Joan Crawford: “Mommie Dearest” or “Not the Girl Next Door”?


How would you feel if you were

one of the great movie stars of a generation — a prolific actress, an Academy Award winner,

a grand dame, an adoptive mother of four children (or five, depending

on how you count) — and this was how you were remembered?

Such is the legacy of the late Joan Crawford.

Not only is she remembered

as a tyrant, she’s remembered as Faye Dunaway!

Now, if Joan Crawford beat

her daughter with wire hangers, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for

her. But what if she wasn’t a monster? What if she was just a run-of-the

mill, crazy celebrity mother who dressed her daughters in matching dresses?

Well, there may be a Joan Crawford

reclamation project in the works. Vanity Fair

has excerpted a new biography, Not the Girl Next

(which was 30 years in the making) that tells a story quite

different from the one presented in daughter Christina’s tell-all memoir,

Mommie Dearest
. Celebrity biographer Charlotte Chandler didn’t interview Christina, but she

did spend a lot of time interviewing one of the other little girls in

matching dresses — one who thought her mother was pretty darn great.

“I was the luckiest child

in the world to have Mommie choose me … I wouldn’t have chosen any other

mother in the whole world, because I had the best one anyone could ever

have. She gave me backbone and courage and so much I could never say

it all, but–oh, my gosh–the most important gift she gave me was all

of the wonderful memories to last and take me through my life.”

And she interviewed lots of

other people who liked — or at least respected — Joan Crawford and vehemently

deny that she was anything like the woman caricatured in Mommie Dearest.

Even rival Bette Davis came to her defense.

“I was not Miss Crawford’s

biggest fan, but, wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do respect

her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written

by her daughter. I’ve forgotten her name. Horrible. … I can understand

how hurt Miss Crawford had to be. Well, no I can’t. It’s like trying

to imagine how I would feel if my own beloved, wonderful daughter, B.D.,

were to write a bad book about me. Unimaginable. I am grateful for my

children and for knowing they would never do to me anything like what

Miss Crawford’s daughter did to her.”

Except of course, B.D. did

go on to write her own hatchet job, My Mother’s Keeper. And then Bette Davis exacted her

revenge with This ‘n That

a few years later. So, I don’t know how perceptive she really was.

Regardless, what we’re left

with is a she-said/she-said story. One daughter says the mother was

a monster and the other says she was angel. The one who hated her was

disinherited; the one who loved her was not. The one who hated her made

a big profit from her tell-all book, and the one who loved her sounds

like a child in her quotes and, as an adult, refers to her as “Mommie” —

which just creeps me out.

Not that any of this affects

me in any way, but I find it all a little uncomfortable and troublesome.

If Joan Crawford was just a generic lousy mother — or perhaps even a

good mother to some or all of her kids — it’s pretty rotten that her

name is now synonymous with child abuse. But if she was that bad, it’s

not really fair to sanitize her image because other people don’t like

to believe that someone they liked or respected was capable of abuse.

Of course, we have no way to

know what the truth is. (I’m guessing it’s somewhere between the two

extremes, because people are complex like that.) But I guess you can

read the new bio and punctuate your reading occasionally with cries

of “No wire hangers EVER!” and maybe you’ll get a picture of the

real Joan Crawford.

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