An excerpt from Jim Brochu's book
Lucy in the Afternoon: An Intimate Memoir of Lucille Ball
(William Morrow and Co., 1990)
Lucy was wary of having Joan Crawford as a guest. She had heard rumors about Crawford's toughness and ego and hard drinking; probably the same things Crawford had heard about Lucy. When I told Lucy that my father had an affair with Joan Crawford in 1960-61, Lucy was very interested. When I told her I had remained friends with Crawford up to her death in 1977, she wanted to hear every word.
The first time I ever met the great Joan Crawford, she was in a dressing gown dying her hair red. Lucy's eyes popped out. "In a dressing gown...were you having an affair with her, too?"
I told her that I traveled to South America on the S.S. Brasil with my father in the summer of 1960. Shortly after the ship sailed, we heard there were several celebrities on-board, including The New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, financier Louis Wolfson, and the great Joan Crawford. I was going on fourteen and didn't know who Joan Crawford was, but my handsome widower father set about to meet her. He asked everyone on the social staff if they had seen her, knew her cabin number, what activities she liked, or when she might be around.
On the first morning at sea, I met two nice girls my own age named Cindy and Cathy. We took to each other at once, and after lunch they invited me down to their cabin to play a game of Monopoly and meet their mother.
I went down and was introduced to their mother, Joan. She was sitting at her mirrored dressing table and was very nice and very friendly. She didn't mind having a young man in the room as she worked on her hair. As we talked, we all laughed and joked. It was a very easy atmosphere. I still had no idea this was the famous star everyone was dying to meet.
Later that evening, as my father and I sat down to dinner, I told him I was anxious to introduce him to the mother of my new friends, Cindy and Cathy. Always the matchmaker, I mentioned that she was very beautiful and very single. He wasn't interested. He didn't want to meet any women who were the marrying kind.
A few minutes into our dinner, we heard applause coming from the entrance to the dining room, The applause started rolling through the room like a wave growing louder. My father gaped when he spotted her.
"That's Joan Crawford. That's her!"
When Joan saw me, she swept over to the table and kissed me on each cheek. "Jimmy, dear, it's so good to see you again. This must be your charming father. Hello, Pete."
My father was as speechless as Ralph Kramden in a spotlight. Joan continued, "Peter, I'd like you to meet my daughters, Cindy and Cathy." My father shook their hands and babbled out a hello. Joan started for her table and looked back over her shoulder as she went, "Let's have a drink together later, shall we?"
My father's affair with Joan was more than a shipboard romance and less than a relationship. After a year, they saw each other as friends, and after two years they didn't see each other at all. I continued seeing Joan. We would correspond frequently, meeting for lunch or dinner, or sometimes I would go up to her apartment on Fifth Avenue and talk.
I told Lucy about one night in particular that I thought I got an insight into Joan. Whenever I went to her apartment, she always greeted me as if she were about to have her portrait painted. One Saturday night, I called her and asked if she felt like company. She told me to come over. When I got off the elevator (which opened into her apartment), I saw a lady standing in front of me dressed in an old bathrobe, turban, and no make-up. I asked if Miss Crawford was home, and Joan looked at me and said, "I don't look that bad, do I?"
We went into the kitchen, where she was cooking bouillabaisse for a dinner party the next night. She apologized for her appearance, but added she felt comfortable enough with me that she didn't have to perform. She shook her head sadly and said, "It's a production to go for a stick of gum."
She looked at me directly, and took a drag of her cigarette. Although she was not drunk, I could tell she had been drinking. There was no pretense about her at that moment. She said, "Whenever I go out that door, I have to be Joan Crawford. I can't go out without every hair in place or without my make-up and a good dress."
"Why not?" I wanted to know.
She banged her hand on the counter. "Because people expect Joan Crawford, and that's what I have to give them!"
As the evening progressed with Crawford, she drank heavily. I told her how much I wanted to be an actor, and I asked her advice about what I should do. Like Sadie Thompson in the last scene of "Rain", where she feels sorry for everyone in the whole damn world, complete with a shaft of light across her face, she said, "Who knows what you should do? Who knows what anyone should do? I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a star. And I always knew I'd be a star as long as my back held out." I didn't understand at that moment what she meant, but a few years later it dawned on me that she wasn't talking about hard work.
Lucy interrupted me and asked if I had ever heard about the famous House of Stars in the Hollywood Hills? I hadn't. She told me in the thirties and forties, there was a house of ill-repute where the prostitutes were made to look like the most famous movie stars of the day. A customer would come in and ask for Mae West or Myrna Loy or Joan Crawford, and for a very large amount of money, was bedded with the star's lookalike. Lucy looked around the room checking for intruders before she added, "I always heard that the Joan Crawford girl looked so much like Crawford that everyone thought it was Crawford."
I leaned in to keep things confidential. "Do you think it was?"
"No," roared Lucy. "She'd have to be in make-up at six A.M. You can't screw around when you're under contract." I asked Lucy how the experience of working with Crawford had been. She told me she fired her after the first rehearsal. "She was drunk. She showed up at ten o'clock in the morning for the first read-through, and she was bombed. She was drinking straight vodka from this silver flask, and she was drinking it in front of the kids. She was saying all the words, but it was like she was a robot. About lunchtime, Joan passed out cold, and that did it. As soon as she woke up, I fired her."
Herb Kenwith, the show's director and an old friend of Crawford's, begged Lucy to give her another chance. Crawford, after her revival, said the heat had gotten to her. Lucy gave her another chance, and Crawford did finish the show. Lucy admitted it was one of the worst.