Saturday, August 12, 2017

"A Portrait of Joan" Autobiography Review

A Special Guest Blog Review of "A Portrait of Joan" by Freelance Writer Julie Reynolds

A Portrait of Joan
Originally published by Doubleday & Company, 1962
Re-released by Graymalkin Media, 2017


When Joan Crawford published her memoir, A Portrait of Joan, the public was already familiar with the general facts of her early life and her rise to stardom.  Movie magazines had regaled fans with the Cinderella-esque story starting in the late 1920s:  A hardscrabble childhood, born to a poor (and, to some degree, abusive) mother and a father who took off before her birth.  Many long hours of hard work helping her mother in a laundry and, later, working her way through the private schools she attended.  Beaten with a broom by a headmistress.  Fleeing Kansas City as a teenager to become a professional dancer, with a brief, failed college stint in between.  Then, with more hard work, pluckiness and a little luck, rising to become one of the most famous actresses in the history of motion pictures.  From desperate poverty to stardom, money, mansions, love affairs with equally famous men, the adoration of millions, and an acting career that ultimately lasted nearly half a century…it was truly an incredible journey.  It is a classic American success story.

Here, Joan tells the story in her own words.  She corrects some persistent falsehoods and presents the truth – at least, the truth through the lens of how she wanted her fans to see her. 

She was criticized at the time for not telling juicier and/or more negative tales about her fellow actors and actresses.  As she told a biographer years later, “I told the truth but left out most of it.”  Gossiping in print was simply not Joan’s style.  She was as candid as she felt she could be at the time the book was written (1962) while still keeping it classy.

She laments certain tales about her that originated very early in her career and some of which, amazingly, are still perpetuated via the Internet to this day.  “It was a day of unbuttoned journalism and the stories about me got increasingly out of hand,” she explains.  “There were stories that said I’d had my eyes slit to make them bigger…that I’d ruined my health by drastic dieting…and other unsavory items harder to disprove…that I’d danced at smokers…that I’d made a stag reel…” 

One has only to look at photos of Joan as a child to know that she needed no help making her big blue eyes even bigger.  No pornographic film with Joan Crawford has ever surfaced, despite stories to the contrary that have been debunked.  Although she doesn’t mention it here, undoubtedly one of these stories was that she had undergone the buccal procedure – the removal of several back teeth – to hollow out her cheeks and make her cheekbones more prominent; the falsehood of that particular rumor has been well documented on the Concluding Chapter of Crawford website.

Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in Texas on March 23 to Thomas LeSueur and Anna Bell Johnson.  The exact location and the exact year are not as definite.  Although it has long been reported that she was born in San Antonio, in the late 1990s author Karen Swenson did some research into Joan’s origins that suggested she was actually born in San Angelo.  Her true birth year is a hot topic of debate among Crawford fans, but it’s generally accepted that she was born sometime between 1904 and 1906.  She claimed 1908, but that is extremely unlikely.  Because her birth certificate was never located and Texas did not require the issuance of birth certificates until 1908, we just have to rely on other sources and draw our own conclusions.

Unlike most autobiographies, however, the book does not begin at Joan’s birth.  It begins in late December 1924, when she receives a telegram from MGM informing her that she has been put under a five-year contract and directing her to leave immediately for Culver City, California.  It’s fitting that the book begins here, since Joan felt that this is when life really began for her – on a bitterly cold January 1, 1925 when she boarded a train to sunny California and to a whole new life that held more than she could ever have dreamed. 

She does discuss her growing up years in detail a bit later in the book, and it is interesting to read her account of her relationship with her mother, which was actually more complex than it has been represented by some biographers.  As much friction as there was between the two of them throughout their life together, what comes through is Joan’s love for her mother and her mother’s love for her, although during Joan’s childhood and adolescence Anna was usually too distracted and stressed out by the bleak realities of her life to be able to show that love very well and often lashed out at her daughter.  There is also a sense of sadness on Joan’s part