She Devil or Doting Mom?
'Dearest' Stirs A Row Among Joan Crawford's Adopted
originally appeared in People magazine,
October 19, 1981
Was the glamorous film queen also a
loving mom, as MGM publicity pictured her in her 1930s and '40s heyday? Or was
Joan Crawford, who died at about 69 in 1977, really a movieland monster who
adopted four children to burnish her image and then proceeded to tyrannize them
as her career faded and she slipped into alcoholism and
Like the 1978 best-seller from which it
was drawn, the new Faye Dunaway film, Mommie Dearest, depicts a decidedly
unsaintly Joan, and it is clearly an image that sells: Within its first week the
movie became the No. 1 box office draw. But whatever it is doing for its
distributor, Paramount, the flick is enflaming old tensions among those who
think they knew Joan best – her children.
While Christina Crawford Koontz, 42, who
wrote the scathing biography, and her brother, Chris, 38, believe Mommie was
indeed a monster, she is still dearest to the younger Crawfords, the twins
Cynthia (Cindy) and Cathy, 34. Cathy, now the wife of a Pennsylvania sportswear
executive and a mother of two, says bitterly, "Christina committed matricide on
Christina last saw Joan five years before
her death. Like Chris, she was left out of her will. Her sisters, who say she
stitched in the "bad parts" about Joan's drinking and tantrums after the
funeral, have not seen her since, even though last August Christina was
hospitalized by a near-fatal stroke that partially paralyzed her right
Nonetheless, Christina is prospering.
With her book and film profits, she and her second husband, film producer C.
David Koontz, 41, have a comfortable house in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley and a
ranch 140 miles away in San Luis Obispo. Christina has a soon-to-be-released
first novel, "Black Widow" (William Morrow, $12.95), which deals with a
beautiful, ruthless woman who is cruel to her son and stepdaughter and deadly to
the men in her life. Christina expects further criticism, given the
She claims Mommie Dearest has
served a good purpose – to strengthen child abuse laws. Though childless
herself, she has lectured both at home and in England on battered children and
is president of a charity that runs two centers for mistreated children in the
L.A. area. "It was very difficult for me to put my life before the public," she
Christina wrote two scripts for
Mommie – and got her husband listed as executive producer – but the
couple both feel the movie should have been filmed more from Christina's
viewpoint. Complains Koontz: "They made a Joan Crawford
photo caption: Wearing a wig to cover her shaved head after brain
surgery, Christina strikes a movie queen pose at her California
Christina's views are shared by brother
Chris, an unemployed former utility company lineman. He lives with his second
wife, Gale, and their daughter Chrystal, in sleepy Greenport, N.Y. The 6'4"
Chris has not worked since he fell off a ladder two years ago, even though a
doctor ruled him fit and he receives no disability benefits; Gale supports the
family with her clerk-typist job.
Chris thinks Christina's book "did a good
job." He recalls Joan once holding his hand over a fire as punishment for
playing with matches. At age 7, he learned from a classmate that he was adopted.
"I was kind of a brat," Chris concedes. "I didn't feel accepted at home and I
was odd man out at school." He was in and out of a dozen of them by the time he
reached ninth grade. At 14 his mother sent him to a shrink. At 16 he got nabbed
for car theft. By 19 he had wed a waitress, fathered a daughter and was working
as a lifeguard in Miami. There one day, he says, "J.C. summoned me" to her suite
at the Fontainebleau Hotel. "She took one look at my child and said, 'It doesn't
look like you. It's probably a bastard.' I walked out. It was the last time I
After he and his first wife divorced
(Chris has "no idea" where their three grown children are) and after Army
service in Vietnam, he moved to Greenport and wed Gale. Chris says of the movie:
"I lived it." He waived any rights to the book and movie for $10,000, so "I
wouldn't have to go on talk shows and put up with all the crap."
[Above photo caption: Chris Crawford calls his
mom "J.C." or "that bitch", but says, "I guess I loved her."]
By contrast, Cathy Crawford sought out
the film – and blasts it as "a farce." "Christina says Joan was rotten, and I
say she was a good person," Cathy explains. "She was tough on us, sure. You'd
get a swat once in a while, but none of the physical beatings – the coat
hangers!" Cathy, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, Jerome
LaLonde, and children Carla, 11, and Casey, 9, regrets the rift in the family.
"I just can't feel for anybody who would do that to their own mother," she says.
"It's very immoral."
Cindy agrees. A divorcee, she resides in
a modest two-bedroom apartment in a hamlet in central Iowa with her sons, Joel,
10, and Jan, 13. "I think Christina was jealous," she says. "She wanted to be
the one person she couldn't be – Mother. I think she'll use Joan until she can't
get any more good out of it. Then she'll dump her."
Cindy was in boarding school from age 8,
and attended Dubuque University, where she drifted into a romance with a student
and soon faced a shotgun marriage. Joan at first offered to arrange an abortion.
"But I wanted the kid," Cindy says, "and Mother gave her full support." And Joan
applauded her when she divorced seven years later. Like Cathy, Cindy was given a
$77,500 trust fund in her mother's will. (The bulk of Crawford's $1 million
estate went to charities, though courts later awarded Christina and Chris
$27,500 apiece.) Cindy is now scrimping while studying to become an "energy
technician." She claims she "never saw Joan drunk," despite the Mommie
Dearest script. In Crawford's day, she notes, "It was hard to be a single
parent. It's still pretty rough. I've got first hand experience." Christina
counters her siblings' criticism by pointing out that "in many families where
there are victims of child abuse, other members will often deny that they ever
witnessed an actual event. That's because if they admit what they actually saw,
they're going to have to admit that they have a bad, out-of-control parent. And
that's terrifying for a child. Even as adults, these people pretend they forgot,
or try to." Among the star's own kids, at least, the debate over "the real Joan"
will probably never be resolved.