The Best of Everything

Main Menu          Magazines Main

 

 

Starlight Starbright

 

by Margaret Case Harriman

originally appeared in Vanity Fair, February 1936

 


Not long ago a writer whose work appears in the more skeptical magazines called to interview Joan Crawford. Joan arranged herself against a charming background and unleashed the movie star's customary monologue. "I hate dishonesty and insincerity," she told the writer, "but I love animals and little children." When she went on to say a great deal about life and love, and what was the matter with this sad world, he became acutely restless. "You don't seem very interested," Joan said, looking at him carefully. "Are you suggesting that my opinions about life are not important to the world in general?" The writer shrugged politely. "Well," said Joan, relaxing, "why the hell didn't you say so in the first place?"

To people who know her, there is nothing phony, no brittle assortment of fine mannerisms, about Joan. She never falls into any depressing attitudes of refinement; she puts her elbows on the table, scatters cigarette ashes around, and, on occasion, swears like a lady. She is a rather grave girl on the whole, curiously compelling to be with, perhaps because of her spectacular gift for listening. She has a knack for giving her entire attention to the people who talk to her, so that, transfixed by those astonishing eyes and by the air of expectancy which surrounds her, they begin to glow and to feel that they are being pretty interesting, after all. Entirely self-taught, she is never stilted, because everything she does is the result of a study so eager and so minute that it has come to be natural to her. She was born into an obscurely threadbare family in San Antonio, Texas, and went to work first as a telephone operator in the Oklahoma town to which her family moved when she was about 14 and, later, as a salesgirl in a Kansas City department store. The family name was Cassin, and she was known as Billie Cassin. The Cassins were always desperately on the move, and when Billie decided that she wanted to be a dancer, she got a job in the floor show at the Friar's Inn in Chicago, and went from there to the Oriole Terrace in Detroit. Finally reaching New York, she danced in the chorus of a Shubert show at the Winter Garden, and at Harry Richman's Club. She was about 18 then, and had thought up a stage name flossy enough to suit her own taste at the time. It was Lucille Le Sueur. Le Sueur had been her mother's maiden name, but the Lucille was her own idea. When a Metro-Goldwyn scout saw her and engaged her to come to Hollywood to work in pictures, the studio decided that her adopted name was too fancy and too hard to pronounce and, in collaboration with a movie magazine, conducted a contest to find a new name for her. A Mrs. Louise M. Artisdale of Rochester, New York, won the first prize of $500 by inventing the name Joan Crawford.

In Hollywood, Joan set out to bring herself to public attention less by her work in pictures than by a continuous nightlife that would have put most girls under the sod. In less than two years she had won 84 cups in nightclub contests for dancing the Charleston, or by imitating Bee Jackson, the shimmy expert. She was, then, undistinguished in appearance from any other good-looking girl, except by her curiously arresting eyes. She hid the fine structure of her face by pulling her brown hair onto her cheeks and over her forehead, and by a careless mask of makeup. Latter, she dyed her hair a flaming red and rolled her stockings not quite far enough above her knee-length skirts. A good many Californians go around in sport clothes during the day, and when Joan made her visit to New York as a Hollywood star, she appeared on Fifth Avenue and at lunch in fashionable restaurants in backless dresses with shoulder straps. When she became engaged to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., nobody was surprised by the definite raising of eyebrows that greeted the news at Pickfair, the home of Douglas' father and Mary Pickford. In those days, Pickfair was referred to by other Hollywood residents, not without respect, as Buckingham Palace, and Mary and Douglas were acknowledged king and queen of the film colony. Other women stars rose and stood politely when Mary entered a room, and no premiere of a picture in a Hollywood theater was allowed to start until Mary and Douglas were in their seats. The marriage of the red-haired bombshell into Hollywood's reigning family startled columnists everywhere into reviving the old story of the prince and the beggar's daughter. In the excitement, nobody noticed that Joan's improvement upon herself, which was to become calculating and relentless, had started some time before.

Because it had seemed a good idea at the time to be a hot-cha girl, Joan had concentrated on being the hottest hot-cha girl in town. She had, however, a stark streak of discernment in her. When she perceived that there were higher goals for a Hollywood star, she set out, with the same tireless concentration, to learn everything that seemed necessary. She took lessons in voice, diction, and French every day, and still does. She gave away her collection of long-legged dolls, souvenirs of nightclub parties, and began gravely to collect old silver and china. When she found out that it was pretty silly to collect antiques without knowing about them, she read a lot of books about silver and china. She progressed, by stages, from a houseful of fairly pally servants to a Scandinavian couple, laconically correct. She modified her hair to a deep shade of auburn, and learned to buy clothes from good dressmakers in Paris and New York. The dresses in her own wardrobe, now, are a good deal less extreme that those she wears in pictures. Off the screen she wears no makeup except lip rouge. When she stopped using powder, a year or so ago, her defiantly shiny face turned out to be a success. It seemed to be the cleanest face in Hollywood. She scrubs it every night with soap and water and looks more attractive, ready for bed, than many women more expensively annointed. Her speech, trained by continual study, is carefully modulated, but never seems affected, because her manner is entirely direct. She has a shrewd eye and ear for nuances. In the course of her merciless observations she fell upon a great truth one time when she said, over a bowl of crackers and milk, "It's funny, you can always say that your foot hurts, and it sounds all right. But if you say that your feet hurt, it sounds perfectly lousy."

Joan is as house-proud as any suburban matron who ever got into a pretty flush over a new icebox. She puts away her linen herself when it comes home from the laundry. (If that sounds like a press agent's notion, it is only the fate to which a good many curious facts are doomed.) Her reasons for putting away her own laundry are simple: she worked hard to acquire fine linen, and she likes to handle it and to know, each time, that she has got it all back. If a towel or a sheet is missing, she knows which one it is. She changes the whole aspect of her house in Brentwood Heights, outside of Hollywood, about once a year, adding wings, transplanting trees and gardens in a fine frenzy. A month or so ago, a woman from New York who had frequently dined at Joan's house last year returned to Hollywood and was asked to dinner again. She drove past the entrance twice. Since her last visit it had been transformed from a Spanish hacienda into an early-Colonial dwelling. Inside, these days, the house is all white; the walls, the furniture, the grand piano, and the carpets are white, softened by accents of color here and there in paintings, luster, and old glass. Joan has an upstairs sitting room, a dressing room made chiefly of mirrors and shoe closets, and a sleeping porch built around a gigantic four-poster bed. Any guest in the house is instantly taken on a tour, including the kitchen, which is as big as most living rooms.

Joan gives more thought to the meals served in her house than a good many housewives do who have nothing much else to think about. She is one of the few women anywhere who know enough about good food to serve thin cucumber sandwiches with mountain trout. Often, if she has to rush to the studio in the morning without seeing to the menu, she telephones from the set and reminds her cook of what Mr. Franchot Tone would like to have for dinner, or, perhaps, of a dish which she knows to be a favorite with Helen Hayes, Jean Dixon, Fred Astaire, or whoever happens to be a guest that evening. Joan has four servants - a Finnish butler and his wife, and two maids - and their rooms are decorated as carefully as the average guest room in a country house. Last summer, when the house was done over, Joan made all the draperies and curtains for the servant's rooms. She sews during every available moment and wastes no time on frivolous trifles, preferring something big and servicable, like a hooked rug or curtain. The skeptical, who remember Joan as Hollywood's hey-day girl, may consider such concentration on housewifely duties a little labored. Any hard-boiled cracks can be answered only by the tranquil statement that Joan doesn't have to impress her fans by doing any of these things. Press agents are gifted people, and could easily make the general public conscious of Joan as a housewife by publishing pictures of her with an eggbeater in one hand. The truth is that Joan likes to order meals and to make curtains, and that such chores are doubly important to her because she knows that attractive surroundings created by herself are a long step toward the goal she has set for herself, of being a woman of effortless taste and distinction.

Joan's salary is about $5,000 a week, and she gets - after her income tax and her agent's fee are paid - about $1,800. She is revered by tradesmen as a customer who pays her bills as soon as they are rendered. Except for six or eight cups of coffee a day and about a package of cigarettes, her diet is spartan. She is always conscious of the way that she appears to her public, and is continually concerned about her face and figure. When she is working on a picture, she drinks a cup of hot water when she is called at six o'clock, has fruit juice and coffee for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and dinner without white bread or potatoes. She drinks wine now and then, but no hard liquor. At dinner parties given by Joan and Franchot Tone, the guests gather in the music room before dinner, on stools along the bar, while Franchot goes behind to mix cocktails. Joan wanders around happily enough with a glass of sherry. Once she saw a row of women sitting on stools along a bar, and the contours where each lady met the stool frightened her. Since, she has taken her sherry standing up.