Auntie Joan (Crawford) Explains It All for You!
Don’t say nothin’ bad about my Joanie.
Not long ago, in need of a tonic on a stifling summer day, I reread the closest thing we have to her autobiography, the wildly entertaining Joan Crawford: My Way of Life. On the cover, firmly gripping her pair of poodles, she looks like a terrified hostage trying to blink out a message to the cops. But the book itself is much more chipper, opening in her East Side penthouse:
“My home and my office are combined on a high floor of a Manhattan apartment house that has a cheerful California feeling about it, even in the winter. I get the first rays of the morning sun rising over the East River and, smog permitting, the last lovely colors of the sunset somewhere behind the Hudson. There are two small terraces where I try to keep some shrubbery going, and which my toy poodles adore, and I keep the rooms filled with plants and flowers. Even my dresses swarm with flowers. I have a bird’s eye view of the world here, and a bird’s sense of freedom. I have the same sense of excitement about the next adventure that I had when I was sixteen. And I’m sure I’ll never lose it.”
“All my nostalgia is for tomorrow—not for any yesterdays,” she tells us—and maybe she protests a little too much. But she’s trying, dammit—and Joan is all about the striving: “With a little organization, a woman can excel as a wife, a homemaker, mother, career woman and gracious hostess, be lovely to look at and be with—and still have time left over to be a good friend to a lot of people!”
For the love of God, ladies, don’t try this at home. Joan was pretty much the most organized woman on the face of the earth—a deeply unsettling childhood can send you hurtling in that direction—and even she bombed at some of these things.
Joan herself once admitted the book was a bit much. “I’m a God-damned image, not a person, and the poor girl who worked on it had to write about the image,” she confessed. “It must have been terrible for her. She would have been better off with Lassie.” (Am I the only one who just pictured Joan rescuing little Timmy from a well? And she would have done it in pearls and pumps, I tell ya!)
But not everything in the book is over the top, and, like your doting, slightly dotty aunt from Scarsdale who gives you aspic forks as a wedding gift, Joan always means well. Here’s a sampling of her advice: the good, the bad, and the—let’s face it—just plain odd.
“I’ve persuaded myself that I hate things that are bad for me—fattening foods, late nights and loud, aggressive people head the list.” This is kinda genius. I’m off to shoot daggers at the brownies in the kitchen. (Though I bought them at a church bake sale, so I may have to go to confession later.)
“I never got over the idea that being on time was important.” Oh yeah, baby! “I am always on the set early,” she says. “When they ask me why I say, ‘I’m afraid you’ll start without me! Or replace me!'” She’s quick to say she’s joking, but I’ll bet she never entirely got over that feeling.
“Conquering fears, whatever they may be, opens life up.” Joan, for instance, was terrified of public speaking, flying, and horses, but made peace with them by learning more about them and facing down her anxieties. Granted, not all of us could vanquish our fear of horses by buying a fleet of polo ponies, but you get the idea.
“Before I go to bed at night, I make a little schedule for the next day.” She says her secretaries had to keep retyping her three-month calendar as she packed more and more into it. (Remember “retyping”?) Her New York assistant, Betty Barker, joined her staff in 1938, after working for Howard Hughes, and had plenty of options if she wanted to bolt. So much for Joan being impossible to work with.
“In marriage, be a giver, not a taker.” Some may scoff at taking marriage advice from someone who made four trips down the aisle. But they’re just the people you should listen to: “People talk about what they want out of marriage. They should think about what you have to put into it. It’s worth every bit of love and protection and unselfishness you can muster up. And believe me, you can muster up much more than you thought you could before you were married.”
“No experience has ever made me bitter—or ever will.” That’s a bit hard to believe—she’s Joan Crawford, not Joan of Arc—but I think she means she didn’t stay bitter. After all, she kept up lifelong friendships with two of her ex-husbands, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tone, even caring for Tone in her own home during the last months of his life. “When one lives with bitterness, it shows in the face, and it’s pathetic,” she says. “The softness goes out of the eyes. The body is stooped. Bitterness and self-pity are deadly poisons that can’t be hidden. They seem to exude from the pores.”
I think we can all relate to this, though perhaps on a humbler scale than La Crawford. In my case, there’s a clique of movie bloggers I call The Mean Girls (though one’s a guy) who are downright nasty to me; sadly, a few live nearby and I run into them once in a while. They’re all very chatty face to face, but what they say behind my back could curdle your custard. (Does that stuff ever not get back to people?) But since starting this site, I’ve met, in person and online, so many kindred spirits, they offset the mean ones a hundredfold. I’ll give Joan the last word: “You can’t be a giver if you’re bitter.”
Even in her infamous feud with Bette Davis, it always felt like most of the real rancor was coming from the other side of the fence. Joan seemed like the underdog, outgunned by Bette’s acid-laced attacks, which must have brought back horrid memories of childhood bullies:
“I worked my way through two private schools washing dishes, cooking for the entire establishment, making beds, waiting on tables—and trying to get some studying done in between. In the second school I was the only helper in a fourteen-room house accommodating thirty students and, in true Dickensian fashion, I was thrown down the stairs and beaten with a broom handle… that school didn’t teach me much out of books, but it certainly taught me to be self-sufficient, and I’ve never regretted it.” How many of us could glean a positive life lesson—or even pretend to—from being beaten and thrown down stairs? (And yes, those nightmarish years fueled an obsession with cleanliness and order, but that’s been dissected to bits all over the place.)
“I abhor dropper-inners.” Yes. Do not be one of these creatures! (Though nowadays it’s rare enough to get a real phone call, let alone a visitor.) Poor Joan recounts the time when not one but three dropper-inners descended on her New York flat, when she was wearing just “a simple cotton shift and very little makeup.” But our girl sprung into action: “I had to abandon everything, quickly run into my dressing room, get into a lovely dress I had bought in Canada, put on lipstick and tidy my hair.” (I know just how she feels: a while back, I was reading in bed in a teeshirt and skivvies when suddenly—horrors!—there was a knock at the door. I had to put on pants. I still shudder at the memory.)
Always pack in daylight. “In artificial light when I’m in a hurry it’s too easy to grab the wrong accessories and find myself in Kansas City or San Juan with a hot pink dress and a shocking pink hat—and that’s a catastrophe. Catastrophe. Oh my God.
For Joan, though, just getting her headgear out the door sounded like a job for the Navy SEALs: “My hats are stuffed with tissue, encased in plastic bags, and packed into large black drums that hold perhaps a dozen—drums about three feet high and almost too wide to get through the door of my apartment or into a car. But we always manage. And there is just no other way to transport lovely hats.” She once traveled to London with 37 suitcases. To film Trog.
And here’s a tip from Sister Celluloid: it’s also best to put on your makeup in natural light. In our house and maybe yours, there’s lots of “soft” lighting, which can make you look a helluva lot better than you really do—leading to something of a shock when you’re out from under its glow. (“But damn, I looked so good in the bathroom!”)
Joan’s five rules of thumb for choosing clothes. 1) Find your own style and have the courage to stick to it. 2) Choose your clothes for your way of life. 3) Make your wardrobe as versatile as an actress. It should be able to play many roles. 4) Find your happiest colors—the ones that make you feel good. 5) Care for your clothes like the good friends they are.
“A dress of the wrong shade will bring out sallowness, highlight blemishes, and add years to a woman’s face. It will make her look hard.” Preach it, Aunt Joan! I once fell in love with a gorgeous dress in a kind of mustardy yellow, and wore it to lunch with a friend—who said, before I even sat down, “Are you okay? You look ill.” And he kept at it all through the meal. (“Really? You’re sure you’re fine?”) When I got home, I took a better look in the mirror than I had before I left the house. It was the dress. I’m pale as milk—so much so that the muddy yellow in the dress reflected on my face. I looked like I’d been on a bender since 1962. Luckily, an olive-toned friend looked great in it.
“Once girls get themselves married, they forget romance—and that’s when the flirting should really begin. If you want to keep your husband, that is. A lot of other women are flirting with him and flattering him—you can depend on that.” Okay whoa. This reminds me of that noxious little ditty from the ’60s, Wives and Lovers. When Jack Jones starts crooning, “Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup…” I want to scream, “Hey, little man, feck off!”
Of course everyone should keep kindling the romantic fires and making that extra effort after marriage. But Joan’s advice is a bit one-sided… and the idea that the minute you let your lipstick fade, your husband is going to hop into bed with some cutie from the office is downright creepy. And it’s disappointingly dated, coming from a woman who always seemed so far ahead of the curve.
“Don’t buy a dress until you can afford all the right accessories and have a hat made to match.” Okay so most of us will go around wearing barrels for the rest of our lives.
“Pants are probably here to stay. But they shouldn’t stay long on anyone but the most lithe and slim-hipped.” The next sound you’d hear would be most of my clothes hitting the charity bins.
“A busy woman can’t spend whole days in front of mirrors, but she ought to have them all over the house (which improves the décor too) and make a point of glancing at herself every time she passes one.” Oh dear God no. Including to the décor part. It would be like living in a giant ladies’ room.
Her “dangerous” foods. “Here are a few items no dieter should ever have in the house: peas, lima beans, avocados, olives, dried beans, corn, butter, most cheese, fatty meats, sugar, chocolate, potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, and creamed soups. The list could go on for another page or two, but any intelligent woman knows the dangerous foods.”
Butter, cheese, meats, sugar—check. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone demonize the sainted avocado. And peas, beans and olives? What did they ever do to hurt anyone?
Meanwhile, her chapter on entertaining contains enough bacon, meatballs, fried chicken, sausage, salami, steak, butter and mayo to choke a horse. I guess the best way to stay slim is to fob off all that stuff on your unsuspecting guests.
“Bedrooms should be very feminine.” Joan says “men feel much more masculine walking from a brown or green dressing room into a lovely feminine bedroom.” I polled my husband and a few male friends on this one. The consensus? Five said no, with any number of ribald expletives thrown in for good measure, and one spewed coffee out of his nose. And none could recall having a dressing room—brown, green or otherwise.
“A turquoise necklace with amethyst earrings is a crime.” Not a fashion misstep, mind you. A crime. I love this woman. (And let me confess that I have a necklace with both amethyst and turquoise stones in it. But please don’t turn me in—my dear old Ma depends on me!)
“Sit on hard chairs—soft ones spread the hips.” I’m pretty sure this is an old wives’ tale. Old wives who were really cranky and crying out for cushions.
Use every free second to exercise. Joan was always in wicked-good shape, so it’s hard to quibble with her on this one. But she goes on for pages and pages about working exercise into pretty much every minute of your life. Clench your buttocks in the grocery line! Firm your calves while you brush your teeth! Do odd, scary facial exercises that creep out your taxi driver! If your muscles are relaxed for a single second, you’re living your life all wrong.
I mean, please. Not all of us can slink into leotards at lunchtime and work out with our poodles, as she did during the stinker Torch Song.
But then, not all of us can be Joan Crawford. Rereading this somewhat frantic book, I can’t say I’d want to be. But I’d love to have been her friend—and I’ll bet she’d have been a damn good one back.