Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Breaking Down "Mommie Dearest"

As a big, unapologetic fan of Joan Crawford, I feel very passionately about Mommie Dearest.  (The book and the movie.)  It absolutely rips apart Crawford's previously carefully constructed image but it's a gossipmonger's delight of scandal and behind the scenes dirt that I once found well worth rereads.  Which I did, multiple times.  I initially read it back when I was eleven or twelve and assumed that every word in it must be true.  (Remember, I was eleven or twelve and the world hadn't rained on my parade yet.)  Regardless, I still admired and fell in love with Joan Crawford The Actress and was able to compartmentalize Private Monster Joan from Awesome Hollywood Joan. 

Over the years, and upon realizing that not everything in print is true (shocking, I know!), I began to question the validity of the book.  It certainly wasn't helped by Christina Crawford's appearance at events wielding a wire hanger which seemed campy, insensitive and more than just a little famewhore-y.  If she were truly standing up for abused children would she make light of such a sensitive matter?  Would she find her own alleged abuse the root for entertainment and humor?  She also touted the movie version of her book and Faye Dunaway's out of control performance as her supposedly abusive and drunk mother until the critics trashed the film.  Once that happened Christina began badmouthing the entire production. 

But putting Christina aside for the moment, Mommie Dearest is that hot button topic, like politics, religion and sex, that has no middle ground.  People are very opinionated in their beliefs.  There are two camps - - those that believe Joan Crawford was a monster and those that believe the book is crap and Christina was the monster.  As is often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Joan Crawford was controversial during her lifetime, from the studio's invention of her practically whole cloth, to her Jazz Baby persona, her multiple marriages and affairs, the ups and downs of her career and her single parenting adoption.  Like her or not, Crawford was a trailblazer. 
In early Hollywood, a woman hitting forty was a death sentence professionally.  Crawford clawed her way out of that and into a 40+ year career, complete with one Academy Award win and three nominations.  She also managed to transition from actress into a Pepsi-Cola executive, thanks to her marriage to Al Steele. 

While not news today, in 1939 it was quite newsworthy for a single woman to adopt a child.  Crawford did this three times, with daughters Christina, Cathy and Cynthia.  (She initially adopted son Christopher during her marriage to Phillip Terry.)  No one could ever say that she was your standard American woman.

It's been reported that friends in the publishing industry had keyed Joan in to the fact that Christina was writing or had written a less than flattering work about life in the Crawford fast lane and this book was the reason that Joan disinherited Christina (famously for "reasons which are well known" to her.)  Christopher, we can hazard to guess, was disinherited as well due to his falling out years prior with his mother.

But why did Christina write the book in the first place?  If you believe the book and the movie, Joan and Christina were in a good, friendly place at the time of Joan's final illness and death and Christina was taken by surprise at her lack of inheritance.  This is supported by reports that Christina quit a well paying job in the oil industry upon hearing of her mother's death, assuming that she stood to split an inheritance with her siblings.  Boy, that must have been a twist. 

Could Christina have been that dense?  Joan had many, many friends and acquaintances.  Surely she had to have known that someone would tell her.  The report of a juicy read on Crawford would have been too good to keep - - in 1977 tell-alls were not yet all the rage.  (We can thank Mommie Dearest in part for starting that trend.) 

But back to Christina's motives.  If Joan had not yet disinherited her, finances don't seem to be the instigator.  What could that leave?  Maybe good old jealousy.  Christina had designs on being an actress like her mother but let's face it -- Joan Crawford would be impossible for nearly anyone to live up to.  Christina wasn't nearly as motivated and ambitious as Joan and she wasn't coming from Joan's hardscrabble background.  She reportedly expected her mother to pave the way for her career and Joan was loathe to do that, believing that Christina would appreciate her career that much more, and work harder for it, if she had to do it on her own.  Assuming that Christina was spoiled and/or more than just a little bit entitled, I would guess that this did not sit well and she decided to pay her mother back in spades.

There is another possible motive and that is that the book is truthful and Christina wanted to bring child abuse, then a subject not brought up in proper conversation, to the forefront.  What better stage to expose a dirty family secret than the millions of fans Joan Crawford had?  My biggest problem with this theory is that the two youngest Crawford children, Cathy and Cynthia, roundly denied and decried Christina's book and her allegations, going so far as to say that Christina was clearly raised in another household and while their mother was strict, she was never abusive.  Furthermore, there has been no other corroboration to Christina's charges of abuse.  No police reports, which is not surprising given the time Christina alleges these acts occurred.  Her brother Christopher, whom she claimed also suffered abuse at the hands of their mother, never made a public statement as to the veracity of Mommie Dearest.

Where does the truth lie?  Is Christina a liar and slanderer, plain and simple?  Could Joan have seen herself and her brother Hal in Christina and Christopher and projected her own family issues onto them?  Did Christina exaggerate events in order to make the book more saleable? 

It's impossible for me to believe that Christina could remember conversations and occurrences from when she was six, much less three or four years old as detailed in the book. Some details she got utterly wrong, which make you question the tale in general.   Her bitterness jumps off every page, which is understandable if the story related is accurate, but she seems unable to even admit her mother's accomplishments.  She claims that Crawford was in a major career slump at a time when she wasn't, another inaccuracy. 

Crawford was certainly no saint, something she would probably readily admit if she were here.  She was a workaholic and like many actors, worried about her appearance and career longevity.  Women in the 1940s could not have it all; they had to choose between careers and family and Crawford made the choice that many in Hollywood did.  She had dysfunctions due to her terrible childhood and the strained relationships she had with her own mother and brother, who alternately treated her shabbily and showed up on her doorstep for handouts.  She had tumultuous relationships with a variety of men, some of which didn't just border on abusive but went full on into that station.  She was also an alcoholic in her later years, which surely did nothing to help her already stubborn and troubled personality. 

The parenting methods she used are outdated and archaic now but were the norm then.  It wasn't unusual for children to be sent to bed without supper, or to wrap their plates up to eat their leftovers at the next meal.   The sleeping apparatus Christina described wasn't so much to torture children as to keep them from getting out of bed.  Of course today this would be considered a huge hazard but back in the early 1940s, it was probably progressive parenting.

Unlike many of the parents today who are concerned with being their child's friend and afraid of harming their children's oh-so-delicate sensitivities by telling them "no," Crawford was a strict and firm parent.  The question is how far that strict structure went.  Did she truly wake the children in the middle of the night to perform cleaning duties, beating Christina with a can of cleanser?   Was Christina a girl struggling to understand her mother and survive or did she skillfully push her mother's buttons? 

Contemporaries of Joan's were split on the issue after the release of Mommie Dearest.  Some claimed to have seen Joan's harsh, or even cruel, treatment of her children, stating that Joan never should have been a mother.  Others claim that Joan had her hands full with Christina and Christopher, who drove her to distraction and were difficult. 

Since the publication, hype and fallout over Mommie Dearest, Christina has admitted the infamous scene of Joan and "no wire hangers!" never happened but was rather an "accumulation" of events.  Really?  Maybe the entire story is an accumulation of lies?   Christina also, via her documentary Surviving Mommie Dearest, has accused her famous mother not only of racism but murder.  That's right, friends.  Murder.  She alleges that Joan killed her fourth husband Al Steele because Joan had a temper and Steele was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.  She conveniently omits that Steele died of a heart attack, not from a fall down some stairs. 

These stories reek to me of someone desperate to stay relevant and who can freely make these admissions as Joan Crawford has been dead since 1977 and cannot dispute the stories.  If Joan Crawford were truly a racist (something that she has never been accused of by anyone else, even those that loathed her during her lifetime), why didn't Christina mention the fact in the original book?  Surely it can't be any worse than accusing your newly dead mother of being a drunken whore with "lesbian proclivities" who would hit on anyone from a personal assistant to Marilyn Monroe.  Suggesting that she killed her fourth husband is beyond juicy so again . . . why no ink on this in the book?  Surely it's not because it's complete and utter bullshit? 

Victim of Joan Crawford or Joan Crawford victimizer?
My take on it is this.  I think Christina wrote a book on life with her mother out of spite.  I think the initial book was dull and it was Christina and/or her editor's idea to crank up the drama in order to sell books.  I don't think Joan was the easiest person to live with - - heck, she admitted herself that she was too strict and disciplined with her children and was no Mother of the Year - - but I don't think she was the out of control psycho that Christina described. 

The sad person here is Christina herself, who is now pushing seventy-seven years old, and has made herself a professional victim and unofficial torch carrier of the "I Hate Joan Crawford" fan club since 1978.  Her anger and hatred of her mother, justified or not, is so strong that she even accused her mother of murder.  And yet we are to believe that Joan is the damaged one, the monster? 

I think Mommie Dearest is largely a work of fiction, with a few half truths thrown in for good measure.  It's just my opinion but the fact that Christina has since admitted herself that the most infamous scene in the book and movie, the one that led to her making appearances with a notorious wire hanger, never happened, along with her younger sisters' claims that their mother was never abusive, leads me to question Christina's story in its entirety.

I'm glad that in recent years the Mommie Dearest tarnish has faded from Joan Crawford's memory and she is better remembered as a talented and fearless movie actress, one who lived and loved passionately.


  1. Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl confirmed that Hollywood knew about Joan abusing Christina, but kept quiet to protect her. The fact that you think a Joan Crawford fan can be objective about the truth is laughable. Go to 34:14 mark of this video to hear Cheryl tell Donahue's audience that Christina was telling the truth:

  2. Messylin,
    I can flip that around and say the same - - it could be considered laughable that someone who is not a Joan Crawford fan could be objective.

    My opinion, and only my opinion, is that Christina wasn't telling the full truth. She has said some questionable things and displayed some questionable actions. Was Joan perfect? Absolutely not. She was an ambitious career woman with a terrible childhood who became an alcoholic later in life. That doesn't mean she was the monster Christina wrote about.

    While there were people who said that Joan was an awful parent, there were more that defended her and said she wasn't. Only Joan and Christina know the absolute truth and Joan isn't here to give her side.

    Thank you for the clip with Cheryl Crane. I'll watch it.