Joan Crawford

Hollywood Martyr


By David Bret

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In the first biography of Joan Crawford to give the full, uncensored story, bestselling author David Bret tells Crawford’s rags to riches climb, from working in a Kansas City laundry to collecting an Oscar for her defining role in Mildred Pierce, and on to her devotion to Christian Science and reliance on vodka. He discusses the star’s legendary relationship with Clark Gable, her countless love affairs, her marriages — three of them to gay men — and her obsession with rough sex. Bret divulges what really happened that led her to disinherit two of her four children, earning her the nickname “Mommie Dearest,” as well as how her loathed mother forced Crawford to work as a prostitute, appear in pornographic films, and sleep her way to the top. Bret analyzes Crawford’s films, many of which were constructed purely as vehicles where actress and character were often indistinguishable. Overtly generous towards her coterie of gay friends, she was heartless towards her enemies, particularly Bette Davis, her co-star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, with whom she shared a lifelong feud. Drawing on a wealth of unpublished material and interviews, David Bret presents a unique, fascinating portrait of a single-minded, uncompromising woman.


Hollywood Martyr Joan

Hollywood MartyrJoan

David Bret

This book is dedicated to Fritzi (1993–2005) and to Melanie Letts and
to Les Enfants de Novembre

N’oublie pas …
La vie sans amis c’est comme un jardin sans fleurs


She was one of four genuinely great movie actresses of the twentieth century – the others were Garbo, Hepburn and Bette Davis. Like them she was totally uncompromising, on and off the screen. Hers was the classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story: the tramp who became a lady; the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who unashamedly slept her way to the top.

Joan Crawford was not the first to use sex as a stepping stone towards immortality; nor will she be the last. Yet despite being a product of the now-defunct all-powerful studio system, she kept her dignity intact. The fans, and to a certain extent the media, never found out what was happening behind that big red curtain of megastardom. Each time Crawford stepped into the public arena, she looked every inch the legend she became in her own lifetime, and behaved accordingly – something that does not happen today, with the emphasis so often placed on grungy appearances and tabloid-exploited moral turpitude.

Aspects of Joan Crawford’s extraordinary, complex psyche were incorporated into many of her films, within which the actress and character became as one, but such was the naivety of America during the Depression, few made the connection. The same may be said for Crawford, gay icon par excellence. Few people realised, at the time these events were unfolding, of her fondness for gay and bisexual men – on account of their fear of being exposed by the media. Three of her husbands slotted into this category, as did many of her lovers, including Clark Gable.

After her death in 1977, Joan Crawford’s reputation was sullied in one fell – or foul – swoop with the publication of Mommie Dearest, her adopted daughter Christina’s frequently scathing account of what it had allegedly been like to be a Hollywood child raised by a megalomaniac. How many, if any, of her mother’s reported acts of cruelty are authentic is not known, but with any lack of real evidence they are thought to have been exaggerated. Walking in the shadow of an international monument – proven to be more talented, beautiful and charismatic than oneself will ever be – can never be easy. Being taken in by such a person and offered a lifestyle beyond one’s wildest dreams, then to maliciously attack that person from beyond the grave, can only be interpreted as unforgivable. As with some of her contemporaries, however – instinctively one thinks of Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis, similarly maligned by bitter, ungrateful offspring – the damage inflicted by Christina has not proved long-lasting, proving the fact that true legends survive every adversity, in death as they did in life. The fact that Joan was accused of beating her children with wire coat-hangers even extended her fan base during the early Eighties, with some American gay magazines giving away such items as part of their subscription packages!

It was another renowned ‘fag-hag’, Tallulah Bankhead, who with the greatest respect awarded Joan Crawford her so-called ‘under-the-counter’ nickname, ‘The Lady With the Fuck-Me Shoes’ – owing to the call-girl ankle-straps she wore in her early films. Joan loved the moniker, and more than once found herself ‘bleeped’ in television and radio interviews for repeating it.

This is her remarkable story.


Billie Cassin and the Casting Couch

‘Bette Davis used to tell everyone that Joan Crawford only got into movies by way of the casting couch – until Joan hit her back with, “Well, my dear, it sure beat the cold, hard floor!”’

Marlene Dietrich

She was born Lucille Fay LeSueur, most likely on 23 March 1904 (though she always maintained it was 1908, when birth certificates became state mandatory, and also the year of arch-rival Bette Davis’s birth) in San Antonio, Texas – and not in humble circumstances, as has been often stated. Although her French-Canadian father, Thomas, deserted his family shortly after her birth, her Irish-Scandinavian mother, Anna Bell (Johnson) coped rather well looking after her two children – Daisy, her first-born, had died in infancy and Hal Hayes was born 1902 – until a certain Henry ‘Billy’ Cassin came along.

Cassin was a jack of all trades. Where there was a dollar to be made he would be there, whether bail-bonding or acting as a disreputable notary public. His chief source of income came from two small theatres in Lawton, Oklahoma: the grandly named Ramsey Opera House, where the ballerina Anna Pavlova and the notorious chanteuse Eva Tanguay had once appeared, and Cassin’s Air Drome, an open-air establishment that engaged the more regularly performing (and cheaper) vaudeville acts and put on minstrel shows.

Lucille loathed her first name, and by 1912 was calling herself Billie – the female equivalent of her stepfather’s nickname. She was also very much the tomboy, preferring the company of the neighbourhood’s roughneck boys to the more genteel girls, always getting into scrapes, and leaning more on Billy Cassin than her feisty, wayward mother – usually because he allowed her to have her own way and, against Anna’s wishes, not only turned a blind eye to her truancy but encouraged her to mingle with the rough-and-ready grease-paint crowd. By the age of eight, Billie knew next to nothing about schooling, but she was already a fairly accomplished hoofer – half-ballet, half-tap.

During the summer of 1913, this relatively idyllic world came crashing about Billie’s ears when Cassin was accused of misappropriating bail money and forced to flee town, with his family, and seek refuge with the Johnsons, Anna’s parents in Phoenix, Arizona. They stayed here but a few weeks before relocating to Kansas City, Missouri, where Cassin claimed he had connections – quite likely this was untrue. While waiting for the money to come through from the sale of the small bungalow he had owned in Lawton, Cassin rented them a single room at the New Midland Hotel, a hostel for down-and-outs in the city’s red-light district. When the Lawton property was eventually sold, it brought in less than Cassin had been expecting, and certainly not enough to buy the house Anna had set her heart on. Then he learned that the owners of the New Midland were moving on and, hoping this would provide him with enough revenue to set up another theatrical venture, Cassin took over the lease.

In Kansas City, Billie was enrolled at the Scarritt Elementary School – and, because of her sore lack of education, was forced into a class with children up to three years younger than herself. Needless to say there were problems with Billie here, allegedly to do with bullying and more truancy, and within a few months Cassin moved her to the St Agnes Academy, a reputable Catholic school, though he was the only one in his family of this faith. And to curb the truancy, this time Billie was enrolled as a boarder.

Life at St Agnes was no bed of roses for a girl with an innate rebellious streak. Unlike most of the other pupils, Billie was not on a scholarship, and in common with the other ‘charity cases’, after class she was made to help with the chores: cleaning the toilets, scrubbing floors, washing dishes. Even so, she welcomed this as an escape from her studies. In the latrines or in the kitchen she was occasionally given the opportunity to practise her steps and daydream of her greatest ambition – to become a professional dancer like Anna Pavlova and star at the New York Winter Garden. Or perhaps, in a rather less glamorous capacity, become a taxi dancer, like one of the good-time girls who sometimes worked with the ragtime musicians in the foyer of the New Midland Hotel.

Yet no sooner had Billie settled in at St Agnes than she learned that her family had been walked out on once more. Henry Cassin, his reputation in tatters and all hope of re-founding his show-business emporium dashed after news of the bail-bonding scandal finally caught up with him, had left without even saying goodbye to his wife. Two weeks later, evicted from the New Midland, Anna and the children moved into a tawdry apartment at the rear of a wash house, where she took poorly paid work as a skivvy.

Billie appears to have been told at this time that Cassin was not her real father. Later she would write in her memoirs (A Portrait of Joan), ‘I wish he’d taken me with him. My mother was a nagging bitch and my brother was a lazy good-for-nothing. I cried when I found out Daddy Cassin wasn’t coming back, and that’s when Hal told me Henry wasn’t my real father.’ Hal’s sadistic streak did not end with his taunting Billie about her stepfather. ‘He used to lock me in a dark closet,’ she would tell reporter Frazier Hunt many years later, in Photoplay magazine, February 1934. ‘That’s why it always frightens me now to be hemmed in – whether by walls or by a crowd.’

In 1918, Billie Cassin made her debut performance in front of an audience, in St Agnes’s annual week-long production of The Maypole Dance, at the Orpheum Theater. Dressed as a snowdrop, she played the part of January in a tableau entitled Months of the Year – quite an achievement, for a month or so previously she had trodden on a broken bottle, severed a tendon in her right foot and was told by doctors that she might end up with a permanent limp. (Ironically, her character January was professed in the playbill to be ‘pure as the driven snow’; the would-be thespian was already anything but.) Billie’s success in the revue resulted in her being shunned even more than usual by the other girls at St Agnes and she began playing truant again, usually to hang around Budd Park, a suitable distance from the academy, where she hoped she would not be recognised and word of her exploits be reported back to the nuns. One day she happened upon the boys from the Northeast High School football team, engaged in a practice session, and at once decided to make a play for at least one of these oversexed youths, despite her own physical shortcomings. The fact that Billie was plump and ungainly with huge buck teeth, and that it was widely known that she had crabs due to her hatred of bathing, did nothing to deter would-be suitors in search of what appears to have been an easy lay.

The good sisters, in fact, knew exactly what Billie was getting up to, but refrained from expelling her because they considered her mother such a bad influence – since Henry Cassin’s departure, Anna had shacked up with one man after another, and at times even resorted to prostitution, allegedly to make ends meet – that they thought to send the girl home would send her completely off the rails. By the late summer, however, some indiscretion (thought to be pilfering) led to Billie being summoned to the Mother Superior’s office. An altercation ensued. Never backwards at coming forwards, or answering back, Billie settled for the lesser of the two evils: she walked out of St Agnes and moved back in with Anna and her latest ‘meal ticket’, as Joan Crawford scathingly referred to them – a delivery man named Harry Hough.

Mere days later, Anna LeSueur received word that Billy Cassin had died. She promptly announced to her young daughter that she and Harry Hough would now be getting married, presumably assuming that in doing so she was assuaging the youngster’s grief. In fact, some sources claim that neither Thomas LeSueur nor Henry Cassin had actually been married to Anna, and it seems unlikely now that any ceremony took place – rather, the announcement was probably made so that if Anna moved into Hough’s house on upmarket Genessee Street as his wife, she might avoid being regarded as the neighbourhood tart.

Whereas Daddy Cassin had genuinely loved Billie and had always treated her with the utmost kindness, Harry Hough appears to have been a creep with a penchant for very young girls – certainly according to Joan Crawford, who several times told reporters that he had tried to seduce or even rape her. She, meanwhile, had become even more of a handful since leaving St Agnes. Anna, now promoted to running the wash house, made her daughter work for her keep, always assigning her the worst jobs, so much so that Billie rebelled, as she had at the academy, seeking solace in the ‘friends’ she had made during her trips to Budd Park.

Hough was so appalled that any ‘daughter’ of his could resort to prostitution – though apparently he was not put out by the fact that the woman everyone thought was his wife was still doing the same thing, or that he himself was finding it increasingly more difficult to keep his hands off Billie – that he arranged for her to attend a private school as a student-teacher, an establishment that seems to have leapt straight out of the pages of Nicholas Nickleby.

The Rockingham Academy was run by a Mrs Stuttle, a Wackford Squeers-like harridan who made life hell for anyone possessed of the misfortune to cross her threshold. It was in fact more of a correction house than a school – almost all of its alumni were from rich broken homes, with parents who could afford the dubious privilege of seeing their problematic offspring being knocked, literally, back into shape. Billie was enrolled here in March 1919 under the name Lucille LeSueur (having just learned that this and not Cassin was her real surname); at around the same time, her brother Hal augmented the roster at Manual Training High, a technical college where young men learned a trade. If there had been animosity between the siblings before, it now became open warfare. In later years, when Joan Crawford had achieved worldwide fame, and Hal LeSueur virtually nothing, she would still resent the fact that he had not had to suffer the indignities of a reformatory. What she had not known was that seventeen-year-old Hal had been just as unstable and addicted to sex as herself – ethereally handsome, he was to sleep with dozens of women before coming of age, and would later develop a narcissistic complex that would lead to a severe drink problem.

As had happened at St Agnes, Billie was expected to help with the chores after class – but while the nuns had merely caned the girl for her misdemeanours, Mrs Stuttle would apparently drag her by the hair into her study, beat her with a broom handle, then lay into her with the toe of her boot. Billie stuck this out only until hearing that her mother had left Harry Hough and moved back into the wash-house apartment – then she decided, once she had spent a week listening to Anna’s incessant carping, that maybe she would be best back at Rockingham. There was, however, to be one condition: unless the horrid Mrs Stuttle kept her fists and feet to herself, she would get more than she bargained for, courtesy of one of Billie’s Budd Park cronies. Rockingham would remain Billie’s home for three more years.

Billie’s return to Rockingham coincided with Prohibition, following the 1919 Volstead Act, though the restrictions on Kansas City – the self-professed ‘Sin Capital’ – were not quite so stringent as in New York. It was a heady, hazardous period that Billie was intent on making the most of. Not that Mrs Stuttle was aware of this. So far as she was led to believe (though maybe she was obliged to turn a blind eye on account of Billie’s protector), the young man who pulled up at the front door Saturday evening in his fancy automobile (and never the same man twice) was from a respectable family that might be coerced into handing over a suitable donation towards the establishment’s upkeep. One such was Ray Thayer Sterling, a student from Northeast High who, Joan always maintained, was interested only in a platonic relationship; but so far as the others were concerned, more often than not the car was borrowed, and the couple invariably headed for a speakeasy where they drank the night away and danced the Black Bottom – or headed to Budd Park for a little al fresco sex.

Billie ‘graduated’ from the Rockingham Academy in March 1923 – the month she turned eighteen; Mrs Stuttle awarded her a fake certificate. She began working at once, behind the counter in Kline’s department store, where she earned $12 a week – not one cent of which was handed over to her mother. Anna had moved into a bigger apartment on Armour Boulevard, in a slightly better part of town, courtesy of the latest man in her life, and Billie felt that Anna would get by without her contributing to the budget – after all, she needed every penny for having fun. ‘I worked all day, danced all night,’ she later said, ‘That’s all that I lived for in those days.’

Yet out of the dozens of men Billie got to know at this time, Ray Thayer Sterling – a man she never bedded, though not through lack of trying – is the only one she remembered with fondness in her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan:

After three years at Rockingham … I didn’t want to go home, but my salvation was a swell guy, Ray Sterling. He was my first beau and I was in love, but I wasn’t good enough for him. He never said so, and tried very hard to make a lady out of me. Ray changed my life like Daddy Cassin by encouraging me … I leaned on Ray Sterling. I was never intimate with him. I wouldn’t have gotten to Hollywood if he’d wanted me, but he didn’t.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, in September Billie used her phoney diploma to get herself into Stephens College, an all-female establishment in Columbia, Missouri. Again it was as a working student, though this time the tasks were not so menial and there was no psychotic principal. Billie was employed in the canteen, and by all accounts was happier there than she had been in years. This was the age of the flapper – a radical young thing, much like the turn-of-the-century Parisian demimondaines. Flappers lived life to the full, insulted their peers, drank spirits and smoked, and used ‘in words’ such as ‘divine’, ‘darling’ and ‘crazy’. Many shocked their parents and guardians by shedding inhibitions along with their corsets. Like their early French counterparts they behaved ‘atrociously’ by accepting costly gifts from paramours and patrons of both sexes with whom they had usually spent the night, though few actually turned tricks for hard cash.

Some flappers, such as Billie, ‘double-booked’ – attending a dance with one partner, then feigning illness and leaving on the arm of another. She was a regular at weekend parties and midweek dances at the nearby University of Missouri, and loved to dance to the Orville Knapp Orchestra, resident at the College Inn. Off and on she was still being escorted by Ray Thayer Sterling, the wealthy sap who was still more interested in her sparkling company than in getting physical with the darling of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. Why she opted to drop out, midterm and only days before her first exams, is not known; she seems to have been a very popular student – though not a particularly able one, being more interested in collecting dance trophies (more than twenty in four months!) than in studying. Similarly, one finds it incomprehensible that she wanted to go running back to the mother she professed to dislike so much.

Billie was in for a shock when she arrived back in Kansas City. Anna LeSueur had ousted her latest lover and reconciled with Harry Hough, who had moved back in with her. Again he made advances on Billie, but she was having none of it. After a violent quarrel she fled into the night, and ended up being taken in by two friends, Lucille and Nellie Cook, a sisters act she had met on the dance circuit in one of the more reputable clubs.

The Cook sisters were decent, well-raised young women who lived with their mother, a prim, religious woman who chaperoned them everywhere and obviously had no idea what her house guest was really like. To all three, Billie Cassin was a nice, hard-working girl (she had found herself a job at another department store, Emory Bird & Thayers). What they did not know was that she had also renewed contact with her Budd Park cronies, who took turns to escort her almost nightly to clubs and speakeasies. Her speciality was table-top dancing, mainly the Black Bottom and the recently introduced Charleston. According to some contemporary reports, Billie always ‘sussed out’ the atmosphere and politics of the establishment to see how far she could go – showing as much thigh as she could get away with and, if the rules were really lax, leaving off her panties. Like her contemporary Tallulah Bankhead, whom she would soon meet and who was about to shock London society with her antics, she was already developing into something of a magnet for gay men; she believed that they made for better dancing partners, because they were able to let themselves go with a woman without fear of reprimand from jealous wives and girlfriends. Indeed, Billie’s favourite ‘lavender’ beau, Ray Thayer Sterling, was almost certainly gay.

Billie continued picking up trophies for her more legitimate dancing, and on a ‘good behaviour’ evening at the Ivanhoe Club, with the Cook sisters and their mother, she was spotted by the notorious Chicago-based singer-producer, Katherine Emerine, then working in conjunction with the impresario Nils Granlund in search of chorus girls – and potential bed mates – for the travelling revue she was putting together. In those days it was not unusual for chorus members and bit-parts to be engaged locally for the length of time the company was in town, then dispensed with when the tour moved on. Emerine was one of those agents who travelled ahead of the main company to set up the bills. With her predilection for the casting couch, it was figured that she was also quite possibly Billie’s first lesbian fling.

Billie ditched her job with the department store, and as Lucille Cassin made her vaudeville debut in Springfield, Missouri, in February 1924. Her contract appears to have stipulated that she supply her own costumes, and as she was almost always broke, she ‘compromised’ by stealing the outfits that Mrs Cook had made for her daughters to wear on a forthcoming Temperance Society tour – figuring that if need be, the outfits could be shortened. The engagement, of which nothing is known save that she was billed as one of Emerine’s Sixteen Vocal Chorines, was for two weeks.

Exactly how Billie raised the money for a one-way ticket to Chicago depends upon which version of the story one wishes to believe. Years later, she claimed that in order to get away from her mother’s lover (Harry Hough) and her hard-drinking, moody brother, she put in all the hours she could at the department store. But according to other, more reliable sources – in particular, gossip-column hacks Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who made it their business to know everything about everyone in Hollywood – she sold herself to the highest bidder.

Jane Ellen Wayne met the star many times, and in her first book, Crawford’s Men, quotes an Ohio journalist, Robert Slatzer, who claimed to have seen one of Billie’s porno-flicks at a stag party. She also reports an incident at a press conference when, aware of this fact, Crawford marched up to him and snarled, ‘Keep yer fuckin’ mouth shut!’ Wayne’s book refers to Billie’s mysterious benefactor only as ‘E S’, and describes this period in her life as ‘a blur of steamy sex, booze, torrid dancing, drugs and laughter’. ‘E S’ is almost certainly the man who, in return for her favours, apparently arranged for Billie to pose firstly for ‘What the Butler Saw’ stills shown in penny-arcade machines, then pornographic films. Another journalist, Helen Laurenson, writing for Viva magazine in August 1978, mentions one such flick, The Plumber, co-starring Harry Green, a now-forgotten silent comedy actor. Others have quoted such titles as She Shows Him How, Coming


  • Skyscraper, Winter 08
    “Full of salacious stories and juicy scandals…A fascinating read.”

On Sale
Apr 15, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Da Capo Press

David Bret

About the Author

French-born David Bret‘s previous books include biographies of subjects as diverse as Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Rudolph Valentino, Morrissey, and Rock Hudson. He lives in Yorkshire, England.

Learn more about this author