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Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyrby David Bret
Synopses & Reviews
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 Drawing on a wealth of unpublished material and interviews, David Bret presents a unique, fascinating portrait of a single-minded, uncompromising woman.
"Bret, who has written several celebrity bios, details Joan Crawford's rags-to-riches story in this able biography. Born Lucille LeSueur in 1905, Crawford lived a hardscrabble life in the Midwest; as the product of a Dickensian childhood, she slept her way to the top. She became a taxi dancer who turned tricks; discovered by an MGM talent scout at age 20, she headed to Hollywood. From silents to talkies, in a career that spanned from 1925 to 1970, Crawford, glamorous and vulnerable, became a gay icon and hero to working-class women in films like Possessed and the Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce. Renowned for sleeping with her leading men, she had an on-and-off affair with Clark Gable (who Bret claims swung both ways). Three of her four husbands were bisexual; two were abusive. Her voracious sexual appetite was legendary. Bret chronicles her films, her feud with Bette Davis and dismisses her daughter's Mommie Dearest tirade, but he revels in Hollywood's sexual excesses, and fans who crave a lively insider view will most appreciate this bio." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Some years ago, in a very fancy Los Angeles seaside restaurant, I ordered the signature lobster and avocado salad. About halfway through lunch, an enormous fly struggled out from the damp jungle of arugula and frisee. I let out an unladylike 'Eeek,' and a waiter came over. 'He just flew in, right?' 'No,' I answered hotly. 'Look where he's been!' It was true, the fly was drenched, half-drowned in Thousand... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Island. Only later did I think of it from the fly's point of view, lost in gooey crags of avocado, gluey from unidentified pink stuff. Think of me now as that fly, staggering out from one of the ickiest film biographies I've ever read. It's not that film biographies, as a genre, lack dignity or even gravitas. Consider Richard Schickel's superb 'Elia Kazan' or A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's equally thoughtful and meticulous 'Bogart.' Films, God knows, are the key to America's strange, monstrously peculiar id: Celebrities now, and even more then, were at some cosmic level assigned the task of mirroring the public's fantasies. If those fantasies were bizarre beyond belief, well, it wasn't the mirror's fault. But suppose you gorged on old movie magazines and ghostwritten gobbledygook and pieces of weird gossip you overheard and then decided to rewrite what has been written and rewritten again for 80 years or so, and you picked as your subject Joan Crawford, 'gay icon par excellence'? You'd produce something like David Bret's new biography. When she was young, he writes, 'it was widely known that she had crabs due to her hatred of bathing.' But at the beginning of her career she had a fortuitous meeting with a woman named Katherine Emerine, who was 'quite possibly' Crawford's 'first lesbian fling.' This would have shown Crawford's 'predilection for the casting couch.' Then her youth went by in 'a blur of steamy sex, booze, torrid dancing, drugs and laughter.' Also, there were some 'porno-flicks,' table dancing and two botched abortions. All this before her first MGM contract. Then she struck up a friendship with Paul Bern, whose 'grossly under-developed genitals' have already received more than their due in Irving Schulman's salacious biography of Jean Harlow more than 40 years ago. Then Joan acted with Tim McCoy, of whom she was said to demurely remark: He had 'the fastest draw, sure, and the weapon's got staying power and sure as hell don't fire blanks!' But, according to Bret, Joan didn't always talk like that. Sometimes she talked like this: 'Happiness to me means peace of mind, which of course is a mental state. And I know that unless I acquire it pretty soon I'll have a severe and protracted nervous breakdown. And yet, on the other hand, if I should find a certain peace of mind, it would mean that I had come to a point in my life where I no longer cared to develop.' But most of the time, the author opines, when she wasn't thinking these lofty thoughts, Joan behaved 'like a sex-starved bird of prey.' Hollywood was not as it seemed — sexually. That's the author's main theme here. (The 'Hollywood Martyr' business of the subtitle is purely an afterthought.) Couples lived in 'lavender' or 'twilight-tandem' marriages. Many men, even (or especially) he-men such as George Raft, were 'Gillette blades,' i.e. they cut both ways. George Brent was gay (though we certainly don't need to know this for purposes of the narrative), and Joan once showed up at a British war relief event accompanied by five gay escorts. Clark Gable 'was, of course, the archetypal repressed bisexual, the hallmarks of which were clearly evident in his early years.' Although I have carefully supplied the citations for every one of these quotations to the editors of this newspaper, David Bret is not bound by any such bourgeois convention. Quotations abound in his book, but there are no footnotes, and the index indicates only on what page people are mentioned. I think it's fair to say that 'Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr' is made up of cryptic, if breezy, assertions, like: 'Aspects of Joan Crawford's extraordinary, complex psyche were incorporated into many of her films ... 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 (sic) 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.' This is cheesiness 'par excellence,' as the author himself might say, and apparently little more than speculation. What Bret entirely forgets in this jabber he calls a biography is that each and every one of these people was (and sometimes still is) a sentient human being. When Gable fathered Loretta Young's baby out of wedlock and Young 'adopted' her own baby — yes, that story is true — the baby grew up and had to deal with the lifetime of lies that had been told her. George Raft was human whether he was a 'Gillette blade' or not. George Brent was human. Crawford's four adopted children — all human. They deserve some dignity and thought. But thinking is not where it's at for this writer. So we have interminable film synopses and the list of Joan's husbands (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone, Philip Terry and Alfred Steele, the Pepsi-Cola magnate). Steele is said to have beaten her: In Paris, she wore 'sunglasses to conceal her black eyes — a clear indication, according to her masochistic views on romance, that Alfred truly loved her.' And where's the quote or source to back up Joan's masochistic views on romance? Bret also vilifies Christina Crawford, who wrote 'Mommie Dearest.' He vociferously defends the mommy in question: 'Joan is known to have spanked her children or locked them in the closet for answering back — a common practice of the day.' What day was that, I wonder? Goo. This book is goo. Ultimately, it's an enormous insult to gays, assuming, as it does, that mindless cattiness and restroom innuendo are the accepted small talk of homosexuals everywhere. I felt I needed a long hot shower after I finished this book. Probably the way the fly did, when he struggled out of that pink lobster and avocado jungle, long ago." Reviewed by Carolyn See,who can be reached at carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
French-born David Bret is a leading celebrity biographer. His previous books include biographies of subjects as diverse as Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Rudolf Valentino, Morrissey and Rock Hudson.
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