Mention the words “Joan Crawford” and “book” in the same sentence and the first thing so many people will think of is, “No more wire hangers!” But on the other hand, it’s been my experience that many of those who don’t buy into the Mommie Dearest hype often believe that Joan Crawford could do no wrong. Personally, I’ve never thought it was fair to put Joan squarely in one box or the other. I’ve always believed that she was a very complex woman and that the true Joan Crawford could likely be found somewhere in between the two extreme views.
Donald Spoto has taken a similar position in his new biography, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. In Possessed, he paints Joan Crawford as neither a saint or a monster. Instead, he presents her exactly as I always believed her to be: a very complicated lady. He does an excellent job of presenting why Joan Crawford deserves to be admired and respected. She had a miserable childhood: abandoned by her father, her mother favored her brother, she lived in poverty, and she had, at best, a fifth grade education. Yet she managed to rise above her miserable past and become one of the biggest movie stars in the world, working her way up from the very bottom. She came to Hollywood with no knowledge of acting or the movie making process, but she came in more than willing to learn and, in the end, became one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. Spoto suggests that Joan knew so much about how to make movies that she would have made an excellent director. I had never thought of that before, but it’s an interesting idea.
But when it comes to the less flattering aspects of Joan’s life, he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade. When he talks about her children being adopted, he doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that Joan used a baby broker because the laws at the time were so against single women adopting children. There’s no nice way to say that she bought her children. He also doesn’t beat around the bush regarding Joan’s problems with alcohol. The book even prints her rider from a Pepsi promotional tour that mentioned how many cases of hundred proof Smirnoff vodka had to be shipped overseas because the only vodka available in England was eighty proof. And yes, Joan did become increasingly difficult to work with over the years. Another fact that does not go unnoticed by Spoto.
Spoto also presents the whole Mommie Dearest issue in a fair manner. He points out flaws in Christina’s story, ranging from factual errors to the fact that she has started telling her stories with a more sympathetic spin toward Joan over the years. There are numerous quotes from people who were close to Joan who all say that while Joan was indeed a disciplinarian, she did love her children very much. But Spoto does not make Joan out to be Mother of the Year, not by a long shot. In fact, he uses Joan’s own words to make that point. She says that even though she loved all her children dearly, considering her undying devotion to her career, she probably never should have adopted at all. Near the end of her life, she admitted herself that she was an actress first, a wife second, and a mother third and that her focus on her career was selfish and several of her personal relationships suffered because of it.
I immensely enjoyed reading Possessed. Before this, I had read Spoto’s biography on Marlene Dietrich, which I found to be quite interesting and well-researched. I was excited to hear he was doing a biography on Joan Crawford and I went into it hoping it would be just as interesting and well-researched. I was not disappointed. As I said, I think he did a good job of presenting a balanced look at her life. He did an excellent job at sorting out details where records were spotty at best and dispelling some misconceptions about her career such as the legendary feud with Bette Davis. My only complaint is that because the book comes in at just under three hundred pages, excluding things such as acknowledgments and references, it’s not as in-depth as it could be. But it is an easy to read book and it does give you a very good look at the life of Joan Crawford.
Disclosure: I did receive a free review copy of the book from Harper Collins. However, I assure you that I’m not just being nice because I got a free copy. I honestly did enjoy it 🙂