Why Joan Crawford Won Our Southern Hearts
Before she was a Hollywood legend, before she was a diva in a long-simmering feud with Bette Davis, before she was an Oscar winner, Joan Crawford was a girl growing up in the South.
She was born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, in either 1904, 1905 or 1906. It’s not entirely clear, because she didn’t have a birth certificate and, according to Texas Monthly, always preferred the year 1908, a decision many Southern women can appreciate.
The family moved to Lawton, Oklahoma, where her stepfather owned a local theater called the Ramsey Opera House and young Lucille developed a love of vaudeville and dancing. The soon-to-be star’s trademark feistiness was evident when she was a child. According to My San Antonio, when she was young, she plotted out an escape from piano lessons to play with her friends, but when she jumped off her family’s front porch she injured her foot. While that temporarily sidelined her dreams of dancing, she eventually made a full recovery and launched her career.
While she gave college a try for a while, she ended up dropping out of Missouri’s Stephens College and started appearing in traveling revues under the name Lucille LeSueur. During a show in Detroit, she was spotted by a producer who sent her to Broadway, to appear in the chorus line for a show called, Innocent Eyes. While many dancers dream of Broadway, she didn’t stop there. She eventually got herself a screen test and her first Hollywood job, playing Norma Shearer’s body double in 1925’s Lady of the Night.
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While Lucille LuSueur was trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood, Hollywood had other ideas. In 1925, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head of publicity Pete Smith decided that her name sounded both like “Le Sewer” and fake. It had to go. He had a plan, though: He designed a contest with fan magazine Movie Weekly to let readers pick out a new name for the studio’s new star. Their choice? Joan Crawford, and according to Texas Monthly, she always hated the winning entry, reportedly thinking her new last name sounded like “crawfish” and hoping people would pronounce her first name as “Jo-anne.”
To go with her new name, Crawford developed a new voice, too. According to The Independent, she spent hours in elocution practice getting rid of her Southern drawl to sound more Hollywood. She also started to dress like a star, covering her freckles and dying her red hair.
Despite her trepidation about the name, Joan Crawford was a star. She started out starring in 23 silent films, including 1924’s The Plumber, in which she appeared nude. She regretted it, though, and when she had the resources, she very understandably set about trying to buy up every copy of the movie. Her first “talkie” was the 1929 film Untamed and it was a smash. From there her career blossomed and a lot of it was due to Crawford’s hard work and determination. As MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas said, “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.” (Listen to the “You Must Remember This” podcast about Crawford for all the sordid details about how she managed that feat.)
She appeared in 82 movies, 59 of which had sound, including classics like Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). It was in 1945, in her 68th movie, Mildred Pierce, that she finally won an Academy award.
Of course, as Texas Monthly puts it, “Joan Crawford raised other people's eyebrows as often as she reapplied her own.” She was a legend—and acted like it as anyone who watched the FX miniseries Feud knows. Crawford had an affair with Clark Gable, much to the aggravation of their movie studio, and married three actors, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Franchot Tone, and Phillip Terry. Crawford eventually settled down with Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele.
Behaving like a diva was a privilege that she earned, though. She fought for script approval for all her roles (a rarity in those days), fought her way to the top of Hollywood society, and kept on fighting for roles well past the age when Hollywood usually trades in stars for younger actresses. She certainly had her faults, as anyone who has seen Mommy Dearest can attest, but she was a star on her own terms and that counts for a lot.