Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bette Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s 1962 Memoirs Revisited

A Portrait of Joan by Michael Vollbracht
Bette Davis with  caricature of Margo Channing: 'All About Eve.'
Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “No actresses on earth are as different as we are, all the way down the line.”

Davis offered many variations of that quote after starring—and sparring—with Crawford. Yet the similarities in the lives and careers of Bette and Joan were greater than either cared to admit. Director Vincent Sherman, who worked with both legends, said they were “sisters under the skin.” Still, the divas had a few key differences that made their legendary feud inevitable.
A key comparison of the two film icons was provided in early 1962—just before their legendary teaming in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—when both Bette and Joan’s memoirs were published.

Even the titles speak to their self-image: Davis dubbed hers The Lonely Life and Crawford’s selectively framed as A Portrait of Joan. Bette gives a bazillion reasons why her life and career was such an ongoing battle. But Bette Davis freely owns up to All about Eve director Joseph Mankiewicz’ epitaph of her: She Did It The Hard Way. By contrast, A Portrait of Joan paints a pastel of Crawford’s life and career. Joan’s tome is a very entertaining read, especially between the lines, but Bette’s book is a more realistic look at life as an actress and woman during Hollywood’s golden era.

Crawford camera-ready, signing copies of "A Portrait of Joan."
Both divas had daddy issues. Bette’s father Harlow Davis, distant even when with his family, abruptly left. Joan adored her “Daddy Cassin,” who disappeared after a business scandal. Crawford found out as a child that her real father was Thomas LeSueur, but they never had a strong connection. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both had love/hate relationships with the men in their personal and professional lives. They tended to spar with alpha males and mop up the floor with yes-men. However, both stars were sentimental about the men who made them widows. Bette was just 35 when second husband Arthur Farnsworth collapsed on the street. Joan’s last husband, Alfred Steele, died during the night of a heart attack, marring the happy ending Crawford was always seeking.

Filled with drive and need, both stars were the breadwinners for their families, though Davis seems to have done so less grudgingly. Still, Bette joked that when she played Santa Claus in a school play, “I had no idea that I would play him all my life!”
"Why, I think I'll call my memoirs 'A Portrait of Joan!'
"What?! I can paint a portrait, too! A lonely one!"

Joan’s story of working her way up through school, out of poverty, and on to stardom was part of her legend. I was surprised to read that Bette had to do much the same, waiting tables in exchange for tuition. However, Bette had a close relationship with her family. Davis doted on mother Ruthie and credited her success to her unwavering support and belief, a luxury Joan never had. Bette called Ruthie, her sister Bobby, and herself “The Three Musketeers.” However, Davis is candid throughout about the mixed feelings toward her self-indulgent mother and emotionally fragile sister—and the weight of their expectations on her. When Davis arrived, a great actress, Mama Ruthie played the diva. Davis wrote, “That I took it seems incredible now.”

Joan’s journey to stardom was solo and when her mother Anna and deadbeat brother Hal join her in California later, Crawford admits she found it stressful. Some Crawford critics thought Joan didn’t want reminders of her hard luck past, but she recalls, “After Daddy Cassin left, Mother, Hal, and I were never able to communicate.”

The Lonely Life of Bette rails throughout about tough Hollywood moguls and weak-willed leading men, on and off the set. As for her reputation, Davis is most definite—even defiant: “I do not regret one professional enemy that I have made.”

Joan’s remembrances go to great pains to create uplift, expressing gratitude and platitudes. If you play the drinking game, knocking back your flask of vodka every time Crawford refers to someone as “dear” or “darling,” you’ll be blotto by page 50!

A portrait of Bette Davis as  beautiful Fanny in 1943's 'Mr. Skeffington.'
Still, fans of the two legends will see their essence in these memoirs, though both are penned by ghost-writers. You sense the fine hand of both stars in the telling of their respective tales. In Joan’s case, it’s the steel beneath the velvet glove of her self Portrait. Davis might as well be wearing boxing gloves in her memoir, though she’s presenting an idealized version of her scrappy Yankee self—much like Kate Hepburn’s “casually” created persona.

 Later books and interviews offered more candid looks at stars like Davis and Crawford. Most golden era stars didn’t take creating the perfect image to the extreme of Joan Crawford. Yet, nearly all saw the long-term benefit of burnishing “legendary” aspects of their personas: “passionate” Liz Taylor; “unsinkable” Debbie Reynolds; and “no-nonsense” Kate Hepburn—to label just a few. These were famed facets of their personalities, but not the whole person. In regard to “blunt” Bette Davis and “disciplined” Joan Crawford, even 1962 readers weren’t naïve enough to think they were getting the deep dish in The Lonely Life or A Portrait of Joan.

A portrait of Joan painted especially for one of her last
acting gigs: the 1969 'Night Gallery' pilot, directed
by newcomer Steven Spielberg.
Crawford’s memoir may read like a Disney version of Hollywood stardom, but Davis, despite her fabled directness, was also known to tell tall tales. In The Lonely Life, she claims to have been Oscar-nominated for her breakthrough film, Of Human Bondage. Not true. While there was a write-in campaign regarding the oversight, Bette didn’t get an actual Oscar nom. Bette writes that Jack Warner optioned Gone with the Wind, as perfect for her. Not believing him, she turned him down flat—there’s no record of Warner doing this. Later, she states that she was perfect for Scarlett O’Hara, but now Jack Warner would only loan her out if MGM also took fellow WB star Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler. Davis balked at the notion, and lost the role of a lifetime. Great story, except not true. Warner may have floated the idea, but MGM’s Clark Gable was producer David Selznick’s #1 star choice from the start. Selznick played the publicity game, stoking interest by invoking the top leading ladies of the day. In reality, he was looking for a fresh-faced beauty as Scarlett—not Crawford, Davis, or Hepburn, etc. Yet, Davis kept dishing these tales practically ‘til the day she died!

Bette, with a portrait of herself, in  '64's 'Where Love Has Gone.'
Like a movie opening scene, both books recall Joan and Bette’s respective arrivals in Hollywood by train. Both sat waiting a very long time upon arrival—neither looked like the typical actress. Joan was picked up by MGM rep at long last, but Bette was on her own. Davis recalled, “They should have known I was an actress—I had a dog with me!”

Joan—prettier, sexier, and more vivacious than Bette—climbed the showbiz ladder quickly.  Aside from dancing as a chorus “pony,” Joan had no particular talent, and knew it. Always the workhorse, Joan was game to do anything MGM asked of her. Crawford haunted the various departments, looking for ways to create an image. Joan’s focus is fascinating to read, straight from the star. In 1925, Joan started as Norma Shearer’s double; by 1928, Crawford cemented her stature with Our Dancing Daughters. At times, Joan Crawford’s years at Metro reads like Dorothy in Oz, all wide-eyed wonder. But Crawford’s attention to movie detail gives you an inside view into what makes a great star.

A portrait of Joan for 1937's 'The Last of Mrs. Cheney."
As for her equally storied personal life, Crawford’s romances and marriages are filled with music, books, romantic getaways, long walks on the beach, and sharing star-crossed dreams. Rich boy Michael Cudahy and first husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. each played Prince Charming to Joan’s Hollywood Cinderella. Despite balancing beaus, dancing up a storm in speakeasies and nightclubs, Crawford’s tale is rated G for gooey. Crawford writes at length about herself, as all the rage in Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties, but deflects the wild rumors: “Maybe I did play harder than anyone else—I worked harder, too!”

No mention is made of later husbands or lovers boozing and brawling with her; no mention is made of Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer, with whom Joan had a long-term on-again, off-again romance. One eyebrow-raising tidbit is when Joan recalls second husband Franchot Tone counseling her, on her easily hurt feelings and nagging insecurity that she had about her friendships. Joan wrote, “Franchot was as knowledgeable as any psychiatrist and I’m sure the reason I never needed one was because of him.”

In The Lonely Life, Bette surprises the reader by admitting that her four husbands hit her, and feeling ashamed for being afraid—a taboo not talked in her era. Bette the breadwinner wrote: “But they all settled, my husbands, and enjoyed the fruit while they tried to cut down the tree.”

A quote from 'The Lonely Life.'
Bette, the young East Coast stage actress didn’t bloom right away in Hollywood. Davis got off to a false start at Universal—then a B movie studio. Dubbed “the little brown wren,” nobody saw Davis’ talent because they couldn’t get past her unglamorous façade. Six months later, Warner Brothers picked up Bette’s contract and thus began her long term association with them. Ironically, Bette toiled 18 years at WB, about the same time that Joan worked at MGM.

Though Davis was all about the work, she admits to jealousy over the star treatment Crawford got at Metro, while Bette had to constantly duke it out with Jack Warner over roles, salary, and promotions. While the grass was certainly greener at MGM, Joan still had to wrangle with “Papa” L.B. Mayer over similar issues.

Despite starring in mostly movie hits during her decade of stardom at Metro, Crawford somehow ended up on the infamous list of stars dubbed “box office poison.” Joan quotes a line that Clark Gable tells her in Dancing Lady: “Okay, you’re in the top spot, where you’ve got twice as far to fall.”

From the late 1930s on, Joan had to battle for good roles.
Crawford recalled, “By 1938, that’s where I was for real.” With The Ice Follies of 1939 waiting in the wings!

As a Warner’s starlet, Bette Davis made 8 movies in one year! Davis writes of trying to cope with a demanding mother and over-sensitive husband on the home front. Just about the time Bette broke through as a star, she became pregnant. Davis was shocked when both her husband and mother insisted on an abortion, for her “career’s sake.” And their meal ticket, as Bette writes at length about juggling roles as an actress, breadwinner, wife, and daughter. I was surprised that Davis put this taboo topic in her 1962 memoir. Later in life, she admitted to two more. Joan’s world is filled with lovely but ill-fated romances and miscarriages, though a recent Vanity Fair article cites that her pregnancy while making Rain didn’t end in a miscarriage, but an abortion.

Joan's colorful 'Portrait of Joan,' signed copy.
Joan, tired of fighting for better roles during the last five years of her MGM tenure, asked for her contractual release in 1943. Crawford claims L.B. Mayer didn’t want her to go, and blames the studio execs. Still, the timing seems uncanny, since Metro let two of Joan’s greatest contemporaries “retire,” Greta Garbo in ’41 and Norma Shearer in ‘42. Crawford recalled what ex-star and best pal Billy Haines once told her: “When you start to slide in this business, it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return.”

Though the studio suits may have thought so, Crawford wasn’t done yet. Joan signed with Warner Brothers for less money and sat off-screen for two years—unheard of at the time—until Joan won the role of Mildred Pierce in 1945—and an Oscar for her career-defining performance.

Once back on top, Joan was grander than ever. Crawford writes: “It has been said that onscreen, I have personified the American woman. This is probably because from the time of Mildred Pierce I was cast, in picture after picture, as all varieties of her…” My favorite from her list is “the woman tremulously mature…”—I’ll let Joan fans decide which roles those were!

Bette claimed this ad, run in  Sept. '62, was a pointed joke. Some thought otherwise!
 However, Davis' memoir was out and she had just wrapped 'Baby Jane.'
Leaving WB after 18 years, Bette is forced to make a comeback herself. Luckily, 1950’s All about Eve was her next movie. Unluckily, the critical and commercial smash did nothing for Davis’ career. My opinion is that Bette’s bold decision to actually look her age, along with her reputation as a royal pain to work with, weakened her entry into the ‘50s as a freelance actress.

Like Joan, Bette was no stranger to grand self-assessments, but this one is apt: “I suppose I’m larger than life. That’s my problem, created in a fury, I’m at home in a tempest.” And aging, tempestuous Bette was less than appealing to modern-era Hollywood, especially when actresses of all ages became increasingly obsolete.

This later memoir settled a few scores! The photo was
taken by actor James Woods, a big Davis admirer.
Davis gets off some zingers about the Hollywood mentality, which still rings true. Bette vents about Hollywood producers and directors who dismissed her confidence and ambitions—George Cukor, John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, Michael Curtiz, most prominently—because they were used to “empty, passive slates they could scribble on.”

Bette’s take is on target regarding “mature” male stars, with “children as mates and co-stars!” Or the evolution of youth culture, Davis sarcastically notes, “All the pulling and taping and scrapping has produced some incredible results.” Then Davis tells about the first time she got her face “taped.” Bette ran home to show the results to husband Gary Merrill, whose response was, “What in hell happened to you?” Both burst into laughter, as Davis’ tapes pop.

Surprisingly, both Bette and Joan’s memoirs focus on their early years, are light on the glory years, and have quick, life-changing finales. Bette’s ending is bittersweet, her All about Eve comeback and marriage to co-star Gary Merrill at that point a dim memory. Davis admits that she ran a house like a drill sergeant. For once, a husband scolded Davis for NOT playing the star, when Merrill referenced a Crawford role: “You’re not Mrs. Craig, you’re Bette Davis!”

Bette, middle-aged here—with men a memory, the kids in school, and her beloved mother Ruthie recently deceased—carries on. Davis believed that work was the one constant in life, a mindset she shared with Crawford. Some passages will still make fans misty-eyed, after all these years—such as when Davis fights back tears when son Michael says he doesn’t like that she’ll be alone once he and sister B.D. are off to boarding school.

A Keane portrait of Joan Crawford from the late 1950s.
Joan, long a single mother, then a freelance star after leaving WB, proves to be a brave new world for her, too. Then she meets Alfred Steele, promotional genius of Pepsi Cola. Yet, their fabled union was swift, lasting only four years before Joan found him collapsed by his bed.  Though a number of quotes here feel like fan magazine fodder, especially near his demise, but you feel Joan’s admiration for the man leap off the pages.

This looks like Joan’s last shot at romance, too, and the memoir ends with Joan carrying on her duties as spokesperson for Pepsi Cola. Joan’s final closeup shows her raring to conquer new horizons, whereas Davis finds herself back onstage in Rochester, where she started, but without Ruthie in the front row.

Both Davis and Crawford have become synonymous with the word “feud.” Well, even back in ’62, Davis was not shy about voicing her displeasure with certain tough directors, vain leading men, and scene-stealing actresses. Looking back at Bette’s entire life, Davis never ceased fire when it came to fights and feuds.

With the notable exception of MGM queen bee Norma Shearer, young Joan Crawford didn’t indulge in feuds. But when Joan was facing the ‘50s without a studio contract or husband, her insecurities intensified, along with her drinking. Chapter 9 of Portrait deals with Crawford’s adopted children. Even during this era, Joan feels compelled to fend off criticism that she is too strict. And though Joan tries to put a happy ending over her “disappointments” with Christopher and Christina—they are barely mentioned once she meets Al Steele.

Chapter 10 covers her middle years in Hollywood and it is fascinating, again—by what is said and what’s obviously omitted. Joan goes into laborious detail to show you how hard she’s working to maintain her star status in Sudden Fear, Torch Song, Johnny Guitar, and the rest of her vanity ‘50s vehicles. But it’s mashed up with Joan’s dignified “explanations” over her on-set clashes with Janice Rule, Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, etc. The oddest of all is when Crawford offers her side of losing long-time writer friend Katherine Albert. Despite her friend’s disapproval, Crawford hosts Albert’s 18-year-old daughter Joan Evans’ wedding in her home behind her back—calling a judge to do the honors and then the press afterward. Albert and her husband never spoke to Joan again, yet Crawford refers to her as a “dear friend” through the entire book!

When The Lonely Life and A Portrait of Joan were published, both actresses were working, but both Bette and Joan had to scratch as hard for roles as they did when starting out in Hollywood. Baby Jane was just around the corner, which led to another round of roles for both stars, though mostly in horror movies.

The difference in these two memoirs is precisely the same as in the two women. Bette’s book is an unsentimental look at Davis’ Hollywood career; Joan’s look back is a rose-colored view of Crawford’s Cinderella story. As actresses, Davis was put off by Joan’s pretentious persona, with Joan being equally repelled by Bette’s irascible manner and superior attitude. The Lonely Life and A Portrait of Joan—while neither is definitive of these divas’ stories—offer a primer of two extremely charismatic and complicated women.


  1. Why, thanks, Flossie...I read these books twice! Rick

  2. Well done! A great character analysis of two very complicated personalities.

    1. Thank you, they and their behavior were complicated...hard to keep it at 3000 words! Cheers, Rick

  3. This was a neat rundown and a great precursor to the upcoming limited series.

    One thing you simply must do if you haven't already is go on youtube and find Joan Crawford's "My Way of Life" in which she reveals all of her tips on hosting parties, displaying food, packing, exercising and keeping up her beauty regimen, among many other things. It's a five-record set (10 sides), IIFC, and just to hear Joan speaking it all on this pre-"book on tape" experiment is a SCREAM. Addictive, hilarious and utterly fascinating.

    1. Poseidon, great to hear from you! Our library has a copy of "My Way of Life" and I wanna steal it SO bad! I'm sure nobody cares about much as I would : )

      I have heard snippets of those records...were they actually for sale?! JC speaking about her life at this stage was so's like the Hollywood version of "Sybil!"

      I read both of these memoirs twice, before researching out their "truths." I felt like a psychiatrist : )