Even as a starlet, she had a harshness that her peers such as Rita Hayworth and Susan Hayward did not. Even Barbara Stanwyck, who played a cool, sinister femme like no other in the film noir Double Indemnity, didn’t seem to harbor a lot of dark secrets off-stage.
But Crawford did, long before her daughter, Christina, wrote the infamous Mommie Dearest book.
Now, Christina is back with a production about her mother. Surviving Mommie Dearest hits an off-Broadway stage with five performances during the week of Mother’s Day. (A tad ironic, of course.) According to the website Off Broadway World, Surviving Mommie Dearest is “an award-winning bio-pic documentary covering 100 years of show-biz history and details the turbulent relationship between Christina and her movie legend … mother.”
Some may think the Crawfords have run their course and should remain in the dusty history books of Hollywood. But Christina, who was left out of her mother’s will, doesn’t want us to forget how evil her mother really was.
According to Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, Christina, in the documentary, accuses her mother, who died in 1977, of killing her fourth husband, Alfred Steele. When she married him in 1955, he was the powerful president of Pepsi Cola. He later became CEO and chairman of the board. Pepsi used Crawford to promote the company. In turn, she used the company to keep her star shining as it was burning out in Hollywood.
In 1959, Steele died of a heart attack. The company kicked Crawford, who was left penniless by Steele, out. But she wasn’t finished with them. Not by a long shot. She told her story to a gossip columnist, and Pepsi had to embrace Crawford. She was elected to fill the vacant seat on the board of directors where she remained until she was ousted in 1973.
According to Musto, “Tina describes how Steele was found dead at the bottom of the grand stairway in the house. ‘I didn’t believe it was an accident,’ she asserts, knowingly. ‘I know what Mommie was capable of in a state of rage.’”
There was no autopsy, and Steele was cremated.
When Crawford died in 1977, her ashes were interred in a crypt with Steele’s. Double creepy.
Crawford played one of her most disturbing roles after Steele’s death when she starred with another reckoning force, Bette Davis. The competitive, bitter duo starred in the 1960s disturbing psychological thriller Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in which Crawford played wheelchair-bound sister Blanche to Davis’ Jane. Both were supposed to appear in Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte, but Joan left the set, ended up in a Hollywood hospital and reportedly feigned illness to escape Davis’ psychological trauma.
After Faye Dunaway so vividly portrayed Crawford in the 1981 movie Mommie Dearest, Crawford became infamously campy in the drag queen universe. “No more wire hangers!” became a trendy phase, and Crawford lived on as a parody of herself long after her death with many Halloween costumes honoring her.
With this new eerie tidbit from Christine, Crawford’s sinister reputation only continues to grow. If Christina is still seeking some sort of revenge on her mother, she should just stop and try to move on with her life outside the shadow of Crawford. Undoubtedly, Crawford would relish the attention — good or bad — nearly 40 years after her death.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for Reuters, TakePart, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.
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