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Joan Crawford was a woman known for many things: her ongoing feud with Bette Davis; her sexual prowess and ability to control a situation with her femininity; and her charitable missions, which included five private adoptions over the course of her lifetime (her second child, a boy, was reclaimed by his birth mother within a year of the adoption).
But when her eldest adoptive daughter, Christina Crawford, released the tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest in 1978 — within a year of Crawford’s death — it painted a much darker picture of the actress, one of an alcoholic and abusive mother prone to fits of rage.
The general public knew things between mother and daughter hadn’t exactly been dandy (the relationship was said to have started falling apart around 1968, when 29-year-old Christina took a medical leave of absence from her CBS soap The Secret Storm and a 60-something Crawford replaced her), but this was a whole new level of shock.
It’s said that Crawford knew of the book’s existence before her death in May 1977, but that she’d never discussed it with Christina. In her will, she did make sure to omit both Christina and her brother Christopher “for reasons they knew,” leaving everything to her twin daughters Cathy and Cindy and to charity. (The disowned children later contested and won.)
Since then the validity of the scenes described in the memoir have been debated and dissected at great length. Christina released updated editions to commemorate the 20th and 30th anniversaries, and other memoirs, including Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography and Possessed, have stocked bookshelves to rebuke the claims. And of course there was the campy, almost satirical 1981 film of the same title starring Faye Dunaway.
Ahead of the next installment of Feud: Bette and Joan, which is also fittingly titled “Mommie Dearest,” THR revisits 11 of the most shocking allegations from the original memoir and subsequent tour:
1. When Crawford first adopted Christina and Christopher, they were named Joan Jr. and Phillip Terry Jr., (after his adoptive father). But after Crawford’s third marriage fell apart she renamed the children.
2. Crawford hated wire hangers, and reportedly once woke up her daughter in the middle of the night for using them. In a scene that’s become synonymous with the film, she is said to have dragged her daughter by the hair yelling, “No wire hangers, no wire hangers!” while beating her with one until her “ears rang.”
3. Christina had a favorite dress until she provoked her mother into shredding it. Crawford then made Christina wear the dress for a week in order to humiliate her.
4. Crawford was prone to what Christina called “night raids,” in which she would wake the children up drunk and make them clean messes they hadn’t necessarily made for hours on end.
5. Christina says she was once starved for days when she refused to eat an undercooked steak that was still bloody, all in a bid for her mother to further control her.
6. Crawford supposedly kept Christopher tied up in bed in a “sleep safe” device and she also trussed Christina up in the shower at night.
7. At Christmas, the children were photographed as being gifted tons of items. But they were only allowed to choose one thing to keep while the rest were given away to charity or saved to be re-gifted. The kids then had to write thank you cards for each and every gift, and those cards were meticulously edited by Crawford.
8. When Christina was 13 years old, she supposedly suffered one final brutal beating from her mother, in which she thought she was going to be choked out. “That was the last time we had any physical violence, because I knew that if it happened again, I would do everything in my power to protect myself,” she later told Larry King.
9. Crawford attacked her daughter once more after that incident when she thought Christina was making a pass at her husband, Alfred Steele.
10. Christina wrote that when she was 15 years old, she was so depressed from her mother’s treatment towards her that she tried to kill herself at boarding school by overdosing on pills. She claims her mother never contacted her or addressed the situation afterwards.
11. Although Christina never flat out accused her mother of killing her fourth husband, Steele, she has pointed to the fact that the healthy man suspiciously fell down the stairs only three years after they had been married.
The twins refuted all of Christina’s claims about their mother (Christopher supported them until his death in 2006), and continued their own feud with their sister in their adult years. Eventually, Cathy went on to win a defamation suit in mediation against Christina when the latter told people on her tour that Crawford only told people Cathy and Cindy (who died in 2007) were twins, but it was all just an untrue bid for attention.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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