Chandler

Simon & Schuster. 316 pp. $26

Like other entertainment icons of the 20th century, such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, Joan Crawford represents the best and the worst of the American dream. Crawford's was a grand success story from poverty in the Midwest to glory in Hollywood and New York. Presley, Monroe and Garland garnered cult fame, and Crawford acquired a similar kind of worshipful sect that continues to grow thanks to DVDs, Turner Classic Movies (which will broadcast 17 Crawford films in March, the month of her centenary), and Web sites such as, an online encyclopedia devoted to Crawfordism and regularly updated with photos and information about the Goddess Joan. But also like the other three, Crawford had private demons with which to grapple.

The press never revealed Crawford's dark side of drinking and sexual peccadillos while she was alive. It was her eldest daughter, Christina Crawford, who characterized her (after Joan's death) as an abusive shrew in the bestselling Mommie Dearest, which went on to become a notorious film starring Faye Dunaway. Unfortunately, nowadays most people think of Crawford as the monster of that 1981 film.

Charlotte Chandler's new book, Not the Girl Next Door, tries to refute the image of Crawford as a domestic fiend by telling the star's side of the story as gleaned from extended interviews with her in the mid-1970s (Crawford died in 1977). Chandler cites several of Crawford's friends and acquaintances as being upset with Mommie Dearest, including Myrna Loy, who called Christina "vicious, ungrateful, and jealous." The controversy continues among Crawfordites, who will love this new book because it is, at last, pro-Joan.

Regrettably, since the book is mostly quotations (from sources such as director George Cukor, Loy, husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., daughter Cathy, nemesis Bette Davis, etc.), it has a sketchy, anecdotal quality that makes for jumpy reading. The reader must fill in the blanks of the complex, contradictory actress's life. If the reader already knows a great deal about St. Joan, sealing up the cracks poses no problem. However, a novice Crawfordite might be stymied by the jump-cuts. Chandler has turned out several books of this kind, on subjects including Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman, calling them "personal biographies," perhaps in an attempt to justify stringing together lengthy quotations from the subject and his or her contacts. But no matter how it's labeled, her approach doesn't make for smooth narrative.

Other portraits of Crawford have appeared over the years, one of the most entertaining being Carl Johnes's Crawford: The Last Years, a slim 1979 paperback. Johnes was an assistant story editor at Columbia Pictures' New York office when he met the star, who became his doting friend. Johnes made a particularly valuable contribution to understanding Crawford by disclosing her rather late-in-life identity search. Here was a woman born Lucille LeSueur (her real name, in spite of its theatricality) who then became known as Billie Cassin (she was a tomboy when her mother married a second time, to Mr. Cassin). Later, in Hollywood, she became, briefly, Joan Arden, a name picked for her in a magazine contest, and finally Joan Crawford, manufactured celebrity from the dream world of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purveyor of glossy illusions. Who wouldn't have an identity crisis after all that? I've attempted to live in Crawford's head a bit myself when performing my show "The Passion of the Crawford," and it's a dangerous space to occupy, with its constant vacillation from grand lady to goodtime gal to businesswoman to needy, insecure, controlling star.

The most amusing part of Chandler's book is the account by director Vincent Sherman, who made three films with Crawford. His bizarre tales include attending, with Crawford, a private screening of her film "Humoresque." As the movie unspooled, Crawford became increasingly, erotically mesmerized by her own celluloid self and offered to make love to him right on the spot, oblivious of the projectionist in the back of the screening room. Sherman was able to get her to her dressing room, where their affair began.

But Chandler pads her book with awkwardly inserted synopses of Crawford's films, and some of her "facts" are incorrect. For instance, in her summation of the lurid 1965 thriller "I Saw What You Did," Chandler says that Crawford's character, Amy Nelson, protects the three threatened female youngsters in the movie. Actually, Amy encounters only one of the girls, to whom she is physically and verbally abusive, repeatedly bellowing, "Get outta here!" Hardly protective.

The book also suffers from careless repetition. On page 239, Chandler tells the reader that after her last husband died, Crawford had to move to a smaller apartment in New York because he had left so many debts. Two pages later, the author delivers the same information.

This is only one example of avoidable repetition. Perhaps it's very Joan Crawford of me to expect a book to be tidier and more disciplined (imagine the neatness hell that Crawford put her editors and co-authors through when she wrote her own books, A Portrait of Joan and My Way of Life), but I will give in to my (possibly neurotic) desire for perfection and report that a fully satisfying Crawford biography has yet to be written. Still, despite its drawbacks, even the most regimented Crawfordite can enjoy Chandler's new book. *

John Epperson is a performer, writer and musician -- and the creator of Lypsinka.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company