On January 13, the news services around the world noted with obituaries the passing of a Lehigh County, Pennsylvania woman named Cathy Crawford LaLonde. It was that unique middle name that accounted for the hype. Because a long time ago, in the late 1940s, Joan Crawford, one of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, adopted LaLonde and her twin sister, Cynthia, as her daughters. LaLonde died from lung cancer. She first came to the Lehigh Valley in 1972 with her husband because of his job. They separated in 1984. LaLonde then lived with her daughter, Carla, and her son, Casey, and later Carla’s daughter, Oliva, for 23 years. From 1996 to 2006 she also worked with the Carbon-Lehigh Intermediate Unit, working as a bus aide for children with special needs. From 2006 to 2016 she lived in Miami with Carla and Olivia, after which they returned to the Lehigh Valley.
No, LaLonde is not the author of “Mommie Dearest.” That was Christina Crawford, who came earlier and apparently hated her adoptive mother. LaLonde, being interviewed in 1978 by Allentown’s "Evening Chronicle," expressed her strong feelings about the book. “I am heartsick, ashamed and disgusted that she (Christina) could write such a book about her own mother. Now I feel only contempt for her,” she told the newspaper. The mother Cathy LaLonde called “JoJo” was not that kind of woman, she argued.
In 1997, LaLonde had a huge auction of her mother’s things at Wlazelek’s Auction house. It included personal items, among them hats and gloves. It also included at least one complete ensemble of a gold dress, matching turban, belt and gloves. It drew major crowds. It is hard to understand how two people who were so close to her could have such polar opposite views of the same person. Yet Crawford was to prove on film, time and again, that she was able in her six-decade long career to play many roles, from Roaring 20s flapper to 1960s horror victim.
Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas sometime around 1907. Her father, Thomas LeSueur, was a construction laborer who abandoned the family when she was ten months old. Her mother remarried to Harry J. Cassin, who when Crawford was growing up in Lawton, Oklahoma ran a theater. Here she came into contact with a diverse group of vaudeville performers. Occasionally her stepfather would book well known acts like ballet dancer Anna Pavlova and singer Eva Tanguay. She attended a girl’s Catholic school. But her formal education never took her beyond grade school.
It was apparently from those early contacts with theater that Crawford decided to be a dancer. Her life took a major change in 1916 when her stepfather moved the family to Kansas City. The reason for the move was Cassin’s being tried for embezzlement. Although found innocent, he was not trusted in Lawton. Crawford worked for a time in a variety of schools doing cooking and cleaning. Finally, according to one source, she met a trumpet player named Ray Sterling. It was said to be the first man that Crawford was serious about. He apparently challenged her to get an education to advance in the world. In 1922 she registered as a student at Stephens College, an all-female school. But after two months she dropped out, realizing she was not ready for college.
Crawford began to dance in choruses in traveling shows. Here she was spotted by Jacob Schubert, later founder with his brother of a theater chain. He put her in a show appearing at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. Here she met and married a saxophone player. Wanting more work, she met a publicist for a theater chain who gave her a screen test which he sent to a Hollywood producer. He signed her to a contract with MGM at $75 a week. In 1925 she appeared in her first film, “Lady Of The Night .” Studio publicity head Pete Smith liked what he saw and thought the young dancer could be a major movie talent.
But the name had to go. He told studio head Louis B. Mayer it reminded him too much of a sewer. Smith had a contest challenging the movie-going public to come up with a name for the new actress. At first the name “Joan Arden” was the winner. But then it turned out that some other actress had that name. So, as a second choice Crawford was selected. She was underwhelmed with that choice, saying it reminded her of a crawfish. But in time she grew comfortable with it.
It was her dancing talents that brought Crawford her first roles. Not content at being a minor league actress, she started a campaign to make herself known. “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star,” MGM screen writer Frederica Sagor Maas noted. Soon her performances at Hollywood dance competitions attracted attention, particularly the Black Bottom and the Charleston. It worked and soon she was given a role in a major motion picture, “Sally, Irene and Mary.”
The two most important things that happened to Crawford in the silent era were acting with Lon Chaney Sr. and appearing in “Our Dancing Daughters.” She said of Chaney: “It was then that I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting.” "Dancing Daughters" was about the flaming youth of the '20s that packed the theaters, appealing primarily to female audiences. When some complained about her wild antics in the film she quipped, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”
The arrival of talking pictures spelled doom for many in Hollywood as the 1950s movie “Singing in the Rain” later depicted it. This was not so for Crawford, who had for years been working to get rid of her southwestern accent. At the time the “Jazz Singer” appeared she had herself ready for them. The 30s began with Crawford appearing in films with a new, young actor named Clark Gable. Perhaps her most famous appearance came early in that decade in 1932’s “Grand Hotel,” set in an international hotel with a passing scene of guests. She appeared with Wallace Berry in her segment, a famous star of the day. Along the way there were husbands Douglas Fairbanks and Franchot Tone.
For a period in the mid-30s, Crawford’s career hit a snag when she and others, among them Katherine Hepburn, were labeled “box office poison.” But by 1940 her career had revived. That same year she adopted a daughter she named Christina and later a boy that was named Christopher. Crawford’s role in “Mildred Pierce” was to garner her a Best Actress Oscar. It was a film of love, murder and betrayal that hooked 1946’s audiences. Her career took off as a result. It also began her famous feud with Bette Davis who had turned down the role and never forgave Crawford for winning the Oscar. How much of the feud was real, and how much studio hype, is not known. A director who worked with both of them put it this way: “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other but behaved absolutely beautifully.”
It was in 1947 that Crawford adopted the two children from a Tennessee orphan’s home that she called Cathy and Cindy. In 1955 she married her fourth and final husband, Alfred Steele, the CEO of Pepsi-Cola. Crawford used her star wattage to push Pepsi advertising. When Steele died in 1959, the board tried to “dump” her but in the end, after gossip column pressure, gave her a seat on the board.
In 1962, Crawford stepped into horror with “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” She acted in the film with Bette Davis, but the feud was never really over, and they would be sniping at each other into their respective graves. Joan Crawford died of a myocardial infarction in 1977. In her will, she bequeathed to her two youngest children, Cindy and Cathy, $77,500 each from her $2 million estate. She explicitly disinherited the two eldest, Christina and Christopher, saying “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher, or my daughter, Christina, for reasons that are well known to them.” Both of them challenged the will and received a $55,000 settlement.