The Best of Everything

Main Menu          Magazines Main

 

The Four Men Who Left Joan Crawford Loveless 

For Her, Success Doesn't Mean Happiness! 

by Sara Murray 

originally appeared in Movie World, February 1971


"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 it." 

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 was dead.  

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 LeSueur. 

"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 1946. 

Joan didn't marry again for ten years, but she did have a home life. She adopted three more children, Christina, Cathy and Cindy. [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 hard. 

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 her." 

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 day. 

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 memories. 

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 together." 

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.