Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One year after the death of star Joan Crawford, her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, published Mommie Dearest, a controversial memoir that claimed the film star was cruel and abusive outside the limelight. The book was made into a much-criticized film of the same name in 1981 and is now a classic for its campiness, overacting, and sensationalism.

Summary of Event

Joan Crawford first found fame on a significant scale in the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters, which paved the way for her to become one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s leading stars. She stayed with the studio for eighteen years and, during the Depression era, played a series of roles as a working-class woman, including an empowering role in The Woman (1939). After switching to Warner Bros. in 1943, Crawford filmed Mildred Pierce, which was released two years later and won for the ascending star an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Her career’s most pivotal role came in 1962, when she starred with Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Crawford’s performance led to a wave of publicity. [kw]Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest (1978) [kw]Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest, Actor Joan (1978) [kw]Mommie Dearest, Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir (1978)> Crawford, Joan Crawford, Christina Mommie Dearest (Crawford) Child abuse;and Joan Crawford[Crawford] Crawford, Joan Crawford, Christina Mommie Dearest (Crawford) Child abuse;and Joan Crawford[Crawford] [g]United States;1978: Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest[01700] [c]Families and children;1978: Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest[01700] [c]Publishing and journalism;1978: Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest[01700] [c]Film;1978: Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest[01700] [c]Popular culture;1978: Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest[01700] [c]Hollywood;1978: Actor Joan Crawford’s Daughter Publishes Damning Memoir, Mommie Dearest[01700]

Joan Crawford and her daughter, Christina, in 1944.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Crawford was incredibly well liked by the public, who not only adored her work (the American Film Institute named her tenth among the greatest female stars of all time) but also found her personal life to be a subject of fascination. Her personal life became public fodder with the publication of Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest in 1978. Rather than recounting her mother’s vibrant career, Crawford made several shocking allegations of child abuse and neglect by her famous mother. She suggests in the book that her mother adopted her and her four siblings as a public relations move rather than out of true love and concern. Mommie Dearest also details the film star’s incredibly meticulous personal habits, such as her obsession with cleanliness and order within their luxurious household.

Even before Mommie Dearest was published, Joan began falling out of favor with her fans and coworkers. She was drunk when she appeared on The Secret Storm soap opera in 1968 (she had been filling in for her daughter, Christina, during the latter’s illness). Two years later, Joan starred in the horror picture Trog, a critical and commercial failure that became her last film; she died in 1977 (from pancreatic cancer). While the film industry and faithful fans mourned her loss, her legacy was quickly tarnished with the tell-all exposé, published the year after she died.

While quirky personal details could be overlooked, the press and public at large could not ignore Christina’s more severe allegations of abuse. Several headline-grabbing stories included the claim that Joan mentally, emotionally, and physically harmed Christina. Incidents included a simple shouting match between the child and her mother after competing in a swimming race, and also an incident in which Joan had Christina’s hair cut off as punishment for putting on makeup.

Mommie Dearest includes episodes in which Joan furiously chops down the household’s rose garden in a fit of rage, and several sagas that are referred to as night raids (Joan’s late-evening outbursts against Christina). One particularly famous episode in the book is a recounting of Joan’s discovery that Christina had a wire hanger in her closest. Joan clears the entire clothing rack and eventually whips Christina with the wire hanger. Another episode is the now-notorious nighttime bathroom incident, in which Joan dumps soaps and detergents on the floor and insists Christina clean up the mess on command.

Though Christina focuses heavily on incidents from her childhood, she details additional episodes into her teens and young adulthood. After being caught with a boy at a Roman Catholic boarding school in a situation that was not intimate, an inconsolable Joan sends her home and later enrolls her in an even stricter Catholic institution. In another instance, a reporter visits the house to write a “day in the life” article on the Crawford family, but the interview allegedly included Joan slapping Christina several times and choking her (Christina had apparently claimed that Joan was battling alcoholism). Several years of amicable contact passed between mother and daughter after these encounters, as Christina entered adulthood. However, Christina (and her brother, Christopher) would receive nothing from their mother upon her death, “for reasons that are well known to them.”

Joan’s estate was certainly substantial, so skeptics found Mommie Dearest to simply be a cash-conscious, knee-jerk reaction by Christina to being denied an inheritance. Those attempting to add credence to that claim suggested Christina could have published the book when her mother was alive but chose not to because Joan could have responded with her own side of the story. Joan’s two other children, Cindy and Cathy, went on record to say they never saw any of the episodes described by Christina in the book, while Joan’s first husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and several celebrity friends stepped forward with similar support for Joan. They also said that Christina often misbehaved and was subsequently punished in proper, though far-from-cruel, contexts.

Christina sold the rights to her story to Paramount Pictures, which turned Mommie Dearest into a full-length film of the same name starring Faye Dunaway Dunaway, Faye as Joan Crawford. However, the 1981 film cut out many of the book’s darker details, combined multiple incidents into a single scene, and sensationalized the entire affair. Christina was upset at the changes, and the public actually laughed at the melodramatic (and at times seemingly overacted) violence. Critics rejected the script as a whole.

The film, originally intended to be a drama, soon became a comedic camp classic, particularly among gays and in drag circles (in which stage actors regularly impersonate Joan’s most glamorous film scenes and the intense moments of Mommie Dearest). Paramount rereleased the film on digital video disc (DVD) in 2006 as Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty Edition, suggesting that even with the scandal attached to her name and legacy, Joan remains a Hollywood icon. Dedicated fans continue to support the star, leading to a reduction in the original shock value of Mommie Dearest and to overlooked claims of abuse in favor of the actor’s larger-than-life personality.


Christina’s book Mommie Dearest was a first-of-its-kind work. Previously, celebrity biographies rarely were negative, let alone revealing of a star’s reputedly scandalous home life. Celebrity tell-all books are now commonplace, but during the late 1970’s, when Mommie Dearest was published, the concept was unheard of and unexpected (especially given the subject’s celebrity status).

Furthermore, the book made an impact as a platform for discussions of child abuse. Though Christina’s claims (and their varying degrees of severity) remain subjects of contention for skeptics, her claims were among the first such revelations to go into vivid detail on a taboo topic: The topic of child abuse entered the mainstream. The Crawford family saga (as fact or fiction) continues to impact readers, moviegoers, and even victims of abuse, while simultaneously serving as Christina’s platform for vindication. Crawford, Joan Crawford, Christina Mommie Dearest (Crawford) Child abuse;and Joan Crawford[Crawford]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, Charlotte. Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. A biography of Joan Crawford that argues that Christina Crawford’s claims of abuse contradict the portrait of Joan provided by her daughter, Cathy Crawford. Chandler makes this claim after Cathy relates a wholly different story of her mother.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, Christina. Mommie Dearest. Tensed, Idaho: Seven Springs Press, 1997. An expanded and more detailed twentieth anniversary edition that builds upon Christina Crawford’s original tell-all tale of her mother’s abuse and rage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newquist, Roy. Conversations with Joan Crawford. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1980. A compilation of more than twenty personal interviews with Joan Crawford conducted by Newquist between 1962 and 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quirk, Lawrence J., and William Schoell. Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. A generally favorable look at Joan Crawford’s life, dedicating significant attention to her films and much less to Christina Crawford’s claims.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Alexander. Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Assessment of Joan Crawford’s numerous films and shades of her personal life. Fully authorized by film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation

Film Star Frances Farmer Is Jailed and Institutionalized

Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession

Actor Rita Hayworth Marries Aly Khan After Adulterous Affair

Swedish Film Star Ingrid Bergman Has a Child Out of Wedlock

Biographer Claims Actor Errol Flynn Was a Nazi Spy

Magazine Reveals Baseball Star Steve Garvey’s Marital Problems

Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign

Woody Allen Has Affair with Lover Mia Farrow’s Adopted Daughter

News Corp Abandons Plan to Publish O. J. Simpson’s Book

Categories: History