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Joan Crawford: Dearest Mommy

 

An excerpt from actor John Ireland's unpublished autobiography.

 

Originally appeared in Scarlet Street, Issue 50, Spring 2004

 


 

The fire was soon kindled, the room really hot.

Slowly I turned, never wished I had not.

Naked and stark, she stood framed by the door,

for a moment I stared, then…

Her ass hit the floor, her legs all awry —

then slowly with practice they reached for the sky.

We were shooting Queen Bee starring Joan Crawford, on a sound stage at Columbia Studios. The head of the studio was still Harry Cohn (King Cohn, as he was now referred to). The King said an emphatic “no” to me being in the film.

I had sued Columbia for a release of my contract, and was successful in obtaining it. Something only Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart had previously done at Warner Bros.

I thought, after the “supreme compliment” he paid me in Las Vegas, I had been forgiven, so in a way I couldn’t understand his feeling of animosity, but Joan would have none of it. Quote, “If John Ireland doesn’t get the part, I’ll take the property elsewhere.” End quote.

“Quiet on the set, goddamnit!”

First line of dialogue while dancing with Joan…

Me

(holding her close)

“They look real.”

I was supposed to be admiring her jewelry, instead I was staring deep into a low-cut gown.

 

She

(aware? of course)

“Everything I have is real.”

 

Me

(actual dialogue)

“I’d be the last to deny it.”

I started to pull away in embarrassment, nature had overtaken the dialogue. Joan was happy with the ad lib, and responded.

 

She

(breaking into laughter)

“Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to eat you.”

 

Director

(It is the first day of shooting and he is already two hours behind schedule.)

“Cut! Am I missing something? All right, let’s go again.”

“Quiet on the set, everybody.”

 

Me

(trying)

“They look real.”

 

She

(still aware)

“Everything I have is real.”

 

Me

(ad lib)

“Yeah, me too.”

We are both into uncontrollable laughter. The Assistant Director calls lunch, thank God.

After lunch, shooting moved into high gear. Every scene was done in one take. At 5:30, Joan’s husky voice announced that it was “post time.” A lovely bucket of ice, holding an even lovelier bottle of the finest Russian vodka (Stolichnaya), made its appearance. We both showed our appreciation.

I got to be the “Gunga Din” vodka boy every night at “post time.” I carried the bucket of Stolichnaya to the projection room where we watched the dailies (the “dailies” being the film that had been developed from the previous day’s work.) We both thought the scenes were very well acted. Joan was extremely excited about the way she was photographed by Charles Lang.

Happily, we trod back to her dressing room, and happily we terminated the Stolichnaya. Al Steele of the “Pepsi” Steeles was curled up on an oversized sofa, sound asleep. He remained that way, even when we were ready to leave. I asked Joan if we shouldn’t wake him for dinner. “Fuck him,” she said. “We’re having dinner.”

Frascati’s Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard was one of the nicest, where you could dine in much comfort, and much privacy. I was grateful for both, and for the attention that was lavished, and for the bill that never arrived. I don’t know why, maybe it was the Stolichnaya, or the Dom Perignon, or the company, but I suddenly went back to the dialogue we had shot that morning. “They look real,” I murmured. “What do you mean look real?,” she responded. “Everything I have is real, so let’s not have any more mysteries, but I’m sure as hell not going to undress here.”

The “apartment” was the most luxurious I’d ever seen. The building was owned by Loretta Young and decorated beautifully by her mother. The fireplace soon crackled with aged oak, a perfume of heavy exotica suddenly cracked into being…

Everything she had was real. There were no scars, and shortly there would be no mysteries. I explored them all. “My God,” she said, “My God, with what you’ve got, you don’t have to do that. But… that’s it… right there… don’t stop. Fuck, baby, don’t stop.”

The Queen Bee had become a real-life drama, in spite of Al Steele’s sometime hazy appearances. Joan and I repeated our dinners at Frascati’s, whatever else we repeated, never seemed repetitious; it was always like a first time. She was exotic beyond the meaning of the word. I don’t know who Kirk Douglas was talking about in his autobiography, he must have been with the wrong Joan Crawford.

“I’m taking the Ile de France after we finish the picture, shall I get three tickets?” she asked rather whimsically.

“You mean Al, too?,” I asked, in response.

“Hell, no,” was her retort. “I don’t want him throwing up all across the Atlantic. But I have to know how many tickets. My secretary, my me, and I hope my you.”

“Get three,” I said hungrily. “I have to go to Arizona for a few days.” (I had built a tennis club in Scottsdale and it needed attention, lots of it.) It seems I gave it too much attention. One week later, in the Arizona Globe, another headline: “Joan Crawford elopes with Al Steele.” So the cola merchant taught her to fly.

Ten years and a string of sorrows later, it was again “post time.” The film was aptly named — I Saw What You Did. She was all forgiving about the Ile de France, and I was all forgiving about the cola merchant.

The first thing she mentioned about her marriage to Steele was the honeymoon in Paris. The Plaza Athenee Hotel, where Steele accused her of being in love with their chauffeur. Where he almost knocked her over a railing into the courtyard below. “Christ,” she said, “this was our honeymoon, and I was paying for it.” His money, he told her, was all tied up in Pepsi stock, but when they got back he would repay her. It never happened.

That night, I invited her to Chasen’s, possibly the finest restaurant in all of California. James Woolf, the producer, who had starred Joan in The Story of Esther Costello, Laurence Harvey, my best friend, my lovely wife Daphne, and my idiot self, waited for Joan to arrive. Suddenly, Daphne said, “My God, John, why are you not picking up Joan?” I had come directly from a wardrobe fitting at the studio, and stupidly thought it improper to do so, now being married.

Joan Crawford arrived by limousine, unescorted, probably for the first time in her life. She looked radiant, there were still “no scars,” no eyelift, no “skin tightening” makeup, but perhaps there was a scar, or at least the beginnings of one.

She was no longer Joan Crawford, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, she was now Joan Crawford, Pepsi representative emeritus, mistress of the New York apartment owned by Pepsi, mistress of all she used to possess. Now she was getting $25,000 for one week’s work. She was mistress of a grade “B” melodrama. I think I hurt more than she did.

“All right, bring um in.” The first assistant director screamed out the instructions, loud and clear. Joan and I were going over our next scene, in her dressing room, on Stage 11. Joan asked with some agitation, “What did he say?” “He said, ‘Bring um in,’” I replied.

It was our first day’s shooting on I Saw What You Did. I waited, the crew waited, and the director waited. At Joan’s request, the head of the studio arrived, and now, he too waited. Joan worked on her agitation. “What did you yell at us?,” she asked the first assistant director. “I said, ‘Bring um in,’” he responded, with a touch of arrogance.

Joan really let go with a burst of sincere emotion. “Young man,” she said, “I don’t know who the hell um is on this set, but let me tell you something, even cattle have names. They’re called cows. Now this is Mr. Ireland and I’m Miss Crawford. I suggest you learn your craft and manners on some other set, not mine.” She was still a star.

Whenever I see one darting across the sky, I think fondly of her. It is now “past post time.”

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