Never Forget Mommie Dearest: The Life of Joan Crawford

Whether you know her as the woman who hated wire hangers or you’ve heard her name because of her longtime feud with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford was the Hollywood heiress. However, being one of the most eclectic actresses in Hollywood comes with a high price. Crawford left her mark on the world, but her reputation wasn’t great.

Joan Crawford / Christina Crawford / Joan Crawford, Christina Crawford / Joan Crawford.

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From her bitter feuds to the many scandals erupting from behind her bedroom door, we are taking a deeper look into the life of Joan Crawford. After her death in 1977, her adopted daughter released a tell-all book about what went on behind closed doors, and it didn’t paint a pretty picture of the late starlet. See how she became a legendary actress and the complicated life that followed.

Born With a Different Name

Joan Crawford was raised as a Southern belle in San Antonio, Texas. However, her life wasn’t as glamourous as it would become in Hollywood. Born Lucille Fay LeSueur, she was far more modest, and her parents struggled to make ends meet. It was hard to put food on the table, but Crawford didn’t know anything else.

Joan Crawford at the age of six.

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Crawford’s father was a construction worker, and he abandoned the family when she was just ten months old. Her mother remarried, and the family relocated to Oklahoma. Her stepfather, Henry J. Cassin, ran the Ramsey Opera House, and he managed to book many noteworthy performers. Because Crawford was so young when her mother remarried, she thought Cassin was her biological father.

She Went Through Something Horrific

Although Cassin exposed Crawford to legendary performers like ballet dancer Anna Pavlova because of his career, she also experienced much darker things. Even though she believed Cassin was her biological father for most of her childhood, he started sexually abusing her when she was just 11 years old. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell anyone and kept the secret for most of her life.

A picture of Joan Crawford in the shadows.

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Cassin continued to abuse Crawford until she was sent to St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic school for girls. However, when her mother and Cassin separated, Crawford remained at the school as a “work student.” She spent most of her time cooking and cleaning instead of studying. It was a devastating time in her life, but she still dreamed of becoming a star.

Her Teenage Romance

Crawford later moved to Rockingham Academy, where she began dating Ray Sterling. She was desperate to get away from her family’s horror story, so she dove into the first romance she could find. Sterling was a trumpet player who tried to encourage Crawford’s academic ambitions. She started to challenge herself more, and it was a healthy relationship.

Crawford gazes at the camera, propping her chin on her hand.

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Sterling was so influential on Crawford’s life that she decided to register at Stephens College in Missouri. She attended Stephens for only a few months before withdrawing after realizing she was not prepared for college. She gave up on her academic career entirely and left Sterling behind. Her eyes were on something bigger and better: stardom. But there was one big problem with her plan.

Hollywood Turned Her Away

While Crawford had big dreams of becoming a star, Hollywood wasn’t known for embracing just anyone. At the time, she was still getting credited as Lucille LeSueur in her first few films, but producers hated the name. MGM publicity executive Pete Smith went as far as saying the name reminded him of a sewer. However, he saw her potential.

A portrait of a young Joan Crawford.

Photo by Henry Waxman/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Therefore, Smith put out a “Name the Star” competition in the newspaper, asking readers to choose the up-and-coming star’s new stage name. The first choice was Joan Arden, but that was another actress’s name, so they went with Crawford instead. However, she always despised this name because it wasn’t something she chose.

Her Shameful Part Led to a Feud

Crawford was thrilled when she landed her first film role in 1925’s Lady of the Night. However, when the movie began, she quickly realized she was a glorified extra. Crawford spent most of her time on set as a body double for one of the top stars, Norma Shearer.

A picture of Joan Crawford.

Photo by John Miehle/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

The role made Crawford immensely jealous of Shearer, whom she considered her professional nemesis. Shearer was married to a studio head, so she always got the best parts, making Crawford even more envious. Crawford once said, “How can I compete with Norma? She sleeps with the boss.”

She Slept Her Way to the Top

Soon enough, Crawford took a page out of Shearer’s playbook. Allegedly, Crawford had no problem using casting sessions as a way to seduce producers or directors to snag some of her most prominent roles. One married director, Vincent Sherman, said Crawford had a masculine approach to sex. Sherman’s wife said it was too much to ask any man to turn down the opportunity to sleep with Crawford.

A portrait of an older Joan Crawford.

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MGM screenwriter Frederica Maas said, “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because she decided to become one.” She would do anything to get her name out there, and she wasn’t ashamed of how she had to get to the top.

She Went to Extreme Lengths to Promote Herself

Crawford had a competitive side to her, and she soon became unhappy with the size and quality of the parts she was given. She began attending dance competitions at hotels around Hollywood and dance venues on beach piers. Crawford often won with her performances of the Charleston and the Black Bottom.

Joan Crawford signs autographs while sunbathing.

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Her strategy worked, and she started to get more roles. She was named one of 1926’s WAMPAS Baby Stars. That same year, she co-starred in Paris with Ray Charles, and within a few years, Crawford was the romantic lead to many of MGM’s top male stars. It wouldn’t be long before she got her breakthrough role.

Her Big Break

In 1928, Crawford finally landed a role that catapulted her to fame. She starred in Our Dancing Daughters as a flapper girl, and this role put her on the map as the next “it-girl.” A stream of hits followed this movie, including two more flapper-themed films. She was the idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl.

Dorothy Sebastian and Joan Crawford in a scene from the film.

Dorothy Sebastian, Joan Crawford. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

However, big-time fame came with big-time scandal. It wasn’t long before Crawford realized that this newfound fame wasn’t all as glamorous as she had dreamed it would be. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of a flapper with wide, hurt eyes.”

Her First Major Scandal

Crawford’s first serious Hollywood relationship was with a teenager. In 1929, she met and quickly married Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was the heir of Old Hollywood power couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and he was only 19 years old. Crawford was about four years older than him, and that was just the tip of the scandal.

Crawford and Fairbanks embrace after the wedding.

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Crawford’s in-laws despised her, and they made sure she knew how they felt. Pickford and Fairbanks Sr. had a famous estate named PickFair, but they refused to invite the newlyweds to the property until eight months after they married. It was like a slap in the face, and when Crawford finally got there, she realized it was a trap.

Dealing With a Monster-in-Law

While her relationship with Fairbanks Sr. eventually warmed (she called him Uncle Doug, and he called her Billie, a childhood nickname), her relationship with Pickford was a nightmare. When she was left alone with her mother-in-law, Pickford would go to her room.

Joan and Doug share the shade of a large beach umbrella.

Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Pickford was never shy about letting Crawford know she didn’t like her. The couple became frequent guests at the family’s estate, but Crawford always felt uncomfortable around Pickford. She always felt abandoned by her mother-in-law, and it put a strain on her relationship with Fairbanks Jr.

She Wanted to Get Rid of Her Accent

Crawford craved stardom more than anyone, and she worked hard to improve her status. She wanted to change her Southern accent, so she spent hours each day pronouncing words correctly. Crawford would read lines out loud, so she could listen to her voice quality and pronunciation.

A portrait of Joan Crawford.

Photo by George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Each day, Crawford spent hours in her room reading newspapers, books, and magazines with a dictionary nearby. If she didn’t know how to pronounce a word, she would look it up and repeat it correctly 15 times. This obsessive behavior was a warning sign of things to come, but it initially helped her immensely.

She Blew Away the Competition

Between the end of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood transitioned from silent films to talkies. It was an enormous change, and Crawford made sure she was perfectly prepared. By 1932, Crawford was one of the most profitable stars in Hollywood and appeared in a string of talkie hits.

Joan Crawford greets the audience.

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While everyone else was panicked about the transition, Crawford was calm and collected. Many silent film stars were unemployed because their voices were undesirable, but Crawford had practiced her dictation and speech, which put her ahead of the competition. She also took voice lessons to become a well-rounded actress.

Her Professional Life Blossomed While Her Personal Life Became Messy

As Crawford’s career soared, her personal life got very messy. Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had never been stable, but it took a bad turn. Crawford always put her career before her relationship, and she started having an affair with rising star Clark Gable. Fairbanks wasn’t any better.

Joan Crawford smiles at the camera on a movie set.

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Fairbanks Jr. unsuccessfully pursued Katherine Hepburn and had a string of other mistresses. Their marriage only got worse, but they chose to turn blind eyes to each other’s infidelities. Crawford and Gable were blunt about their affair, even though they were both married at the time. It led to an uncomfortable and scandalous encounter.

She Flaunted Her Affair

One of the most scandalous moments of her affair with Gable was an evening out with their friend Adela Rogers St. Johns. They were caught wrapped around each other behind a bandstand. When Crawford realized St. Johns saw them, her reaction was unexpected, to say the least.

Crawford and Gable embrace each other.

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Crawford didn’t care that she was caught; she looked up and said, “Adela! Darling!” The following day, she sent St. Johns flowers with a letter that said, “I bet you were thrilled watching!” It was shocking that she didn’t care. Soon people would realize that’s just who Crawford was.

She Had Strange Bedroom Habits

Crawford’s sexual reputation was well-known by this point, but it wasn’t always seen in a positive light. In her 30s, Crawford seduced Jackie Cooper, a teenager, and she had some bizarre bedroom habits with him. He revealed that she would bathe him, powder him, give him cologne, and do it all over again.

A portrait of Joan Crawford.

Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Her affairs made Fairbanks Jr. suspicious of everyone in her life, including friends. He was always jealous, which led to many arguments. In 1933, she divorced him, stating that grievous mental cruelty was the reason for the split. After just four years of marriage, their relationship was over.

She Was a Trendsetter

Once she became a name that everyone in Hollywood knew, Crawford earned icon status for her signature look of pronounced shoulder pads. This was a more modern silhouette for women because the shoulder pads gave them a powerful style. Crawford became a trendsetter, and every other star in Hollywood began sporting this look.

A studio portrait of Joan Crawford.

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This look became a defining feature of her signature style so her shoulders would look broader to audiences. The choice to add shoulder pads reflected the shift in gender roles during the 1940s. Women needed a new look to enter the workforce in male-dominated industries, so shoulder pads were the solution.

She Rebounded in No Time

Almost immediately after her divorce from Fairbanks Jr., MGM paired Crawford with her former lover, Clark Gable. She was also paired with Franchot Tone in 1933’s Dancing Lady. However, it was a disaster because Crawford fell in love with Tone and married him in 1935. oHo

Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone during a party.

Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Most people thought it was far too soon for Crawford to be in another serious romantic relationship. She had only divorced her previous husband a few weeks before she started dating again. Most people thought this was the reason why her second relationship ended in heartbreak.

She Picked a Bad Partner

Crawford was known for her ambition, but she never had men in her life who supported her dreams. Fairbanks was more interested in politics, and her second husband, Tone, wanted to put on local stage plays instead of starring in Hollywood films. Crawford tried her best, but she was worn out trying to make him a star.

Franchot Tone and Crawford at a hotel.

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This is where the trouble started in her marriage to Tone. Even though Tone and Crawford were clearly unhappy with each other, they hid their painful secrets behind closed doors. Crawford wanted to be a mother, and after two miscarriages, she was exhausted. Tone’s response was utterly shameful.

Falling Into a Depression

After two miscarriages, Crawford was grieving her losses and became depressed. Around this time, Tone started drinking and took his anger out on Crawford. Sadly, the abuse she endured as a child started again, but it was from her husband this time. Tone would physically harm her during fights, and Crawford couldn’t stand it.

Joan Crawford in her swimming pool.

Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images

In 1939, Crawford divorced Tone because of the abuse. She felt like she could get her life back, but her career was about to take a hit. Crawford’s popularity was waning, and one news article, in particular, made her a pariah in Hollywood. It became harder to get jobs because of this awful label.

“Box Office Poison”

In May 1938, an article came out referring to Crawford as “box office poison.” Although she had a regular place in the Top Ten Money-Making Stars poll during the early and mid-1930s, Crawford and many other famous names received this harmful label by the Independent Theater Owners Association of America.

A portrait of Joan Crawford.

Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

The article claimed she wasn’t worth the hefty price tag. This hurt Crawford deeply because she spent her life working hard to become a star, and she didn’t take the news well. After the article came out, Crawford took a series of substandard roles, which dimmed her star for a little.

She Had Mommy Issues

After not being able to conceive naturally, Crawford decided to adopt her first child in 1940. But because she was applying as a single mom, she had to adopt her daughter illegally. She used illegal baby brokers to find a young, unwed woman in Hollywood looking to give up her baby for adoption. She traveled with baby Christina to New York and then Las Vegas to legalize her adoption.

Joan Crawford and Christina in marching bonnets.

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Initially, Crawford named her daughter Joan but quickly changed her name to Christina. It seemed bizarre that she would give her daughter a name that she didn’t even like for herself, but that was probably why she changed it. This also raised a lot of red flags, but many people ignored this fact.

Third Time’s Not the Charm

After adopting her daughter, Crawford’s nightmare love life continued. In 1942, she had a quickie wedding to Phillip Terry. The two only dated for six months before they got married. To seal the deal, the couple adopted a son named Christopher together. Sadly, tragedy was about to strike again.

Joan Crawford with her children Christopher and Christina.

Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shortly after the adoption, Christopher’s birth mother reclaimed him. Crawford went through a whirlwind of grief, and the hits kept coming. They decided to adopt another son and named him Phillip Terry Jr. Shortly after, Terry broke up with Crawford. She got to keep their son, but she changed his name to Christopher.

Not Everyone Was a Fan

While many people adored Crawford, some people weren’t fans, like director Michael Curtiz. In 1945, she tried hard to get the lead role in Mildred Pierce, but Curtiz wanted anyone but Crawford. He said, “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads.” He didn’t want to waste his time.

Crawford is in a still from the film.

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Curtiz was a notorious tyrant, but she ended up getting the role anyway. On the first day of production, Curtiz flew into a rage and reportedly ripped Crawford’s dress at the neckline because he was convinced she was wearing shoulder pads. However, he just revealed her bare shoulders.

It Was Her Big Comeback

Although it was a challenge to work with Curtiz, Crawford’s hard work paid off tenfold. Mildred Pierce became a blockbuster hit with critics and fans. The film earned Crawford her first Academy Award nomination, and she won for Best Actress in 1946. While most people would celebrate the win, Crawford had other plans.

Crawford holds her Academy Award while lying in bed and talking on the phone.

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Right before the awards, Crawford felt insecure; she was sure she would lose to Ingrid Berman. When she found out she won, she called her makeup people for an impromptu photo shoot on her bed for the next day’s paper. Crawford was happy to be back on top after a slump.

Growing Her Family… Illegally

Despite having her hands full with two children and a busy career, Crawford decided to grow her family by adopting twins named Cindy and Cathy. However, there was a chilling side to the story. For this “adoption,” she used the now-disgraced Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Crawford and her children are eating in the kitchen.

Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

The organization was actually more like a human trafficking operation because they kidnapped children and illegally put them up for adoption. This was the beginning of infamy for Crawford, and she wasn’t about to stop anytime soon. It would also be another few years before the Tennessee Children’s Society closed.

She Became a Home Wrecker

Although she was a dedicated actress, she had a bad girl reputation on set. While working on Johnny Guitar, she butted heads with actress Mercedes McCambridge the entire time. This was because Crawford had slept with McCambridge’s husband once, which led to an alcohol-fueled argument.

Joan Crawford sits on the floor next to a sofa.

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Crawford reportedly tossed McCambridge’s clothes onto the highway, leaving them for cars to run over. McCambridge called her a “mean, tipsy, rotten-egg lady.” Crawford hit back by saying, “I have four children; I do not need a fifth.” It was a legendary feud, but not as famous as some of Crawford’s other rivalries.

The Legendary Feud With Bette Davis

Crawford was a competitive woman, which led to many rivalries with other actresses. The origin of her feud with Davis goes back to 1933 when Crawford’s divorce overshadowed Davis’s starring role. Davis’s first feature role was, and Warner Bros. planned a large marketing campaign until Crawford announced her split.

Bette Davis, Jack L Warner, and Joan Crawford pose for a picture.

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Instead of the campaign, The New York Times regulated reviews of Davis’s film to small paragraphs in the review section, but Crawford’s story got several pages. Other newspapers followed suit, and Davis was swept under the rug. The film was dropped from theaters after a week, and this is where Davis’s beef began.

The Rivalry Continues to Grow

After the film debacle, many incidents followed, which fueled the feud between them. From Crawford marrying a man Davis was in love with to Crawford taking Davis’s leftover roles, things kept happening to make them dislike each other. At one point, Davis thought Crawford was in love with her.

A portrait of Bette Davis wearing a fur coat and hat.

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Producers were keen to get them on screen together, and Warner Bros. wrote a movie about women in prison for the actresses. However, Davis refused to sign opposite Crawford because the movie seemed inappropriate. There was a rumor that Crawford had a sexual interest in Davis, which only inflated Davis’s ego.

They Finally Came Together in Front of the Camera

After years of feuding, Crawford and Davis finally came together for the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Although the movie became a box office hit, their relationship behind the scenes was toxic. The two professionals tried to keep it together while filming, but the trouble began when the cameras shut off.

Joan and Bette in a scene from the film.

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Crawford was on the board of directors at Pepsi, so Davis had a Coke machine installed in her dressing room to spite her. In one scene, where Jane beats Crawford’s character, she requested a body double, but they couldn’t use one, and Davis struck Crawford so hard that she apparently needed stitches.

They Called Each Other Out Publicly

The feud was at a boiling point, and the actresses were calling each other out publicly. Davis once said Crawford “slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” However, Crawford hit back harder. She took a shot at Davis’s acting abilities, which was below the belt.

A picture of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford behind the scenes.

Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Crawford said, “Bette and I work differently. Bette screams, and I knit. While she screamed, I knitted a scarf that stretched clear to Malibu.” Davis got her revenge when she received an Oscar nomination for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but Crawford didn’t.

Crawford Didn’t Fade Into the Background

Although she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for their film, Crawford wouldn’t let Davis spotlight. Before the ceremony, Crawford contacted the other Best Actress nominees to “graciously” offer to accept their awards if they couldn’t attend. They all lived on the East Coast and agreed to Crawford’s plan.

Joan Crawford poses wrapped in white fur.

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Even though she wasn’t nominated, Crawford got to accept the Best Actress award on behalf of Anne Bancroft. It was a slap in the face to Davis, who was appointed in that category. She waltzed on stage to collect the award and posed with the other award winners backstage.

She Became an Heiress

During the 1950s, Crawford started dating Pepsi president Alfred Steele. They met at a party, but like many of her romances, people focused more on how it ended rather than how it began. When the couple wed, Steele was much older, and he passed away from a heart attack four years later.

Crawford pets her dog in her apartment.

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Crawford took advantage of the situation even though Pepsi wanted nothing to do with her. They basically fired her, but she threatened to tell a gossip columnist, so they put her on the board of directors. It was just to keep her quiet, and that was precisely what she wanted.

She Started to Lose Her Touch

After the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Crawford’s career started to slip away. When she made an appearance on The Lucy Show in 1968, she was drinking so heavily that she couldn’t remember her lines and got replaced by Gloria Swanson. However, she managed to get herself together to perform for the taping.

Joan Crawford during a formal dinner.

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She carried around a flask of 100-proof vodka and drank heavily. Crawford was a powerful woman who needed a potent drink to make her demons go away. It was like taking a swig of gasoline to pick herself up in the middle of the day, and it affected her career.

She Had an Accident Because of the Drinking

As she got older, Crawford’s drinking became a serious problem. In 1974, she passed out, slipped, and hit her face. She feared her money-maker was ruined and decided to make a change. She took up Christian Science as her religion and managed to kick her drinking habit the same year.

A portrait of Joan Crawford.

Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Crawford had little time left. After she retired, she moved to Manhattan. She also didn’t leave the house much because of a picture printed in the paper that made her feel bad about the way she looked.

How Did Joan Crawford Die?

Crawford began having a lot of health problems later in life. Her dental issues required surgery and left her needing care around the clock. In 1977, she gave away her beloved Shih Tzu because she was too weak to care for her anymore.

A studio portrait of Joan Crawford.

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On May 10, 1977, Crawford passed away in her apartment because of a heart attack. Her funeral was held in New York three days later. The previous October, Crawford made some drastic changes to her will that affected her children’s rights to her $2 million estate.

She Disowned Her Children

When she signed her will in October 1976, Crawford disinherited her two oldest children, Christina and Christopher, which meant the twins inherited her money. Most people couldn’t imagine why she would leave the most aged children out of her will, but the secrets soon came out.

Christina sits for an interview.

Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images

Just a year after her mother passed away, Christina decided to write a book called Mommie Dearest, in which she told the truth about the treatment she received from Crawford. The infamous tell-all book let all the secrets of Crawford’s life loose because she was very abusive to Christina and Christopher.

Crawford Hurt Her Children

In the book Mommie Dearest, Christina revealed that her mother hated wire hangers and mess, so she would wake her children up in the middle of the night if they hung their clothes on ordinary hangers or left a crumb on the floor. Not only was she physically abusive, but she also played cruel tricks on them.

a contemporary portrait of Christina.

Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images

Christina claimed that during Christmas, Crawford would take photos of her children with piles of gifts. Once the cameras were away, she made them pick one, and the rest would go to charity. Christina also claimed Crawford killed her fourth husband, but there was no autopsy to prove this.

Crawford Was Fired From Her Last Job

Just a few years before she passed away, Crawford was fired from the board of directors at Pepsi in 1973. This ended the “Age of Joan” at the soda company, but she didn’t seem to care. Instead of fighting back like she had done in the past, Crawford didn’t care to stay on top.

Joan Crawford at a party of Pepsi Cola.

Photo by Gianni Ferrari/Cover/Getty Images

It was shocking that she didn’t fight back. Crawford was known for her fierce temper if she didn’t get her way, but it seemed like she didn’t have any fight left in her towards the end of her life. During the ‘70s, her life was winding down, and she was done fighting with the execs at Pepsi.

Her Legacy Was Tainted

After the release of Mommie Dearest, people heard rumors that Crawford had a secret marriage no one knew about, that she had allegedly made a risqué film. She got aggressive with co-star Henry Fonda. These awful rumors painted a much different picture than what people saw of her on-screen.

A picture of Joan Crawford.

Photo by Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

However, Crawford’s two youngest daughters, Cathy and Cindy, along with many of her friends and co-workers, denounced the book and denied any abuse. But other people outside the family said they witnessed abusive behavior, so people thought the twins only said this because they weren’t disinherited.

Her Legacy Lives On

Crawford’s handprints and footprints are memorialized outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion picture industry. You might notice that her hands and feet are surprisingly small because she was a tiny woman.

A portrait of Joan Crawford.

Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

After her death, Mommie Dearest was turned into a film starring Faye Dunaway. It garnered more attention for the late starlet and attracted a new generation of fans who might not have known about her. Her feud with Bette Davis was also the subject of the 2017 show called Feud.

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