About once a month, Casey LaLonde, his sister, Carla, and his parents would make the two-hour drive into New York City to visit his grandmother JoJo. “She would often send my mom and dad out to go shopping or sightseeing, and she would stay back and take care of the grandkids,” he exclusively tells Closer. “She would serve us lunch, give us gifts, hang out and play with us. I had a faint idea that she was somehow famous, but I didn’t realize that she was the world-famous actress Joan Crawford.”
Some 16 months after Joan’s death in 1977, her eldest child, Christina Crawford, published Mommie Dearest, often cited as the first celebrity tell-all. It caused a sensation for its depiction of the Oscar-winning actress as an out-of-control, cruel and abusive alcoholic.
A film version of the book, starring Faye Dunaway as Joan, arrived in 1981 and became an instant camp classic and introduced the phrase “No wire hangers!” into pop culture. However, Joan’s younger twin daughters, Casey’s mother Cathy and his Aunt Cindy, always insisted that the depiction of Joan by Christina was a gross exaggeration if not an outright lie. “My mother and my Aunt Cindy, to their dying day, felt nothing but love for their mother,” Casey says in Closer‘s latest issue, on newsstands now. “They never experienced any abuse. It was a loving and caring household, and Joan was always very supportive of them.”
Although wed four times, none of Joan’s marriages lasted very long. Her happiest union, with Pepsi-Cola magnate Alfred Steele, ended in 1959 after three years when he died of a sudden heart attack at their home, leaving her devastated.
So the actress spent much of her adult life as a single mother. She adopted Christina in 1940, Christopher in 1942 and the twins in 1947. To help raise them, she employed a governess, and the children attended boarding school when they were old enough. “With no male provider in the house, Joan had to work constantly,” explains Casey. “But whenever they were home, they visited her on the set.”
It’s true that as a parent, Joan, who overcame a penniless childhood to become one of the highest-earning women of Hollywood’s Golden Age, believed in discipline. The children had to make their own beds and keep their rooms neat. But Cathy and her sister never experienced anything like the beatings and bizarre punishments described in Christina’s book. “[One time], I said I didn’t like my dinner and I didn’t want to eat it. I didn’t have to eat it, but I didn’t get something else. I had to go to bed without dinner,” recalled Cathy. “I don’t think it was such a terrible punishment.”
Cathy, who died at age 73 in January 2020, said her mother balanced discipline with dedication and affection. When Cathy was 6, she broke her arm on the school playground and Joan rushed to her side. “She ran off the set in the middle of filming…and took me to the doctor, and then we went home,” Cathy once recalled. “She was still wearing makeup that she had on for the film. That’s how I remember her.”
The star was also physically affectionate. “My twin sister and I used to crawl into bed with her in the morning,” Cathy remembered. “[And] I always liked riding with her on our holiday trips to Carmel. I would snuggle up to her while she drove.”
Grandson Casey, who was born in 1972, also only knew Joan’s largesse. “She was an entertainer as an actress, but also as a person who loved entertaining her friends and family at dinner parties and get-togethers,” he says. “I think that really shined through with her in the way she took care of us as family members.”
When Joan’s will was read, she left the majority of her $2 million fortune in trusts of about $77,000 each to Cathy and Cindy. The remainder was bequeathed to friends and charities she supported. Her older kids Christina and Christopher were deliberately excluded. “[In previous years,] Joan had to support Christina by paying her rent because her acting career wasn’t paying off,” explains William Schoell, author of Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography. “She cut her out of her will because she had already given her plenty.”
Christopher, who died in 2006, also had a difficult relationship with his mother. Unlike Cathy and Cindy, he backed up Mommie Dearest’s tales of child abuse. The disinherited siblings contested Joan’s will and were awarded $27,500 each.
Christina did not respond to Closer‘s request for an interview, but has always stood by her version of her childhood. She shrugs off her younger sisters’ radically different view of Joan. “Different people in the family experience the parenting situation in different ways,” Christina told The Guardian in 2019. “Because the parenting situation is different towards them, and that’s a divide- and-conquer type of situation.”
That same year, Christina turned Mommie Dearest into a musical that premiered off-Broadway. While many bemoan that Christina’s story tarnished Joan’s legacy, Casey insists there’s a silver lining. “When I do public events, I usually expect the age group to swing a little older, but there are people in their late teens and 20s coming to the film screenings and presentations. They want to come see [Joan’s] home movies too,” he says. “Without Mommie Dearest, Joan would still have fans, but it generates new fans every year. That’s amazing to me!”