In 1956, construction began on the New York apartment of Joan Crawford and her husband, Pepsi executive Alfred Steele. The renovation combined two apartments on the top floors at 2 East 70th Street into one expansive family home with seven large, sun-drenched rooms and views of Central Park. It was the start of a new life for Joan. “I wanted everything — stardom, happiness in marriage and children. And I was sure I could have it, too,” she said.
After her third marriage ended in 1946, Joan never expected to wed again. “It is very difficult for an actress, a busy one, to have a happy marriage,” said the silver screen icon, who had more than 100 credits to her name before her retirement in the early 1970s. “A career, particularly if you are a star, demands your time, your energy, everything.”
After almost a decade on her own, the Mildred Pierce Oscar winner met Alfred Steele at a party in 1954. “I was utterly lonely,” admitted Joan, who was raising the four children she adopted as a single mother. “I can’t tell you how many nights after I put the children to bed I’ve stayed up alone, all alone. I am a woman with a woman’s need, a husband.”
Alfred didn’t initially seem like a candidate because he was still married to his second wife and Joan insisted she didn’t chase married men. “To me death, yes death, is preferable to breaking up a home,” she dramatically claimed. However, three months after Alfred received his divorce, he eloped to Las Vegas with the film star. They wed, sealing their vows with a borrowed ring, on May 9, 1955, when Joan was 47 and Alfred 54. “We were so happy,” she gushed.
Alfred and Joan were well matched in that they were both smart about business. From the moment of her big break dancing the Charleston in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, Joan became a tireless self-promoter. In addition to cultivating relationships with Hollywood dealmakers, she grew her fan club by writing personal letters and sending little gifts to admirers. Alfred, meanwhile, had quadrupled Pepsi’s sales during his tenure by visiting bottlers and attending plant openings around the world. After they wed, Joan starred in fewer movies and traveled with Alfred, too. “I do a good job. I entertain the bottlers and their wives, whether they come from Africa, London, Switzerland or Kansas,” she said.
On April 19, 1959, just a few days shy of her husband’s 58th birthday, Joan went to rouse Alfred for breakfast and discovered him dead from an apparent heart attack. Within weeks, a heartbroken Joan returned to making films, reasoning that “work is the best alleviator of sorrow.” She also was elected the first woman director of Pepsi’s board just days after her husband’s passing. “Al Steele had been the company’s showman who traveled the world promoting Pepsi,” said Andrew Barnet, son of Pepsi president Herbert Barnet. “My father wasn’t the showman type. He needed Joan after Steele’s death. Pepsi needed Joan.”
Joan never married again, but she remained involved with Pepsi until her death from a heart attack in 1977. “I thought I could be different, that I could have it all. And I did — for a little while — with Alfred,” said the star, who was interred with her last husband. “I’ll always treasure our brief time together.”