The Who2 Blog

When Was Joan Crawford Born *Really*?

Photo of Joan Crawford holding a bottle of Pepsi and grimacing slightly

Joan Crawford in 1970 — aged 62, 64, 65, or 66.

When was Joan Crawford born?

The short answer is: Nobody knows for sure when the Oscar-winning actress (and Pepsi executive) was born. The slightly longer answer is: Probably in 1904, 1905, or 1906.

Let’s start at the beginning. Our friends at recently asked us to look into the issue. As they put it: “Who2 has her birth year as 1904, Wikipedia and IMDB say 1905, Gale says 1906, Britannica, Columbia and the All Movie Guide say 1908. No one wants to bid 1907?”

A quick look into reference books at hand shows that the Film Encyclopedia says 1904, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film says 1906, and the Almanac of Famous People says 1908. What in the name of Bette Davis is going on?

The known facts are these:

1) Joan Crawford herself generally claimed 1908. That’s also the date on her tombstone.

2) There’s no official record of Joan Crawford’s birth. Texas didn’t start recording birth records until 1903 and didn’t get really organized about it until years after that. Crawford’s family life was unsettled enough that there are no paper records there, either: no family Bible or other document with the birth written down.

3) Joan Crawford wasn’t her real name. She was born Lucille Fay Le Sueur, which is the name that figures into various birth certificate questions.

4) Lots of people doubt she was telling the truth about 1908.

Many biographers who’ve peered into the matter think that 1904 is the probable year of her birth. Here’s one such author, Karen Swenson, quoted in a 1996 article in the San Angelo (Texas) Standard:

Late Hollywood star Joan Crawford always told reporters she was born in 1908 in San Antonio, but Los Angeles author Karen Swenson finds that hard to believe.

“If that (birthdate) is true, it would have made her 14 years old when she went to college,” Swenson said. “It would have made her 16 when she came to MGM. It just doesn’t add up.”

Swenson, who is working with fellow California author Chris Nickens on a biography about the Academy Award-winning actress, thinks Crawford simply shaved four years off her actual birthdate, not an uncommon tactic among actresses of the era.

Swenson’s book, Possessed: The Turbulent Life of Joan Crawford, came out in 1998. The college she refers to is Stephens College, a school for women in Columbia Missouri that Crawford entered, and then dropped out from, in 1922.

Other biographies that claim 1904 include Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography (2002, by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell) and Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr (2008, by David Bret).

Donald Spoto, that grand old celebrity muckracker, comes out for 1906. He repeats a common objection to 1904: the belief that Crawford’s older brother Hal was born late in 1903, making Joan’s birth in March of 1904 impossible.

He’s not the only one. The fan site has what it claims is Hal’s birth certificate (archived link). But others object to Hal’s alleged birthdate as well. The commenters at Wikipedia have hashed the issues over at some length, and their discussion is useful.

To circle back to biographies again, Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina, in the notorious 1978 biography Mommie Dearest, firmly states 1904:

Publicly her birth date was reported as March 23, 1908, but Grandmother told me that she was actually born in 1904.

Later in the book she says “When she came to Hollywood she lied about her age and changed the year to 1908.”  Of course, Christina Crawford was not on grand terms with her late mother, and might have been taking the chance to stick the knife in a bit by adding a few years to her age.

The bottom line is that everyone involved is working in the realm of guessing and hearsay here. Unless a real birth certificate or some other new evidence comes to light, we’ll probably never know the exact date of Joan Crawford’s birth.

Yet based on the biographies we’ve listed above (and giving a little extra credit to her own daughter’s statement), we’re sticking with 1904. But we’ve added a “(?)” to the birthdate in our profile.

See our biography of Joan Crawford »

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Comments ( 2 )

    • Point taken. I definitely think it’s worth reporting as a data point, and as part of a comprehensive review of what has been said about the date. Christina’s statement *could* be true, but she certainly had an agenda in the book, and it’s possible that affected her judgment — or that she just outright lied about it.

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