Jan 21, 2016

What She Loved Most Was Cleaning: Keeping House with Joan Crawford

There is a great possibility that when I coin the terms "Joan Crawford" and "cleanliness", you will immediately envision a raging Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford (in Mommie Dearest, 1981) shouting "No wire hangers!". This is not the only reference in the film to Crawford's very peculiar way of taking care of her possessions. Another scene shows Dunaway on all fours, scrubbing the floor whilst claiming that she isn't mad at her maid, but she's mad at the dirt. She seems somewhat in control over herself in that scene, but the scene that follows the "No wire hangers"-scene shows her scouring the bathroom floor in hysterics.

image via Discussionist
image via Nessa in the Sky with Diamonds
The film was based on the book of the same title that daughter Christina wrote after Joan's death and after discovering that her mother left her (and brother Christopher) nothing "for reasons which are well known to them". Please do remember that this book is only one person's story, and there are more sides to every story.

However, during her life, Joan Crawford did nothing to deny that she was compulsive when it came to cleanliness, and that she was indeed a rather strict mother. Multiple articles have discussed Crawford's housekeeping. She would give tips on housekeeping to anyone who would listen, especially later in life, and would more than once refer to herself as Harriet Craig.

On January 16, 1970 a covered-in-pink-sequins Joan Crawford was guest on The David Frost Show. Only one minute into the interview she admits that she is a compulsive housekeeper. "I played Harriet Craig once and I was ready for the role." When after that confession Mr. Frost wants to ask her what her favorite role is, she already cuts him off at "What is your favorite..." when she promptly answers with "pork chops". She thought he was about to ask her for her favorite recipe.

Vincent Sherman, director of Harriet Craig, recalls that Crawford had the same obsessive attitude toward her home as the film's protagonist, stating that she was very old-fashioned in how she believed a man should treat a lady. In return, she would be the perfect lady of the house and a meticulous housekeeper, at times even doing the actual work herself.

Apparently even Joan Crawford herself used to laugh about her plastic slipcovers (more on that later on in the post) and say, "I'm Harriet Craig—but I can't help it!"

Left: photographer unknown, 1940s. Center & right: photos by Eve Arnold, 1959.
In an article called Hollywood's Rules for Love: Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper on a Great Subject, published in 1931 in Silver Screen, Crawford tells about what qualities she loves in men. In a part devoted to cleanliness, she writes: "When we were in school we learned that cleanliness is next to godliness. Perhaps as a child I doubted it, but now I know that it is true." However, she does stress that a woman who isn't careful about her appearance, cannot expect it from a man.

An extensive article in Screen Guide (published in 1950, the year Harriet Craig was released) teases their readers by writing: "Her name is familiar to everyone—but you might not know about the Joan we bring you in this story". "The Joan" they are bringing is a Joan Crawford that is just like any other person; She opens the door in a cotton housedress, does her own laundry and she goes down on her hands and knees to scrub the kitchen floor. It even tells a nice story of how one time she couldn't sleep because she didn't hang her gown properly:

"A stickler for neatness, Joan has a daily ritual which never goes undone. She empties her purse, stacks her shoes neatly in the closet, and hangs up her gown. One night, however, when a friend berated her for super­ fastidiousness, she vowed to toss her apparel over chairs and let them fall where they might. 'I did that,' Joan says, 'and I couldn't sleep all night. I finally had to get up at three in the morning and put everything away. Only then could I fall asleep!'"

Modern Screen article published in 1947 quickly mentions Joan's Brentwood home. Although fully staffed, "Joan checks on every department pretty thoroughly, but nobody seems to mind." One year later Joan graced the cover of the February edition of Motion Picture, and in the article explaining why Crawford is their covergirl they also mention her cleanliness. Next to saying that "although she's all that's lush and plush about Hollywood, she's not afraid of getting dishpan hands. She can, and has done, her own housework—sweeping, dusting, stacking firewood, cooking and mopping." they also mention her personal cleanliness. According to the article she showers at least four times a day, unless she has got nothing to do—then she takes another shower.

Left: Silver Screen, Feb. 1931 - Center: Modern Screen, Aug. 1947 - Right: Modern Screen, May 1948 (click for larger image)

Also in 1948, Modern Screen featured a close-up on Joan written by Norbert Lusk, who had been her friend for thirteen years by then. He also addresses the "obsessive" housekeeping of Joan, calling her a perfectionist, and even a "maniac housekeeper".

Several people who knew Joan Crawford personally remember her plastic slipcovers. Her good friend and interior designer William Haines has been quoted as saying that sofas were discarded after soiling them once, until Joan discovered that she could cover them with plastic slipcovers. Carleton Varney, her other interior decorator, said that "there were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan's apartment than in an A&P meat counter." Sy Kasoff also mentions the slipcovers as one of the things he remembers best about Joan Crawford in his book Odyssey: Early Days on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Fashion designer Arnold Scaasi also talked about visiting Joan in her Fifth Ave. apartment for a photoshoot. After being welcomed by Joan, Scaasi and the photographer dutifully removed their shoes as not to soil the white carpet. The white couches (it was an all-white apartment, after all) were protected against intruding dirt by the plastic slipcovers.

Joan Crawford photographed in her all-white Fifth Ave. apartment for Holiday Magazine in 1961. Clothes designed by Arnold Scaasi.

When asked about the slipcovers by Roy Newquist in Conversations with Joan Crawford, she has this to say:

"Look, they keep the upholstery clean, and I so seldom have guests these days, that I might as well be as orderly as possible. With all this crap in the air--nothing stays clean that isn't covered. We do not live in a hygienic age. 

"Maybe I've always been a nut when it comes to cleanliness. When I was a kid I'd scrub the hell out of the rooming houses and crummy apartments my mother and her husbands lived in...and even after I had the money to hire an army of housekeepers and maids I ended up doing the cleaning myself because they never got things really clean. It's just part of being civilized, that's all. And I'm not about to apologize for it. 

"I had one hell of a time with [second husband] Franchot. He found it amusing and irritating, both, and there were times I could have strangled him when he'd answer the phone and say, 'Sorry, she can't speak to you right now; she's cleaning the toilets.' 

"That's one thing I could never understand, out on the Coast. I'd go to a party at someone's house, more like a mansion, really, and I'd go to the bathroom and have to wipe the seat with wet toilet paper before I dared sit down, or I'd sit on a couch, wearing a white gown, and come away with a film of dust. Once I went into the kitchen for a glass of water, and when I turned on the light the cockroaches scattered like mad. I don't understand this sort of sloppiness, and I don't think I ever will."

Joan Crawford and husband Alfred Steele photographed in their Fifth Ave. apartment, 1958, lounging on couches covered with plastic slipcovers.

The title of this blogpost refers to an article written by Doris Lilly for People Weekly (May 30, 1977), where she recalls the last months of Joan Crawford. Although most of the article focuses on the unhappiness of Joan during her last months, there are three paragraphs dedicated to "what she loved most": cleaning. Lilly recalls how Crawford had once told her that "there's a little bit of Harriet Craig in all of us." The parquet floors in her apartment were waxed every other day, draperies were cleaned once a month and plastic liners were installed on the window sill. On top of that, each and every piece of furniture (and walls) had been treated with a special vinylizing process that could not be penetrated by dirt. These "household 'idiosyncrasies'" were also mentioned in another 1977 article that remembers Mrs. Crawford (Rona Barrett's Hollywood, Oct. 1977). Only in this article it is stated that the floors were cleaned and waxed daily, instead of every other day. According to both articles she also swapped out all living plants and flowers for artificial ones, that could be cleaned with soap and water, and she evidently still wasn't afraid to get on her knees, as she had strained her back while scrubbing the kitchen floor three weeks before her death.

She truly reveals herself as a Martha Stewart avant la lettre in her 1972 book My Way of Life, in which she covers all aspects in life that are of importance and how she deals with them. I tried incorporating the book in this post, but it truly deserves a blogpost dedicated to nothing but the book. I will end with a quote from the book, coming directly from Mrs. Crawford's lips:

"Be ruthless about possessions, or they will possess you."

Mrs. Crawford was an impeccable housekeeper. She was peculiar and extreme, but nothing negative can be said about how clean everything was. Partly due to the media coverage concerning Joan's cleanliness, she has been immortalized as Mrs. Clean (this, apparently is the nickname Merv Griffin had for Crawford). Next week will bring us Elizabeth Lane (Christmas in Connecticut, 1945), "America's most resourceful home-maker". At least, that is what's printed in the magazines. And yes, I do know that the post is one month overdue.

  1. “Actress Joan Crawford Believed An Organized Mind Can Accomplish Anything.” OrganizingLA Blog. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.organizingla.com/organizingla_blog/2013/04/actress-joan-crawford-organized-home-clutter-free-clean-orderly.html.
  2. Barrett, Rona. “The Way They Were ­— Joan Crawford.” Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, October 1977.
  3. Bischop, Eric. “Strange Woman.” Modern Screen, August 1947.
  4. Busby, Marquis. “Hollywood’s Rules for Love: Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper on a Great Subject.” Silver Screen, February 1931. https://archive.org/details/silverscreen01unse.
  5. Chandler, Charlotte. Not the Girl Next Door, n.d.
  6. Considine, Shaun. Bette And Joan: The Divine Feud. Hachette UK, 2015.
  7. Crawford, Joan. Joan Crawford Reads “My Way of Life.” 9 vols., n.d. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRkY5HAjv2w.
  8. Doonan, Simon. “A Condom For Your Couch? Carleton Varney On Mrs. Clean.” Observer. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://observer.com/2002/02/a-condom-for-your-couch-carleton-varney-on-mrs-clean/.
  9. Inc, Time. LIFE. Time Inc, 1964.
  10. “Joan Crawford: Hollywood’s Most Glamorous Star.” Screen Guide, October 1950.
  11. “Joan Crawford on The David Frost Show.” The David Frost Show, January 16, 1970. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVHjugKSslA.
  12. Jones, Stephanie. “New York City: Imperial House (22-H) 150 East 69th Street.” The Best of Everything, n.d. http://www.joancrawfordbest.com/geoimperialh.htm.
  13. Kasoff, Sy. Odyssey: Early Days on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. AuthorHouse, 2008.
  14. Lilly, Doris. “Joan Crawford a Suicide?” People Weekly, May 30, 1977.
  15. Lusk, Norbert. “Close-up (Joan Crawford).” Modern Screen, May 1948. https://archive.org/details/modernscreen3637unse.
  16. “Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Other Old Hollywood Stars’ Homes.” Architectural Digest. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/old-hollywood-at-home-marilyn-monroe-frank-sinatra-joan-crawford-slideshow.
  17. “Mommie Dearest: Was Joan Crawford Really a Whacko?” The Straight Dope, May 14, 2002. http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=115182&highlight=Christina+Crawford.
  18. Newquist, Roy, and Joan Crawford. Conversations with Joan Crawford. Citadel Press, 1980.
  19. Perry, Frank. Mommie Dearest. Biography, Drama, 1981.
  20. Quirk, Lawrence J., and William Schoell. Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
  21. Scaasi, Arnold. Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!). Simon and Schuster, 2004.
  22. Skolsky, Sidney. “Joan Crawford, Our Cover Girl—and Why.” Motion Picture, February 1948.
  23. “Uh, Joan Crawford’s 1971 Book ‘My Way Of Life’ Is Kind Of Super-Bonkers.” xoJane. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.xojane.com/entertainment/joan-crawford-advice-book.


  1. Joan looks like she had OCD..

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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