Literature Society: Joan Crawford's My Way of Life

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While reading Lou Pearlman’s largely fictionalized memoir/business guide Bands, Brands & Billions: My Top Ten Rules For Success in Any Business I was struck by the chutzpah of a man whose career was built upon a criminal lie ostensibly opening up his life up enough to give readers an inside look into his money-making, ferociously successful psyche.

Pearlman knew that the “secret” of his success involved running one of the world’s largest Ponzi schemes. Yet he nevertheless felt the need to take quill to paper for the sake of spinning the fictional, feel-good story of his life for the sake of inspiring other pure-hearted dreamers.

On a similar note, it seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly, for a woman whose name and cult classic film biography (Mommy Dearest) have become synonymous with monstrous, abusive show-business mothers who put their image and ego above their child’s needs and emotions to pen a guide to entertaining, marriage, beauty and all-around fabulousness. 

Yet Joan Crawford nevertheless wrote a lifestyle guide in 1971 entitled My Way of Life that recently made a splash online when a party tip from it went viral. It’s easy to see why people were amused as well as mortified by Crawford’s long-ago advice to add “pizzazz” to any party by dousing everything with a little vodka without letting partygoers (who hopefully don’t include recovering alcoholics) know. 

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Crawford’s manic manifesto feels like the product of someone who ate a bowl of speed for breakfast and then sat down with a tape recorder to chronicle for posterity, in a motormouthed, free-associative blur, everything in their hopelessly, fascinatingly scrambled and frazzled mind that was important, which is everything. 

In My Way of Life, Crawford is Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights discoursing on “Jesse’s Girl” in a coked-up frenzy. She’s Patrick Bateman monologuing on the production of early Huey Lewis and the News albums. Every line begs to be not just be read aloud but performed by drag queens.

Here, for example, is Crawford providing a superhero or super villain origin story for her famous love of scrubbing when she writes,  “In the second school I was the only helper in a fourteen room house accommodating thirty students and, in true Dickensian fashion, I was thrown down the stairs and beaten with a broom handle. This should have turned me off housework forever, but the funny thing is that I still love scrubbing and ironing and especially cooking, and I could no sooner leave a bed unmade than I could fly to the moon.”

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Crawford casually references being the subject of barbaric cruelty, but only to provide a little context and color for her love of cleaning. For the author, the important part isn’t that she was thrown down stairs and beaten with a broom handle. That’s just part of life. That’s just part of being a woman. No, what matters is the cleanliness super-powers that resulted from the physical and emotional abuse. 

Crawford has an almost Little Edie-like flair for accidental poetry and turns of phrase of crackpot brilliance, like when she begins a chapter by musing theatrically, “Everybody has strong ideas about marriage. And why not? It’s the most intriguing situation a woman has in life.” 

Crawford certainly does have strong ideas about this most intriguing of situations and everything else as well. Judging by her book, she also prides herself on being busier than the President with her acting career, running her household and toiling endlessly as an executive and goodwill ambassador for Pepsi. 

Jesus didn’t take his role as savior of humanity as seriously as Crawford does a job that requires her to travel the world spreading the gospel of Pepsi, smiling and signing autographs and selling herself along with Pepsi every goddamn day of her life. That endless pitch includes her fizzy, dizzy lifestyle manual, which might as well be called Pepsi Presents the Joan Crawford Pepsi Way of Life, Brought to You by Pepsi.

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When his goddamn hair was on fire filming a commercial, Michael Jackson did not work as hard to sell Pepsi as Crawford does here. Hell, when Mac of the motion picture Mac & Me was dancing on the counter of a McDonald’s in a filthy teddy bear costume he wasn’t working as hard as Crawford does here evangelizing on behalf of her beloved brand of carbonated, caffeinated sugar water. 

Crawford spends so much time bragging about how she fills every second of the day with furious, productive labor that you begin to think she’s overcompensating and really just spends her days in a vodka and tranquilizer haze, mumbling lines from her old movies at her cats.

My Way of Life is a cross between a campaign speech from someone who does not know what office they’re running for and a literary nervous breakdown. But it’s also, I suppose, a business/lifestyle guide from someone uniquely qualified and unqualified to tell other people how to live their lives. Crawford’s life is at once a legendary Hollywood Cinderella success story and a harrowing cautionary tale. We’ve envied her and pitied her and misunderstood her and vilified and laughed at her, in her lifetime but later when portrayed in big cult phenomenons by Faye Dunaway and Jessica Lange.

The only business/lifestyle guides I’ve read other than My Way of Life are by Lou Pearlman and Donald Trump. To risk understatement, both men possess character flaws. Let’s be real. One is an insane sociopathic criminal whose life and career represent one long con, an elaborate public swindle executed over a period of decades with incredible arrogance and seething contempt for the intelligence and judgment of the American people. The other is Lou Pearlman. Neither is a good guy. 

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Oh, and I guess I also read Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman, which My Way of Life resembles in ways that border on uncanny. Heck, the second chapter of My Way of Life is entitled The Script for a Complete Woman, which is very close to The Complete Woman, the title of Amanda Lund’s brilliant podcast miniseries parody of Morgan’ once ubiquitous, now mostly forgotten book of advice. 

Crawford shares with Morgan a fierce conviction that a woman should do everything, and do it brilliantly, and sincerely, with a big, authentic smile so that men don’t ever need to do anything more than the bare minimum. Women must be super-women to prove themselves of partners who barely need to be human, let exceptional. After all, your hubby gave you a last name, put a rock on your finger and puts on a suit and goes to work in an office. You would literally be criminally insane to even think about wanting more than that.

Crawford writes scoldingly of the worrisome case of a mother and wife who “realized, while her babies were still toddlers, that she was totally engrossed in them, and that her husband was being made to take a back seat. And that he might not feel like occupying it alone for very long. He was getting ahead rapidly as an electrical engineer and he loved talking about it; if he couldn’t talk to her, she realized, he just might find someone else.” 

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It’s essential that a wife find her husband’s agonizingly dull life mesmerizing. It doesn’t work the other way around. Crawford writes of her final late husband, “When we were alone, if he wanted to talk business, so did I. I was interested, and he knew it. I never regaled him with an account of what the children had done, the lateness of deliveries because of traffic, or the neighborhood gossip (unless it was a particularly juicy bit!) There’s nothing less stimulating for a man than the day-to-day business of raising four children. That’s women’s work. If she’s lucky she revels in it. If not, she gets it done in the time allotted for it.”

It’s rare to see motherhood described with such raw emotion.

Crawford seems brainwashed enough by her own rhetoric that she genuinely seems to think that by not boning up on the exciting, not at all intimidating world of electrical engineering this hopelessly lacking wife is not only risking her marriage but also costing herself the priceless opportunity to have a man explain the world and all of its manly mysteries to her. Today this phenomenon is known as “mansplaining” and Crawford thinks it’s just wonderful, an opportunity for silly little women to both learn something important and feed their husband’s sense that he is the center of the universe at the same time

Elsewhere, Crawford writes worriedly, “I’ve heard of men who were permanently stymied in their careers because their wives flatly refused to leave their hometowns. That’s not right. A man’s job  has to come first and women have to draw on their natural adaptability.” 

After behaving for 70 pages or so as if every woman is the neurotic housewife of a wealthy and powerful businessman who works in the city, Crawford grudgingly acknowledges that it’s 1971 so pretty much all the women she knows work. And she knows some pretty famous people. Noel Coward. Cole Porter. Cary Grant. F. Scott Fitzgerald. She could go on and on. And she does! 

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Crawford is predictably sympathetic to men who have a problem with their wives going to work, writing, in a very strange attempt at humor, “Men put up all sorts of objections, all of which cover up their real, subconscious fear that “she’ll come home tired and won’t want to go to bed with me.” They wonder what’s going to happen to them sexually. But the fact is that when a woman feels she’s done a good job and accomplished something, she’s charged. She’s ready for sex. Maybe he’ll be too tired that night. And maybe he’ll get raped!”

Crawford is pro-women working but don’t let that give you a false sense of confidence, ladies. This whole “work” thing just means that you now have to continue to be the perfect homemaker, the perfect wife, the perfect housewife and the perfect vixen, confidante and conversationalist while also holding an outside job. Preferably this outside job allows you to skip lunch so you can head home early and ensure you meet hubby at the door bathed, groomed, lightly misted in the finest perfume and ready to treat him like the King he is until he falls asleep on the couch in his tighty whiteys, his hands coated in Cheeto’s dust, a half-finished Coors Lite spilled lazily on the floor. 

You’ll need to work a job your indulgent husband allows you to have so that you can afford the outside help you’ll need for all those big dinner parties you’ll need to be throwing to prove you’re not a gutter trash garbage person. It’s not proper for you to be working up a sweat being a maid at your own party when there are people you must pay money to do that work for you so that you can relax and concentrate on making everybody happy all the time. 

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Crawford is actively contemptuous of housewives, seeing the lifestyle as a trap that results in spoiled, pampered, silly little girls who think only of their own needs, or (HORROR) those of those children when they should be doing everything to ensure that they don’t waste hubby’s precious time with mindless drivel about the PTA, or the children’s emotional health, or whatever feminine nonsense housewives thinks are important.

Crawford writes witheringly of women who have attained professional success at the cost of their femininity when she observes,  “Men who are prejudiced against women in executive positions have usually had a bad experience with one who swaggered in with a chip on her manly shoulder believing that she had to fight her way up, and fight men to do it. A gal like that can make it tough for the rest of us. Many in the woman’s liberation movement have done that—but few of them are executives and few are very good to look at. They have nothing to lose but their uncombed hair.”

It’s not working outside the home that’s the real sin for Crawford: it’s being unladylike. Crawford has no problem with a woman running a Fortune 500 company as long as she’s as beautiful and elegant as Grace Kelly. It’s okay in Crawford’s book (literally) for a woman to hold a job as long as it doesn’t interfere with her being a sex goddess, hostess, and the image of glamorous femininity with a body devoid of cellulite, imperfections and those love handles nobody loves.  

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Crawford encourages women to have a sadistically frank friend photograph them from the most unflattering possible angles and then have the images blown up into an 8 by 10 at least so that they can obsess about every tiny imperfection. Do you have stubby knees or bony ankles but don’t know it? Then you’re a liar and a fraud trying to pull one over on your innocent, blameless husband and you should be ashamed of yourself. Thankfully, once you know about these shamefully stubby knees, you can aggressively pursue exercise or cosmetic surgery to fix yourself. As Crawford writes sensitively, “The shock of taking a photographic inventory may send the average woman to bed for a week. But it could be the best thing that ever happened to her.” 

Crawford isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the plight of people do not conform to society’s impossible standards of beauty. Of readers looking to lose weight she writes, “Regular exercise, all alone, can be boring. If you just can’t schedule it for yourself, organize a little neighborhood club. Get all the pleasingly plump girls together regularly at a certain hour on certain days of the week—and compete. Competition is often just the stimulus you need. 

At the first session, weigh in, take all the crucial measurements, and put them on charts. Do the weighing in and measuring every week on the same day. A woman will give up anything—from a hot fudge sundae to a dry martini or a grilled cheese sandwich—to beat her fellow club members to a slim finish. She may lose a friend or two, but she’ll gain loveliness, and her husband’s pride and admiration. That’s worth a couple of fat friends!” 

All I wanted was a Pepsi!

All I wanted was a Pepsi!

Later, the Mildred Pierce Oscar winner writes empathetically, “There’s probably nothing  funnier than the sight of a row of fat women trying to touch their toes. But it’s not funny for the women. It’s very sad. Being fit, being the right weight, having the right proportions, can really make life a lot more fun. It’s worth any device you need to achieve it.” 

Given the rest of the book, it seems safe to assume that when Crawford writes that being thin is “worth any device you need to achieve it” she’s including eating disorders, illegal, bootleg cosmetic surgery, crippling depression, intentionally contracting wasting diseases and getting addicted to crystal meth solely to curb the appetite. In Crawford’s mind, being thin, attractive and popular isn’t just important: it’s all that matters.

Deep into My Way of Life I had a realization. Crawford did not write, or transcribe, or rant, her weird and poignant and ultimately achingly sad book for her readers’ sake. It is not a book of advice for people who might learn from Crawford’s elegantly unhinged example. 

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No, My Way of Life is Crawford giving herself a brutal bible to live by. But it’s deeper and sadder than that. Advice can be gentle, kind, a matter of subtle suggestion, encouragement, support, love. That is not the tone here. It’s more a matter of Crawford angrily ordering herself around, being cruel and vicious and uncompromising to someone she knew all too well could withstand all manner of abuse, internal and external, and come out smiling because smiling was not only a huge part of her job as an actress and public figure; it was also her mask to conceal almost inconceivable pain.

Crawford is sternly telling herself more than her readers that you must be perfect in every way to be worthy of love. She’s so thoroughly internalized the misogyny and rigid gender roles of her youth and the country that elevated her to a God and destroyed her psychologically that she genuinely seems to have adopted society’s toxic, pervasive hatred of women as her own personal philosophy, one she’s eager to share with readers. 

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My Way of Life was intended as easy, breezy lifestyle porn/self-help. Instead it’s a riveting, darkly funny and and utterly revealing book-length exercise in self-loathing. 

I make my living from crowd-funding doing weird shit like write about Joan Crawford’s self-help book so if you would be kind enough to consider pledging even a dollar over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace  it’d be