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Love Came So Late And Died So Soon—Joan Crawford & Alfred Steele

Before the gold altar banked with lilies, a bronze coffin, covered with a single spray of red roses, gleamed in the yellow sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows of St. Thomas’ Church in New York. Heavily veiled and dressed in the widow’s black of mourning, Joan Crawford choked back the tears of heartbreak as she prayed near the body of her husband, Alfred Steele. The Reverend Frederick Morris delivered a eulogy to a man who had made only friends, a man who didn’t believe in enemies. In the hushed quiet of the vaulted chapel a boys’ choir of forty voices sang The Strife is O’er and Hark, Hark My Soul. In a moment Joan and her twin daughters, Cathy and Cindy, followed the dark coffin borne by pallbearers, to the shiny black hearse waiting in the April sunlight. Ushered by the helpful hand of a close friend, Joan, after halting to wipe her eyes, stepped into the first of the eighteen black limousines in the funeral cortege to be driven to Ferncliff Mausoleum where her husband would be entombed . . . The love that had come so late to Joan Crawford was snatched, so untimely, away from her, and from this day would be no more. . . .

After three unhappy marriages—to Philip Terry, Franchot Tone, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.—Joan accepted the fact she would never find love again. She was no longer a young woman, and with three failures behind her—She had her four adopted children, and her charity work—she would build her life around these. For her, love would never happen. This Joan Crawford believed.

Then she met Alfred Steele. On May 10, 1955, they eloped to Las Vegas. Joan Crawford was almost fifty years old, but for her a new life had begun. Before her marriage Joan would not get near an airplane. With her husband, she put fear aside and together they flew across the world. She gave up her movie career and devoted herself to her husband and his interests. “Ours is a husband-and-wife team,” she said. “I love every minute of it. The reality of it is even more unbelievable than some of the movie parts I’ve portrayed.”

Alfred was all Joan wanted in a man (“I’ve never been happier,” she had often said after their marriage). He was full of kindness and tenderness and warm understanding. Everyone who knew them insisted it was difficult to imagine two human beings more in love. Immediately after their marriage, Alfred had Joan’s initials embossed in sterling silver on the doors of his executive limousines and on all his office accessories. Joan, through all the days of their marriage, never permitted the cook to fix breakfast for Alfred (except once when Joan had an attack of the flu). “When you’re in love,” Joan said, “you just can’t do enough to please the person who gives you such happiness!”

Their duplex penthouse on East 70th Street, overlooking the rolling hills of Central Park, was Love House to anyone who knew them. Then, on that fateful Sunday morning of April 19th, Joan went to awaken her husband for breakfast and found him dead of a heart attack. Only the day before they had returned from a whirlwind cross-country tour in behalf of Alfred’s work as Chairman of the Board of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation. They were planning a leisurely holiday in the sun of Jamaica later that week.

Shocked, distraught, and trembling uncontrollably, Joan clutched at the bed where her husband lay, cried out weakly for the servants, and then collapsed. When she recovered, she went into deep mourning for the man she’d often said she “simply couldn’t live without.”

And the world waited, wondering—could Joan face a life alone. . . ?

Joan as a child

The spirit with which Joan Crawford may face her widowhood—this greatest trial of her life—had its beginnings in her earliest childhood. Lucille LeSeuer (Joan’s real name) had the prettiest and widest blues eyes of any six-year-old girl in the town of Lawton, Oklahoma. One day she stepped on a broken bottle, and was told she’d never walk again. For nearly two years she lay still in her bed in that modest, cramped house her parents lived in; for little Lucy grew up in poverty. Confined to her bed day after day, Lucy gave up her thrilling dream of becoming a dancer and tried to endure this trial bravely.

But she had given her heart meanwhile to the neighbor who had saved her—Donald Blanding, tall and handsome and twenty years old. Donald found little Lucy bleeding on the sidewalk and carried her home. Every day he visited the bedridden youngster. He tried to encourage her to walk, but no sooner would she hobble out of bed than she’d pass out. To alleviate the pain, her mother would press an ether cone to her face, and the little girl, choked and groggy with ether, wondered if she would ever live a normal life like the other kids.

But Donald, a poet, came to Lucy’s bedside every day and read her religious poems and stories. And, more than that, he offered her untiring encouragement and the selfless love of a friend.

And Lucille LeSeuer, from those early years, wished she could give some of the love in her heart to the world, to the people in desperate need of help: the bedridden, the sick and the needy.

With Donald’s comforting and friendly love and with his undying faith in her recovery, she learned to walk again. Proud of having conquered her infirmity, Lucy began teaching herself to dance. . . .

The long way up

At sixteen, Lucy, who was to become one of the most glamorous movie queens in history—Joan Crawford—began her screen career in Hollywood. But this was after a long stint of hard work as a waitress, a back-line dancer in a cabaret revue and a chorus girl in a Broadway musical, Innocent Eyes.

Not long after her screen test, she became ill with tonsilitis. She didn’t know what to do. Her fear of doctors, deeply rooted from her bedridden years as a child, held her back from visiting a physician. Finally a friend suggested she meet Dr. William E. Branch in Los Angeles—“the kindest, most fatherly doctor in the world.” Dr. Branch removed Joan’s tonsils, and she was so taken with his easy and gentle manner she asked if she could help him in some way with his work.

After checking with friends, Joan learned that Dr. Branch cherished a lifelong dream of a clinic, and she vowed she would put her earnings into a ward for the needy if he received the bank-financing for the hospital.

“For every floor you build,” Joan promised, “I’ll give you a bed.” The elderly Dr. Branch, moved by teenager Joan’s anxiousness to help the sick and to allot her modest starlet’s earnings to his hospital, agreed to perform free surgery for the patients chosen to use Joan’s ward of eight donated beds.

To this day, Joan maintains complete support of ‘her’ ward at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, and she’s refused to have her good deed publicized.

“I support it because I want to,” she told an interviewer when asked about it, “not because I want to see my name in the newspapers. But I’ll say this. Anyone who loves helping people is selfish. Why? Because of the great satisfaction it gives them. There’s such a deep spiritual comfort in knowing you’ve been able to help a fellow man!

Joan’s contribution

When World War II broke out, Joan wanted to contribute her services to the war effort. She was working in front of the movie cameras from dawn to sunset, so she offered her evenings to the Hollywood Canteen. Many of the other actresses sang for the boys in uniform or danced with them on the crowded dance floor. But Joan saw a need for someone to write letters for the lonesome GIs—and that’s what she did, signing hundreds of letters each night with her inimitable signature.

Joan became so interested in the canteen’s activities she enlisted the mothers of the stars as kitchen-help. “My mother and Gary Cooper’s mom were among the moms who made sandwiches and served soft drinks for the fellows until all hours of the night.”

She helped the Home

At that time the late Jean Hersholt told Joan of his interest in establishing a Motion Picture Relief Fund Home for aging actors, and Joan not only contributed her salary from ten hour-long radio shows, but she also asked support from Barbara Stanwyck, Spencer Tracy and other top stars. All of them rallied to the cause, and in time Jean Hersholt saw his dream come true.

Joan has imparted her love for her fellow man to her children. Three times a year, Joan’s adopted children—Christine, 18, Christopher, 16, and the twins, Cynthia and Cathy, both 12—collect clothes and toys from neighborhood families for the Hollywood Guild which looks after the children of destitute film actors. Joan has also asked her children to contribute gifts from their own wardrobes. And she’s taught them to “give the things they love!”

Joan says, “Giving the things you want to throw away isn’t giving. It’s cleaning out the closet. When you give, you must give with love!”

Several years ago when the luxury liner, the Andrea Doria, crashed and sank in the Atlantic Ocean, Joan’s children were sailing on the Ile de France to spend part of the summer in England with relatives. The Ile de France, not far from the scene of the disaster, was cabled to pick up the survivors of the sinking ship. The Ile de France had been two days at sea, took two days to return to New York to discharge the survivors, and then sailed during the next four days for England. Joan, who speaks to her children every night when she’s away from them, tried to telephone the Ile de France to see how they were, but she couldn’t make any ship-to-shore connections. Finally, after their ship docked in Southampton, Joan reached them and she was not only happy to know they were well, but she was especially proud to hear them report they’d given most of their belongings to the poor survivors from the

Andrea Doria who climbed aboard the Ile de France in the dead of night in pajamas and robes.

The funds Joan helped

Always the first to rally to a friend in need, Joan is beloved by her co-workers and neighbors. One morning as she was preparing for her day at her studios, she stood by her bedroom window to breathe in the rosy freshness of dawn, and she saw her neighbor, film director Ralph Wheel-right, in his bathrobe, talking hysterically to one of his associates from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the front yard. Something was the matter. Running downstairs quickly, Joan asked Ralph if there was trouble.

“I’ve just been told,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears, “that my son is dying of leukemia.” Ralph’s eight-year-old son was the apple of his eye. Both Ralph and his wife had wanted a family for years, and finally the Lord blessed them with a change-of-life baby.

Joan, moved to tears by the news, contributed her services to the Jimmy Fund, a children’s cancer charity organization. She made a film short in which she appealed for financial help from moviegoers to help children suffering from this malignant disease. She offered to write the script herself, and she opened the film short with a scene in her children’s bedroom. Joan, tucking the twins comfortably into bed, looked into the film camera and said, “Aren’t some of us lucky to have our children with us every night? Just think of the mothers whose children are forced to grow up in hospitals . . .” And Joan’s appeal brought in over half-a-million dollars for the fund. . . .

After Joan married Alfred Steele, they carried on the works of charity together. She and her husband only recently accepted the appointment of National Chairman and Chairwoman for the Multiple Sclerosis Campaign. Indefatigable, tirelessly generous with time, effort and the deep faith in their hearts, the two of them enjoyed sharing their love with the sick and the poor in spirit.

For Joan, ever since the day she was six and pronounced a cripple, has never forgotten the desperate need of the sick for love and encouragement if they are to get well.

Perhaps, in time, this love for humanity, this devotion to perform hundreds of blessed acts of charity for the ailing and the needy will comfort Joan and lift the heavy veil of a widow’s sorrow from her heart.