CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTINA CRAWFORD: Looking Back at ‘Mommie Dearest’

(First published December 1979)

By Greg Joseph

Sixty pairs of her false eyelashes sold for $325. A collection of still photographs from her movies ?Above Suspicion? and ?A Woman?s Face? brought $375. Her monogrammed stationery fetched $100.

Shortly after the death of film star Joan Crawford in May 1977, hundreds of her still-loyal fans defied the harsh winter weather and jammed a New York art gallery to bid on dozens of her most cherished possessions.

The fans were not so much buying conversation pieces as they were preserving fond memories. When they doled out $625 for Crawford?s script from ?Mildred Pierce? (a role for which she won the 1945 Academy Award) and another $2,800 for a guest book with inscriptions by the likes of Clark Gable (?To a lovely lady?), Carole Lombard and Lionel Barrymore, they were grabbing a happier moment from their past for future reference.

Indeed memories are a fragile thing ? as Christina Crawford Koontz would soon learn.

Christina, Joan Crawford?s adopted daughter, would subsequently offer her own recollections of the beloved actress, in the book ?Mommie Dearest.?

But they would not at all be what the star?s fans had expected ? or wanted ? to hear.

Published a year ago, the book recounts a frightening, bizarre side of the star so unlike her steely but dignified screen image that even the most casual screen buff has had occasion to question the work?s authenticity.

Soon, Koontz said, yet more people will know her story. ?Mommie Dearest? will be made into a movie.

?What we want it to be ? what it should be ? is a tragic love story between a mother and a daughter,? she said. ?I pray that?s the way it turns out.?

Some still refuse ? often vehemently ? to believe that the Joan Crawford they idolized or at least admired through much of their lives is the same driven, tormented woman portrayed Dorian Gray-like by her daughter in the book.

But Christina Crawford, now 40, insists the images were accurate descriptions of her mother ? ?mommie dearest,? as the actress reportedly demanded her daughter address her.

?Everything I say about my mother in the book is absolutely the truth,? she said, her pale blue eyes fixed unflinchingly on her interviewer. ?I have my own records ? my mother?s letters, and things I wrote from the time I was little ? plus sources I checked and rechecked. Everything in my book can be corroborated. I didn?t make up or imagine one bit of it.?

A slender, handsome woman with dark blond hair, her stare persisted as she answered questions about her litany of allegations against Crawford.

Yes, she was saying, she really was beaten by her mother. Often.

The stories of how Crawford locked her in closets, tied her up in the shower and strapped Christina?s brother, Christopher (also an adopted child), into bed so he could not go to the toilet or get a drink without permission ? they are all true, she was insisting.

But what of the specifics _ was it really true that, as punishment for tearing a bit of wallpaper off her bedroom wall, Crawford took Christina?s favorite yellow dress, cut it to shreds with scissors, then forced her to wear it for a week, even in appearances before company?

Could it really have been that Crawford, unhappy with Christina?s cleaning job in her dressing room, flew into a rage and beat the then-7-year-old girl over the head with a can of cleanser until it exploded? Could this have happened?

Yes, yes, yes. All true, she kept repeating, all of it.

Her voice remained as level as her stare.

?Look, I can tell you for a fact it all happened,? interrupted her husband, David, who was sitting nearby. ?When I was going with Christina, everybody in Hollywood knew the stories. Everything. A newsman told me how he and other journalists, maybe half a dozen of them, were gathered at a restaurant for a special layout on Christina and her mother years ago.

?Christina and the other kids were fussing like all kids do, the newsman said, when Christina?s mother lost her temper. She got up ? and you know how she punished Christina? She slammed the child?s hand in a door.

?I said to the newsman, ?Why the bleep didn?t you or anybody else do anything? Why the bleep didn?t you write anything? How the bleep can you sit there and tell me that?? He answered me that Joan Crawford was so powerful, nobody could do anything about it. No one would dare. He just said he?d never seen anything like it, that he got up from the table, went to the men?s room and threw up.?

Okay ? why didn?t Crawford?s two other children, adopted twins Cathy and Cynthia, report being abused, as have Christina and Christopher? Those sisters, in fact, have challenged the content of the book.

?I really don?t know why they?ve said what they have,? Christina said. ?I do know they?re about eight years younger than me, and when they were growing up, my mother was at a different stage in her career, in New York. They really spent much of their childhood in boarding schools, away from her.

?No, I guess I haven?t really stayed very close to them. I talk to Chris all the time, but not to them. I?d never really thought of it like that, but it?s true, I suppose.?

All right. Presuming that the book was accurate, why write it? Why tell all and destroy her mother?s reputation ? and a part of her own? What possible good would it do?

Could it have anything to do with the fact her mother had ordered Christopher and Christina cut out of her will ?for reasons which are well known to them,? as the actress put it in the document? (The two subsequently contested the will and were awarded $55,000 under a court settlement; Christina said half went to her brother, the other half to his lawyers.)

?No, writing the book had nothing to do with money, nothing at all,? she replied. ?I?ve been doing fine on my own. I have a master?s degree in communication management from USC, I have taught, worked in public relations, done some acting ? I don?t act any more, though ? and I now work with David in our own production company. I don?t need the money.

?Quite simply, first of all, I wrote the book to tell the truth about my life. I had lived with the public image and the private reality. There had been numerous magazine and newspaper layouts where my mother had depicted me as her little princess, a child totally lavished with love and affection, and I knew that not to be the case.

?The will was just a crowning blow, really. I had no idea she felt that way ? we had really been quite close in the last years. I have no idea why she said that or what she meant by what she said.

?But the other reason, main reason, I wrote the book was that if it were published ? well, my feelings were that if it could spare even one child, one family the anguish I and my mother had experienced, it would be worth publishing. I did the book myself, every word, and had no guarantee of any sort anybody would publish it, much less that it would be so well-read.? It is currently second on the paperback best-seller list.

She said experts from the medical and psychiatric fields have told her the the book has altered their treatment techniques of abused children and their parents. And, she noted, numerous parents have credited the book with changing their attitudes toward their children.

?That?s the great thing about the book, as far as I?m concerned,? she said. ?People have sought help after reading it. I think it has helped and I think there is more I can do to help. Right now, I?m president of a citizens? group that works with the Los Angeles County Interagency on Child Abuse and Neglect. We?ve got one stress center and want to build others, if only we can raise the money, where whole families can go for rehabilitation.

?We want to approach the problem of child abuse from a preventive standpoint. We want to talk to children and teenagers, to teach them about being parents when they?re growing up. You know, parenting is the only job in which 99 percent of the people who come into it don?t have any previous experience whatsoever. Can you imagine that? And it?s the most important job of all. It shapes human beings.?

She hypothesized that her mother?s problems stemmed from her own experiences as a battered child.

?I have it on pretty good authority that my mother was beaten as a child and even sexually abused,? Christina said. ?It is true that sometimes abused children can grow up to be child abusers.?

She spoke glowingly of her own relationship with her only child, a 16-year-old son by David?s previous marriage. She scanned her wristwatch repeatedly and allowed how she didn?t want to keep the youngster waiting ?back at the hotel? for very long.

Contrary to the popular opinion, she said, her book is not the first instance in which she publicly divulges details of her childhood. She said she wrote an article containing much of the same information for Redbook magazine in 1960.

?It?s not true that I waited for my mother?s death to write about what happened to me,? she said. ?I wrote the article for Redbook 20 years ago and it was published. My mother, in fact, found out about it and tried to get the editors to kill the story. When they refused, she demanded they print her comments refuting what I said. Oh, yes, her comments were printed, too.?

She said the article didn?t generate much interest.

?I guess people just found what I had to say really hard to believe,? she concluded, and for the first time, she looked away.

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