At Home with Joan Crawford

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The Morlocks’ week-long tribute to Joan Crawford might be over but I’ve still got her on my mind thanks to an interior design book I purchased last month that features Crawford’s last apartment. The book is called Celebrity Homes and was originally published in 1977 by Architectural Digest. Besides giving readers a peek into Crawford’s home, the book also features the lush abodes of many other actors, directors and costume designers including Mary Pickford, Merle Oberon, Dolores Del Rio, Cecil Beaton, Woody Allen and Robert Redford. Crawford’s (somewhat) modest $500,000 five room apartment in Manhattan was one of my favorite homes in the book because the interior design is particularly modern and bright. The book captures a colorful side of the Hollywood legend that’s often forgotten and her intimate friendships with her interior designers are fascinating footnotes in Crawford’s life and career.

Before Joan Crawford moved to Manhattan and began working with designer Carleton Varney (featured in Celebrity Homes) she had relied on the services of her friend and fellow actor William ‘Billy’ Haines. Haines had abandoned his acting career after MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer tried to strong-arm the gay performer into a sham marriage but Haines refused and left the film business behind to start his own interior design firm with his romantic partner, James ‘Jimi’ Shields. Although he was happy with his career change, Haines kept in contact with many of his Hollywood friends who hired him to redecorate their homes including Joan Crawford. Crawford and Haines met when she was just an uncredited bit player and the two quickly became lifelong friends. They appeared in a number of films together including SALLY, IRENE AND MARY (1925), SPRING FEVER (1927) and WEST POINT (1928) and their friendship lasted until Haines’ death in 1973. In Celebrity Homes, Crawford credits Haines with helping her develop an appreciation for California modern design and his influence can still be seen in the color photographs I’ve included here. Many of Crawford’s furnishings were originally designed by Haines and her preference for bright white walls, bold colors, and African as well as Asian themed art was one of his trademarks.

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carwfordhaines2Top: William Haines & Joan Crawford.
Bottom: Crawford’s home in Hollywood designed by William Haines (1949).

“I was practically raised by Billy Haines. He was like a big brother to me. He would show me the differences between Hepplewhite and Chippendale. I’d look things up, read, and soon I reached a point where I was able to talk to him in his own language…All my taste is acquired. As I was exposed to various periods and styles, I learned, and as I learned, I adapted–a color, an idea…When I moved to this apartment, designer Carleton Varney and I worked with many of Billy’s pieces. I just couldn’t give up all the things he had done. I told Carleton to bear in mind that I didn’t want anything elegant. I wanted something to really function for me.”
– Joan Crawford, Celebrity Homes

After Haines death in 1973, Crawford employed the services of Carleton Varney, a young up-and-coming designer who also happened to be a lifelong classic film buff. In his autobiography, Houses in My Heart, Varney writes “As an early collector of movie memorabilia–mostly from 20th Century Fox–I had no idea that I would one day work with movie stars like Joan Crawford. I would often write letters to the stars at their studios, requesting signed photographs. MGM was the most reliable source, and very often a minor starlet would send me a personally inscribed photo. There’s one I remember most vividly–a glamor shot of B-actress Ann Savage with bare legs and her chest wrapped up in white fox–a sexually stimulating image to a 10-year-old! Had I saved my (movie) poster collection, it would be worth thousands of dollars today.” Joan Crawford must have found some common ground with Varney thanks to his appreciation for old Hollywood films and the two became close friends during the last years of Crawford’s life. In Celebrity Homes, Varney vividly explains how Crawford’s personality and acting experience guided the design of her home.

“Joan was a terribly generous person. She never failed to send a thank you note, or call when you were ill. Everything about her was very precise, and this was reflected in the way we worked together. For instance, when we laid out a room, she had masking tape put down on the floor. She liked to walk around it and sense the way a room was going to work. Joan was used to this from the studio sets, where she would have to rehearse before the furniture arrived.”
– Carleton Varney, Celebrity Homes

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Varney also describes Crawford as an unabashed clean freak and details how this almost OCD-like obsession with keeping her apartment neat and tidy manifested itself in his autobiography.

“Joan was immaculate in caring for herself and her apartment. Several pairs of slippers were always laid out by the front door for visitors, who would be asked to remove their shoes upon entering to prevent dirtying or scuffing the floors high-gloss finish. She maintained a staff (sometimes including fans she would hire) to polish the floors and clean table surfaces. I had to fabricate a yellow felt cover that would snap around the legs of her dining table, to ensure that its lacquered top would not be marred by ballpoint-pen marks when executives and secretaries came to meet with her on any business matters. She took great care of her possessions, even covering her sofas and chairs with custom-made see-through plastic slipcovers. I once said that Joan had more plastic on her furniture than was used at the meat counter in an A&P supermarket.”
– Carleton Varney, Houses in My Heart

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Varney’s friendship with Crawford lasted until her death in 1977 and the two remained close throughout her final years. At Crawford’s suggestion, he even dated her daughter Christina, author of the scathing memoir Mommie Dearest, and has long maintained that the book isn’t a completely honest representation of Crawford. In fact, Varney became one of Joan Crawford’s staunchest defenders and although he has no problem describing the actress as a heavy drinker and difficult to deal with on occasion, he remembers her being “very kind to Christina.”

jch10I like to think that these intimate photos of Crawford’s last home illustrate how playful she could be and how stylish she was even during her final years but Crawford did not agree with me. According to biographer Carl Johnes, the actress was disappointed that the Architectural Digest photos didn’t showcase her extensive collection of Asian porcelain and her large library, which she was especially proud of. She also apparently thought that the photo spread of her humble (by Hollywood standards) dwellings made her home look like a “nouveau-riche efficiency apartment” that hinted at her humble beginnings and rough childhood but her complaints don’t hold any water with me. Crawford’s streamlined but colorful apartment, particularly when seen along with the other overstuffed museum-like houses featured in Celebrity Homes, is a testament to her good taste. And the lifelong friendships she had with her interior designers tell us a lot about an actress that has too often become the subject of misunderstanding and the butt of bad jokes.

Further reading:
- A 2002 Interview with designer Carleton Varney
- Imperial House at The Best of Everything
- Willian Haines Designs

16 Responses At Home with Joan Crawford
Posted By AL : January 16, 2014 10:01 pm

I’m not positive, but I think that portrait on the wall in photo #1 was created for Spielberg’s episode of NIGHT GALLERY–in which Crawford was brilliant.

Posted By Jenni : January 16, 2014 10:12 pm

William Haines-saw him recently in 1928′s Show People, a silent that starred Marion Davies and also had a lot of cameos by silent film stars in it. I also wrote a piece about Haines for a Chaney Blogathon, as Lon Chaney took Haines down a peg or two in 1926′s Tell it to the Marines. I was wondering why Haines acting career didn’t carry over into the talkies as he was awfully good in the 2 silents I mentioned. Interesting that he took up another career and I’m glad to know that he was successful at it too. Thanks for a very fascinating post!

Posted By kingrat : January 16, 2014 11:25 pm

Those interested in William Haines will enjoy his biography by William Mann, WISECRACKER. It’s excellent. Haines and Crawford were very good friends, and Joan told Christina that Uncle Billy and Uncle Jimmy had the best marriage in Hollywood.

Posted By Doug : January 17, 2014 12:34 am

Joan wrote: “All my taste is acquired. As I was exposed to various periods and styles, I learned, and as I learned, I adapted–a color, an idea…When I moved to this apartment, designer Carleton Varney and I worked with many of Billy’s pieces.”
The photos show that her acquired taste was wonderful. I’m just a guy, and don’t know much about home decor, but her place looks beautiful to me.
She learned and adapted well.

Posted By george : January 17, 2014 3:56 am

Jenni said: “I was wondering why Haines acting career didn’t carry over into the talkies …”

I’ve read that Haines’ private life — he lived openly with his boyfriend — caused problems for his career. Here’s what Haines’ Wickipedia entry says:

“In 1933, Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had picked up in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square. Louis B. Mayer, the studio head at MGM, delivered an ultimatum to Haines: choose between a sham marriage (also known as a “lavender marriage”) or his relationship with Shields. Haines chose Shields and they remained together for almost 50 years. Mayer subsequently fired Haines and terminated his contract. He made a few minor films at Poverty Row studios, then retired from acting. His final films were made with Mascot Pictures, ‘Young and Beautiful’ and ‘The Marines Are Coming’ in 1934.”

Does this sound accurate to people who have researched Haines’ career?

Posted By Emgee : January 17, 2014 10:30 am

“What Oscar? Well, how on earth did that get here?”
BTW Why are the cushions covered in plastic?

Posted By doug : January 17, 2014 11:38 am

Emgee, you might be too young-plastic covered decor was the thing for awhile, showing how modern we could be.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : January 17, 2014 6:42 pm

Who painted the portrait of Joan Crawford in the first photograph — Bill Keane?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 17, 2014 6:50 pm

Thanks for all the comments! The portrait was done by Margaret Keene. Crawford collected a lot of original Keane paintings.

If anyone wants to know more about William Haines I also recommend the biography that Kingrat mentioned above & you can visit his official website, which I linked to in my post.

As for the plastic covering the furniture, the explanation is in my post if you read it.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 18, 2014 4:08 am

Great post, with wonderful photos. And agree totally with your concluding line.

Posted By Watch the sausage not being made! : January 18, 2014 2:26 pm

[…] Joan Crawford’s last apartment, and her friendships with interior designers Billy Haines and Carleton Varney. […]

Posted By vp19 : January 19, 2014 4:21 pm

Haines also became friends with Crawford’s former Cocoanut Grove dance contest rival, Carole Lombard; although they never made a film together, Haines helped decorate two of Carole’s homes, most notably the famed residence on the western end of Hollywood Boulevard where she lived from 1934 to 1936. More on that house, including some pictures of Lombard with Haines furnishings, can be seen at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/344899.html.

Posted By Pamela Porter : January 20, 2014 3:59 pm

I think that Keane portrait has gone missing over the years – I imagine it would fetch quite a price at auction.

The bust of Crawford also made an appearance in “Berserk!”

Posted By Pamela Porter : January 20, 2014 4:00 pm

eek! Not “Berserk!”, but “Strait-Jacket”! Sorry! :D

Posted By Stephanie : January 22, 2014 4:36 am

The exact Joan-quote from the Carl Johnes book: “‘It looks like I live in some nouveau-riche efficiency apartment in Queens, or some goddam place and I feel like throwing everything out and starting over!’ She was near tears. ‘I can just hear what those people in California are going to say when they see it: ‘Jesus Christ, is that the way she has to live now?’” She cracks me up. Honestly, I think most of the tables/dressers DO look like upgraded IKEA and Pier 1 (pre IKEA and Pier 1) that a rich kid would have in a first-time apartment, so I see what she was saying.

Posted By Markus : April 24, 2015 10:53 pm

Pamela Porter- i know this was a year ago, but just a heads up, the Margaret Keane portrait is now owned by Carleton Varney and hangs in his home in Ireland.

Honestly, while I like the pics from Architecural Digest, I much prefer the larger apartment she held in Imperial House from 1967-1973 (where she moved after leaving the massive place she had with Al Steele, it was also the first apartment Varney helped her decorate, although much of that consisted of paring down the old Haines stuff). If you can find her book My Way of Life there’s numerous photos if that apartment, although they’re in B&W.

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