Thursday, July 17, 2014

Joan Crawford (1904-1977)

Birth name: Lucille Fay LeSueur
Birthdate: Wednesday, March 23rd, 1904 (this date is disputed, with a more reasonable birth year being 1905 or 1906, according to some records. Her gravestone says 1908, but this is no doubt Hollywood glitter.)
Location: San Antonio, Texas, USA

Died: Tuesday, May 10th, 1977
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Cause of death: Pancreatic cancer and heart failure

Best known for: Oscar-winning actress who dominated Hollywood from the 1930s and for most of her life. Her most acclaimed films included Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce (1945, for which she won an Oscar), The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). She was nominated for a further two Oscars - for 1947's Possessed (losing out to Loretta Young) and for 1952's Sudden Fear (losing to Shirley Booth). She did not attend the 1946 Academy Awards ceremony, feigning illness, but listened to it on the radio, and when she won, she beckoned journalists into her rooms to accept the award!

Joan as Joan Borman Kane in The
Secret Storm in 1968 (left), and her
24-year-old daughter Christina as the
same character. Was mommy dearest a
convincing stand-in...?
By the late 1960s Joan's career was predictably on the wane, but that didn't stop her opting for some memorable roles. One of these included bizarrely replacing her actress daughter Christina in the CBS soap opera The Secret Storm in October 1968, as her daughter had been taken ill very suddenly with a ruptured ovarian tumour. The fact the programme makers agreed to this, despite Joan being 40 years older than her daughter, was a brave choice (some might say stunt casting), and although Joan gave a good account of herself in rehearsals, her actual performance was less than satisfactory, and the editors had to piece together a solid performance from what footage they had. Audio footage can be heard here.

Joan in her last acting role, in The
Sixth Sense, September 1972, when
she was aged 68.
Other memorable turns in Joan's twilight years include the 1969 pilot for the supernatural TV series Night Gallery (Steven Spielberg's first directing job), the highly amusing horror film Trog (1970, her last big screen appearance) and her final acting job as Joan Fairchild in the series The Sixth Sense. In Dear Joan: We're Going to Scare You to Death, broadcast on September 30th, 1972, Joan plays a woman who stumbles upon a group of ESP (extra-sensory perception) enthusiasts who plan to, well... scare her to death.

Of course, Joan was an inveterate drinker in her latter years, exemplified in this scratchy footage of her arriving at an airport in a wheelchair (her leg in a cast) in 1968.

A still from footage of Joan at
her final public appearance in
September 1974.
Joan's last public appearance was on September 23rd, 1974 at a party in honour of her friend Rosalind Russell at New York's Rainbow Room. When Joan saw what she deemed to be unflattering photos of her at the party in the next day's newspapers, she apparently said: "If that's how I look, then they won't see me any more." She then cancelled all future public appearances and decided to stay in her apartment at 22-H, 150 East 69th Street in New York City for as much as she could.

Joan had been plagued by dental issues, often requiring surgery, from 1972 until 1975. While taking antibiotics for the pain, in October 1974, and after having imbibed an amount of alcohol, she blacked out, fell and injured her face. This accident scared her enough to make her give up smoking and drinking, citing her devotion to Christian Science as the official reason for the sobriety. On Sunday, May 8th, 1977 Joan gave away her beloved shih-tzu dog Princess Lotus Blossom as she was too ill to care for it, or even pick it up (she was reportedly just 90lbs - 6st 4oz - by May 1977). Sadly, two days later, Joan died of a heart attack, but cancer of the pancreas was what had made her so weak. Her adherence to Christian Science meant she shunned medical treatment for the disease ravaging her body. There are conflicting reports as to what happened on Joan's deathbed (she'd been bedridden for weeks). Her daughter Christina says that at 8am on the 10th, the woman caring for Joan came to believe that she was dying, and so began praying for her, to which Joan retorted: "Dammit, don't you dare ask God to help me!" Then she died. Another story goes that she died rather more sedately as she was about to have her morning tea.

A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, three days later, and a memorial service on May 16th at New York's All Souls' Unitarian Church, attended by her old friend Myrna Loy and pop artist Andy Warhol. A second memorial was staged by film director George Cukor on June 24th at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Joan was embalmed, before being cremated, and her ashes placed in a crypt at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York, with her fourth husband, Pepsi Cola magnate Alfred Steele, who had died in 1959 of a heart attack.

Random trivia: A Christmas card Joan sent out in 1976 said: "I am so at peace with the world, that I'm even having good thoughts about Bette Davis."

Joan's last photo session, dated September 1976,
when she was in her early 70s, pictured
with her beloved dog Princess Lotus Blossom.
Photo by John Engstead.

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