This post is about celebrities more associated with Hollywood than New York, but who, whether by choice or by necessity, lived here for a while and died here. Endings can be sad, but most of these are not; viewers will decide.
I didn’t grow up feasting on her films, so I didn’t realize she could do more than play Queen Bee, until my partner Bob got me to see what he considers her two best films: Mildred Pierce (1945) and Sudden Fear (1952). I have to admit they were good, but what interests me here is her post-Hollywood career. After many years in film, in 1955, at age 51, she married her fourth and last husband, Alfred Steele, a Pepsi-Cola Company executive who later became chairman of the board and CEO. So began the strange but fruitful union of two distinctly American inventions, Joan Crawford and Pepsi-Cola. Over the next few years she traveled some 100,000 miles using her star image to promote, you guessed it, Pepsi-Cola, that quintessential American beverage and arch rival and nemesis of Coca-Cola. She appeared in commercials, TV specials, and televised beauty pageants, always reinforcing the message that “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot.” At the same time she was promoting this sugar- and caffeine-rich concoction, the company was promoting her, insisting insistently that Miss Crawford was a star and should be treated accordingly. (We don’t have royalty here, so this is the best we can do.) Whether she actually imbibed the stuff in private I have no idea.
When her husband died in 1959, she was named to the board of directors, the company’s president lauding “Miss Crawford’s intimate knowledge and rare skills in promotion and public relations to which she has so superbly demonstrated to our benefit for the last four years.” (If you have trouble with the syntax of that statement, so do I.) Though she received an award in the shape of a bronze Pepsi bottle for her contribution to sales, all was not well in the long run, and in 1973 she was forced to leave the company by CEO Don Kendall, whom she had for years referred to as “Fang.”
Her devotion to Pepsi did not prevent her making a few last films, notably Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) with Bette Davis. One might well wonder if a movie set could hold two such stellar and explosive talents, especially given the fact that they cordially detested each other. But both stars knew how important the film was to their waning careers, so they behaved admirably while the film was being made, reserving their animosity for a lively feud afterward. Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her performance but, failing to get it, accused Crawford of campaigning against her, a charge that Crawford denied.
Her Pepsi connection had brought her to New York, since the company was headquartered here at the time, nor did she express any regret for leaving California. At first she lived with her husband in a duplex at 2 East 70th Street. Then, from 1967 to 1973 she lived in a nine-room apartment at Imperial House, an elegant new 30-floor luxury apartment building at 150 East 69th Street, and in September 1973 moved into a five-room apartment on the same floor. She is said to have introduced a cheerful California feeling into all her Manhattan apartments – “Hollywood Modern” some have called it disparagingly -- with pure white walls and bright colors and lots of flowers and plants, and Oriental porcelains and custom-designed furniture.
Though in declining health, she attended a party honoring her old friend Rosalind Russell at the Rainbow Room. When she saw the unflattering photos of her in the papers the next day, she declared, “If that’s how I look, then they won’t see me anymore!” She then canceled all public appearances, declined interviews, and left her apartment less and less. She died in her apartment of a heart attack on May 10, 1977, at age 73. She was cremated and her ashes put in a crypt with her last husband, Alfred Steele, in a cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. She had four adopted children, but in her will left nothing to the two eldest, Christina and Christopher, “for reasons which are well known to them.”
But that wasn’t the end of the Crawford story, for revenge is sweet. In 1978 her daughter Christina published her memoir and exposé Mommie Dearest, whose allegations of physical and mental abuse to her and her brother Christopher fired a broadside into the Crawford legend. Crawford was depicted as a raging alcoholic who adopted children for publicity purposes, who was more concerned with her career than with her children, and who had countless affairs with both men and women. According to Christina, on one occasion her mother even tried to strangle her. A host of Crawford’s friends and coworkers, including Van Johnson, Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Katherine Hepburn, and many others, denounced the book, but others, including Betty Hutton, Helen Hayes, and June Allyson, confirmed the charges, claiming to have witnessed the abuse. Crawford’s two younger children stated that they had never experienced any abuse, but their brother Christopher confirmed his sister’s account. A bestseller, the book was made into a 1981 film with Faye Dunaway as Crawford. I suspect that everyone involved was telling the truth: Crawford was a complicated woman with many sides to her personality, so that some people saw one side and others another. And Christina today? Have run through her book and film profits and slowly recovered from a stroke, in the 1990s she was running a bed and breakfast in Idaho, and from 1999 on has worked as a special events manager in an Idaho casino.
Crawford was certainly an imperious and demanding presence who reveled in stardom and managed to project and sustain it even after leaving Hollywood. Quite a contrast, then, with some of the other Hollywood celebrities who ended up in New York.
|With Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka.|
If Crawford loved stardom, the Swedish-born Garbo came to shun it. As a kid growing up in the thirties, all I knew of her was her famous utterance in Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone” (usually quoted with a fake accent: “I vant to be alone”), though she later insisted that off the screen she had said, “I want to be let alone.” Her performances in both silent films and talkies were praised for their subtle, understated quality; with her eyes alone she could express a wide range of emotions. I have seen her in Anna Christie (1930), which I didn’t think quite worked, and in Camille (1936) and the comedy Ninotchka (1939), which did.
In spite of her remarkable talent, and her luminous and haunting beauty, and the phenomenal salary she received, in 1941, at age 35, she retired from films. After that she received many offers of films, but in the end rejected all of them. She didn’t give her reasons for retiring, but she was aware of beauty’s perishability, had always avoided Hollywood parties and Oscar ceremonies, gave few interviews, signed no autographs, and late in life said that she had grown tired of Hollywood, disliked her work there, and wanted to live another life.
In 1951 she became a U.S. citizen, and in 1953 she bought a seven-room apartment at 450 East 52nd Street where, alone, she would live for the rest of her life. From her large, sun-filled living room she had a sweeping view of the East River, whose traffic she loved to watch. Fond of art and antiques, she had several Renoirs, other paintings, two Louis XV fauteuils flanking the fireplace, and some Chinese porcelain boxes. She once told a friend, “I love color. I want the room to sing.” And sing they did, all her rooms, since she surrounded herself with vibrant hues. But few people ever saw them, only those who worked with her to decorate the rooms, and a few chosen friends whom she invited.
Certainly she craved solitude and could be reclusive, but contrary to stories told about her, she always had many friends and acquaintances. But if she jet-setted, as she occasionally did, she still guarded her privacy, using aliases and booking two seats so as to have no one next to her. With time she became very close to her longtime cook and housekeeper, who later remarked, “We were very close – like sisters.” At age 60, to a friend Garbo once mentioned “the sorrow that never leaves me, that will never leave me for the rest of my life.” And to another she confessed, “I suppose I suffer from very deep depression.” It has been suggested that she was bipolar, alternating quickly between happiness and despair.
One of her favorite activities was long daily walks in the East 50s and 60s in Manhattan, where she browsed in wine, antique, and health food stores, or even walks down to Washington Square and back, alone or with a companion, without makeup, dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses. She loved to smell bread being baked in a bakery, observe what shop girls were wearing, or catch bits of a couple’s argument at an outdoor café. “Garbo watching” became a popular pastime for photographers, fans, and neighbors, for whom Garbo, long retired and elusive as ever, still maintained her mystique.
She never married, had no children. Though she had had affairs with men – silent film star John Gilbert and conductor Leopold Stokowski among others – she may have been bisexual and had affairs with women as well, though this is not certain; if true, it simply adds to her legend.
Neighbors said that she seemed to be in good health until the last year before her death. She died in a New York hospital of pneumonia and kidney failure on April 15, 1990, at age 84. She was cremated here and her ashes were buried in a cemetery near her native Stockholm in Sweden. A successful investor in stocks and bonds, she left her estate of $32 million to a niece.
|Swanson in 1921. From the wild days of|
She was a great star of silent films and a fashion icon of the Roaring Twenties, photographed often in startling hats and an abundance of furs, while her many marriages – none of them except the final one lasting – created headlines and titillation. As for extra-marital adventures, her affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was an open secret in Hollywood for years. Though she made the transition into talkies, her film career was fading and in 1938 she moved to New York City to launch a post-Hollywood career.
In New York City she founded Multiprizes, an inventions and patent company committed to rescuing Jewish scientists and inventors from war-torn Europe and bringing them to the U.S. She made stage and TV appearances, took up painting and sculpture, wrote a syndicated column, and became seriously involved in designing and marketing clothing and accessories. A film has-been, if you like, but not one to fade into the shadows, being active on many fronts. Then, in 1950, she achieved stardom again as the faded silent film star Norma Desmond in Billie Wilder’s much acclaimed Sunset Boulevard, though Desmond, delusional and living in the past, was the very opposite of Swanson herself. Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri had all turned down the role, before it was offered to Swanson, who was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.
What I find most interesting about Swanson is not her brilliant comeback in film, but her dedication to healthy living and especially healthy food. In 1927, while still involved in films and immersed in the entanglement with Kennedy, she consulted a doctor about possible ulcers; the doctor asked her what she had eaten the night before, then had her imagine all that food in a pail and tell him what animal, pigs included, would eat it. As she told it, she became a “health food nut” then and there.
For the rest of her life Swanson was that rarity among celebrities, one that neither smoked nor drank, a supposed eccentric who campaigned for healthy living. An early advocate of a macrobiotic diet, raw food, and yoga, she only steamed her oatmeal and grains so as to preserve nutrients. Shunning tap water, she drank spring water from France, made sugar by boiling organic raisins, and fasted frequently. Later in life she would attribute her longevity to good nutrition and avoidance of junk food, and denied she had ever had plastic surgery. “Nose, teeth, bosom, hair, kidneys – everything but the eyelashes – is real.”
But to truly achieve the status of health nut and eccentric required more than this, and she went all the way. Garbed in a turban with ostrich feathers and sparkling with diamonds, she was quite capable of chastising strangers on the street for eating junk food, and brought brown bag lunches and a thermos of soup to the jet-setting events she attended. The young nutritionist Gary Null, just starting out in the nutrition field, heard her harangue against the dangers of the sugar-rich American diet and immediately recognized in her a pioneering ally meriting recognition and the highest praise. Not that Americans were easily persuaded. It is even said that someone who detested her sent her a baby casket filled to the rim with sugar. “Why do people treat their bodies like garbage pails?” she once asked, her blue eyes flashing. “I sound like a broken record. Now I just tell people to go ahead and eat ground glass if they want. See if I care.”
At a press conference in the 1960s, upon seeing a chubby young journalist named William Dufty drop a sugar cube in his coffee container, she announced, “That stuff is poison. I won’t have it in my house, let alone in my body!” Ten years later, trim and slim, he looked her up at her Fifth Avenue apartment to thank her for changing his life, and they talked in the kitchen until 1:00 a.m., bound by a mutual loathing of sugar and a desire to convert Americans to a healthier diet.
|Swanson and Dufty.|
In 1975 Dufty published Sugar Blues, a best-seller denouncing refined sugar or sucrose as a threat to health and comparing it to opium, morphine, and heroin – allegations passionately denied by what Dufty termed “sugar-pushers,” including the makers of such quintessentially American concoctions as Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. (Swanson vs. Crawford, healthy living vs. Pepsi – what an epic battle that would have been! But so far as I know, they never crossed swords.) In 1976 Dufty and Swanson married because, as she put it, “We totally understand each other. Besides, my life is one surprise after another.” It was his second marriage and Swanson’s sixth and final one, which lasted until her death; he was 60, she was 76 and a grandmother. They were soon busy on a nationwide tour promoting his book. From then on he served her as cook, advisor, and muse, ghostwriting her 1981 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson.
Back in 1994, when I was doing volunteer work for the Whole Foods Project (see vignette #8, 5/20/12), I met William Dufty, though I had no idea at the time that he had been Swanson’s last husband. He spoke to us with conviction about the dangers of sugar, which he considered more poison than food, telling us how he had been literally addicted to it and experiencing “sugar highs” followed by depression. To illustrate his point, he posed for a photographer while dumping a large quantity of sugar from a container into a trash can. Then he had us all sign his white shirt in a gesture of solidarity. He was charming, passionate, and quite convincing. (I myself needed no convincing; I had already emptied my apartment of the stuff, and it remains void of sugar – the white stuff found on lunch counters everywhere – to this day.)
|In her New York apartment in 1972.|
By the 1970s Swanson was dividing her time between homes in Manhattan, Beverly Hills, and Portugal. In New York her elegant ground-floor apartment at 920 Fifth Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd Street, where she had lived since 1938, had a green baby grand piano, a mirrored green fireplace, and French Provincial furniture scaled down to her diminutive size, she being only 5 foot 1 in height. French doors opened into a rear garden, a glass-covered alcove housed the dining room, and adjoining the living room was an office where two secretaries could attend to her many business and professional interests. Like most of these Hollywood girls who came to New York, she was living high on the hog.
Prominent socialites, Swanson and Dufty often traveled together here and abroad. While promoting Sugar Blues they met ex-Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, and Swanson testified on Lennon’s behalf when he applied to become a permanent resident of the U.S., which he finally did in 1976. Returning to New York from her home in Portugal, Swanson was hospitalized with a heart ailment and died in her sleep there on April 4, 1983, at age 84. She was cremated and her ashes were interred at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue. She had sold her archives to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her husband then returned to his home state of Michigan, where he died in 2002.
|Hayworth and Astaire in You Were |
Never Lovelier, 1942.
We knew her as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner after Ginger Rodgers left the act; during the war as a luscious GI pinup in a black-lace negligee who seemed to just beg you to go to bed with her; as a top glamor girl and love goddess of the 1940s, her face on the cover of Life magazine five times; the femme fatale who did a legendary striptease in Gilda; and as the Hollywood princess who married Ali Khan, the playboy son of the Aga Khan, the fabulously wealthy imam of a Muslem sect in India whose followers every year gave him his weight (and he wasn’t slender) in diamonds and gold. She was crimson-lipped, enticing, and stunningly beautiful.
|No question, she helped win the war.|
When she came to New York in 1981, her film career long over, she was a different person, sadly changed. Career pressures had long since led to alcoholism, outbursts of rage, and erratic behavior, and she had prematurely aged. (I’ve seen a photo of her in later years, her face ravaged and creased with wrinkles; I haven’t the heart to reproduce it here.) In 1980 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and by 1981 her dementia had progressed to the point where a judge in Los Angeles ruled that she should be placed in the care of Princess Yasmin Khan of New York City, her daughter by Ali Khan. She spent her last days in an apartment at the San Remo, a luxury co-op apartment building between West 74th and 75th Streets on Central Park West, where her daughter, who lived in the apartment next door, looked after her until the end. In February 1987 she lapsed into a semicoma and died of Alzheimer’s complications on May 14 of that year. Her funeral in Beverly Hills was attended by celebrities who had known her, and President Reagan hailed her as “one of our country’s most beloved stars.”
A sad ending. Was her life sad as well? For all the fame and glamor, it would seem so. “I naturally am very shy,” she once confessed, “and I suffer from an inferiority complex.” “Men fell in love with Gilda,” she also said, “but they wake up with me.” There was no triumph in her post-Hollywood life, only a sad and at times violent decline. When she was diagnosed with Alzeimer’s, her daughter was actually relieved; it explained so much of her mother’s erratic behavior over the past twenty years.
A note on Capoeira: Last Wednesday I went again to the Union Square greenmarket, where I bought some goat cheese seasoned with chives, and then went on to Astor Liquor for some bargain wines, and came back on West 4th Street passing Sheridan Square, where General Sheridan stands nobly and very martially, seemingly unperturbed by the life-size sculpted figures of two same-sex couples, one male and one female, that now grace his square. But before I got to the square I stopped off for a few minutes in Washington Square Park. There, over near the fountain, was a crowd of 30 or 35 young people, probably New York University students, standing in a ring, with some dancers dancing wildly in the center. The crowd was singing, almost chanting, and clapping rhythmically as the dancers performed wild gyrations and acrobatics. How can they keep it up? I wondered, since sooner or later even twenty-somethings have to catch their breath.
Going nearer, I found the answer: at intervals some dancers retired to the sidelines, and others from the crowd joined the dance. I say “dance,” but it was dancing and gymnastics and martial arts all rolled into one, with the performers in motion every second, leaping and bending and spinning about, and at moments, when another ducked down, raising one leg over the other dancer’s back. Sometimes they seemed like opponents, yet no one was touched, and everyone was smiling and it was all in good, albeit strenuous, fun. Leading the singing were several young men and women all in white, their T-shirts inscribed “Capoeira Luanda / mestre jalon,” which, since it wasn’t quite Spanish, I took to be Portuguese. These leaders sometimes joined in the performance, even standing momentarily on their head or turning cartwheels or walking on their hands to enthusiastic cheering and applause. But the students who also joined in were so deft and nimble that they must have practiced this before. And all the while the spectators were singing and clapping rhythmically, though there were no musical instruments and no recorded music, just voices singing. Never having witnessed such a performance before, I lingered longer than I meant to. And just as I finally left, the leaders motioned the spectators in, so that they crowded into the center for more singing and clapping. Impressive, but what was this all about?
|Capoeira in France.|
Back in my apartment I found the answer on the Internet. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form that indeed blends martial arts, dance, and acrobatics. It was created in Brazil by slaves from Africa who disguised the martial arts aspect as dance, so as not to alarm their masters when they performed it openly. Today it is known and practiced throughout the world, Capoeira Luanda being an organization in New York that offers group and private classes, some of them taught by the well-known Mestre (Master) Jelon (though the T-shirts said Jalon). Luanda is the capital of Angola, a former Portuguese colony in South Africa and the third biggest Portuguese-speaking city in the world.
My take-away: New York City is inexhaustible. Just take a walk or sit in a park and you will see marvels.
A note to the note: While sitting in Washington Square Park near the fountain, I was reminded of a recent bit of municipal lore. In spite of considerable opposition, the city decided to move the fountain so as to align it with Washington Square Arch, which rises grandly in the park at the foot of Fifth Avenue. It took many months, during which much of the park was disrupted. How much was the fountain moved? All of 22 feet. The cost? $30 million. No further comment is necessary.
This is New York
Coming soon: Ethnic New York: Sherpas, Basques, Gypsies, Sikhs. You don’t know them? If you’ve hailed cabs in New York City, you have; at one point or another, they were probably your driver.
© 2014 Clifford Browder