By Diane Euston
Her life began in an obscure fashion, full of hardships that surely shaped the little girl into the woman she would become. Before Joan Crawford was the quintessential star of the Hollywood Golden Age, she was a little red-headed girl with freckles that called Kansas City her hometown.
A Troubled Beginning
Joan Crawford’s life is anything but simple; her year of birth isn’t even for certain. Likely born in 1905 or 1906 in San Antonio, Texas, Joan’s “first” name was Lucille Fay LeSueur. Her father, Thomas LeSueur allegedly left his wife, Anna Bell when she was pregnant with the future star. She had one older brother named Hal and a sister who passed before her birth. She would never meet her birth father, but records indicate that he worked as a laborer and died in 1938.
The Introduction to Vaudeville
Her mother, Anna Bell married Henry Cassin and moved to Lawton, Ok. The future star was so young then that she didn’t even realize Henry wasn’t her birth father until her brother, Hal told her when she was older. Henry affectionately nicknamed Lucille “Billie,” and she became known as Billie Cassin. The family lived in Lawton, Ok. where her stepfather ran a small vaudeville theater. There, young Billie learned to dance by watching the performers and copying their moves.
In 1930, a Kansas City Star article reported of her stepfather, “She remembers him kindly, he was sympathetic to her childish woes, he owned the opera house at Lawton, from whose wings she first saw the glamor of the theater.”
In the backyard of their home in Lawton inside a small barn, her stepfather stored extra props and costumes. Little Billie found her hopes and dreams inside that makeshift prop shop and she would put on performances for her neighborhood friends, copying the dance moves she learned while watching the vaudeville performers.
At the age of eight, her hopes of a future in dancing seemed to be ruined indefinitely. Billie hurt her leg severely when she jumped from her front porch and cut her foot on a broken bottle. She had several operations and missed school so much she was grade levels behind her peers. She slowly was able to resume dancing but never could do any “toe dancing” due to her injury suffered as a young girl.
Going to Kansas City
In 1916, Anna Bell and her husband, Henry packed up her two children and moved to Kansas City from Lawton after Henry had been charged with embezzlement. Even though he was found not guilty, he was ostracized from town. They made their home at 403 E. 9thSt. at the New Midland Hotel where her mother and stepfather ran the place she later called “a miserable, cheap hotel.”
Billie first attended 3rdgrade at Scarritt Elementary School at 310 Askew. Her mother dropped a bombshell on Billie when she announced that she was leaving her stepfather. Some accounts state that Henry had been sexually abusing Billie. Shortly thereafter, her mother enrolled her daughter as a work student in 1916 at St. Agnes Academy at 134 N. Hardesty Ave. where Billie would live. She thought that people looked down on her because she wasn’t rich like her classmates and she had to clean, cook and attend to chores to make her way.
Her mother, Anna operated Gate City Laundry on 9th St. while her daughter attended St. Agnes. Some reports indicate her mother was more interested in men than in washing the clothes. When Billie had weekends off, she would return home. She later recalled, “As soon as I’d get in the door, she’d tell me to watch the laundry. Then she’d go out with somebody.”
Rockingham Academy and Her First Love
At the age of 13, Billie began to be popular with the boys and won a dancing contest at the Jack O’ Lantern Club at Westport Ave. and Main St. Young Billie Cassin couldn’t be wrangled in by the nuns of St. Agnes Academy. In 1919, she was sent to Rockingham Academy at 4343 Campbell, a 14-room boarding house designed to harbor “difficult” girls. Some reports indicate that her mother, Anna’s third husband (although no records indicate she married), Harry Hough may have been abusing her and he suggested her to go to a new school.
Billie’s time at Rockingham Academy were some of her most difficult. Because her family couldn’t afford tuition, Billie was again a work student. She would later claim that she was beaten there and didn’t really attend classes; instead, she was working as a maid. The headmistress of the institution was her alleged abuser. Billie would later write, “[The headmistress] deserves every bad word I could write about her. There was scarcely a day I did not receive a beating.”
School or Dancing?
Billie would regularly sneak out of Rockingham Academy to attend dances. At one of these dances she met Ray Sterling, a Northeast High School student who played the trumpet. The fourteen-year-old Billie fell in love with Ray. She would later state, “He believed that I had a beautiful soul as well as a dancing body.”
In the summer of 1922, Billie worked for Kline’s Department Store. She hadn’t quite realized her dreams of being an actress, and Billie saw a future in being a teacher. Her boyfriend, Ray drove her to Union Station where she set off for Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. Instead of focusing on her studies, Billie focused more on the boys at neighboring schools and attended many fraternity dances while also working as a waitress.
Four short months later, Billie Cassin boarded a train bound for Kansas City. Her days of schooling were behind her and set her sights on stardom. Her old flame, Ray picked her up at Union Station and Billie began working at Emery, Bird, Thayer as a saleswoman in the women’s wear section.
Billie Becomes Joan
In 1923, Billie’s ambitions were bigger than the streets of Kansas City. She walked into a talent agency on 12thSt. and booked a gig as a dancer in a traveling chorus for $20 per week. When asked what name she would like to go by, Billie reverted back to her birth name and went by Lucille LeSueur. For two whole weeks she traveled as far as Springfield, Mo. with the company before the funds ran dry. She came back to Kansas City devastated.
She worked to save her money and made the fateful decision to try her luck out in Chicago. With just two dollars in her purse, Billie left to chase her dreams. Under the name Lucille LeSueur, she began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was “discovered” dancing in Detroit and was offered a chorus job in New York City on Broadway.
As destiny would have it, Billie was spotted by an MGM talent scout, and in December 1924, she returned home to Kansas City for the holidays. On Christmas Day, Billie received a telegram from MGM that read, “You are put under a five-year contract starting at seventy-five dollars a week. Leave immediately for Culver City, California. Contact MGM Kansas City office for travel expenses.”
The petite, 5’3” seventeen-year-old red head with freckles had struck gold in California. There, producers didn’t much like the names Lucille LeSueur or Billie Cassin for their next Hollywood starlet. MGM held a public renaming contest where the winner would take away $1,000. There, a complete stranger gave her the name Joan Crawford- a name she hated because it sounded like “a crawfish.”
Joan Crawford is One of Kansas City’s Stars
In 1931, Joan Crawford said, “My pictures seem to be successful most places. But my hometown of Kansas City doesn’t seem to like me.” Whatever led legendary Joan Crawford to believe her hometown didn’t embrace her is unknown. It could have been her struggles she faced while trying to make the best of a less-than-favorable situation.
She never forgot her first love found in Kansas City, Ray Sterling. She wrote, “Ray was the one I called when anything went wrong, and I loved him with my whole fourteen-year-old heart. Ray wanted me to go out and get my dreams. Once I was in the process of realizing them, I lost him.” Ray never married and died a bachelor in 1973.
Joan was married four times and adopted four children. Her later life was less-than-perfect despite wealth and fame; Joan died in 1977 after devoting 47 years of her life to acting. Her true Hollywood story includes a large chapter in Kansas City that shaped her future. With more than eighty films and one Academy Award, Joan Crawford is part of the face of the Hollywood Golden Age and a part of Kansas City’s history.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com