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Four Men Who Left Joan Crawford Loveless
For Her, Success Doesn't Mean
by Sara Murray
originally appeared in Movie World,
"I wanted everything stardom, happiness
in marriage and children. And I was sure I could have it, too!" Joan Crawford,
wearing a flowing hostess gown in an unusual print, her makeup perfect and
looking every inch the movie star but nowhere near her age, was sitting in her
luxurious uptown East Side New York apartment. She was trying to pick up the
pieces, to put her life together again after the sudden death of her fourth
husband, Alfred Steele, a Pepsi-Cola Company executive.
"We were so happy," she went on, toying
with her dainty china cup. "I guess it was too good to be true." They had been
married in 1956 and they had indeed been happy until his death in 1959. She
recalled, "You know, I was terrified of flying until Alfred talked me out of
I remembered the reception Columbia
Pictures had given the newlyweds after their marriage. It was at the ballroom of
the Hotel Plaza. Joan was wearing a simple but elegant dress in red and brown
tones with a high neck hidden under mink. A white orchid nestled in the fur and
she wore a matching turban.
"I'm so happy!" she told reporters and
photographers present at the party. "I love him!" And good-looking Alfred Steele
was obviously very happy too the way he held his arm around her, the smile on
his face, the tenderness and pride in his eyes when he looked at her. It was
obvious that this was one of those "forever" marriages. And it was until that
morning when Joan called to him that breakfast was ready and he didn't answer.
Then she went to the bedroom to awaken him and she found him on the floor. He
The suddenness of it, the shock were
almost too much for Joan. She didn't want to see anybody. She was numb with
grief, but she is a strong woman and she had faced sadness and heartbreak
before. She knew she had to go on. So she went to the offices of the Pepsi -Cola
Company, turned her attention to her late husband's business. Soon the other
executives knew this was no empty-headed film star, but a shrewd business
woman who knew what she was doing.
Life has not been easy for Joan despite
all her triumphs and great success. She was born in San Antonio, Texas, but her
parents separated before she was a year old and shortly afterward her mother
married Henry Cassin and took Joan and her older brother Hal to live in Lawton,
Oklahoma where Mr. Cassin owned a theater. Joan was eight years old when this
marriage too came apart, and she moved with her mother to Kansas City where she
went to school at St. Agnes Academy. Her mother took a job managing a laundry
and Joan paid her way at St. Agnes and later at Rockingham Boarding School by
working in the kitchen and doing housework. To escape the hard work and
colorless life, Joan took up dancing and she was acknowledged to be the best
Charleston dancer in school. She once told me, "Even then I knew I'd be
somebody, that I wouldn't spend my life in drudgery." And she was willing to
work hard at anything to reach her goal.
After graduation she attended Stephens
College in Columbia, Missouri where she earned her tuition and board waiting on
tables. It was about this time that she decided her aim in life was to be a
dancer and college was not the place to learn to be a professional. So she left
school, returned to Kansas City and got a job in a department store making $12 a
week. She quit when she had enough money saved for the wardrobe she needed to
apply for dancing jobs. She went to Chicago and got a job as a song and dance
entertainer in a small café. Her next job was in Detroit, dancing in a café
revue at the Oriole Terrace Club. It was there that she came to the attention of
J.J. Shubert, who was looking for new talent for a musical he was preparing for
Broadway called "Innocent Eyes". He offered her a job. From that show she went
into another revue, "The Passing Show of 1924" in which she attracted the
interest of Harry Rapf of MGM. He arranged a screen test for her which resulted
in a contract. Her starting salary was $75 a week, which was more money than she
had ever made. Joan was then only 17 years old. Films were at that time just
going into a cycle of musicals and she was the right girl in the right place.
After a part in "Sally, Irene and Mary", the studio, realizing her potential,
launched a contest to give their new star a name. Thousands were sent in and
somehow 'Joan Crawford' rang the bell. Immediately she got star billing and the
name seemed to fit her far better than her real one, Lucille
"I always liked my name," Joan recalled
once. "But I liked Joan Crawford better. Do you know, it seemed less
theatrical?" And she laughed that throaty laugh.
She was a star and she went on being one
from then on. "I really was lucky in my career," she told me that day at her
apartment in 1959. "I'm not so sure about my personal life, although I must say
it has been interesting."
In 1929 she married dashing young Douglas
Fairbanks, Jr. He was Hollywood royalty, just as his father and his wife, Mary
Pickford, had been before him. Joan adored him but she felt inadequate at times.
A friend from those days recalls, "Nothing she did seemed to please him or his
family. They thought she dressed too flashily. She tried so hard." But in 1933
she gave up and got a divorce. Above all she had to be true to herself. She
couldn't make herself over to suit them. "Anyway," her friend said, "she was
adorable and they were so stuffy."
Though saddened and confused over the
breakup of her marriage, Joan pushed much harder in her career, doing one film
after another. No one ever worked harder with fabulous results. She was a big,
big star in a studio of glittering names Clark Gable, Norma Shearer and Greta
Garbo, to name a few.
Lucille LeSueur had changed more than her
name. She became sophisticated, regal and recognized as one of the most
intelligent women in Hollywood. Her every move was news. When she dated a man,
it was reported in the gossip columns. There were rumors that she and Clark
Gable were in love and this caught the fancy of the public.
Then she began being seen with Franchot
Tone, actor and Eastern socialite. She was in love again and they were married
in 1935. At that time Joan said, "I want to have children, a real home." There
was one thing she never did say and that was that she would give up her
career. It was a part of her, a very vital part. And Franchot Tone appreciated
this. He was proud of her.
There were no children and there were
difficulties. Her career was going so well and his just so-so. The old story
where the wife is more successful than the husband was the reason for the
trouble. Finally in 1939 they called the marriage off. Joan was disillusioned
but not down. She simply threw herself that much harder into her work. "I shall
be very sure before I marry again," she said at the time.
She amazed her friends with her energy.
Her home was one of the real show places in Hollywood and she was a gourmet
cook. She was called by many the most beautiful woman in the world, but still
she was lonely. "I was never the kind of girl who got a kick out of dating lots
of men. I'm a romantic and I always wanted marriage and children."
Then Philip Terry came along. He was an
actor, but he wasn't well-known, despite his good looks and charm. Joan fell in
love with him and they were married in 1942. "We seemed so compatible," she
recalled. "And I was sure that he could be very successful because he was
ambitious and had talent."
The marriage was good at first. They
adopted son Christopher and Joan was radiant. But Philip Terry changed. He was
around the house all the time. Either he didn't try or he was unsuccessful when
he did, but his career seemed at a standstill. Hollywood was sorry for Joan
and she could not stand pity. In four years, which was ironically the duration
of each of her previous marriages, they broke up. They divorced in
Joan didn't marry again for ten years,
but she did have a home life. She adopted three more children, Christina, Cathy
[Webmaster's note: Christina was actually the first child adopted--in 1940,
prior to Joan's marriage to Terry.]
If she couldn't be a wife, then she would be a mother. And she tried
An old friend says, "She wanted
everything for them because she loved them. Perhaps it was because she was too
busy with her career, I don't know. But I've suspected the children hate
Then she met Alfred Steele, President of
the board of Pepsi-Cola. She was determined not only to have a good marriage but
a family as well. She wanted to bring them all together. And Alfred was solid
and understanding. "He was so right for me in every way," Joan told me that
They all went to Switzerland together and
rented a chalet. Joan wrote me at the time what a wonderful time they were
having and asked me to join them. Even her letter glowed with her happiness.
Perhaps that vacation in the winter of 1956-57 is one of Joan's treasured
But her children were rebellious. They
got into little scraps, and wouldn't let Joan reach them. She has never been
able to understand why. Perhaps in trying so hard to be a good mother and much
of the time mother and father both she was too strict. She is immaculate about
herself and her home. When one visited her as I did on different occasions, one
was requested to take off his shoes. She had a beautiful deep pile white rug and
she wanted to keep it that way.
Now, two of the girls are married and
Christina is doing daytime TV. Joan is proud of her and she wants to help but
she doesn't know how.
Her friend said, "She's a remarkable
woman, you know. She has such discipline, such drive. I would image the kids
found it difficult to live up to her."
And after Alfred Steele's sudden death
she was trying to find herself and she had little to give anyone else, even her
children. So she threw herself into her late husband's business with the same
drive she has had in everything else.
Though she still keeps a hand in the
Pepsi-Cola business, she realizes that her place is still in acting. Many of her
friends were shocked when she did the horror movie, "Whatever Happened to Baby
Jane?" She put it simply. "I'm an actress and I needed work. Obviously I've
passed the age of playing romantic leads and this picture made a great deal of
money." She also appeared on television series in guest star roles. And each
performance has been memorable. She's a real pro.
Yes, she has had success, but success
doesn't mean happiness at least not to her. She was married four times and
each marriage brought her unhappiness, but her fourth marriage was the solid
one, the good one and it would have lasted for the rest of her life if Alfred
Steele had lived.
"It is very difficult for an actress, a
busy one, to have a happy marriage," she told me that day in 1959. "A career,
particularly if you are a star, demands your time, your energy, everything. I
thought I could be different, that I could have it all. And I did for a little
while with Alfred. I'll always treasure our brief time
Next March 23rd, Joan will be 63 years old and she still does not begin to look it. She keeps herself busy with her work and with her husband's business. And she is trying to reach her children, to bring them closer to her. There are many lonely hours. But she has great strength, and she has her memories. And that is far more than many women have. Joan Crawford is grateful for that. She has come a long, long way from the dancing girl, Lucille LeSueur.