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Joan Crawford had everything -- children, fame, fortune, glamour -- everything except the love of a strong man. Then she met Al Steele and knew she needed...

Someone to Watch Over Me

by Alice Hoffman
Originally appeared in Modern Screen, August 1955

If ever there was a woman in love with love that woman is Joan Crawford

For ten years now Joan has prayed nightly "for the love of some good, strong man who would love me for myself, who would marry Joan Crawford the woman, not Joan Crawford the actress. If only such a man came along I would do everything for him, cook, sew, clean. I would love him so completely because there is so much love in my heart for the right man."

Joan's prayers -- a pleading for escape from loneliness -- have been answered.

Several weeks ago, on May 9 to be exact, the forty-seven-year-old actress, as nervous and excited as any teen-ager, flew off to Las Vegas and married Alfred N. Steele, fifty-four, president of the Pepsi-Cola Company.

The newspapers made it sound like a spur-of-the-moment elopement. According to their reports Joan and Alfred Steele were dining in Romanoff's one night. They were talking about how happy they were in each other's presence. Somehow, the conversation veered towards flying and Joan supposedly said, "You know, I've never flown." Whereupon Steele supposedly answered, "Let's fly to Vegas tonight and get married."

"Okay," Joan agreed. "Let's go."

The papers made it sound impetuous, impulsive, the result of a love-at-first-sight infatuation. They say the marriage came as a complete surprise. They said there had been talk of Joan marrying Milt Rackmil, president of Universal-International Studios, or Charles Baron, a Chicago automobile dealer, or Nick Ray, the movie director. But not Al Steele. After all, who had seen Joan Crawford with Al Steele? Where had he come from, anyway?

They just didn't know. They didn't know how long, how desperately Joan had been hoping that one day Steele might obtain his freedom to marry her. They didn't know the inside story, and understandably enough, Joan has never told it. Why?

Because when Joan first met Al Steele at Sonny Werblin's New York apartment four years ago, Al was a happily married man.

Vice-president of Coca-Cola then, charming, wealthy, and at the same time down-to-earth, he was married to the former Lillian Nelson, a beauty who had given birth the year before to a son.

When Joan Crawford and Al Steele were introduced to each other that first night, they smiled, greeted each other pleasantly. And that's all there was to it. Joan never for a moment thought that she would ever meet Steele again except on a casual social level.

Joan has been accused of being ambitious, ruthless, determined and wanting; while there may be some professional justification for these accusations, never in her life has Joan made the slightest play for a married man.

If there is one institution she has always respected, that institution is marriage.

"To me," she once said, "marriage is the most beautiful, the most holy relationship that any man and woman can ever have. It represents the greatest love affair that ever happened. The words of a marriage ceremony, they're not just words. They're a benediction from God. As a married woman I know what it is to have a husband tempted. To me death, yes death, is preferable to breaking up a home."


Joan Crawford became Mrs. Al Steele May 9, but he didn't become Mr. Crawford. Not this big businessman. With her fourth marriage Joan finally learned to separate the men from the boys.

But marriages dissolve. Husbands and wives get on each other's nerves. Happiness one year turns into bitterness the next. It happened that way with Al and Lillian Steele.

As for Joan during the 1950 to 1954 period, she threw herself into work. "I was unutterably lonely," she honestly confesses, "I was unfulfilled. Stories that I've always had scores of men waiting around to date me, they're not true. I can't tell you how many nights after I put the children to bed I've stayed up alone, all alone. I am a woman with a woman's need, a husband."

Because she posesses tremendous energy, Joan at one time supervised the rearing of her four adopted children with unusual discipline.

Once, after Christopher had run away from home and returned for the third time, she was asked, "Joan, aren't you being too tough on the kids?"

"You don't understand," she said. "They need the security of discipline. I'm mother and father both. I have a very great responsibility to those children. I love them so much it hurts. I know they need a father. They know they need a father. But we can't let one of us selfishly destroy the serenity of our household."

On another occasion, Christina, fifteen, unexpectedly came home from Chatwick School one week end. Joan wasn't prepared for the arrival of her oldest daughter. They had a heart-to-heart conversation, and a few weeks later Christina was enrolled in the Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic school, which she currently attends.

Running a screen career, managing one of the largest and most magnificent homes in Brentwood -- it's equipped with swimming pool, bathing house and special motion-picture theater -- looking after four growing children and supervising her many business interests -- that's quite a load for any woman to carry. And until she became Mrs. Alfred Steele, let's not forget that Joan Crawford handled that load alone.

Sure, she made mistakes. Sure, she feuded with other actors and actresses. Sure, she needlessly criticized Marilyn Monroe. But as a former secretary of hers points out, "Joan has always had to do her own fighting. The movie game is rough, very rough. There's back-stabbing and in-fighting and politics. An actress has got to battle for every close-up, for every good scene. Joan's whole life has been a battle. Professionally she's hard, because in Hollywood the soft-hearted usually finish last.

"Besides, and this is very important, Joan for the past ten years has been the support of her whole family as well as a dozen other people. Suppose she got ill, suppose the children got ill, where would the money come from? She had no man to fall back on, no husband to support her, no one to go to for financial help. Criticize her for being aggressive, but she had to be. She learned very early that in show business the meek don't inherit a damn thing -- they starve."

But aggressive or not, Joan has always been willing to admit her mistakes. In doing so, she has profited from them. For example, she accepts total blame for the failure of her first three marriages.

"With Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.," she confessed, "I didn't know the score. I was over-emotional. With Franchot Tone I suffered from a very bad inferiority complex. With Phil Terry, I married not so much for love as to escape loneliness."

When it came to Al Steele, therefore -- the Joan Crawford of 1955 was a wise, experienced and prudent woman. She told no one, and hundreds of newspapermen are her good friends -- that Steele had filed for a divorce in Acapulco, Mexico, earlier this year. She told no one that after the filing, Steele was taking off for Europe with their close pal, Ben Goffstein of Las Vegas.

Instead, she kept her silence. This time she would not force the play. She had seen Steele quietly and intermittently. If after he returned from Europe he wanted to propose, she would accept immediately. But for the time being she would hold her love in check. Also her tongue. And for Joan this is difficult, because when she's in love she wants to shout it from the roof tops. And she was ecstatically and tempestuously in love with Al for many, many months.

While her husband-to-be was traveling in Europe, visiting one Pepsi-Cola installation after another, Joan was devoting her time to pictures, children and prayer. She was hoping that Al would come back with enough desire in his heart for marriage.

Steele returned in March. But only after he picked up his divorce, did he begin to court Joan ardently. The gossip columnists missed the entire play. They were way off base. They kept jotting down items linking Joan with Milt Rackmil while all the time she was seeing or phoning Steele.

Early in May, Steele told Joan that he wanted very much to marry her. Tears came into Crawford's eyes. "Thank you, darling," she said. "Whenever and wherever you say." Joan went to work at Columbia, making The Queen Bee, knowing full well that once the picture was over, she was facing the greatest trial and experience of her life.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that she was unusually nervous during the production of Bee? Her colleagues couldn't understand it. The closer she came to finishing the film, the more nervous she grew. She kept blowing her lines in scene after scene, something she hasn't done for twenty years.

"I don't know what's the matter with me," she kept saying.

The matter was marriage. She and Al has tenatively decided to get married in New York or New Jersey on May 23 and to leave for a European honeymoon on May 26. In fact the boat reservations had already been made. And secret of secrets, Joan was in the process of buying her all-white trousseau. Moreover, Joan had decided that following the marriage she would either sell or rent her Brentwood mansion and move to New York.

No wonder the girl was nervous. No wonder she was blowing lines all over the place. She had plenty on her mind. So, too, had Steele.

On Monday, May 9, he decided that there was no point in waiting another two weeks. "Why don't we hop over to Vegas tonight?" he whispered into Joan's ear as they were dining at Romanoff's.

"Fine with me," Joan said.

Steele grinned from ear to ear. "I'll make the arrangements."

He called Benny Golfstein in Las Vegas and told him to "get ready for a little marriage."

Golfstein, who used to work for the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas, was overjoyed. He phoned Municipal Judge John Mendoza, rang up Abe Schiller, the Flamingo's publicity man, told him to keep the penthouse available, and then raced out to the airport to await the arrival of the wedding party.

They landed in Steele's private plane and were driven to the Flamingo. Neither Joan nor the groom was at all nervous during the ceremony. It was the fourth marriage for Joan, and the third for Steele. But the Pepsi-Cola executive had forgotten to purchase a wedding ring. It was too late -- 2 A.M. -- to buy one -- so they used Dorothy Golfstein's wedding band. Next day the newspapers said that "Ben Golfstein, realizing that something was imminent, just happened to have the ring -- a platinum band with six diamonds -- on hand."

What they didn't tell was that Ben leaned over to his wife when the ceremony began and said, "Honey, slip your wedding ring off and let me have it."

After the ceremony was over, Joan and Al kissed. Joan said, "We didn't even have time to pick up a toothbrush." She did, however, have time to pick up an orchid which she attached to her black-and-gold evening gown.

Joan claims that she is determined to make her fourth husband "the best wife in the world. From here on in," she asserts, "he's the boss. Whatever he says goes. If he wants me to give up my career, I'll do it gladly. I've already told the children that we're moving our headquarters to New York. They know Al and they love him. I'm a lonely woman no longer. This is everything I've ever wanted.

"I've got one more picture to do for Columbia -- that's in July after our honeymoon. After that I plan to commute to Hollywood if Al will let me. In my book he comes first. I've never been so happy to put my career in the back seat. I've waited a long, long time for this fulfillment."

Almost thirty years.


The Best of Everything