Queer Women History Forgot: Joan Crawford

The legendary actress was bisexual.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class. 

On FX’s new series “Feud,” Jessica Lange portrays the legendary dancer-turned-actress Joan Crawford opposite Susan Sarandon as the equally iconic Bette Davis. The 10-episode miniseries focuses on the time the actresses spent together shooting the 1962 thriller “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and the infamous jealousies and arguments that took place on set. Written and directed by out creator Ryan Murphy, the series has been heavily marketed to LGBTQs who love Hollywood’s most classic starlets (read: gay men), but there’s another aspect that may or may not be touched upon, which is Joan Crawford’s queer identity.

Photo by Creative Commons Wikipedia

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, queer stars were deep in the closet, and it’s only later in life through diaries, biographies and personal accounts that some of these histories are revealed. Crawford, an actress made famous for her roles in “Baby Jane” and “Mildred Pierce” among several other stage and screen performances, was said to have had romantic entanglements with both Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo. According to “The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine,” Crawford was even part of a sexually explicit Sapphic film that American film producer and studio exec Eddie Mannix hid and eventually destroyed to protect her career. The book also detailed her love of “Harlem’s lesbian clubs, known for live sex shows called ‘buffet flats’ and sex between audience members.”

Crawford was married to men four times throughout her life and had four children, some of which is documented in the classic “Mommie Dearest,” based on a memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina. Christina confirmed her mother’s lesbian affairs with Joy Behar in 2010, saying, “I understand that, of course I was very young. But I understand that, yes. In those days, people didn’t come out of the closet. Everybody knew it, but it wasn’t public information. And then the studios completely controlled all the publicity, so no matter whether people were gay, straight, murderers, child abusers, they kept it all secret. And then slowly, slowly, slowly the studios lost their powers over the stars, and the truth started to come out. … I think she was bisexual. That’s what I think.”

Photo via A Life of Barbara Stanwyck

Crawford’s bisexuality is largely left out of most accounts of her life and celebrity, even more so than other Hollywood actresses whose queerness is recognized years after their deaths, like Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. An Academy Award winner who is also one of the world’s most well-respected movie stars of all time, her talent was always able to outshine what was going on in her personal life, although later in life abuse allegations from her daughter inevitably changed how fans saw her as a person and a mother. “Feud” could offer some more nuance, but will it even hint at Crawford’s interest in women outside of her struggles with Bette Davis? Hard to say, as up until now, her bisexuality has been largely erased despite the need for bi visibility now more than ever.

Joan Crawford died in 1977 after suffering a heart attack. Her handprints and signature are immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.