Was the glamorous film queen also a loving mom, as MGM publicity pictured her in her 1930s and '40s heyday? Or was Joan Crawford, who died at about 69 in 1977, really a movieland monster who adopted four children to burnish her image and then proceeded to tyrannize them as her career faded and she slipped into alcoholism and paranoia?
Like the 1978 best-seller from which it was drawn, the new Faye Dunaway film, Mommie Dearest, depicts a decidedly unsaintly Joan, and it is clearly an image that sells: Within its first week the movie became the No. 1 box office draw. But whatever it is doing for its distributor, Paramount, the flick is enflaming old tensions among those who think they knew Joan best—her children.
While Christina Crawford Koontz, 42, who wrote the scathing biography, and her brother, Chris, 38, believe Mommie was indeed a monster, she is still dearest to the younger Crawfords, the twins Cynthia (Cindy) and Cathy, 34. Cathy, now the wife of a Pennsylvania sportswear executive and a mother of two, says bitterly, "Christina committed matricide on Mother's image."
Christina last saw Joan five years before her death. Like Chris, she was left out of her will. Her sisters, who say she stitched in the "bad parts" about Joan's drinking and tantrums after the funeral, have not seen her since, even though last August Christina was hospitalized by a near-fatal stroke that partially paralyzed her right arm.
Nonetheless, Christina is prospering. With her book and film profits, she and her second husband, film producer C. David Koontz, 41, have a comfortable house in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley and a ranch 140 miles away in San Luis Obispo. Christina has a soon-to-be-released first novel, Black Widow (William Morrow, $12.95), which deals with a beautiful, ruthless woman who is cruel to her son and stepdaughter and deadly to the men in her life. Christina expects further criticism, given the plot.
She claims Mommie Dearest has served a good purpose—to strengthen child-abuse laws. Though childless herself, she has lectured both at home and in England on battered children and is president of a charity that runs two centers for mistreated children in the L.A. area. "It was very difficult for me to put my life before the public," she insists.
Christina wrote two scripts for Mommie—and got her husband listed as executive producer—but the couple both feel the movie should have been filmed more from Christina's viewpoint. Complains Koontz: "They made a Joan Crawford movie."
Christina's views are shared by brother Chris, an unemployed former utility company lineman. He lives with his second wife, Gale, and their daughter, Chrystal, in sleepy Greenport, N.Y. The 6'4" Chris has not worked since he fell off a ladder two years ago, even though a doctor ruled him fit and he receives no disability benefits; Gale supports the family with her clerk-typist job.
Chris thinks Christina's book "did a good job." He recalls Joan once holding his hand over a fire as punishment for playing with matches. At age 7, he learned from a classmate that he was adopted. "I was kind of a brat," Chris concedes. "I didn't feel accepted at home and I was odd man out at school." He was in and out of a dozen of them by the time he reached ninth grade. At 14 his mother sent him to a shrink. At 16 he got nabbed for car theft. By 19 he had wed a waitress, fathered a daughter and was working as a lifeguard in Miami. There one day, he says, "J.C. summoned me" to her suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel. "She took one look at my child and said, 'It doesn't look like you. It's probably a bastard.' I walked out. It was the last time I saw her."
After he and his first wife divorced (Chris has "no idea" where their three grown children are) and after Army service in Vietnam, he moved to Greenport and wed Gale. Chris says of the movie: "I lived it." He waived any rights to the book and movie for $10,000, so "I wouldn't have to go on talk shows and put up with all the crap."
By contrast, Cathy Crawford sought out the film—and blasts it as "a farce." "Christina says Joan was rotten, and I say she was a good person," Cathy explains. "She was tough on us, sure. You'd get a swat once in a while, but none of the physical beatings—the coat hangers!" Cathy, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, Jerome LaLonde, and children Carla, 11, and Casey, 9, regrets the rift in the family. "I just can't feel for anybody who would do that to their own mother," she says. "It's very immoral."
Cindy agrees. A divorcée, she resides in a modest two-bedroom apartment in a hamlet in central Iowa with her sons, Joel, 10, and Jan, 13. "I think Christina was jealous," she says. "She wanted to be the one person she couldn't be—Mother. I think she'll use Joan until she can't get any more good out of it. Then she'll dump her."
Cindy was in boarding school from age 8, and attended Dubuque University, where she drifted into a romance with a student and soon faced a shotgun marriage. Joan at first offered to arrange an abortion. "But I wanted the kid," Cindy says, "and Mother gave her full support." And Joan applauded her when she divorced seven years later. Like Cathy, Cindy was given a $77,500 trust fund in her mother's will. (The bulk of Crawford's $1 million estate went to charities, though courts later awarded Christina and Chris $27,500 apiece.) Cindy is now scrimping while studying to become an "energy technician." She claims she "never saw Joan drunk," despite the Mommie Dearest script. In Crawford's day, she notes, "It was hard to be a single parent. It's still pretty rough. I've got firsthand experience." Christina counters her siblings' criticism by pointing out that "in many families where there are victims of child abuse, other members will often deny that they ever witnessed an actual event. That's because if they admit what they actually saw, they're going to have to admit that they have a bad, out-of-control parent. And that's terrifying for a child. Even as adults, these people pretend they forgot, or try to." Among the star's own kids at least, the debate over "the real Joan" will probably never be resolved.
'Christina wanted to be the one person she couldn't be—Mother'