Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, the third child of Thomas E. LeSueur (January 21, 1868 – January 1, 1938), a laundry laborer of English and French Huguenot ancestry and Anna Bell Johnson (November 29, 1884 – August 15, 1958), Texas-born, of Swedish and Irish descent. Her elder siblings were Daisy (1902), who died before Lucille’s birth, and Hal. Thomas LeSueur abandoned the family a few months before Crawford’s birth but reappeared in Abilene, Texas in 1930 as a 62-year-old construction laborer on the George R. Davis House, built in Prairie School architecture. Crawford’s mother subsequently married Henry J. Cassin. The family lived in Lawton, Oklahoma, where Cassin, a minor impresario, ran the Ramsey Opera House. Despite his own relatively minor status as an impresario, Cassin had managed to get such diverse and noted performers as Anna Pavlova and Eva Tanguay during his career. Young Lucille was reportedly unaware that Cassin, whom she called “Daddy”, was not her biological father until her brother Hal told her. Lucille preferred the nickname “Billie” as a child and she loved watching vaudeville acts perform on the stage of her stepfather’s theatre. The instability of her family life affected her education and her schooling never formally progressed beyond elementary school. Her ambition was to be a dancer. However, one day, in an attempt to escape piano lessons to play with friends, she leaped from the front porch of her home and cut her foot deeply on a broken milk bottle. She had three operations and was unable to attend elementary school for 18 months. She eventually fully recovered and returned to dancing. Cassin was accused of embezzlement and although acquitted in court, was blacklisted in Lawton, and the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri around 1916.Cassin was first listed in the City Directory in 1917, living at 403 East Ninth Street. A Catholic, Cassin placed Crawford at St. Agnes Academy in Kansas City. Later, after her mother and stepfather broke up, she stayed on at St. Agnes as a work student. She then went to Rockingham Academy, also as a work student. She later claimed the headmaster’s wife there beat her and forged her grades to hide the fact that young Lucille spent far more time working, primarily cooking and cleaning, rather than being able to study academically. While attending Rockingham she began dating and had her first serious relationship, with a trumpet player named Ray Sterling, who reportedly inspired her to begin challenging herself academically. In 1922, she registered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, giving her year of birth as 1906. She attended Stephens for only four months before withdrawing after she realized she was not prepared for college.
Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was spotted dancing in Detroit by producer Jacob J. Shubert. Shubert put her in the chorus line for his 1924 show, Innocent Eyes, at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in New York City. While appearing in Innocent Eyes Crawford met a saxophone player named James Welton. The two were allegedly married in 1924 and lived together for several months, although this supposed marriage was never mentioned in later life by Crawford. She wanted additional work and approached Loews Theaters publicist Nils Granlund. Granlund secured a position for her with producer Harry Richmond’s act and arranged for her to do a screen test which he sent to producer Harry Rapf in Hollywood. Stories have persisted that Crawford further supplemented her income by appearing in one or more stag, or soft-core pornographic, films, although this has been disputed. Rapf notified Granlund on December 24, 1924 that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had offered Crawford a contract at $75 a week. Granlund immediately wired LeSueur – who had returned to her mother’s home in Kansas City – with the news; she borrowed $400 for travel expenses. She departed Kansas City on December 26 and arrived in Culver City, California on January 1, 1925. As Lucille LeSueur, her first film was The Circle in 1925, followed by Pretty Ladies, starring ZaSu Pitts. That same year, she appeared in small roles in the films The Only Thing and Old Clothes. MGM publicity head Pete Smith recognized her ability but felt that her name sounded fake; he told studio head Louis B. Mayer that it sounded like “Le Sewer”. Smith organized a contest in conjunction with the fan magazine Movie Weekly to allow readers to select her new name. Initially, the name “Joan Arden” was selected but, when another actress was found to have prior claim to that name, the alternate name “Crawford” became the choice. Crawford initially wanted her new first name to be pronounced “Jo-anne”. She hated the name Crawford, saying it sounded like “crawfish”. Her friend, actor William Haines, quipped, “They might have called you ‘Cranberry’ and served you every Thanksgiving with the turkey!” Crawford continued to dislike the name throughout her life but, she said, she “liked the security that went with it”.
Growing increasingly frustrated over the size and quality of the parts she was given, Crawford embarked on a campaign of self-promotion. As MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas recalled, “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.” She began attending dances in the afternoons and evenings at hotels around Hollywood, where she often won dance competitions with her performances of the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Her strategy worked, and MGM cast her in the film where she first made an impression on audiences, Edmund Goulding’s Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). She played Irene, a struggling chorus girl. In the same year, Crawford worked on Lady of the Night, starring Norma Shearer. Crawford was made up and used as a double for Shearer and her face is briefly seen. Crawford coveted the roles that Shearer played but knew that Shearer’s husband, producer Irving Thalberg, guaranteed Shearer first choice of roles in any MGM property. “How can I compete with Norma?” Crawford was quoted as saying. “She sleeps with the boss.” The following year, Crawford was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, along with Mary Astor, Mary Brian, Dolores Costello, Dolores del Río, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray, among others. In 1926, she made Paris. She became the romantic interest for some of MGM’s leading male stars, among them Ramón Novarro, William Haines, John Gilbert and Tim McCoy. Crawford appeared in The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. who played a carnival knife thrower with no arms. Crawford played the skimpily clad young carnival assistant whom he hopes to marry. She stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anything else in her career. “It was then”, she said, “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting.” Also in 1927, she appeared alongside her good friend, William Haines in Spring Fever, which was the first of three films in which they worked together. In 1928, Crawford starred opposite Ramón Novarro in Across to Singapore, but it was her role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that catapulted her to stardom. The role established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity which rivaled Clara Bow, the original “It” girl, then Hollywood’s foremost flapper. A stream of hits followed Our Dancing Daughters, including two more flapper-themed movies, in which Crawford embodied for her legion of fans (many of whom were women) an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Crawford: Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.
To rid herself of her Southwestern accent, Crawford tirelessly practiced diction and elocution. She said: “If I were to speak lines, it would be a good idea, I thought, to read aloud to myself, listen carefully to my voice quality and enunciation, and try to learn in that manner. I would lock myself in my room and read newspapers, magazines and books aloud. At my elbow I kept a dictionary. When I came to a word I did not know how to pronounce, I looked it up and repeated it correctly fifteen times.” That same year, she made her final silent film, Our Modern Maidens, and starred in her first talkie, Untamed (1929), opposite Robert Montgomery, which was a box office success. Crawford made an effective transition to sound movies. One critic wrote, “Miss Crawford sings appealingly and dances thrillingly as usual; her voice is alluring and her dramatic efforts in the difficult role she portrays are at all times convincing.
With the early sound film, Montana Moon (1930), opposite Johnny Mack Brown, Crawford proved to be a highly successful film star of the new era of talking films. She followed this with the equally successful Our Blushing Brides (1930) with Robert Montgomery. These films were an attempt by MGM to place Crawford in more sophisticated-type movie roles, rather than continuing to promote her flapper girl persona of the silent era. In 1931, she starred opposite Clark Gable in Possessed. Crawford and Gable began an affair during the production, resulting in an ultimatum from studio chief Louis B. Mayer to Gable that the affair end. Upon release, the film was an enormous hit. The studio then cast her in Grand Hotel, which is noted for being the first all-star film ever produced, that teamed her with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Wallace Beery among many others. The film became MGM’s most prestigious movie of 1932. That same year, the newly founded “Top Ten Moneymaking Stars Poll” by the Motion Picture Herald placed her third in popularity, behind only Marie Dressler and Janet Gaynor, both early Oscar winners. Crawford later achieved continued success with Letty Lynton (1932). Soon after its release, a plagiarism suit forced MGM to withdraw it. It has never been shown on television or made available on home video, and is therefore considered the “lost” Crawford film. The film is remembered by many aficionados largely for the “Letty Lynton dress”, designed by Adrian: a white cotton organdy gown with large ruffled sleeves, puffed at the shoulder. Macy’s copied the dress in 1932, and it sold over 500,000 replicas in the United States. Crawford next starred in Rain (1932), a film adaptation of the play written by John Colton. Crawford’s portrayal of a hard-bitten but vulnerable prostitute, previously played by such actresses as Jeanne Eagles (onstage) and Gloria Swanson (silent film), drew negative reviews and the film was a box office failure.
In May 1933, Crawford divorced Fairbanks. Crawford cited “grievous mental cruelty”, claiming Fairbanks had “a jealous and suspicious attitude” toward her friends and that they had “loud arguments about the most trivial subjects” lasting “far into the night”. Following her divorce, she was again teamed with Clark Gable and Franchot Tone and a pre-fame Fred Astaire in the hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which she received top billing. She next played the title role in Sadie McKee (1934) opposite Gene Raymond and Franchot Tone. Crawford was paired with Gable for the fifth time in Chained (1934) and for the sixth time in Forsaking All Others (1934). Crawford’s films of this era were some of the most-popular and highest-grossing films of the mid-1930s. In 1935, Crawford married Franchot Tone, a stage actor from New York who planned to use his film salary to finance his theatre group. Tone and Crawford appeared together in Today We Live (1933) and were immediately drawn to each other, although Crawford was hesitant about entering into another romance so soon after her split from Fairbanks. The couple built a small theatre at Crawford’s Brentwood home and put on productions of classic plays for select groups of friends. Before and during their marriage, Crawford worked to promote Tone’s Hollywood career, but Tone was ultimately not interested in being a movie star and Crawford eventually wearied of the effort. Tone began drinking and physically abusing Crawford; she filed for divorce, which was granted in 1939. Crawford and Tone eventually reconciled their friendship and Tone even proposed in 1964 that they remarry. When Tone died in 1968, Crawford arranged for him to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Muskoka Lakes, Canada.
In 1936, she starred as Margaret O’Neill Eaton in The Gorgeous Hussy with Robert Taylor and then-husband Franchot Tone. While the film was a moderate box office success, it was not the hit MGM had hoped for. She was teamed with Gable and Tone again in Love on the Run that same year. While Crawford’s films continued to earn a profit at the box office, her popularity was slowly beginning to fade. Crawford was proclaimed the first “Queen of the Movies” in 1937 by Life magazine, however, her public popularity continued to decline. By the summer of 1937, she had unexpectedly slipped from seventh to fortieth place at the box office. Her following film, The Bride Wore Red (1937), was one of MGM’s biggest failures that year. In May 1938, the Independent Film Journal placed Crawford — along with Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and others — on a list called “Box Office Poison”. She made a comeback with her role as home-wrecker Crystal Allen in The Women in 1939. A year later, she broke from formula, playing the unglamorous role of Julie in Strange Cargo (1940), her eighth and final film with Clark Gable. She later starred as a facially disfigured blackmailer in A Woman’s Face (1941), a remake of a European film which had starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role three years earlier. While the film was only a moderate box office success, her performance was hailed by many critics. Crawford adopted her first child, a daughter, in 1940. Because she was single, California law prevented her from adopting within the state so she arranged the adoption through an agency in Las Vegas. The child was temporarily called Joan until Crawford changed her name to Christina. She married actor Phillip Terry on July 21, 1942 after a six-month courtship. Together the couple adopted a son whom they named Christopher, but his birth mother reclaimed the child. They adopted another boy, whom they named Phillip Terry, Jr. After the marriage ended in 1946, Crawford changed the child’s name to Christopher Crawford. After 18 years, Crawford’s contract with MGM was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943. In lieu of the last film remaining under her contract, MGM bought her out for $100,000. During World War II she was a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services.
After her Academy Award nominated performance in 1952’s Sudden Fear, Crawford continued to work steadily throughout the rest of the decade. In 1954, she starred in Johnny Guitar, a camp western film, co-starring Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge. Afterward, she appeared in a series of B-movie melodramas, some that failed both critically and financially. She starred in Female on the Beach (1955) with Jeff Chandler, and in Queen Bee (1955) alongside John Ireland. The following year, she starred opposite a young Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves (1956) and filmed a leading role in The Story of Esther Costello (1957), co-starring Rossano Brazzi. Crawford, who had been left near-penniless following Alfred Steele’s death accepted a small role in The Best of Everything (1959). Although she was not the star of the film, she received positive reviews. Crawford would later name the role as being one of her personal favorites. However, by the early 1960s, Crawford’s status in motion pictures had declined considerably. Crawford starred as Blanche Hudson, an old, wheelchair-bound former A-list movie star in conflict with her psychotic sister, in the highly successful psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Despite the actresses’ earlier tensions, Crawford reportedly suggested Bette Davis for the role of Jane. The two stars maintained publicly that there was no feud between them. The director, Robert Aldrich, explained that Davis and Crawford were each aware of how important the film was to their respective careers and commented, “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” After filming was completed, their public comments against each other propelled their animosity into a lifelong feud. The film was a huge success, recouping its costs within 11 days of its nationwide release, and temporarily revived Crawford’s career. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Jane Hudson. Crawford secretly contacted each of the other Oscar nominees in the category (Katharine Hepburn, Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft, all East Coast-based actresses), to let them know that if they could not attend the ceremony, she would be happy to accept the Oscar on their behalf; all agreed. Both Davis and Crawford were backstage when the absent Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner, and Crawford accepted the award on her behalf. Davis claimed for the rest of her life that Crawford had campaigned against her, a charge Crawford denied. That same year, Crawford starred as Lucy Harbin in William Castle’s horror mystery Strait-Jacket (1964). Robert Aldrich cast Crawford and Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). After a purported campaign of harassment by Davis on location in Louisiana, Crawford returned to Hollywood and entered a hospital. After a prolonged absence, during which Crawford was accused of feigning illness, Aldrich was forced to replace her with Olivia de Havilland. Crawford claimed to be devastated, saying “I heard the news of my replacement over the radio, lying in my hospital bed” … I cried for 9 hours.”  Crawford nursed grudges against Davis and Aldrich for the rest of her life, saying of Aldrich, “He is a man who loves evil, horrendous, vile things”, to which Aldrich replied, “If the shoe fits, wear it, and I am very fond of Miss Crawford.” In 1965 she played Amy Nelson in I Saw What You Did (1965), another William Castle vehicle. She starred as Monica Rivers in Herman Cohen’s horror thriller film Berserk! (1967).
After the film’s release, Crawford guest-starred as herself on The Lucy Show. The episode, “Lucy and the Lost Star”, first aired on February 26, 1968. Crawford struggled during rehearsals and drank heavily on-set, leading series star Lucille Ball to suggest replacing her with Gloria Swanson. However, Crawford was letter-perfect the day of the show, which included dancing the Charleston, and received two standing ovations from the studio audience. In October 1968, Crawford’s 29-year-old daughter, Christina (who was then acting in New York on the CBS soap opera The Secret Storm), needed immediate medical attention for a ruptured ovarian tumor. Until Christina was well enough to return, Crawford offered to play her role, to which producer Gloria Monty readily agreed. Although Crawford did well in rehearsal, she lost her composure while taping and the director and producer were left to struggle to piece together the necessary footage. Crawford’s appearance in the 1969 television film Night Gallery (which served as pilot to the series that followed), marked one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest directing jobs. She made a cameo appearance as herself in the first episode of the situation comedy The Tim Conway Show, which aired on January 30, 1970. She starred on the big screen one final time, playing Dr. Brockton in Herman Cohen’s science fiction horror film Trog (1970), rounding out a career spanning 45 years and more than eighty motion pictures. Crawford made three more television appearances, as Stephanie White in a 1970 episode (“The Nightmare”) of The Virginian and as Joan Fairchild (her final performance) in a 1972 episode (“Dear Joan: We’re Going to Scare You to Death”) of The Sixth Sense.
In 1970, Crawford was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by John Wayne at the Golden Globes, which was telecast from the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She spoke at her Stephens College, which she had only attended for four months. Crawford published her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan, co-written with Jane Kesner Ardmore, in 1962 through Doubleday. Crawford’s next book, My Way of Life, was published in 1971 by Simon and Schuster. Those expecting a racy tell-all were disappointed, although Crawford’s meticulous ways were revealed in her advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, and even food storage. Upon her death there was found in her apartment photographs of John F. Kennedy, for whom she had reportedly voted in the 1960 presidential election. In September 1973, Crawford moved from apartment 22-G next door to a smaller apartment, 22-H, at the Imperial House. Her last public appearance was September 23, 1974, at a party honoring her old friend Rosalind Russell at New York’s Rainbow Room. Russell was suffering from breast cancer and arthritis at the time. When Crawford saw the unflattering photos that appeared in the papers the next day, she said, “If that’s how I look, then they won’t see me anymore.” Crawford cancelled all public appearances, began declining interviews and left her apartment less and less. Dental-related issues, including surgery which left her needing round-the-clock nursing care, plagued her from 1972 until mid-1975. While on antibiotics for this problem in October 1974, her drinking caused her to black out, slip and strike her face. The incident scared her enough to give up drinking and smoking, although she insisted it was because of her return to Christian Science. The incident is recorded in a series of letters sent to her insurance company held in the stack files on the 3rd floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as well as documented by Carl Johnnes in his biography of the actress, Joan Crawford: The Last Years.
On May 8, 1977, Crawford gave away her beloved Shih Tzu “Princess Lotus Blossom”, for which she was too weak to care. She died two days later at her New York apartment from a heart attack, while also reportedly ill with pancreatic cancer. A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, on May 13, 1977. In her will, which was signed October 28, 1976, Crawford bequeathed to her two youngest children, Cindy and Cathy, $77,500 each from her $2,000,000 estate. She explicitly disinherited the two eldest, Christina and Christopher, writing “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them.” The disposition of the remainder of the estate was not disclosed. A memorial service was held for Crawford at All Souls’ Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue in New York on May 16, 1977, and was attended by, among others, her old Hollywood friend Myrna Loy. Another memorial service, organized by George Cukor, was held on June 24 in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Crawford was cremated and her ashes were placed in a crypt with her last husband, Alfred Steele, in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. Joan Crawford’s hand and footprints are immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street. Playboy listed Crawford as #84 of the “100 Sexiest Women of the 20th century” in 1999.
- March, 23, 1904
- San Antonio, Texas
- May, 10, 1977
- New York, New York
- Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum
- Hartsdale, New York