Joan Crawford: “Mommie Dearest” or “Not the Girl Next Door”?

How would you feel if you were
one of the great movie stars of a generation — a prolific actress, an Academy Award winner,
a grand dame, an adoptive mother of four children (or five, depending
on how you count) — and this was how you were remembered?

Such is the legacy of the late Joan Crawford.

Not only is she remembered
as a tyrant, she’s remembered as Faye Dunaway!

Now, if Joan Crawford beat
her daughter with wire hangers, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for
her. But what if she wasn’t a monster? What if she was just a run-of-the
mill, crazy celebrity mother who dressed her daughters in matching dresses?

Well, there may be a Joan Crawford
reclamation project in the works. Vanity Fair

has excerpted a new biography, Not the Girl Next
(which was 30 years in the making) that tells a story quite
different from the one presented in daughter Christina’s tell-all memoir,
Mommie Dearest
. Celebrity biographer Charlotte Chandler didn’t interview Christina, but she
did spend a lot of time interviewing one of the other little girls in
matching dresses — one who thought her mother was pretty darn great.

“I was the luckiest child
in the world to have Mommie choose me … I wouldn’t have chosen any other
mother in the whole world, because I had the best one anyone could ever
have. She gave me backbone and courage and so much I could never say
it all, but–oh, my gosh–the most important gift she gave me was all
of the wonderful memories to last and take me through my life.”

And she interviewed lots of
other people who liked — or at least respected — Joan Crawford and vehemently
deny that she was anything like the woman caricatured in Mommie Dearest.
Even rival Bette Davis came to her defense.

“I was not Miss Crawford’s
biggest fan, but, wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do respect
her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written
by her daughter. I’ve forgotten her name. Horrible. … I can understand
how hurt Miss Crawford had to be. Well, no I can’t. It’s like trying
to imagine how I would feel if my own beloved, wonderful daughter, B.D.,
were to write a bad book about me. Unimaginable. I am grateful for my
children and for knowing they would never do to me anything like what
Miss Crawford’s daughter did to her.”

Except of course, B.D. did
go on to write her own hatchet job, My Mother’s Keeper. And then Bette Davis exacted her
revenge with This ‘n That
a few years later. So, I don’t know how perceptive she really was.

Regardless, what we’re left
with is a she-said/she-said story. One daughter says the mother was
a monster and the other says she was angel. The one who hated her was
disinherited; the one who loved her was not. The one who hated her made
a big profit from her tell-all book, and the one who loved her sounds
like a child in her quotes and, as an adult, refers to her as “Mommie” —
which just creeps me out.

Not that any of this affects
me in any way, but I find it all a little uncomfortable and troublesome.
If Joan Crawford was just a generic lousy mother — or perhaps even a
good mother to some or all of her kids — it’s pretty rotten that her
name is now synonymous with child abuse. But if she was that bad, it’s
not really fair to sanitize her image because other people don’t like
to believe that someone they liked or respected was capable of abuse.

Of course, we have no way to
know what the truth is. (I’m guessing it’s somewhere between the two
extremes, because people are complex like that.) But I guess you can
read the new bio and punctuate your reading occasionally with cries
of “No wire hangers EVER!” and maybe you’ll get a picture of the
real Joan Crawford.