Cleanliness Next To Godliness: Joan Crawford's Obsession

Joan Crawford wielding a mop across the sleek floor of the kitchen in her New York apartment. Circa 1959. 

I'm just going to come out of the gate and say it: I don't like the movie Mommie Dearest, the movie that has, perhaps, become as iconic in pop culture as the woman it's about. Sure, it's entertaining - there's definitely no doubting that - and showcases some excellent acting on Faye Dunaway's part, but it also does an immense disservice to Joan Crawford. For the three people who don't know what the movie's about, Mommie Dearest tells the story of Joan Crawford beginning with the adoption of her first child, Christina. Originally a book written by Christina herself, and then turned into the movie that is so well-known, it alleges that Joan was an abusive, manipulative and self-centered mother, capable of loving no one except for herself, who deprived her children of affection, treated them like filth and suffered from severe mental illness herself. I believe the book gets a lot wrong, or at least severely exaggerates reality, and was written out of vindictiveness by an angry daughter trying to get back at her mother. However, the book and movies do get one thing right for certain: Joan Crawford had an obsession with cleanliness.

(Left) Joan Crawford, the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, circa 1936. (Right) Joan accepting her Best Actress Oscar from bed for Mildred Pierce in 1945, while at the height of her career.

Joan Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur, "Billie," and grew up in a household so abusive and terrifying, it would've been perfect for a Hollywood horror picture: her father abandoned her, her mother hated her, her stepfather sexually abused her starting at the age of eleven, and on top of all of that, the family had no money and was incredibly unstable in all sorts of ways. Even if Joan Craword were as bad as Mommie Dearest makes her out to be (which I still don't believe she was), it would be understandable to see where her behavior developed from considering her childhood. Anyways, at the age of thirteen she was sent to a school for upperclass girls called St. Agnes. Since her family could not afford the tuition, Joan was forced to work for her education, and it is likely here that she first began to develop her obsession with cleanliness, cleaning toilets, mopping floors and doing other chores for the nuns who ran the institution. At fifteen, Joan transferred to Rockingham Academy, where her conditions worsened and she was expected to clean the academy's fourteen rooms and feed the thirty other students. Should she not live up to the fulfillment of her "light duties," she would be physically abused by the headmistress. She was pushed down flights of stairs on numerous occasions.

Rockingham Academy, where Joan attended school after St. Agnes. Joan would draw upon the pain of her experience here whenever she needed to cry on cue during her later acting career.  

Even after she left Rockingham and went on to become one of the most famed actresses in history, Joan still dutifully upheld the habits of cleaning and cleanliness that she had learned and developed during her early years, and it was something she was quite open about, as well. In Shaun Considine's book, The Divine Feud, it is detailed how Joan would wash her hands up to ten times a day, wear gloves wherever she went (for hygiene reasons just as much as for fashion ones), scrub the floors of every hotel she stayed at, never wear clothes unless they'd been sent to the dry cleaners first and, above all, never use a cigarette unless she had opened the pack herself.

Considine presents the argument that Crawford would use cleaning to purge her own guilt after a night of heavy drinking or promiscuous sex. It is a fair argument to make, and it is probably one of several things that contributed to her OCD behavior.

(Left) Joan mopping the floors of her Brentwood home, circa 1940. (Right) Joan carefully packing hats, from her 1971 memoir My Way of Life

When Joan was looking for a new maid to clean her home, she called up a friend who remarked that she had a woman in mind, though she didn't clean like other typical housekeepers did. Joan asked if she was a hands and knees kind of girl, and the woman replied yes.

‘Bring her over tomorrow morning,' Joan said. 'That’s just my cup of tea. I never did think you could get into corners with any mop. Who is it?’

It happened to be the woman's mother, who would come to be Joan Crawford's loyal companion and confidante of many years, in addition to her housekeeping duties, affectionately nicknamed "Mamacita."

Joan's German maid, Anna Marie Brinke, "Mamacita," who assisted Joan with the household chores, from her 1971 memoir My Way of Life

In Doris Lilly's People Magazine article, published shortly after Joan's death in 1977, she goes into some detail about Joan's obsession with cleanliness in her later years:

"But what she loved most was cleaning. “There’s a little bit of Harriet Craig in all of us,” she once told me, referring to the meticulous housecleaner she portrayed in one of her films. A visit to Joan’s apartment was like a visit to a hospital operating room. A house-boy waxed the parquet floors every other day. “I gave up carpets years ago,” she explained, “when I realized I couldn’t keep them clean all the time.” The draperies were cleaned once a month; plastic liners were installed on the window sills. Some live by the sword, but Joan Crawford lived by the mop. The maid, Frieda, (Mamacita's replacement after she left due to "one too many things being thrown at her") was always scouring in the kitchen, and Joan would often join in. Just three weeks before her death she had strained her back scrubbing the floor.

Each and every piece of furniture—and the walls—had been treated with a vinylizing process that could not be penetrated by dirt. There were no fresh flowers or plants. In the film Harriet Craig, Harriet finally loses her crackerjack maid by demanding that the tree outside the back window be washed and waxed. Joan, too, filled her apartment with yellow wax flowers and plastic plants—ones that could be swabbed with soap and water."

Perhaps the most notorious cleaning technique Joan was known for was covering her furniture in plastic slips, something she was known for doing in all her homes throughout the years. "They come off, baby, they come off," Joan once said in a conversation with Roy Newquist. "Look, they keep the upholstery clean, and I so seldom have guests these days, that I might as well be as orderly as possible. With all this crap in the air— nothing stays clean that isn't covered." It's interesting to note that before she discovered the wonders of the plastic covers, Joan would merely dispose of her furniture should it get dirty or a stain. Her interior decorator and friend Billy Haines once noted how she'd discard apartments full of furniture during her early years in Hollywood.

Joan's plastic slipcovers in use at her homes over the years. These three of her New York apartments. 

For Joan Crawford, cleaning created a sense of order. Not only did she find it a cathartic experience scrubbing floors on her knees with her hands, but it also provided her the chance to have the control over her space that she'd never had had during her incredibly unstable childhood. Of course, it's fair to say she went a little overboard and became highly OCD about it, but nevertheless it makes sense. Even during her later years, when ageism and sexism prevented her from getting the leading parts in the best pictures in Hollywood as she once had before, and she was forced to accept parts in B-movies with poorly-written scripts just to keep acting, cleaning and cleanliness allowed her to maintain the order and control that she could no longer find in her career. It was a vein of stability that had run through her her entire life one that, while not entirely healthy, is an understandable outcome when examining the puzzle pieces of her life.

Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine.
"When Joan Met Mamacita," The Daily Mail.
"Joan Crawford a Suicide? Doris Lilly Recalls the Star's Haunted Last 18 Months," People Magazine.
My Way of Life by Joan Crawford.
Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and ‎William Schoell.



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