Feud: Why the Real Fight Between Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe Was Even Nastier and Juicier

In concocting his larger-than-life, technicolor re-telling of the infamous Hollywood conflict between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Feud creator Ryan Murphy, understandably, took some creative liberties. Though, in many places, the new FX series is meticulously, slavishly accurate, we’re not watching a documentary. Murphy is dishing up something much sudsier and that relaxed approach to the truth is on display within the first few moments as the show depicts a slightly skewed version of Crawford very publicly dragging Marilyn Monroe in the press. The fact, believe it or not, is even nastier than the fiction.

In Feud’s version, the clash between these two on-screen titans has its genesis at the 1961 Golden Globes. That makes sense, it fits in better with the timeline that Murphy is working with and, after all, Monroe v. Crawford isn’t the main attraction of the series: it’s just the opening act. In actuality, Crawford’s sour response to Monroe came much earlier, in 1953, when the younger actress won Photoplay magazine’s Rising Star award. (Think of it as the 50s version of the People’s Choice Awards.) Here’s rare outtake footage of Monroe, in a tight, low-cut gold lamé gown William Travilla had designed for her to wear in the upcoming Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, graciously accepting her award. (Can you imagine an actress now wearing a costume from an upcoming film to an awards show?) You’d never know it from the video, but Monroe had just made a career-changing fashion decision.

Travilla also designed Monroe’s most famous costume: the white pleated halter dress from The Seven-Year Itch. But it was this gold number that won Monroe a standing ovation in 1953. According to Ted Schwarz’s 2009 biography, Marilyn Revealed: The Ambition Life of an American Icon, Marilyn’s gown was so impossibly tight it had to be sewn on to her body. She was told by Travilla that “the nature of the material would make her appear to be naked, her body covered with paint.” Monroe’s then-husband, baseball star Joe DiMaggio, flat-out refused to accompany her to the ceremony in that scandalous dress.

Because the gown was so precariously situated on her figure, Monroe opted to skip the dinner and dancing portion of the evening—she was warned the dress might rip or fall to pieces. So the actress arrived very late—two hours in fact—just in time to get her award. According to gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, Monroe “wriggled in, wearing the tightest of tight gold dresses. While everyone watched, the blonde swayed sinuously down the long room to her place on the dais. She had stopped the show cold.”

Emcee Jerry Lewis jumped on a table and “began howling” at her approach while Associated Press reporter Jim Bacon crudely described his rear view of Monroe’s assent to the stage as looking like “two puppies fighting under a silk sheet.” Though most of the gold dress scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would wind up on the cutting room floor—perhaps for modesty reasons—some seconds of footage of a swaying Monroe remain proving Bacon’s description—though crude—wasn’t far off the mark.

The morning after the Photoplay Awards, gossip columnist Florabel Muir did precisely the thing Feud captures so perfectly: pit “yesterday’s ‘It girl’ against today’s.” In her Daily Mirror column, she wrote:

With one little twist of her derriere, Marilyn Monroe stole the show… The assembled guests broke into wild applause, [while] two other screen stars, Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, got only casual attention. After Marilyn every other girl appeared dull by contrast.
Crawford—not one to take a blow like that lying down—struck out via her own favorite gossip columnist (and eventual biographer) Bob Thomas. (Sorry, Feud fans, Hedda Hopper was not involved in this particular published skirmish.) Thomas quoted Crawford as saying:

It was like a burlesque show. The audience yelled and shouted, and Jerry Lewis got up on the table and whistled. But those of us in the industry just shuddered. . .Sex plays a tremendously important part in every person’s life. People are interested in it, intrigued wth it. But they don’t like to see it flaunted in their faces. . . The publicity has gone too far. She is making the mistake of believing her publicity. Someone should make her see the light. She should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities; but it also likes to know that underneath it all, the actresses are ladies.
It was basically a verbal version of Sophia Loren’s infamous side-eye glance at Jayne Mansfield.

Before we get to Marilyn’s published response to Joan, it’s worth pausing to note how much the earlier date—1953 vs. Feud’s 1961—changes the tenor of Crawford’s catty remarks. In 1953, Monroe was on the rise but had still just barely moved into leading lady territory. Her biggest hits—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, etc.—were all still in her future. Crawford, meanwhile, was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe that same year for Sudden Fear and, though she’s a quasi-grieving widow when she strikes out at Monroe in Feud, in reality she had yet to meet her fourth husband, Al Steele, when she dragged Monroe in the press. In 1953, Crawford was a woman on one of the peaks of her rather tumultuous career viciously punching down at the new kid on the block.

And Monroe—or at least Monroe’s team—took full advantage of those optics. In a statement to Hedda Hopper’s bitter rival, Louella Parsons, Monroe said:

Although I don’t know Miss Crawford very well, she was a symbol to me of kindness and understanding to those who need help. At first, all I could think of was why should she select me to blast? She is a great star. I’m just starting. And then, when the first hurt began to die down, I told myself she must have spoken to Mr. Thomas impulsively, without thinking. . .
That bit about Crawford being a symbol wasn’t just lip service. Crawford had previously invited Monroe to her home and given the younger actress some early career advice. According to Charlotte Chandler’s 2009 Joan Crawford biography, Not the Girl Next Door, Monroe would later tell her Prince and the Showgirl (1957) co-star, Laurence Olivier, how much she admired Crawford for adopting children. According to Chandler, Monroe, a foster child herself, “couldn’t say enough about what Joan had done, and Marilyn was impressed that she didn’t just depend on a man to support her economically or emotionally. Marilyn admired that kind of courage, though she didn’t feel she had it herself . . . She thought she was a saint. Saint Joan. Saint Joan Crawford!” All that “Saint Joan” rhetoric aside, according to Schwarz, Crawford was conspicuously not invited to a star-studded 1954 dinner celebrating Monroe’s blockbuster year. This was a feud that lasted.

So what, if anything, of the 1961 Golden Globes does Feud paint accurately? Well, for one thing, Monroe actually won her Globe the year before. She took home the 1960 award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for 1959’s Some Like It Hot. You can see some rare footage of Monroe—comparatively more modestly attired—attending the ceremony here long before these things were televised.

Crawford wasn’t nominated for a Globe in 1960 and neither actress was nominated in 1961. But there is one thing Feud likely got very right about that specifics awards ceremony: Crawford’s level of intoxication. Enduring Golden Globes power player, Judy Solomon, recalls that the 1961 Globes were a particularly well-lubricated night. Speaking to the official Globes site, she said: “We had a Swedish journalist as president, and she had too much to drink and when she gave her speech, instead of talking into the microphone, she was talking into the lamp.” According to Solomon, Monroe was also tipsy that evening and Crawford? “Oh, she was so drunk, she couldn’t even speak. Or walk.” In other words, Feud nailed it.

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Fact-Checking Feud: The 5 Most Incredibly Bizarre Joan Crawford Details

On Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series Feud, which premiered Sunday night, the television mastermind turns his focus to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the Oscar-winning movie stars locked in one of the most legendary rivalries in Hollywood history. Rather than simply dive into the feud, though, Murphy begins the series by putting it into context—acquainting audiences with Crawford, played by Jessica Lange, and the circumstances that led her to track down What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a project and Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) as a co-star. In doing so, Murphy leads viewers inside Crawford’s home to show how she—a famously fastidious movie star and mother of four—existed off the screen. Ahead, a closer look at Crawford’s most bizarre eccentricities, which ensure that she is remembered as one of old Hollywood’s true originals.

She Had a Trusty German Maid She Called “Mamacita”

Joan Crawford was a workhorse and perfectionist, and she demanded the same exhaustively exacting attention from those who worked for her including “Mamacita,” her endlessly loyal right-hand woman played on FX’s retelling by Jackie Hoffman. Although this detail is head-scratching enough, the story of how “Mamacita” came to be known as “Mamacita” is even crazier. Allow Crawford to explain her maid’s backstory herself, in an excerpt from the star’s 1971 lifestyle manual My Way of Life.

“I think it’s time to explain that Mamacita isn’t a Spanish girl, she’s a German lady who raised nine children and has many grandchildren,” wrote Crawford. “I took a house in Westhampton nine or ten years ago—a place to take the children for the summer. I had no one to help me and I didn’t want to spend two months making beds and scrubbing bathrooms. I called a neighbor who put his maid on the phone.

“‘I know someone for you,’ she said. ‘But I don’t know whether you can put up with her. She’s never heard of a bucket and a mop.’”

‘‘Handsies, kneesies?’ I asked.”

“‘Yep,’ she replied.”

“‘Bring her over tomorrow morning.’ That’s just my cup of tea. I never did think you could get into corners with any mop. ‘Who is it?’”

“‘My mother,’ she said. ‘I’ll bring her.’”

“The next morning I was on the phone when they arrived. I turned for a moment and said, ‘Start in my bedroom and have her work her way through the other bedrooms and then down here,’ and then I went back to the phone. When I hung up I wanted to call her to come quickly to take the dogs out but I realized that I hadn’t asked her name. I had just returned from Rio de Janeiro, where all I had heard was mamacita, papacita, cousincita, everythingcita, so without thinking I called out, ‘Mamacita!’ Back she cried, ‘Ya! Ich comming!’ The name has stuck ever since.”


“Inevitably, when we’re traveling, she’s referred to as my mother. ‘What would your mother like to drink, Miss Crawford?’”

“‘Gin and tonic, please.’”

“She’ll giggle and nudge me, very pleased. ‘He thinks I’m ya mama!’ I let it go. I don’t know what I’d do without Mamacita. No new situation ever flusters her. And new situations turn up every day.”

She Had a Refrigerator in Her Bathroom

Where else does one keep her witch hazel and vodka? Production designer Judy Becker discovered the Crawford bathroom minifridge feature while doing her research of the star’s home, in a quest to painstakingly recreate every corner.

“She could keep her witch hazel and her lemons and her ice cubes and her vodka there, all of which were used to help preserve her appearance, ” said Becker of Crawford, who was fanatical when it came to her beauty regimens. “Well, except the vodka. . .that was for her mental health.”

As Crawford got older, it was reported that she drank more and more—even 100-proof vodka from a flask she carried, a detail that Feud includes in the first episode.

In Lawrence J. Quirk’s biography, he writes, “To ease her loneliness and torment, Joan continued to nip at her beloved vodka during the afternoons and evenings, and on rare occasions it affected her adversely. . .Most of her friends would have agreed that she used alcohol for various purposes, but that it rarely impaired her. Except on the rare embarrassing occasion, Joan was always perfectly able to function.”

As Jessica Lange was preparing to play Joan Crawford, the actress says she stumbled upon a quote Crawford once gave that explained her drinking: “Alcoholism is an occupational hazard of being an actor, of being a widow, and of being alone. And I’m all three.”

She Had Plastic Covering All of Her Furniture

Joan Crawford’s obsession with order and cleanliness is very well documented. And as tribute, Becker paid homage to each O.C.D.-suggestive detail in Crawford’s home, from the custom-ordered plastic slipcovers which perfectly fit each piece of her Billy Haynes furniture to the plastic encasing each item in her fanatically-organized closet.

“Joan had all that furniture in her real house, and she also had plastic slipcovers on everything,” Becker told press. “For real. I mean, there's a lot of documentation of it, and my favorite photo is one of her lying in bed with a plastic slipcover over the bedspread as she lies there. And that photo really exists. We didn't make it up.”

Crawford’s interior designer Carleton Varney confirmed the factoid in an interview with The Observer in 2002, saying, “There were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan’s apartment than in an A&P meat counter.”

Although wrapping lamps, dresses, hats, shoes, and sofas in plastic might seem like overkill, Varney only spoke positively about his experience with Crawford, saying, “Her mania [about cleanliness] never prevented her from living well. If you disregard the bother of having to ‘break the seals’ on rising from a plastic-covered couch in warm weather.”

Apparently, on special occasions, Crawford even removed the plastic for guests—like biographer Charlotte Chandler, who has said proudly of her interview with the star, “I sat on the sofa after she removed its plastic cover.”

She Had a Very Close Relationship with Her Fans

In addition to being obsessive about cleanliness, Crawford was also regimented when it came to her fans—blocking off hours of the day to respond to each and every fan letter in the order they were received. It was such a routine for her that she had cotton dresses she preferred wearing for the daily task, and explained, “Sometimes people question why I love my public so. It’s because the studio didn’t make me a star. They gave me the chance to be one. It’s the audiences that made me a star. I never forget them or what I owe them.”

She tipped her fans off before making public outings about her whereabouts, and never left an adoring crowd before signing each and every autograph that was requested. Would she hire fans to do housework for her, as Feud alleges? Quite possibly, but Crawford was as devoted to her audience as it was to her. In fact, Crawford had invited a fan to stay overnight at her house the day before she died, according to Chandler’s biography of Crawford.

“Though very ill on the morning of her death, Joan rose early. She had no appetite for breakfast, but she wanted to prepare the meal for a longtime faithful fan who had stayed the night, keeping the vigil along with Joan’s housekeeper. . .As they sat down and began their breakfast, she retired to her bedroom. She had been up early, before the others, in order to prepare the breakfast for two. She had fixed her hair, put on some lipstick and one of her favorite robes. She knew she didn’t look well. She was too thin. She hadn’t slept all night, and she was in pain.”
And although the crew members on Crawford’s films were not her fans, per se, the actress did dote on them as Feud shows—taking great care to remember their names and give them presents.

“It’s important to remember people,” Crawford told Chandler. “I pride myself on doing that. I remember hundreds of names, maybe more, not because it comes naturally to me, quite the opposite. I don’t think I was naturally good at remembering names, but it seemed right to make the effort. I did, and I noticed how much it seemed to mean to the people at the studio, the crew, everyone, even regular fans. I saw how happy it made them, and that made me happy to know that I have been given such a gift to be able to do that.”

She Really Installed Pepsi Machines On Her Movie Sets

. . . and even had her team schlep cases of Pepsi-Cola and small refrigerators to the set of an eight-day shoot for the TV film Night Gallery.

Although Olivia de Havilland (as played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests in Feud’s first episode that Crawford married her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola chairman Al Steele, for financial security, Crawford took her role as Steele’s wife just as seriously as any movie role—ensuring that Pepsi bottles were in full display for every photo op, dispensing the cola on her film sets, and traveling with Steele all over the world for Pepsi, treating each bottling plant ceremony as though it was a red-carpet movie premiere. According to biographer Chandler, Pepsi’s schedule provided a welcome distraction to Crawford during this period of her career.

Since she wasn’t being offered parts, at least nothing she considered acceptable, she found the Pepsi work a rewarding way to spend her time. When she attended a conference or a speaking engagement with him, there were always fans of hers who were happy to see her, and she was happy to see them.
Crawford was so effective as the face of the brand that, even after Steele died in 1959, Pepsi paid her $50,000 a year to make promotional appearances on behalf of the company, until she turned 65.

Director Billy Wilder told Chandler that Crawford was incredibly determined in matters of the brand, and even strong-armed him into incorporating Pepsi in a film about the rival cola.

“I was filming One, Two, Three with James Cagney playing the part of a Coca-Cola executive, and Joan got wind of this, and she wanted equal time for Pepsi-Cola, more than equal time. I can imagine what it must have been like if she’d wanted a part in your movie. “She was on the board of Pepsi, and her husband, who had died, worked for Pepsi. I was telling my wife, Audrey, about it, and then I got this idea. At the end in the airport, Cagney goes to a Coca-Cola machine and gets Pepsi-Cola.”
Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Crawford name-checked the soda brand 21 times in her 1971 lifestyle manual, even making the case for a Pepsi bottle being the best possible exercise equipment for “curvier calves.” Her step, for those wondering, involved rolling a bottle back and forth under one’s foot.

‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Season 1, Episode 1: Sui Generis, if Not So Generous

Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’

They were two of the most recognizable women on the planet. In the late ’30s and ’40s, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were two of the most dynamic and important stars in the industry, male or female. As with their contemporaries — Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich — they created sui generis personae, supported by a studio system that catered to them. Crawford died in 1977. Davis died in 1989. Their shadows continue to stretch across the landscape of film, perhaps even more so now that their movies are available to audiences in a way that didn’t exist a generation ago.

The two icons worked together only once, in Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” The press had a field day speculating on the supposed feud between the two actresses, and Davis and Crawford were asked about it repeatedly. Sometimes their comments were diplomatic (Crawford’s more so than Davis’s), but other times the claws came out.

“Feud: Bette and Joan” is a timely commentary on what the industry does to women over a certain age. Much has gotten better, and now an older woman like Meryl Streep can still open films on her name alone. But “Feud” acts as a pointed reminder that Streep — and Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, who play Davis and Crawford — are the direct beneficiaries of the battles that Davis and Crawford fought in the ’40s and ’50s. Yes, Davis and Crawford battled with one another during the filming of “Baby Jane,” but “Feud” adds nuance to a story that has been characterized as a catfight between two egomaniacs.

This first episode, directed by the series’s creator, Ryan Murphy, starts in the early 1960s, when both Davis and Crawford struggled to find work. Not just any work, but work appropriate to their stature. Davis appears in a small role in Tennessee Williams’s play, “Night of the Iguana,” his latest at the time, and Crawford stews and frets in her mansion. Enter “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” the novel by Henry Farrell, presented to Crawford by her Austrian assistant, Mamacita (a deadpan Jackie Hoffman).

Crawford instantly recognizes the potential in the housebound story of two once-famous sisters. So she goes to work. She recruits Robert Aldrich (a wonderfully harried Alfred Molina) as the director (they had worked together in “Autumn Leaves,” from 1956), and then set out to conquer Davis. Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), the famously profane head of the Warner Bros. studio, needs to be convinced. Nobody wants to see a movie starring two old ladies. (Davis and Crawford were in their 50s.)

There’s so much exposition in the pilot that it’s a dizzying onslaught, a wall of words to those who might not know the background. The gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) stalks into Crawford’s home, saying, “Word is, since Al died, the board isn’t paying your bills anymore and you’re having to sell your custom Billy Haines furniture piece by piece.” There are no fewer than three entire books in that one sentence. It’s inside-baseball, and sometimes it’s too much, but it’s heartening to realize that attention has been paid.

Judy Becker, the production designer who did the exquisite design for Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” has re-created a bygone era in a way that feels lived-in and specific, as opposed to campy-arch. As director, Murphy keeps the focus on the two women, treating them with humanity and sympathy. Neither is perfect, but “Feud” understands that nobody becomes a star of their magnitude by being polite.

Lange and Sarandon have done their homework. These are two very full performances, emotionally. Sarandon has Davis’s aggressive shuffling walk down, as well as the downturned mouth, the biting-off of consonants. But, more important, Sarandon gets at the essence of this woman who had been going to bat for herself since her earliest days at Warner Bros. Years ahead of her time, Davis walked out on her contract in 1936, demanding more control and better roles. Warner Bros. took her to court. (She lost and was called “a naughty little girl” by Warner’s lawyer during the proceedings.) As she wrote in her 1962 memoir, “The Lonely Life”: “I was thought to be ‘stuck up.’ I wasn’t. I was just sure of myself. This is and always has been an unforgivable quality to the unsure.”

Lange faces a larger challenge playing Crawford, mainly because of the still-looming specter of Faye Dunaway’s Kabuki-style performance in the 1981 film “Mommie Dearest,” an adaptation of Crawford’s daughter Christina’s poison-pen memoir. That film was so hostile to Crawford that even a simple afternoon jog is presented as a psychotic break. One of the things that “Feud” highlights, and that Lange nails, is Crawford’s insecurity about herself as an actress. The best moment in the pilot comes when Bette admits, “When you’re good, Joan, you’re good.” Lange turns to look up at Sarandon, her face so alight with need that the overwhelming impression is one of fragility, a woman who always wanted what Davis had. Respect.

It’s common to say that Bette Davis was the “actress” and Joan Crawford was the “star,” but that sells Crawford short. Davis was completely uninterested in glamour, and showed that early on in her first Oscar-nominated role, in “Of Human Bondage.” But to suggest that Crawford was only interested in glamour is to ignore the evidence shown in her performances in “Mildred Pierce” (for which she won the best actress Oscar), “A Woman’s Face,” “Humoresque,” “Sudden Fear,” “Daisy Kenyon,” “Possessed” or “Harriet Craig” (to name a few). Her hairstyle didn’t change, her shoulder-pads fill a door-frame (you would recognize her silhouette in a dark alley), but she was a formidable presence onscreen. She didn’t break the mold. She created the mold.

As the “Baby Jane” shoot looms, the jostling for position starts. There’s a famous photograph of Crawford and Davis signing their contracts for the film, and “Feud” excavates the melodrama behind that moment. Both women were scene-stealers. (Crawford had the smallest role in “The Women,” yet practically walks off with the whole picture.) Both needed “Baby Jane” to work. And in order for it to work, they had to band together. “Feud” uses a framing device: In 1978, two classic Hollywood stars, Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates), are interviewed about the Crawford and Davis feud, and de Havilland observes: “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.”

The show gets that. Its actresses get that too.

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