From the Archives: Joan Crawford, Film Star for 50 Years, Dies at 69

Times Staff Writer

Joan Crawford, one of Hollywood’s last true movie queens, died Tuesday of a heart attack. She was 69.

She was found dead in her East Side Manhattan apartment about 10 a.m. by a maid, a spokesman said. She had no previous history of heart trouble.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years and 80 films, she won one Oscar, for her title role in “Mildred Pierce” in 1945.


She was best known for roles in which she played self-made, strong women who fought hard for success but usually had to pay a price for that success.

In some ways, her life followed her roles.

Miss Crawford was married four times. She divorced actors Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone and Philip Terry, but was widowed by the man she said made her happiest, Pepsi Cola executive Alfred Steele. He died in 1959 after three years of marriage.

After Steele’s death, she took a seat on Pepsi’s board of directors and served as the company’s goodwill ambassador until the last few years, when she was said to have become reclusive.

She had no children of her own, but adopted four and had four grandchildren. She was living alone when she died.

Her film roles ranged from “chorines” and flappers in the ‘20s to career women, repressed older women and, finally, in 1962, the victimized sister in the suspense-horror classic, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Her last film, “Trog,” was made in 1970.

In addition to her portrayal of an ambitious mother in “Mildred Pierce,” her best performances were in “Dancing Lady” (1933), “The Women” (1939), “Harriet Craig” (1950), “Sudden Fear” (1952), “Johnny Guitar” (1954) and “Queen Bee” (1955). Her “Queen Bee” role was the epitome of the tough, driving woman, and speaking of it once, she said, “Really, I love playing bitches.”

In her Hollywood heyday, she lived in a 27-room mansion and was sometimes referred to as “the empress,” because of her grand style.

But her beginnings were not so grand.

She was born Lucille Le Sueur in San Antonio, March 23, 1908. Her parents were divorced when she was a few weeks old, and she accompanied her mother to Oklahoma and then to Kansas City.

By age 9, she was waiting on tables to earn tuition to attend private school. She went no higher than sixth grade with formal schooling.

Even then, she recalled later, she knew she wanted to be an entertainer.

She started out as a chorus girl as a teen-ager in Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit, where producer J. J. Shubert noticed her and hired her for his Broadway production of “Innocent Eyes.”

Five months later, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive spotted her and arranged for a screen test.

In 1925, she went under contract to MGM, an association that lasted 18 years and saw her become a star.

The studio initially paid her $75 a week, gave her a bit part in a silent called “Pretty Ladies,” starring Zasu Pitts, and changed her name to Joan Crawford.

She didn’t like the name, “Crawford sound like crayfish,” she once complained to a studio executive.

“Be grateful it’s not cranberry,” she was told.

Her screen success at first was due to her shapely legs, dancing ability, and an almost perfect bone structure. “She had a face like a Greek mask, perfect from any angle.” George Cukor, who directed her in “The Women,” “A Woman’s Face” and “Susan and God,” recalled Tuesday.

Her first big role came in 1928 with “Our Dancing Daughters,” which established her flapper image. She then went on to comedies and increasingly dramatic roles and became one of Hollywood’s top 10 money earners in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

“She started out as a beauty, a personality,” Cukor said. “She made herself into an actress.”

“I’ve never been afraid of hard work,” she once said, “because I started at an early age.”

In describing her, writers, friends and colleagues in the movie industry spoke of her determination, her discipline and her endless efforts to improve herself.

When she married Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1929, for example, she felt insecure about bringing such as uneducated background to such an illustrious family.

During that marriage, she took French lessons, diction lessons and struggled to improve her vocabulary. She studied classical music and started collecting antiques.

She never forgot the glamor of early Hollywood. She once said: “I always try to look like a star by appearing in public as well groomed as possible.”

“She believed in the Hollywood legend,” Cukor said, “and was a creature of it.”

Services were pending Tuesday.

At her own request, she will be cremated.


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