Petty, sniping bio attempts to salvage Crawford’s tarnished rep
“Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr,” by David Bret. (Carroll & Graf, January 2007) 299 pp., $25.95.
Ever since her adopted daughter’s tell-all book “Mommie Dearest” hit the shelves in 1978, barely a year after her death, Joan Crawford’s reputation has hung in tatters. Decades of acclaimed film work were cast by the wayside in favor of kitschphrases like “No wire hangers ever!” And Crawford’s name became shorthand for especially cruel child abuse.
This, author David Bret, contends, is supremely unfair. In “Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr,” the first Crawford biography published in many years, Bret takes the unusual approach of casting doubt on Christina’s (admittedly largely uncorroborated) allegations.
“Walking in the shadow of an international monument proven to be more talented, beautiful and charismatic than oneself will ever be can never be easy,” Bret asserts with characteristic bombast. “Being taken in by such a person and offered a lifestyle beyond one’s wildest dreams, then to maliciously attack that person from beyond the grave, can only be interpreted as unforgivable.”
Bret seems to have chosen “Hollywood Martyr” as his book’s subtitle for a couple of reasons, First, Joan became a beloved icon for her work in movies like “Mildred Pierce,” in which she suffered glamorously. Secondly, although Crawford was no saint in her private life, she seems to have been unfairly singled out for disgrace when all she did was what many other celebrities of the time did behind closed doors and got away with.
Aside from refuting the infamous digging up of Joan’s rose garden, though, Bret mainly resorts to personal attacks on Christina, frequently labeling her as “ungrateful” and unoriginally comparing her to Veda, the odious offspring of “Mildred Pierce.” If one is going to disprove “Mommie Dearest,” fine but do so with well-documented, empirical evidence, not through petty sniping.
While Bret lists an extensive bibliography for this book, only lengthy quotes are cited. And quoting Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Bablyon” extensively is not the best way to establish credibility.
If “Hollywood Martyr” substantially contributed to the Crawford mystique, or afforded its readers greater insight into her psyche, that would be one thing.
Instead, readers get a rehash of Crawford’s rags-to-riches rise to the top through any means necessary. All familiar bases are covered: her voracious sexual appetite and alleged appearances in “stag” films; her penchant for bedding and marrying physically abusive men; her affinity for gay and bisexual men (like fellow actor William Haines, and supposedly three of her four husbands); her unheard-of regard for her fans; her constant overindulgence on vodka; her compulsions for perfection and cleanliness; and her famously vitriolic feuds with such co-stars as Norma Shearer, Loretta Young, Mercedes McCambridge, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and, most famously, Bette Davis.
The literal blow-by-blow recounting of the nightmarish filming of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is undoubtedly this book’s highlight, even though it trots out the same old stories for our vicarious pleasure.
Adding to the pain, Bret subjects us to synopsis after convoluted synopsis of Joan’s movies which pad the book by at least 50 pages. Crawford devotees will be bored, while neophytes may well wonder what all the fuss is about.
Although there are some tidbits mainly supplied by Bret’s late friends Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Crawford’s first husband) they’re just not enough to justify this book. Also, the presence of some glaring errors, such as Norma Shearer’s marital status after her husband Irving Thalberg’s death, and the assertion that Billie Burke played the Blue Fairy in “The Wizard of Oz,” further undermines Bret’s credibility and makes one wonder what other errors lurk undetected within these pages.
While “Hollywood Martyr” is an adequate effort, the definitive biography of Joan Crawford has yet to be written. It would require the dogged determination and through professionalism of a biographer of William J. Mann’s stature to sift through the strata of Crawford’s life and separate fact from fiction, fabrication, urban legends and downright lies. Whatever else she might have been, Joan Crawford deserves that much.
New Republic busts Sedaris for “‘flubberizing’ truth
Appearing in the March 14 edition of the New Republic is “This American Lie: A Midget Guitar Teacher, A Macy’s Elf and The Truth About David Sedaris.”
It’s a fascinating and bitter-toned article by Alex Heard, who conducted a tiresome amount of fact checking on Sedaris’ work and discovered that the gay humorist has been playing a little fast and loose with his facts.
Sedaris freely admitted to Heard that he’s exaggerated for comic effect like getting bit by a patient while volunteering at a hospital, which apparently never happened.
But if you like Sedaris’ work, you’ll enjoy Heard’s article and won’t feel the need to choose sides. Heard once edited one of Sedaris’ articles for the New York Times Magazine: The article was about why Sedaris loved the TV show “COPS.”
Coincidentally, in 2002, I interviewed Sedaris to preview his five-night run at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. And during the interview, Sedaris had mentioned this editor.
Here’s the salient part of the transcript from our discussion:
David Sedaris: I wrote something for The New York Times. A couple of years ago, they asked me to write on my favorite TV show, which was “COPS.” “The Simpsons” was already taken, so I wrote about “COPS.” And they re-wrote the article.
It was one of those things where they needed the article, and I called and said, “Okay I’m gonna send it. But I have to leave for France in a week. So let’s do these rewrites before I leave.”
And then I could never get a hold of them on the phone. So I thought, “They don’t want it.”
Then, of course, I’m in France when they call. And they need to do rewrites, and I’m not around. Anyway, they basically rewrote it themselves.
And they used the word “hooker!”
I would never in a million years use the word “hooker.” I would have used the word “prostitute” because prostitute has a clinical feeling to it. And I was talking about someone who is missing her entire top row of her front teeth and is wearing a Ghostbusters T-shirt. And it’s more interesting to refer to her as a “prostitute” to give her the dignity of that title rather than to call her a hooker. I just would never use the word “hooker.” And it just made me so mad, I just felt like I had been robbed.
Maybe other people wouldn’t have noticed it. But to me, that was so glaring and so unfair to take that word it just changed the tone of the entire thing. Because to me especially if you are talking about something that’s maybe bizarre or inappropriate if you use formal language, it sounds even stranger.
The New York Times pays shit. Their attitude is that you should be grateful. This is like free advertising for you. People don’t read bylines in The New York Times. Generally, I don’t think people do. If you write something for the style section on something you don’t care about, they want you to think that this will be great for your book or whatever.
I’ve done a few things for them. Once I had a really good experience with them. And then the other two times I had a bad experience.
Daniel A. Kusner
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 30, 2007