The Crawford legend -- regal star and ''Mommie Dearest'' -- has only flourished

By Jess Cagle
Updated May 07, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Near the end of her life, Joan Crawford told a friend, ”I’ll be damned if I’ll let myself end up in a cold hospital room with a tube up my nose and another up my ass!” And indeed, on May 10, 1977, a frail Joan Crawford — hardly the wire hanger-wielding, lipsticked monster of Mommie Dearest — died of a heart attack & in her Manhattan apartment. She was 71, with 81 film credits as disparate as The Women and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Hers was one of Hollywood’s darkest rags-to-riches stories. She was born Lucille LeSueur on March 23, 1906, in San Antonio, the daughter of a menial laborer and a waitress. It was a lonely, transient childhood, and at age 18, she escaped to Hollywood. MGM rechristened her Joan Crawford and in 1928 made her a star as the quintessential fast-living flapper in the silent movie Our Dancing Daughters. Her acting was arch — mink shoulders heaving, eyebrows dancing like drunken caterpillars. But young women dispirited by the Depression idolized her: She was the shop girl who made good, the bad girl who got even. Formidably glamorous and glamorously formidable, she inspired followers to fight hard, aim high, and add shoulder pads.

Off screen, the picture wasn’t so pretty. Crawford had four troubled marriages, first to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., last to Pepsi-Cola president Alfred Steele. Then, a year after her death, adopted daughter Christina shocked the world with Mommie Dearest. Its grisly tales of beatings, tantrums, and raw meat for breakfast turned the movie queen into a ghoulish pop icon, immortalized by Faye Dunaway (”No wire hangers!”) in the campy 1981 movie version.

And the legend continues. On June 19, Christie’s New York will auction some Crawford belongings, including her 1945 Mildred Pierce Oscar, likely to fetch up to $12,000. She also lives on as inspiration for legions of drag performers. Says RuPaul, who shares Crawford’s taste for ankle straps and megalashes, ”She was the fiercest ruling diva of them all.”

Old age — and much Smirnoff — mellowed that fierceness somewhat. Looking back shortly before her death, she offered this mea culpa, in pure, bawdy Crawford style: ”I’ve heard stories about how I had balls. Shirley MacLaine has balls too, but that lady knows how to use them. I didn’t.”