Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 16, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I 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.
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