Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Joan's Way of Life

Have you ever watched a Joan Crawford movie and noticed that inevitably, one of the film's characters- with a straight face, mind you- will describe Joan's character as being "a fine looking woman", "beautiful", even "gorgeous". Well, it always leaves me thinking "Really?...Really?". Because let's face it, Joan really wasn't very attractive. Oh, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think that describing Joan as beautiful is pushing it. Really pushing it. But, Joan was a real piece of work, so if Joan asked (or even demanded) that her character be beautiful, well, who dared argue with her? I sure as heck wouldn't. I'd say whatever she wanted me to.

This observation of mine- made at 5:30 yesterday morning while trying to sleep- led me to my bookshelf where I pulled down one of my all-time favorite works of high camp: Joan's 1971 how-to guide
My Way of Life. Don't let the price dissuade you from buying it. It is totally worth it to read Joan's advice on raising children (yes, child rearing advice from the woman who beat her daughter with a wire hanger), beauty (I think I covered that in the first paragraph of this post), housekeeping and decorating, and taking care of one's husband. I say husband rather than man or male companion because in Joan's world, a woman had to have a husband. You had to close the deal and make it to the finish line of marriage or otherwise you were, God forbid, not a "complete woman". And speaking of husbands, did you know that you should "never let your husband see you exercising. No woman rolling around on the floor looks really adorable after she's passed her third birthday." I didn't realize that either.

So seeing that this is a design blog, I'm going to extract some of Joan's decorating tidbits from the book. Taking decorating advice from a woman who covered her furniture in plastic slipcovers is a bit risky. (Carleton Varney, Joan's decorator in the 1960s and 70s, once wrote "Joan had more plastic on her furniture than was used at the meat counter in an A&P supermarket.) Still, I have to admit that much of what she said makes sense to me. I think that she was more down to earth when it came to her home than she was with her beauty tips: "Organize a beauty club. The best thing about the club is getting down on the floor with half a dozen other women...and seeing if you can improve faster than anyone else." Now that sounds like Joan to me.

Joan's Take on Decorating:

A good marriage deserves a lovely background.

I think the first gay, happy things I ever bought for myself were chintz curtains. But the place got so damned busy that it made me dizzy- too many patterns have the same effect on me as those very tiny mosaic tiles you sometimes see in public places, especially in airports. Judy Garland used to get so seasick looking at them that she had to be carried out of the area with her eyes shut tight.

I feel that [bedrooms] should be very feminine... I think men feel much more masculine walking from a brown or green dressing room into a lovely feminine bedroom.

I think one of the most important things in decorating is that you should like every room in the house or apartment. If you find yourself always avoiding one of the rooms, something's wrong.

People who have good taste are bound to make a mistake now and then, because they're human, and when they do it's a horrendous one. It's so ugly you can't believe it. On the other hand people who have terrible taste are bound to make a mistake and buy something exquisite- and you can't possibly understand how that could happen!

(Image #1 from My Way of Life by Joan Crawford. Images #2 and #5 from Celebrity Homes: Architectural Digest Presents the Private Worlds of Thirty International Personalities. #3, #4, and #6 from Houses in My Heart: Carleton Varney: An International Decorator's Colorful Journey by Carleton Varney.)


  1. Joan........let me think: one of those individuals that I would never imitate, even her decorating. Whether it was Billy Haines or Carlton Varney seems very cold and distant. Super fun post. Mary

  2. Although it's true in her later years she had become a caricature of herself and was fairly bizarre looking, take a peek at some of her very early (she started out in the silents!) films/photos. She really was gorgeous. Her eyes that became so strange and kinda creepy in the later years were magnetic and enchanting when she was young.

    just a tease ...




  3. Hello! Long-time reader, first-time poster.

    I went and bought the book immediately!

    It will be right at home next to Arlene Dahl's "Always Ask a Man".

    I do think you should reconsider your take on Joan's beauty. Have you seen her in movies from the early 30s? I'm sure you've seen "The Women" from 1939. If she isn't gorgeous then I shouldn't even leave the house!

  4. Anonymous11:58 AM

    I agree, she was not beautiful. The book sounds like a hoot though!
    Love your blog.

  5. Now I have to stand up for Crawford and say that much of what was written in her 'daughter's' book was not true and a very little of it was pure exaggeration. This has been confirmed by many of her friends, her domestic staff and her 3 other children. Her ungrateful daughter, Christina, capitalized on her mothers name AFTER her death and blackened her name forever which is really dreadful. Anyway -back to decorating....
    I have a copy of this book and it's really hilarious like you say. I would say she was more of a 'do what I say, not what I do' type of author. haha

  6. I have always been on the lookout for this book, everyone who has come across it has said that while slightly dated they garnered numerous bits of workable advice, all the while being entertained in that bigger than life way that was Joan Crawford. On my way to check out your link for it!
    Hope you are having a wonderful week!

  7. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Hi Jennifer, I LOVE reading your blog each and every day tho I feel obliged to express that I think Joan Crawford WAS pretty (albeit a psycho-b***h) especially in the 1930s. Not only because she was young, but the styles then were softer, with a gossamer like quality (seen in clothing, movie stills). Her severe looks came later.
    Just my 2 cents. Love ya!---Diana

  8. Anonymous12:16 PM

    While Mr Varney may have worked with Ms Crawford, it was William Haines who decorated all her homes in California as well as her first New York apartment. Haines was a life-long friend of Crawford (you can see them photographed together on the cover of the recent Haines biography "Class Act".) Some of Haines' iconic furniture can be seen in the picture you've posted of Crawford's living room.

  9. (sigh after a good laugh) I can't get the image of Joan rolling around on the floor "excercising" and "improving". I just don't understand her beauty club idea. Its a good chuckle, I'd read the whole thing.

  10. What an incredibly interesting post! I'm with you, I never thought she was even remotely pretty, but then I best remember her in "Whatever Happened to Sweet Baby Jane"! I love the dining room/ breakfast room! Love the modern yellow table with the mixed chairs. I also love the yellow quilted chair in the LR. The last portrait looks like it was done by Margaret Keane, the artist that did the big eyed waifs in the 60's! She looks good here;-)

  11. Thanks for sharing this woman's classic thoughts on design. The concept that stood up to me the most, is where she says that if homeowners are avoiding a room, then its time to change it - so simple, but so true! People sometime miss those small hints, and small fixes like painting the room or updating the flooring can REALLY make a difference. I look forward to your future posts :)

  12. I started to read Mr. Varney's book last week and had to stop when I read that he now owns the Keane portrait. At least now it's not full length, but I find it terrifying. (Look at that hand. Just look.) I am going to buy her book immediately, and will put it next to my copy of Pat Montandon's "How To Be A Party Girl", which I can't recommend highly enough. Thank you for the tip!

  13. Loved this post - I have to have this book now! Glad to see other Joan fans defending her early beauty. Crazy, campy, call her what you will (and I'd wholeheartedly agree!) she was a pioneer of the concept of "celebrity," and fiercely constructed and maintained her public image from head to toe. So much so that one has to wonder if she even had a "private" side at the end of the day...

  14. I'm traveling so am just now able to comment. OK, you've got a point- she did look more glamorous and "softer" as a younger woman. I still don't think she was beautiful (just my humble opinion), but glamorous...yes. Just to stir the pot- has anyone else heard that she started her career in porn?

  15. Joan's packing for travelling advices in her book should be considered too: you should never fold a dress or a costume but rather stuff them with crystal paper before lying them in a very large suitcase so you won't have to iron them at destination.
    I was a couple of days ago at Ferncliff Cemetery (Hartsdale, NY) to pay my respects to both Miss Crawford and Miss Garland. Thanks for the post byt yes, reconsider your opinion on Joan's beauty in the Thirties. TP

  16. My Way of Life is definitely a Lucindaville favorite.

  17. Hello Peak,
    We enjoy reading My Way of Life aloud from time to time. It is hilarious. And speaking of Arlene Dahl as one of your commenters did, I had dinner last night at Swifty's and she was sitting at a table not more than ten feet away. Rgds, Reggie

  18. It is interesting, Ms. Boles, that you never provide an answer to ANY (as far as I see) of your "adoring fans's" (count me as one) posts. Perhaps you are too busy. I do not mean those that clearly do not require a response, but people communicate with you to find an empty space.
    I would believe I am not the only one with such an opinion.
    As to Joan's BEAUTY, I ask you to look at George Hurrel's photos (many, many) of hers----in fact, his greatest client.
    They say that such pictures, especially when you have retouched them, are to an extent, fake --------sort of the "Photoshop" of the thirties and Forties.
    But you can only go so far. Kate Hepburn, Rita Hayworth,---even Dolores del Rio could not photograph the way Joan did. Her wonderful cheekbones were quite patrician, and the pictures are mangnificently glamorous, elegant, and yes, beautiful. Watch her in pictures of the 1930's and 40's (say, "The Bride wore Red") and you can see she was a very pretty woman. Perhaps I should correct myself and say PRETTY, not beautiful.
    As she entered her 40's and then 50's her features took on a mannish quality, and she did not help it by adding the rapacious lips, and (let we forget, tremendously copied) eyebrows. By then, she had a look all her own.
    By then, she was not beautiful, but you could not find a more SOIGNEE woman in Hollywood. Only, in my opinion, Vivien Leigh (specifically in " The Spring of Mrs....." (I forget! ---with Beatty) where she looks the epitomy of elegance and aristocratic looks.
    As for Joan's taste in decor, and her apt, in Manhattan, I can only say that it was verging on Vulgarity, and perhaps THAT's what did indeed show her humble roots. Those pictures are HIDEOUS!!!!!