Sometimes the smallest, random thing can brighten a rotten day. After a few years of searching, I had given up on finding a copy of Joan Crawford’s 1971 book My Way of Life. A camp classic going for as much $450 on eBay, it had become one of my Holy Grails of out of print books. Then, with little fanfare, it was released in February as an ebook, for the much more affordable $6.99. Almost as if the fates had intervened, in the middle of a truly atrocious afternoon I received an email from Amazon letting me know it was available, and I have never clicked a “buy it now” button faster.
If you’re under 50, it’s likely that your first exposure to Joan Crawford was not by way of Crawford herself, but rather the camp-horror version played by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. The movie that redefined what it means to be “so bad it’s good,” it was based entirely on Christina Crawford’s memoirs about life with a superstar mother who abused her children for the crime of not constantly expressing gratitude. Thanks to both the book and its film adaptation, a fictionalized version of Joan Crawford as a cold cream smeared gorgon has become a much more indelible part of the pop culture zeitgeist than any of her actual movie roles.
My Way of Life follows the grand tradition of celebrity autobiographies that tell you exactly two things: doodly and squat. Largely a collection of tips and anecdotes about the incredibly precise manner in which Joan Crawford does things, the only dish she offers here is of the chafing variety. While Joan does briefly touch upon a difficult childhood, it’s spun in positive terms. There is not a single adversity she is unable to overcome, better and stronger for it. Having to maintain four jobs to support herself as a teenager taught her the importance of a strong work ethic. A casting agent criticizing her weight (a whopping 130 pounds at the time) made her realize how much appearances mattered. She only has warm, complimentary things to say about her first three husbands. Not only did she spin these difficult experiences into gold, she never complained about it to anyone.
The first thing you need to know about Joan Crawford is that she is a very busy woman, so busy that her two secretaries (one for each coast, you see) have to schedule time for her to relax, and even then she uses that time to catch up on mail or exercise. Her days are a whirlwind of traveling, public appearances, board meetings, charitable endeavors, Hollywood dealmaking, and, of course, entertaining. Frankly, Joan’s way of life sounds exhausting. By page 4 I was tired, and it felt like I was being cheerfully chastised for my own laziness. It’s important to note that Joan was nearly 70 when My Way of Life was published, and her film career was all but over. Her position on Pepsi’s board of directors was largely a courtesy extended to prevent bad publicity after the death of her fourth husband, Pepsico president Alfred Steele, so it’s debatable how much of Joan’s impossibly busy schedule was due to actual work commitments, and how much of it was self-created.
Nevertheless, Joan views idleness as a moral failing, and encourages the reader to make the most of every waking moment. A reasonable idea, except that, for Joan, this means managing your home, cooking, throwing parties with the finesse of a professional event planner, interior decorating, maintaining your figure, educating yourself, and raising your children, all without a hair out of place (or a word of complaint), and, most importantly, without letting your husband see how much work is involved. As Joan points out several times, a man comes home from work wanting a glass of Scotch, a clean house, and a thin, pretty wife, he doesn’t want to know about stuff like “childcare” and “her needs.” “Women have the privilege of being active and attractive in so many ways, and they should be glad, because inactivity is one of the great indignities of life,” Joan writes. “St. Thomas Aquinas said “Why do you seek rest? You were only created to labor.”
For Joan, the “quiet life” she maintained with second husband Franchot Tone meant throwing dinner parties only once a week, along with the “occasional” buffet for fifty people. Quite a bit more pages are devoted to her marriage to Alfred Steele, the only one that didn’t end in divorce (because he died of a heart attack, presumably brought on by being a workaholic, a trait Joan emphasizes again and again that she admires above all else). According to Joan, despite being one of the biggest movie stars of the first half of the 20th century, she loved nothing more than to be a housewife for Steele, while still juggling her own career, and traveling all over the world promoting Pepsi products. “The children had been fed (I wouldn’t let any tired businessman go through that rat race) and they were told to man the telephone and the doorbell and make sure he wasn’t disturbed,” Joan describes. “Later he’d see them and ask them what they’d done during the day, and encourage them to express their opinions. That hour was a lovely one. Then off they went–the oldest to do their homework, the babies to bed.”
Even once the babies were in bed, Joan’s work didn’t end, as she often played hostess for evening meetings with Steele’s business associates, fixing drinks and preparing snacks. Waxing nostalgic for marital indentured servitude strongly conflicts with Joan’s praise for independent, educated women, but much of My Way of Life is self-contradictory. Joan’s tone is chatty and casual, presenting herself as just a regular gal who wants to share her favorite meatloaf recipe (her secret is adding an entire bottle of A-1 steak sauce), and yet she writes stuff like “I always pack in daylight. In artificial light when I’m in a hurry it’s too easy to grab the wrong accessories and find myself in Kansas City or San Juan with a hot pink dress and a shocking pink hat–and that’s a catastrophe.” Later, she claims that when she traveled to London to film Trog, “I had thirty-seven pieces of luggage. This isn’t sheer vanity.”
It’s in the section on home decor that Joan seems the most hilariously out of touch with the humble fans she’s addressing. Despite her repeated insistence that she’s not rich, Joan extols the virtues of his and her dressing rooms, describing her own as having a secret compartment that hid “a small icebox that held milk, cream, fruit, cheese, and splits of champagne.” Personally, I like to store fine brandy and Gummi Bears in my personal dressing room, but your mileage may vary.
The running theme of My Way of Life is that it doesn’t necessarily take money to live like Joan Crawford so much as superhuman organization skills. The average wedding doesn’t require as much planning as a “casual” dinner for friends at Joan’s house, as she oversees every aspect of it with a pathological eye for detail, right down to the color of the various foods served (“A red vegetable next to a yellow one looks unappetizing. Two white ones, like celery and cauliflower, look awful.”). Again belying Joan’s insistence that, really, she’s just an ordinary hard working gal like you and me, she later writes that her nine year-old twin daughters planned their own birthday party during a cruise on the Andrea Doria, inviting all of first class and serving “vodka and caviar, a clear soup, New York cut steak with a large selection of vegetables, a salad, and cheese trays–accompanied by a good red wine…I didn’t suggest a bit of it to them. It was entirely their own menu.”
When it’s not hilarious, infuriating, and just plain tiring, My Way of Life is oddly fascinating, particularly when compared to Mommie Dearest. While some of Joan’s parenting techniques are a bit unorthodox (such as forcing her kids to take naps even up to age twelve), she praises her children and writes touchingly about celebrating holidays, fun family vacations, and spending quiet times together. The idyllic life she describes bears little resemblance to Christina Crawford’s portrayal of a little girl who was the personal whipping post for her mother’s anger over failed relationships, a flagging movie career, and a near psychotic hatred of dirt and disorder. And yet, in a section about proper care of clothing and accessories, Joan writes “My dresses always go into their individual bags, pinned to canvas-covered wooden hangers in a special way so they’ll hang right (some hangers do terrible things to the shoulder line).”
It would seem amusing that the most memorably loony aspect of Mommie Dearest seems to be the one thing Joan Crawford backed up with her own writing, if it wasn’t so tragic. Did this mean for certain that Joan beat her children with one of those same hated hangers? Not necessarily, but as cheerful a tone as Joan maintains in My Way of Life, it seems fairly certain that the standards she set were firm, unbending, and nearly impossible for anyone else to meet. I didn’t find Joan’s glowing tribute to her own ceaseless energy and extraordinary dedication to keeping up appearances inspiring. In fact, it had the opposite approach–throwing a party seems hardly worth the ulcer that would develop from worrying about if my vegetables were the right color, if I had the right mix of guests, and if I was wearing the right silk lounging pajamas, without the slightest crease that might indicate I’m a human being who occasionally needs rest.
And yet, My Way of Life seems only a slightly more extreme version of current celebrities who try to pass themselves off as lifestyle gurus. Is Joan Crawford expending six paragraphs to describe her moisturizing routine really any worse than Gwyneth Paltrow extolling the virtues of vaginal steaming? There’s been a long and storied history of gullible regular people believing that rich and famous somehow also equals being an expert in dieting, fitness, health, and childcare. You don’t get rich and famous from not knowing things, after all. Let’s face it, forcing twelve year-olds to nap isn’t nearly as questionable as, say, claiming that vaccines are filled with mercury and cause autism, nor was Joan hawking replicas of her favorite canvas covered hangers for $50 each.
It’s likely that some readers of My Way of Life really were willing to go without two or three hours of sleep at night in order to make sure that their living room was a color that was suitably bright and inviting to guests (Joan recommends shades of egg yolk yellow). I’m sure that following each interminable step Joan lays out would result in the classiest party the PTA has ever seen, if you’re willing to sacrifice the time and peace of mind. If you’re interested in developing an anxiety disorder, My Way of Life is a good read. If you’re interested in a trapped in amber look at a time when it was not just reasonable, but expected, to have a hat and gloves to match every piece of clothing you owned, it’s even better.
Buy it here (I get nothing from Amazon for it)