December 03, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Joan Crawford: leading lady, glamour queen, Oscar winner, child beater. Child beater? America was stunned-and titillated-by the shocking revelations in ”Mommie Dearest,” the autobiography penned by Crawford’s daughter Christina. By Dec. 3, 1978, the tell-all tome was riding atop the New York Times best-seller list, where it would remain for 42 weeks because of its claims that one of Hollywood’s legends was a self-obsessed tyrant who beat her children, drank excessively, slept around, and, at one point, resembling ”a wild beast,” tried to strangle her daughter.

In her book, Christina asserted that her mother, who had died just the year before, adopted her and her three siblings for the publicity it would bring. Her younger brother, Christopher, agreed and said of his movie-star mom, ”I hated the bitch.” But younger sisters Cynthia and Cathy denounced the book; Cathy accused Christina, a sometime actress who had been disinherited, of slandering their mother for money — about $500,000 in advance fees and paperback rights. Although Christina’s cloying self-importance, sophomoric language (”She was a bitch goddess”), and overuse of exclamation points cost her literary marks, the book was the read of the season — and Hollywood, which loves to devour its own, read it voraciously.

Christina twice attempted to write the screenplay for the 1981 film, and four other writers reworked it. Consequently, she says today, ”a lot of things in the movie were fictionalized.” The infamous beating with a wire hanger, for instance, never occurs in the book. And Faye Dunaway was shunned by the Hollywood crowd for her frantic portrayal of Joan. ”It just went off the deep end,” Christina now says of the movie. ”It was too bad. They had an opportunity to make a classic in the same way that the book is.”

In 1981 Christina suffered a major stroke, and when the film was released, her doctor ordered her not to see it until she had fully recovered. She later became active in child-abuse causes and served as L.A.’s commissioner for children’s services from 1984-87. Christina, 54, now lives on a farm in northern Idaho and has written three more books. She’s divorced from the husband she praised so relentlessly in ”Mommie Dearest” and has no children — a conscious decision on her part. She wanted to make sure, she says, ”there was no possibility that I could do the same thing that had been done to me.”

Time Capsule Dec.3,1978 Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond dueted on ”You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” while Diana Ross and Michael Jackson teamed up in The Wiz. James Michener’s Centennial mini-series captured TV viewers, and Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance was a big read.

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