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Curtis Hagedorn

Curtis Hagedorn
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SEPTEMBER 15, 2011 2:01PM

Joan Crawford's skinflicks (and other Family Secrets)

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"Joan Crawford's nude videos to be revealed." 

The headline jumped out at me from the pages of the Huffington Post because (being an editorial accuracy geek) my immediate reaction was: "wouldn't those be films, not videos?" 

I then pondered the moment in time when Joan Crawford might have had access to portable video technology -- not a pretty picture  (Ms. Crawford pre-deceased the release of Sony's Betamax by five years.) 

That the aging star might have found a willing yet trustworthy television cameraman to offer her some private studio time in the 50's was farther than I was willing to speculate, but I suppose it's possible. What requires no speculation is that Christina Crawford is making one last bid for relevance through nepotism -- perhaps she needs the money, having no other visible means of support.  (For anyone wondering, it turns out they were "home movies" shot, one supposes, with the Crawford family Bell & Howell  -- an ancient brand of 8mm movie cameras  -- in blinding light.)

The possibility of discovering a comparably valuable secret among my own parents' meager archives of old photographs, diplomas, certificates and greeting cards seems slim.  For those of Joan Crawford's generation -- Lucille Fay LeSeur, who became Joan Crawford, was 15 when my mother came into the world -- the past was something to be infrequently examined, except for the purposes of culling whatever was unpleasant, the evidence of secrets drowned along with the memory of them every generation or so, or even sooner. 

Thus I never knew about the existence of my mother's older sister -- who was roughly Joan Crawford's age -- until I came home from my first year in college and found a Christmas card from one of my uncles that referenced visiting her in what my family nervously made-light-of as  "the loony bin."  The reason for the arrival of the men in the white coats were also lost in the mists of time, memory and shame -- vague references to "bad people" and the hard times of the Depression that pushed my phantom aunt down to the big city of St. Louis where "something" happened that sent her home "crazy."  Naturally, I always wondered what, around 1925 -- the year Lucille LeSeur got her first MGM contract and put her tap shoes on the yellow brick road to becoming Joan Crawford -- was considered "crazy" in rural Missouri.  Being in the midst of my own extended "crazy" period I wondered if  institutionalized auntie drank, or took drugs, had an alternate sexuality or maybe was simply "too smart for her own good." Years later I found a number of old family photos of her,  and spent hours looking at Aunt Mystery's smiling face, wondering what secrets were hidden there as well.  But those pictures weren't taken to reveal her difference, whatever it was, but to document her normalcy.

Isn't that really the secret most of our parents tried to hide?  The dread secret that we probably weren't the "normal" family that, particularly in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, we were meant to be?  Christina Crawford was hardly the first one to realize we were't the Nelsons on "Ozzie and Harriet,"  or the Cleavers on "Leave it to Beaver" or the Stones on "The Donna Reid Show."  In fact, truth be told, we were more like "The Munsters" (or the Crawfords) trying to "pass" and still retain our individuality, more or less, in a rigid world.  We all recognize the loud verbal dressing down that turned into a syrupy "Hello!" when the phone rang.  The family portraits with everyone frozen in their best clothes and best smiles.  Some of us even recognize "No more wire hangers!" or its equivalent.  The "speak when you're spoken to" and "that's nobody's business" and "if you can't find anything nice to say don't say anything" world that we grew up in.   The world based on what used to be called a "veneer of politeness" that Christina Crawfored described in Mommie, Dearest.  A world that collapsed, for better or worse, in the late 60s and 70s and kept on falling away until we reach today, where nothing...nothing...is secret.  Where politeness is a pleasant surpise, not a minimum expectation.

I always wonder whether a great deal of what I believe I know instinctively about what's right and what's wrong isn't just grounded in old-fashioned manners -- in "that's nobody's business" and "if you can't think of anything nice to say."   Frankly, even mentioning the story of Aunt Mystery seems like betrayal of the world my mother tried to create, and still believes in, that we were that "normal" family -- I'm enough of a product that fantasy that I cannot bring myself to type Aunt Mystery's name here.  Is that something of which to be even slightly proud, or just an indication of my insufficient repudiation of my upbringing, the impulse to keep my own and others' secrets far past their sell-by date?  I'm obviously teetering on the edge in my own search for relevance, but I'm still not sure.

Rest in peace, Lucille Le Seur.  Long live Joan Crawford, brave and crazy.

http://youtu.be/L7LVW7emVE4

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Comments

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I wish we could strike a balance between how things once were - and the world we have today of TMI 24/7. I think you nailed it at the end that what you know instinctively as right and wrong is plain old fashioned good manners - something sorely missing today. Great post - I enjoy your writing style.
I like this post an awful lot--the way you weave various ideas.
I like this post an awful lot--the way you weave various ideas.
I agree that if people could improve their manners and the world would be a much nicer place. The world of TMI seems to have taken its place.
This is so well-written. Somehow I missed this one when you posted it. I think of my own parents, and the things they didn't say. You know, my father and his brothers--the eldest of which enlisted months before WWII started and did not get out for many months after victory--never told anything more emotional than adventure stories about their time in service. Basically, they made it sound like a long summer camp. That generation had a different way of handling the past. I imagine they buried a lot, and let it stay buried. They disdained the psychoanalysis trend, as it became popularized. Hard to say which is better--but in some ways, I feel that the generation of repressed conformists aged better than our Boomer generation of public whiners.