Joan Crawford's Childhood Was Unusual For A Star

by Kayla Hawkins

Joan Crawford is famous for a lot of things besides her acting career, from her... Feud with Bette Davis, to the memoir written by her adopted daughter Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest (that was adapted into a 1981 film with Faye Dunaway playing a very intense Crawford). And the common thread between all of the versions of the classic movie star is, surprisingly, the way she was raised. While she may have been anonymous until she was a grown woman, Joan Crawford's childhood helps explain a lot about her future persona — everything from her accent to her name was influenced by her disadvantaged youth.

Everything about Joan's early years is a bit vague, right down to her birth year. Despite reportedly being born in 1906, "by [...] the 1930s, she had already been accustomed to stating her birth year as 1908 [...] for in 1906, birth certificates were neither mandatory nor routine in Texas," according to the biography Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, by Donald Spoto.

Feud has already added some small references to Joan's youth. Bette Davis constantly calls her "Lucille," the name she was born with, Lucille Fay LeSueur. Despite her aristocratic demeanor, Crawford was born in Texas, and, according to The Daily Mail, grew up surrounded by "misery" during her childhood in Texas and Kansas. That might be a surprise if you've heard her reserved, prim Hollywood mid-Atlantic accent, which she adopted after receiving voice lessons in order to prepare for the advent of movies with sound and music, according to Scott Eyman's Ernst Lubitsch. Joan even went on to take opera lessons, according to Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, by Lawrence J. Quirk.

Joan's father left the family when she was a child, writes Spoto, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather Henry Cassin, who gave Crawford the nickname "Billie" and whom she believed was her real father. Despite not being biologically related to her, Crawford was close with Cassin, who worked as a booker at a local theater and helped introduce Crawford to performing; "if I could really give credit to the people who helped me the most, I guess he'd top the list," Spoto quoted her as saying. While training and practicing to become a dancer, "Crawford had severely injured her foot while jumping off a porch onto a broken milk bottle," writes Mark Knowles in The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances. "The cut was so serious she was unable to attend school for a year and a half."

While out of school, however, Crawford was forced to work, "scrubbing floors to help my mother ... maybe that's why I had such a need to accomplish something," Spoto quoted her as saying. Because of continued financial difficulties, when Joan was sent to boarding school, she had to work in order to make tuition payments, largely in menial jobs like serving food in the cafeteria and cleaning. "St. Agnes [was] a parochial school whose students mostly consisted of well-heeled girls who paid for their lessons, except for those like Billie, who had to work — and work hard — for their tuition," wrote Quirk. He credited this early experience with Joan's lifelong obsession with cleanliness, and it may help explain why she eventually send Christina Crawford to boarding school at only 10 years old.

When Joan Crawford was given a screen test in 1924 by Louis B. Mayer, according to Knowles, she quickly left everything behind, including her name. Her subsequent adoration of acting and stardom, and her willingness to do anything to maintain it has been a huge theme throughout Feud so far, and it's no wonder — Joan Crawford's difficult childhood clearly motivated her to leave her past behind. "I never had any close chums," she said, according to The Daily Mail. "I was 'different' ... my dresses were always too long or too short. I yearned to be famous, just to make the kids who had laughed at me feel foolish."

These bits about her childhood help contextualize her adulthood more, and it will be interesting to see if Feud dives further into her past this season.